From Publishers Weekly
The 1840s was a decade of exuberant national growth and consolidation that laid the groundwork for schism and strife, argues this colorful history. Woodworth (Nothing but Victory) presents a vivid, episodic pageant of westward-ho empire building: settlers trekking along the Oregon Trail, Forty-Niners bound for the California gold rush, Mormons battling their way toward the promised land of Utah. Woodworth contrasts this flood of pioneering and settlement with a rickety, sclerotic political party system that papered over the problem of slavery, epitomized by the vapid populist sloganeering--"Tippecanoe, and Tyler too!"--of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840. The themes collide in the book's centerpiece narrative of the Mexican War, which Woodworth, an accomplished Civil War historian, recounts with panache. The author's thesis--that the issue of slavery in the conquered Mexican territories wrecked a fragile national consensus--isn't original, but he elaborates it well, with entertaining, acid-etched sketches of egotistical politicians (and some random potshots at big government and "cultural elites" that seem cribbed from a Tea Party rally). This is narrative history writ large and vigorously--with foreshadowings of tragedy. 16 pages of photos; 19 maps. (Nov.) (c)
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Although various events ignited the Civil War, the war would never have occurred without the sectional strife over permitting slavery in the enormous territories the U.S. acquired in the 1840s. In this balanced political and military history, Woodworth tracks political tensions exacerbated by continental expansion, closely narrating the response of Whig and Democratic politicians to disputes that pushed slavery to the forefront. An instigator of acrimony was the prospective admission of Texas to the Union; Henry Clay’s waffling on that issue, Woodworth concludes, cost him the 1844 presidential election won by James Polk and his spread-eagle expansionism. Texas’ disputed borders led to the next fracas, war with Mexico (whose battles Woodworth recounts with exceptional clarity), followed by sectional animosity over the Wilmot Proviso, a proposed prohibition of bondage in land seized from Mexico. Meanwhile, Americans had been pouring into California, whose application as a free state provoked the decade’s most ominous North-South quarrel. Leaving off at the Compromise of 1850, Woodworth dramatically presages the collapse of political parties in the 1850s by his accessible account of the 1840s. --Gilbert Taylor