The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

Here is the second post in the ongoing series on Civil War classics written by students in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar. Today Joseph Rizzo reviews David Potter’s classic, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861Read other reviews in the series.

Professional historians, to varying degrees, believe that slavery was elemental to the coming of the Civil War.  While there is disagreement as to the ways that the conflict over slavery and wage labor infused sectional differences, David Potter has arguably done more than any other scholar to forge a consensus on this issue.  In Impending Crisis, he explores the different ways that slavery ignited the sectional conflict while refuting generalizations that describe the North and South as culturally different. Some saw the struggle as a clash of profoundly dissimilar cultures whose disparities transcended the difference over slavery. Others had a more economic opinion and viewed the conflict as a clash between economic interests of an emerging industrialist North and an agricultural South.  A third viewpoint saw the conflict arising from different values between the sections. Potter’s criticism with these three arguments is that they all embellish the differences between the North and South and fail to see the similarities between the two regions. Potter displays how similar northerners and southerners were, and that a sense of American nationalism permeated both cultures more than historians have acknowledged.

Although the cultural, economic, and ideological explanations recognize slavery as an issue in sectional division, they neglect its significance within American culture. Potter shows how slavery was a key element to all three of the explanations for division. “Slavery, in one aspect or another, pervaded all of the aspects of sectionalism,” argues Potter (44). In spite of the American nationalism and cultural homogeneity between the North and South, the slavery issue intensified following the acquisition of new territory following the Mexican-American War and caused both northerners and southerners to lose sight of how much alike they were and how many values they shared. With a breakdown of the two-party system nationally, the Election of 1860 represented how much the slavery issue isolated the two regions as the young Republican party won a victory despite only receiving Northern votes. Not surprisingly, the breakup of the country followed soon after.

By placing slavery at the forefront of the conflict, Potter continues the debate over the main cause of the war. Was the war inevitable? Was slavery the main cause? Michael Holt has led a movement against Potter’s interpretation and responded with a study claiming that slavery was not the central reason, and that the breakdown of the two-party political system caused disunion. William Freehling’s work adds to the historiography by arguing that the South’s culture was not unified over slavery and that these internal divisions fostered anxieties, which fueled extremism. Future studies that elaborate from Potter’s traditional political narrative and infuse political culture will give a more complete analysis of 1850s. Not only understanding how Americans viewed singular events but also how they interpreted the world in which they lived will open new discussions about the causes of the war.

6 responses... add one

The beauty of the Civil War is that there are enough dissenting opinions on both sides as to causes and consequences that an historian can always tap into a lesser-explored opinion or circumstance, which is reassuring to any aspiring historian who could become overwhelmed at the multitude of research and publication done on this still divisive subject. The reason for this, in my very humble and still narrow opinion, is slavery. Since there are still so many different lines of thought on this subject, it adds a wild card to research that a war over tarriffs or states rights would not be able to sustain over the 145 year period since the War'sclose. It is, pardon the phrasing, a black and white subject in which the right and wrong sides are clearly defined to the educated and moral thinker today, yet still so many subtly or not so subtly (Irecommend Tony Hurwitz's “Confederates in the Attic”), blur the lines of thought on this topic. Either from an inability to face what ancestors have done, or from an upbringing laced with prejudice and incorrect history, slavery is still cast aside in favor of these age-old excuses for secession, such as tariffs and states' rights. This is a unique twist in american history that will lend itself to constant debate and, despite its obviousness, the correct answer will never be unanimously reached.

I find Potter's application of nationalism to be a very interesting idea, considering America's preferences to isolationism even before the Civil War. I'm not entirely certain how much of an affect the German Revolutions of 1848 even had on the wider American perspective, or if they even affected the country at all. Yet this was also the time of the Morse Telegraph, so information was being sent over the course of weeks rather than months, so it may have been entirely possible for Americans to hear about the world at large during these decades. However, the wider world's events may have taken a less prominent place in American affairs as the sectional division became more pronounced.

Sometimes I personally forget that the people of Earth haven't always thought in terms of the broader world scope. Such a viewpoint may be a consequence of modern times, but the conflict calls to mind the idea that historians need an open mind involving their interpretations of the world and its events in order to fully understand the interpretations of other time periods regarding the same things.

While I admit that Potter clearly sees slavery as a central cause of the war, I believe that is not his main argument. With “Impending Crisis,” Potter took aim at existing interpretations of the war as “irrepressible.” As he maintained in another Civil War Classic, “Lincoln and his Party in the Secession Crisis,” hindsight makes us see the conflict as unavoidable. The historical figures of the era, such as Lincoln and Davis, did not. Potter's thesis brings historical contingency and agency back into focus. Instead of portraying northern and southern politicians as actors in a play with a forgone conclusion, Potter views the antebellum era as a series of decisions with a multitude of possible outcomes. As those decisions mounted in the years leading up to 1860, the room for political maneuver constantly narrowed, but did not totally disappear. War only became a firm possibility after the firing on Fort Sumter.

This is one of my favorite books in the “coming of the war” genre, and I used to prepare for general exams as well as teaching. Very readable!

John and Kevin: I agree with both of you about Impending Crisis. When I first really started getting into studying antebellum politics I read it and it has been invaluable not only because of the great detail he goes into with content, but the argument and significance in the historiography as well. I think it would also be great for a classroom because it can be used to bring up broad questions about the coming of the Civil War and also more complex debates about events in the 1850s.

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