Sunday, March 20, 2011


A review of David M. Potter's The Impending Crisis 1848-1861 (1976)

Part of the New American Nation Series

(Rating 4 of 5)

David Potter died before this book was published so all the success and praise, including a Pulitzer Prize, could only be received posthumously. It is however a magnificent work that captures the over a decade period that was leading up to the Civil War. The book is part of the New American History series not the Oxford History series that I had been reading. Unlike the Oxford History volumes, it does not dive as deep into the average people as well as the elites with the same amount of elegant detail, nevertheless it is a great book. A small note to any readers that when they read this book they may to want to be aware beforehand: it was written before the term 'African-American' became widely accepted and instead uses the anachronistic word 'Negro'. It actually took me a minute to catch on because when reading about the past one comes about the word Negro quite a bit, normally I just view the term in its historic lens, but as read further the term was used quite generally referring to 'the Negro population' and to Fredrick Douglass as a 'leading Negro thinker' even when not talking from a historical perspective.

(Cartoon reflecting Northern anger and beliefs of a national conspiracy to spread slavery to the North)

This book covers the political battles of the many participants who were in the political arena in the late 1850s; the work also covers the political theories of the state of American Nationalism, and the formation of Southern Nationalism. Potter also discusses how the impact of books and literature that were written in the 1850s impacted the time period. One example of a powerful and hard-hitting book was the original The Impending Crisis that dealt with the problem of slavery from a southern prospective of non-slaveholding whites. A more famous example of strong literature is the immortal Uncle Tom's Cabin.

“In almost every respect, Uncle Tom's Cabin lacked the standard qualifications for such great literary success. It may plausibly be argued that Mrs. Stowe's characters were impossible and her Negroes were blackface stereotypes, that her plot was sentimental, her dialect absurd, her literary technique crude, and her overall picture of the conditions of slavery distorted. But without any of the vituperation in which the abolitionists were so fluent, and with a sincere though unappreciated effort to avoid blaming the South, she made vivid the plight of the slave as a human being held in bondage. It was perhaps because of the steadiness with which she held this focus that Lord Palmerston, a man noted for his cynicism, admired the book not only for 'its story but for the statesmanship of it.' History cannot evaluate with precision the influence of a novel upon public opinion, but the northern attitude toward slavery was never quite the same after Uncle Tom's Cabin. Men who had remained unmoved by real fugitives wept for Tom under the lash and cheered for Eliza with the bloodhounds on her track.”p.140

One of the things Potter discusses in the book that I was very pleased to here is the tendency for most people to look back at the past with the feeling of inevitability. This attitude does everyone a disservice because it creates a misinterpretation of the past and the people who were living in it. Although, his own title of this book helps with that narrative that he was trying to combat.

“Seen this way the decade of the fifties becomes a kind of vortex, whirling the country in ever narrower circles and more rapid revolutions into the pit of war. Because of the need for a theme and focus in any history, this is probably inevitable. But for the sake of realism, it should be remembered that most human beings during these years went about their daily lives, preoccupied with their personal affairs, with no sense of impending disaster nor any fixation on the issue of slavery.”p.145

Potter also discusses the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and while doing so he tries to cut though the legend and misinterpretations that often are made about this event. He tries to make it plain what the two opponents believed and what they were fighting for.

“The difference between Douglas and Lincoln—and in a large sense between proslavery and antislavery thought—was not that Douglas believed in chattel servitude (for he did not), or that Lincoln believed in an unqualified, full equality of blacks and whites (for he did not). The difference was that Douglas did not believe that slavery really mattered very much, because he did not believe that Negroes had enough human affinity with him to make it necessary for him to concern himself with them. Lincoln, on the contrary, believed that slavery mattered, because he recognized the human affinity with blacks which made their plight a necessary.”p354

(Lincoln-Douglas debates)

He explains the raid of Harper's Ferry and the antislavery crusader John Brown in his rather insane attempt to cause a slave rebellion. In Potter's narrative what Brown lacks as an armed rebel he excels as a martyr. The North morns his death, which infuriates the South and makes them feel more isolated. Thus after the election of Lincoln they begin their attempts to break the South away from the Union.

(John Brown, not a very good rebel but a great martyr)

Everything discussed in this review and more is covered in this incredible book. I would recommend it to people who already have a strong knowledge of the history of this country who would like to increase their understanding of this difficult time period.

{Video is taken from C-Span.}

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