What brought about the Civil War? Leading historian Michael F. Holt convincingly offers a disturbingly contemporary answer: partisan politics. In this brilliant and succinct book, Holt distills a lifetime of scholarship to demonstrate that secession and war did not arise from two irreconcilable economies any more than from moral objections to slavery. Short-sighted politicians were to blame. Rarely...
What brought about the Civil War? Leading historian Michael F. Holt convincingly offers a disturbingly contemporary answer: partisan politics. In this brilliant and succinct book, Holt distills a lifetime of scholarship to demonstrate that secession and war did not arise from two irreconcilable economies any more than from moral objections to slavery. Short-sighted politicians were to blame. Rarely looking beyond the next election, the two dominant political parties used the emotionally charged and largely chimerical issue of slavery's extension westward to pursue reelection and settle political scores, all the while inexorably dragging the nation towards disunion.
Despite the majority opinion (held in both the North and South) that slavery could never flourish in the areas that sparked the most contention from 1845 to 1861-the Mexican Cession, Oregon, and Kansas-politicians in Washington, especially members of Congress, realized the partisan value of the issue and acted on short-term political calculations with minimal regard for sectional comity. War was the result.
Including select speeches by Lincoln and others, The Fate of Their Country openly challenges us to rethink a seminal moment in America's history.
University of Virginia historian Holt (The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party) provides an elegant, brief analysis of the partisan political forces that, via the great debate over the extension of slavery into the American West, eventually plunged the United States into civil war. Holt discounts the view that the war arose inevitably from two irreconcilable economies as well as the more na ve interpretation that it derived from righteous Northern outrage over slavery. Instead he argues that shortsighted and self-absorbed politicians from both the South and the North (their agendas focused, for the most part, on simple re-election) needlessly exploited the slavery-extension debate and escalated the associated rhetoric to a crescendo that finally made disunion inevitable. Holt provides brilliant thumbnail portraits of such key players as Abraham Lincoln, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, James K. Polk, Daniel Webster and Stephen A. Douglas. He also offers vitally lucid analyses of such key legislative issues as the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Stating his case in a nutshell, Holt writes, "At few other times in American history did policy makers' decisions have such a profound-and calamitous-effect on the nation as they did in the 1840s and 1850s." 8 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW; map. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
While modern historians often focus on the activities of marginalized groups that lacked true political power, the well-respected Holt (history, Univ. of Virginia; The Political Crisis of the 1850s) reaffirms the importance of politics and politicians as he re-examines the often studied coming of the Civil War. This short volume reiterates a thesis Holt offered earlier in The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, which declares that the war resulted from a series of political decisions and actions relating to the extension of slavery rather than moral or social differences over slavery. The earlier volume was applauded by scholars, but its length (1000+ pages) and detail were daunting to more casual readers. This concise book, with four chapters focusing on significant political events of the prewar period and a useful appendix of primary sources, makes Holt's theories available to a wider audience. Reference to the current conflict in Iraq demonstrates the continuing importance of Holt's approach. Likely to be used for years to come, this work is highly recommended for academic and public libraries of all sizes.-Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
It wasn't slavery per se but the debates about the extension of slavery into new territories and states that sent the nation careening into civil war, argues Holt (History/Univ. of Virginia) in a work that aims at a broader audience than did his The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (1999). As in that comprehensive, scholarly history, the author returns to the era of presidents whose visages will never adorn Mt. Rushmore (Polk, Taylor, Pierce, Buchanan) and politicians whose personal interests trumped the interests of the nation. (Stephen A. Douglas worked hard for the transcontinental railroad, in part to make sure it would pass through some of his land holdings.) With the confidence born of intimate knowledge, Holt guides us through some extraordinary complexities: the Missouri Compromise, the Mexican War, the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He explores the reasoning and motivations of some of the most well-known names in American history, including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. He does not, however, see much honor among the political thieves of the era. "Politicians made decisions," he writes, "from short-term calculations of partisan, factional, or personal advantage rather than from any long-term concern for the health, indeed, the very preservation of the Union." Holt implies that times have not changed much, and perhaps it was the contemporary parallels that led him, as he states in the text, to attempt both to sharpen the focus of his study of American Whigs and to attract a more general readership. He has certainly accomplished the former: few passages deal with anything other than politics, with glimpses of HarrietBeecher Stowe and John Brown providing occasional relief. But attracting a general readership is a more dubious proposition. Holt's prose is heavy, leaden, and veers at times into the inelegant. Important but occasionally tedious analysis of a most critical period in our history. (map; 8 pp. b&w illustrations, not seen)
Michael F. Holt teaches at the University of Virginia and is author of numerous books, including The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party and The Political Crisis of the 1850s, and the co-author of The Civil War and Reconstruction (3rd edition).