“This book powerfully re-creates some of the momentous events that produced the catastrophe of 1861. Oates succeeds in bringing his characters alive . . . [and] in getting inside each of them. . . . He presents their arguments with great force and conviction.”—Robert V. Remini, New York Times Book Review
The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861by Stephen B. Oates
Biographer and historian Stephen B. Oates tells the story of the coming of the American Civil War through the voices and perspectives of thirteen principal players in the drama, from Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay in the Missouri crisis of 1820 down to Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and Abraham Lincoln in the final crisis of 1861. This innovative approach
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Biographer and historian Stephen B. Oates tells the story of the coming of the American Civil War through the voices and perspectives of thirteen principal players in the drama, from Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay in the Missouri crisis of 1820 down to Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and Abraham Lincoln in the final crisis of 1861. This innovative approach shows the crucial role that perception of events played in the sectional hostilities that pushed the United States irreversibly toward a national calamity.
Nat Turner, William Lloyd Garrison, John C. Calhoun, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Fitzhugh, John Brown, and Mary Boykin Chesnut also provide perspectives. Each character takes a turn onstage, narrating critical events in which he or she was a major participant or eyewitness. For the dramatic monologues, Oates draws on the actual words of his speakers—in letters, speeches, interviews, recollections, and other recorded utterances—and then simulates how, were they reminiscing aloud, they would describe these events in which they were the principal actors or witnesses. All the events and themes reflect the historical record.
“There can be few complaints about the historical accuracy and authenticity of Oates’s material. It comes from the printed record, either what his characters said or wrote or what other historians have written about them. . . . Oates has written a lively book.”—Jean H. Baker, American Historical Review
“Oates’s method of presenting the material makes this book extremely valuable as a summary of views and as a means of understanding the tumultuous years before the Civil War. This novel approach to the telling of history is highly readable.”—Richard L. Kiper, Military Review
“Oates has admirably succeeded in bringing to life this critical and turbulent time in American history, and as such this book is an excellent introduction to the complex problems confronting America as it moved inevitably toward war.”—Raymond Frey, Magill Book Reviews
“Oates’s approach is at once bold and inventive, daring and insightful. . . . . His dialogue between characters, ingeniously developed for maximum dramatic effect, forcefully explains the defining moment of American history like no previous narrative of the times. I found myself immersed completely in his story and his characters. . . . A sparkling and forceful contribution to historical literature.”—Professor Daniel E. Sutherland, University of Arkansas, Department of History
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The Approaching Fury
I was Speaker of the House during the Missouri crisis and was shocked by the violent passions it provoked in the new Hall of Representatives, an elegant, domed, semicircular room modeled after a Greek theater. Day after day, men leaped to their feet and threatened disunion and civil war with reckless abandon. Tallmadge of New York, who precipitated the crisis, and Thomas Cobb of Georgia were the worst. They yelled and shook their fists at one another, ignoring me when I pounded my gavel and called for order.
"If you persist, the Union will be dissolved," Cobb said. "You have kindled a fire which a sea of blood can only extinguish."
"If disunion must take place," Tallmadge cried, "let it be so! If civil war must come, I can only say, let it come!"
What a vexed question! I told John Quincy Adams: "Within five years, I fear, the Union will be divided into three distinct confederacies."
Quite frankly, I sympathized with the restrictionists. I told them that I would gladly support a congressional ban against importing any more slaves into a new state if that were constitutional. The trouble was, I pointed out, it wasn't constitutional. Under the Constitution, only the people of Missouri had the right to approve or to ban slavery. I beseeched the restrictionists to listen to reason, pointing out that the unrestricted expansion of slavery into fertile new landsthe theory of diffusion, which was popular among Jeffersonians at the timewould work to end slavery in this country: it would enhance the well-being of the slaves and ease fears of abolition in those slaveholding states nowovercrowded with blacks. In time, with slavery weakening as it spread across the West, free labor would drive down the value of slave labor; unable to compete, slavery would disappear, eliminated by economic growth and a national commitment to freedom. Slavery, I argued, would prove to be a transient phenomenon.
But the restrictionists were deaf to reason. So was anti-restrictionist John Randolph of Virginia when cooler heads proposed a compromise. "There can be no compromise on this question," Randolph shrieked in his shrill voice. "God has given us Missouri and the devil shall not take it from us." When a northerner quoted the Declaration of Independence, Randolph angrily dismissed it as "a fanfaronade of metaphysical abstractions."
That outburst brought me out of the Speaker's chair. Metaphysical abstractions! My God, man, the Declaration of Independence is the foundation of our liberty. It is the white man's charter of freedom. It guarantees him the right to better himself, to go as far as his talent and toil will take him. Thanks to the Declaration, no white man is restricted to the condition of his birth; he has the right to rise above it, which is the very essence of our experiment in popular government. I am a prime example of how the system works: a poor, orphaned mill boy from the Virginia slashes, I was free to make myself into a successful planter and statesmanI was a United States Senator by the age of twenty-nine, Speaker of the House by the time I was thirty-three. And one dayI told men this in all candorI expected to elevate myself to the Presidency and lead America into a golden new age of prosperity and world prominence. I would ask friends and adversaries with a smile: "Is there, frankly, anyone better qualified to be President? I have yet to meet the gentleman who is my superior."
In a desperate attempt to prevent disunion, I threw my support behind a compromise bill passed in the Senate; this was the bill admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state and dividing the rest of the Louisiana Purchase into proslavery and antislavery spheres. In the Hall of the House, I went from desk to desk appealing to my colleagues' patriotism. Is compromise not the genius of our people? Is not the Constitution itself based on it? We finally broke the House deadlock over Missouri by resorting to a coup de main: we divided the compromise measure into three separate bills and persuaded recalcitrant members of both sides to accept separately what they opposed as a whole.
Thinking the question settled and the Union saved, I resigned as Speaker of the House (but not as a member) and returned home to attend to private matters. When I returned to Washington City, I was stunned to find Congress embroiled in yet another crisis over Missouri. As it happened, Missouri had adopted a state constitution that prevented free coloreds from entering its borders. Antislavery northerners leaped on the offending passage as a violation of the privileges and immunities clause of the Federal Constitution and demanded that Missouri delete the restriction or be kept out of the Union. This in turn provoked southerners to renewed threats of secession and war. Unhappy subject! This time, however, my sympathies were with my fellow southerners. It seemed to me that northerners were harassing Missouri unfairly, since few places in the country allowed free coloreds equal privileges and immunities with whites. To make matters worse, my resignation as Speaker left the House rudderless in the currents of the controversy. When nobody else would do so, I took charge and begged, instructed, adjured, supplicated, and exhorted my northern colleagues to have mercy on the white people of Missouri. In the end I won a majority of Congress to my compromise proposal, which allowed Missouri to retain its exclusion clause as long as the legislature pledged itself never to restrict persons who were or might become U.S. citizens. It was, I admit, a bit of political legerdemain, upholding both the supremacy of the Federal Constitution and the Missouri restriction that flouted it. Yet it avoided catastrophe and earned me kudos throughout the country as a compromiser for whom Union is his motto, conciliation his maxim. I told a dinner audience in Washington that the slavery question was now happily settled and that mutual forbearance and mutual toleration would restore concord and harmony to the country.
But to tell the truth, slavery troubled me. Like my mentors, Jefferson and Madison, I am a slaveowner. And like them, I hate the institution and wish it banished from the face of our country. There are men who doubt my sincerity, contending that it is not possible to be an antislavery slaveowner. Yet my critics will find my public utterances consistent in damning bondage as the greatest of human evils and an appalling stain upon the American name. This I learned from George Wythe, a gentleman of the Enlightenment, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a mentor of Thomas Jefferson and many other notable Virginians. I fell under Mr. Wythe's spell while working as a young man in the clerk's office in the High Court of Chancery in Richmond. Mr. Wythe, the chancellor, was a childless widower who delighted in molding the character of young men and helping them on to legal and political prominence. He befriended me and often took me to his home, where we spent many an hour in intense conversation in his library. I shall never forget the sight of this bald and brilliant gentleman, unaffected by his crippled hand, denouncing slavery as "a great political and moral evil" and expatiating on the "sacred cause" of gradual emancipation. Soon I found myself echoing his words in animated conversations with my acquaintances.
Under Mr. Wythe's guidance, I became a lawyer and was soon admitted to the Virginia bar. I was then only twenty years of age, a tall, slender, loose-jointed lad with prematurely white hair, glittering gray eyes, and a practiced smile. My mouth, however, was so wide and thin that I could never learn to spit. Already, I admit, I had a fondness for bourbon, cards, snuff, and good-looking women.
In 1797, thinking that the new state of Kentucky offered better opportunities for a young attorney on the rise, I migrated to the bluegrass state owning only the clothes I had on and the horse I was riding. I'll never forget the day I rode into Lexington and headed down the rutted, unpaved main street of this "Athens of the West," situated on a bend in the Kentucky River. I made my way past a train of emigrant wagons from the Wilderness Road and droves of bellowing cattle, with the odor of manure and whiskey pungent on the wind. The plank sidewalks teemed with rowdy men dressed in buckskin and homespunone offered to share a bottle of whiskey with me over a game of cards, another challenged me to a wrestling match. I was struck by the bombast and gusto, by the restless aggressiveness, of the men I met, their temperament being so much like my own. Wonderfully profane, they tossed down glasses of raw whiskey in Lexington's saloons and wallowed in the pleasures of its bawdy houses. I would soon demonstrate that I could gamble, drink, wench, and cuss with any man in town.The Approaching Fury. Copyright (c) by Stephen B. Oates . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Stephen B. Oates is Kendall Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and has published eighteen books, including The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861–1865 (Nebraska 2012) and With Malice Toward None: A Biography of Abraham Lincoln. Oates is a recipient of the Nevins-Freeman Award of the Chicago Civil War Round Table for lifetime achievement in the field of Civil War studies.
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