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The Shattering of the Union: America in the…

The Shattering of the Union: America in the 1850s

by Eric H. Walther

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The 1850s offered the last remotely feasible chance for the United States to steer clear of Civil War. Yet fundamental differences between North and South about slavery and the meaning of freedom caused political conflicts to erupt again and again throughout the decade as the country lurched toward secession and war. With their grudging acceptance of the Compromise of 1850 and the election of Franklin Pierce as president in 1852, most Americans hoped that sectional strife and political upheaval had come to an end. Extremists in both North and South, abolitionists and secessionists, testified to the prevailing air of complacency by their shared frustration over having failed to bring on some sort of conflict. Both sets of zealots wondered what it would take to convince the masses that the other side still menaced their respective visions of liberty. And, as new divisive issues emerged in national politics-with slavery still standing as the major obstacle-compromise seemed more elusive than ever. As the decade progressed, battle lines hardened. The North grew more hostile to slavery while the South seized every opportunity to spread it. "Immigrant Aid Societies" flourished in the North, raising money, men, and military supplies to secure a free soil majority in Kansas. Southerners flocked to the territory in an effort to fight off antislavery. After his stirring vilification of the institution of slavery, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner was brutally attacked on the floor of the United States Senate. Congress, whose function was to peacefully resolve disputes, became an armed camp, with men in both houses and from both sections arming themselves within the capitol building. In October 1858, Senator William Henry Seward said that the nation was headed for an "irrepressible conflict." In spite of the progress ushered in by the decade's enormous economic growth, the country was self destructing.… (more)



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Eric H. Walther’s work The Shattering of the Union: America in the 1850’s sets the table so to speak, for the litany of literature that has been published on the Civil War. A prologue. This is the events, these are the people, the dialog, and the feelings that led to the session of 1860 and that great and terrible war.
Mr. Walther has written a concise, chronological history of the 1850s complete with a list of the cast and characters that played major roles in the events that lead to the (almost) breakup of the union. Stephen Douglas, William Yancey, John Brown, Franklin Pierce, Charles Sumner, and Preston Brooks. Fredrick Douglass, Roger B. Taney, Dred Scott, Jefferson Davis, and Abraham Lincoln and many, many more were noted along with noble and nefarious actions of each and others. This is a period of time that I am not as familiar with as I feel I should be and wanted something to read that I could ingest without sacrificing all of my free time to finish within a short amount of time. This was a book I was looking for.
The book is written clearly and was quite easy to understand. It is a simple and straightforward history so the organization of and presentation of the material is standard. The author wanted to write a history of the time that is more succinct than some of the grand treatises that are available (i.e. David Potter’s The Impending Crisis). A book that could be used effectively in the classroom. This is a goal that Mr. Walther met with tremendous success. The chapters, each a year in the decade, are not tremendously long, but they do touch on the major events and actors of each period and are understandable by readers that are able to understand somewhat complex webs and interconnecting storylines. Perfect for the college student or armchair civil war/19th century scholar such as myself that is on a time constraint.
The resources that Walther are quality primary sources from the era and are used to great effect to emphasize the point at hand or describe the action, feeling, or person being discussed or analyzed. The end of each chapter has the notes and references listed as well (which I love to refer to). The chapters are presented with a fair and balanced point of view. I could not detect a bias of Northern or Southern. Though the majority of the book focuses on the action of politicians in Washington and the East, Walther does cover some of the events that took place in the West, though to ignore them would be criminal. But to put things in perspective, the big news stories of that decade were mostly made by politicians in the East (no offense to Lincoln and Douglas)
The only thing that is out of place when one first looks at this book is that is begins with the year 1852. I can understand not beginning with the year 1850 because there already is a title in this series that covers this year and the compromise in full (John C Waugh’s On the Brink of Civil War). The prologue touches these years a little bit, but you get the feeling that there is more to the story (especially the year 1851) that the author could have discussed. The prose was a little stiff too which can turn many readers off.
All-in-all I thought that this was a very good book that I would recommend to others. Is it a classic? No. But it is quite a good resource. ( )
  Schneider | Aug 5, 2010 |
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