The Impending Crisis
Harper & Row: New York, 1976
|638 pages, 2 maps, 44 illustrations
Respect, context, & steadiness
David M. Potter's big history, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, describes and analyzes a period of American history both more complex and more simple than we may be used to in our thinking. Before getting into specifics, though, I want to emphasize some major virtues of the book.
First, Potter maintains a respect for the people involved. Presidents James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan; and other political strivers (many in the House or Senate), principally: Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, John Brown, Lewis Cass, Salmon P. Chase, Alexander H. Stephens, Thomas Hart Benton, John Bell, Jefferson Davis, Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln. Such respect is not as easy for a historian as we might think; any writer must have notable empathy for his characters' motivations to make proper sense of them, but it's possible to settle for a shallow or selective empathy. A theoretical obstacle for some historians is the tendency to treat people as functions of their geographic, economic, and temporal coordinates: thus an American living in a particular place and year, with a certain ratio of free folks to slaves, and so on, must have social and political values predetermined by these factors. Potter maintains the respect and avoids the determinism.
Second, Potter manages to develop his themes on an even keel. By this I mean that he doesn't descend to the temptation of a thicket of colorful details of people and events, so that we wander long out of sight of the themes. Neither does he ascend to the temptation of high abstraction and futurism, so we lose our focus on the 1850s and how events looked to the people who shaped and lived them.
Third, the issues of the time are taken seriously by Potter, in the context of their time. Americans in the 1850s did not know that secession and war were coming; although increasingly, many feared them. What the politicians, writers, agitators, and voters had to contend with was a succession of particular issues and problems directly or indirectly entangled with slavery — with their hard-won resolutions sooner or later acerbating the tensions.
This respect, context, and steadiness really give a solidity to Potter's presentation in The Impending Crisis that not only compels our attention but sustains our interest at the level Potter desires.
Struggles over issues of expansion, settlement, and freedom strongly shaped America and its nature. Potter begins with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that terminated the Mexican War, gave major new territory to the United States — and reenergized the question of what kind of territory the West and Southwest was to be: free or slave? Potter describes and analyzes the Missouri Compromise, the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, the Dred Scott case, the Fugitive Slave Act, the struggle for Kansas, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, John Brown's abortive revolution at Harper's Ferry, pre-secession maneuvers by the South, the election of 1860, and the actual secession process up to the opening of the Civil War at Fort Sumter.
I sometimes picture the American Civil War as a gigantic living knot of the issues at the center of the American experience and American history — and thus significantly contributory to the ongoing character of America and ourselves. Ripples and even aftershocks of these issues still illumine and bedevil us today, and no amount of gloss-over, political correctness, or mistuned sensitivity can substitute for understanding American history as it really happened.
If there is a weakness here, to my mind Potter somewhat underestimates the depth of Lincoln, and perhaps undervalues the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.
David M. Potter died before he could finish The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861; his fellow scholar Don E. Fehrenbacher readied the book for publication and wrote two strong concluding chapters. This history is a fine and solid overview of the main issues of the body politic in mid-Nineteenth Century America. Let's glance at these issues.
Negro slavery was the great unresolvable problem in American politics before the Civil War. In the period 1848 to 1861 that Potter covers here, slavery increasingly sectionalized other major issues like national expansion (territories, new states, Manifest Destiny) and economics (tariffs, railroads to the Pacific). An example of how slavery vitally affected American expansion:
One critical effect of slavery-heightened sectionalism was to put unbearable strains on the two national political parties, Democratic and Whig: in the 1850s they ceased to be able to serve both North and South, slavery became the absolute issue that overrode all else. Several new parties sprang up. The Whig Party disintegrated under the stress. The Democratic Party split temporarily into northern and southern wings. The new Republican Party won Congress and then the Presidency in 1860. — Don Fehrenbacher analyzes this process from a different slant in Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s.
One of the major themes that Potter develops clearly is that the string of Congressional victories in this period — slavery in the Federal territories, potential admission of Kansas as a slave state, the Fugitive Slave Act — accomplished little or nothing practically for the South and for slavery. Few slaves were taken to the desert Southwest, or even to Kansas, or captured and returned South. But a great practical result was that Northern public opinion became increasingly hardened against the Slave Power's domination of American policy. With mutually reinforcing feedback, the South became increasingly fearful for the continuance of slavery, and more determined for secession. Toward the winter of 1860 - 1861:
© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson