The Impending Crisis
1848 - 1861
by David M. Potter

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher

Harper & Row: New York, 1976

638 pages, 2 maps, 44 illustrations September 2009

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.

Issues then and now

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.

Slavery unresolvable

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:

But expansionism meant expansionism southward, and expansion southward meant the extension of slavery. Therefore, expansion became more and more a southern goal, and thus a sectional issue. In the later [1850s], two principal agencies of expansion were De Bow's Review, an ardently prosouthern periodical published at New Orleans, whose editor, James D. B. De Bow, wanted to make New Orleans the commercial center of a rich tropical empire; and the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society of southerners who aspired to extend slavery and the power of the South all around the circle of tropical and semitropical golden lands bordering the Gulf of Mexico. In 1860, the Knights, with an imperial program of expansion, claimed a membership of 65,000, including all but three of the governors of the slave states, and several members of President Buchanan's cabinet.

By the time the southern states seceded, Manifest Destiny had reached a supreme paradox: northern unionists who believed in American nationalism resisted most proposals for further territorial growth of the nation, while states' rights southerners who denied that the Union was a nation sought to extend the national domain from pole to pole. The expansions were not nationalists, and the nationalists were not expansionists. Thus, many of the southerners who were most grandiose in their dreams of bringing distant and exotic lands under the American flag — who were most extravagant in their claims for the mission of America in foreign parts — were also most jealous in denying the supremacy of the American government on the domestic scene. For many, there was but a short interval between their last efforts to bring new potential states into the Union and their decisions to take their own states out.

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.

Symbolic but empty victories for the South

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:

The progress of disunion, far from frightening Republicans into offering concessions, gave them an additional reason for standing firm — namely,that any yielding to the secessionists would be a surrender to extortion and a subversion of popular government. Here is the key to understanding why many Republicans seemed to become more intractable as the danger of disunion became more palpable. Secession in actual operation tended to change the whole nature of the sectional conflict. The main problem at hand was no longer the expansion of slavery but the survival of the United States, and the most pressing moral issue was not now slavery but majority rule. In other words, secession gave the Republicans a second noble cause and one that would ultimately command broader support, for on the issue of slavery the South had always been more united than the North, whereas the question of disunion tended to split the South and unify the North. So not only Lincoln's opposition but the very logic of the developing conflict discouraged growth of compromise sentiment within the Republican party. ...

Historians have commonly viewed the crisis of 1860 - 1861 as one presenting three distinct and mutually exclusive options to the American people: peaceable separation, compromise, or war. Within such a framework, given the momentum of secession and the fundamental set of Republicanism, it is probably safe to say that compromise was impossible from the start. The maximum that Republicans might conceivably yield fell far short of the minimum that secessionists might conceivably accept as a basis of reconciliation. No action within the power of Congress would be forceful enough, or could even be completed soon enough, to stem the initial tide of secession — certainly not in South Carolina and probably not in the other states of the deep South. And as long as the secession movement continued, creating points of severe friction like the Charleston forts, war remained an imminent danger. There was, indeed, no way to choose "compromise" and in so doing make the other two options disappear. As an exclusive alternative to separation or war, "compromise" simply did not exist in the winter of 1860 - 1861.

... How far [secession] would proceed no one knew —


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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