Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861. Completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
David M. Potter wrote The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861 with the exception of the last two chapters. Upon his death in 1971, his colleague Don E. Fehrenbacher completed and edited the book. The Impending Crisis is a vivid political history dealing with the years between the Mexican War and Fort Sumter and is an in-depth narrative and analysis of slavery, sectionalism, and the origins of the American Civil War. Potter spent years studying the sectional conflicts leading to the Civil War. He covers the political battles and the many participants who were in this arena in the late 1850s. Also covered are the political theories of the state of American Nationalism, and the development of Southern Nationalism. Potter also discusses books and literature that were written in the 1850s and how they impacted this time period. Potter charts the disordered forces that peaked at the start of the Civil War. No event was left untouched by the author, from the issue of slavery, the Dred Scott decision, the infamous John Brown, and Southern secession.
David M. Potter was an American historian and was a trained Civil War historian. Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1910 throughout his life he wrote extensively on the American character, the American society, and historiography. He was the posthumous winner of the 1977 Pulitzer Prize in History for his 1976 work, The Impending Crisis. Potter received his bachelor’s degree from Emory University, a master’s and Ph.D. from Yale, and a second master’s from Oxford. He taught American History at several universities, including the University of Mississippi, Rice University, Yale, Stanford, University of Chicago, Louisiana State, and in England, Queen’s College and University College, and at least five others. Louisiana State awarded him the Jules F. Landry Award in 1968 for his book, The South and the Sectional Conflict. Potter also received honorary doctorates from the University of Wyoming and Emory. Potter wrote numerous books but his two most famous works are believed to be The Impending Crisis and The South and the Sectional Conflict.
Potter has focused his narrative with a heavily political emphasis. He centers keenly on how power permeated throughout the political process. He was most successful in citing from behavioral sciences, the issues that plagued the political background to the Civil War, and had a firm control of the particulars. Potter does not hide from the fact that his focus would be on politics when researching and writing this book. “Since the sectional impulse took a political form and the circumstances of politics conditioned the operation of sectionalism, this book, a study of sectional conflict, will deal primarily with political events.” (p. 29) It would be surprising to learn that Potter might have left any political issue or figure from this period un-dissected or discussed. He smoothly moves from the crumbling government of James K. Polk that could not handle the strain of the Mexican War to the emergent administration of Lincoln with its Republican bent. With so many overlapping events in this political web, Potter manages to help the reader connect the dots creating a clear and vivid picture of what happened and why.
Few periods in American history have been covered so thoroughly as the 1850s and so challenged historians. Potter wisely chose the information he used from historical literature and his bibliography and endnotes are a piece of historiography in themselves. He does not unconditionally accept all the conclusions of his predecessors and does not allow them to influence his judgments. The Impending Crisis is a very welcome addition to the New American Nation series with its fresh insights and research. This book is justifiably praised because of so many works before it focused more on how the events foreshadowed the coming war, whereas Potter looks at these same events with a real understanding of the period. He has endeavored for clarity and states, “Hindsight, the historian’s chief asset, and his main liability, has enabled all historical writers to know that the decade of the fifties terminated in a great civil war. Knowing it, they have consistently treated the decade not as a segment of time with a character of its own, but as a prelude to something else.” (p. 145) Potter successfully distinguishes himself and his study from other works and accounts. He says that most other titles of this time like The Coming of the Civil War, The Irrepressive Conflict, Ordeal of the Union, The Eve of Conflict, and Prologue to Conflict “are pregnant with the struggle which lay at the end.” (p. 145) The author allows his characters to communicate for themselves, and their movements are viewed from the standpoint of their own time without modern interpretations muddying history.
In the first five chapters, Potter lays out his observation that the expansionist drive that carried the Americans to win the Mexican War was, despite certain apparent benefits, a fulfillment of American nationalism. “It reflected a sinister dual quality in this nationalism, for at the same time when national forces, in the fullness of a very genuine vigor, were achieving an external triumph, the very triumph itself was subjecting their nationalism to internal stresses which, within thirteen years, would bring the nation to a supreme crisis.” (p. 6) Potter shows that the win in the Mexican War brought more territories, and opened up an arena for confrontation. The constitutional guidelines were obscure at best and politicians and sectional extremists were able to twist them to best serve their purposes. This is when, Potter states, that slavery emerged as an issue in its own right. “…the slavery question became the sectional question, the sectional question became the slavery question, and both became the territorial question.” (p. 49) This is when the query of slavery was really thrown into politics. Potter explains that when the Congress in 1850 made the status of slavery, in the formerly Mexican territories, ambiguous it was not really a compromise but a settlement. Giving the New Mexico territory and the Utah territory the right to decide whether or not they wanted to have slaves caused frustration, as did the Fugitive Slave Act. However, these territories were settled mostly by non-southerners uninterested in slavery. Before the Compromise, slavery had already been banned in those parts. Returning runaway slaves to their masters was a large concession of the North and not agreed upon easily. However, this Compromise was a long time coming and a great deal of relief was felt at its completion. “It remained to be seen whether the American people, North and South, would, by their sanction, convert this settlement into a compromise.” (p. 120)
Potter covers how escalating tension over a transcontinental railroad began splintering an already tense political field. Whitney, a New York merchant, proposed a railroad running from Milwaukee to the Columbia River. The Pacific railroad scheme had the local citizens of the Mississippi Valley ecstatic at the thought of the vast amount of traffic this would bring their way. Not quite a year later, a young congressman, Stephen A. Douglas, proposed a different plan. He wanted it to run from Chicago and have a western terminal at San Francisco Bay. His bill was not adopted but he became known as the most prominent supporter of a Pacific railroad.
Potter’s analysis of the “political parties in metamorphosis” answers the question of why the Whigs and Democrats had such damage of sectional balance. Potter is able to answer questions like, why did the Democratic party grow stronger in the South but weaker in the North, and why did the Whigs not become the antislavery party. The vast amount of immigrants that had flooded America in the late forties, along with their longstanding feud between Protestants and Catholics, only increased division. Add to this, the correlation amongst Whigs and Puritans, and Potter found that the largest percentage of immigrants, the Irish Catholics, “guided by earlier Irish forerunners, accepted it as a fact of life that the Democratic party was the Irishman’s party,” and that the “…millstone around the neck of the northern Whigs in 1852 was not the loss of the southern wing of their party; it was a volume of immigration which in four years exceeded Scott’s total popular vote.” (p. 245)
Potter analyzes the Dred Scott case and puts forth new arguments for debate, and concludes that this was yet another hollow victory for the pro-slavery South. The multifaceted events surrounding Kansas are narrated superbly here by Potter. Propaganda abounds and is fueled by events such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, the Sumner caning, and John Brown’s raid. Both parties from the North and the South began forming hateful, cultural stereotypes that led the Democratic party to become increasingly controlled by the southern wing. Potter shows through a series of events how the pro-Douglas Democrats were trying to reject their southern brethren, and how the southern Democrats were attempting to use their power of the slavery question to irretrievably split the Democracy. This was all going on at the same time that the Republican’s bid for hegemony was rising. He proves here that it was not one act alone, or rather northern antislavery hostility, but a culmination of events that proved the downfall for the Whigs. “In the midst of this turmoil, men took positions which led on to consequences that they did not visualize.” (p. 414)
Fehrenbacher masterfully ties the book together in its final two chapters. Southerners wanted absolute guarantees from their opponents, which the North was not disposed to give. Lincoln was not willing to publicly reassure the South and underestimated their resolve. “In rejecting the plan, Republicans did not reject an alternative to war but merely the first step of an alternative approach to the crisis, an approach that would have lessened the risk of war at the cost of increasing the risk of permanent disunion.” (p. 554) The final chapter, “Fort Sumter: End and Beginning” highlights Lincolns decisions and how they do not illustrate a man bent on starting a war but one who would not bow to the Confederate terms of peace.
The Impending Crisis highlights the vastly different rate at which the North and the South were changing – family life, their belief systems, and economically. Congressional policies time and again failed to accomplish the desired effect, and instead led to the widening gap that could not be breached, but only held in stasis through various legislative compromises. With the war at its end Fehrenbacher’s last words show the finality, “Slavery was dead; secession was dead; and six hundred thousand men were dead. That was the basic balance sheet of the sectional conflict.” (p. 583)
This is a book that will provide the reader, whether a beginning history explorer or a long-time historiographer, with valuable insights into the political landscape of pre-Civil War America. Potter has brought much clarity to the avalanche of this nation’s political maneuverings, and the course that led to the fracturing of the Union.
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