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"America Aflame" - The failure of political compromise and its consequences,
This review is from: America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Hardcover)
Many historians including the late great Shelby Foote have observed that the fundamental genius of the American political system of government is to seek compromise. And yet the decision of the framers of the Constitution to "park" the issue of slavery in 1797 left a cancer in the American body politic which turned malignant in the mid part of the 19th century. This excellent new general history by Southern historian David Goldfield concentrates on that failure of compromise and firmly lays the blame for this at the door of the infusion of evangelical religious fervour into politics in making conciliation virtually impossible as the 1850s progressed. This issue is brilliantly studied by Goldfield and whereas most books on the civil war will start with the examination of the Mexican War or Bleeding Kansas, he commences in 1834 by dissecting the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown Massachusetts which had become became an object of vicious scorn for anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1830s. Why is this important? Goldfield shows that religious discord and sectarian conflict which materialised in different forms such as Anti-Catholic, Anti-Jewish and Anti-Black Evangelical Christian ideologues effectively destroyed the search for consensus which underpins the constitution. No where was this polarisation more bellicose or visceral than on the question of slavery. The debate was understandably dominated by concepts of an absolute "right" and "wrong" exemplified by a small band of Evangelical Protestants who led Northern abolitionism and in the South by a deeply embedded racist faith in slavery as a guarantor of a threatened way of life. Certainly some politicians like Alexander Stephens and Stephen Douglas cautiously searched for a compromise solutions but the gulf of political polarization was seismic and epitomised by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's symbolic burning of the constitution and its slavery compromise as a "covenant with death, an agreement with hell,". Equally in 1856 when Preston Smith Brooks a Senator from South Carolina beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with a cane on the house floor because of one his abolitionist speeches The Richmond Enquirer crowed: "We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate must be lashed into submission."
Goldfield's thesis is controversial and revisionist. It is also on occasions far too neat and precise. It was Abraham Lincoln after all who tried to navigate a way through this and his first inauguration speech in 1861 was a delicate attempt to address the "apprehension of the Southern states" where Lincoln assured his intention not to interfere in slavery "in the states where it exists". Yet a moral issue like slavery could not be negotiated away or be subject to shady political deals. Was a compromise possible? In truth the answer was certainly not. The tragedy of this of course was that the number of American dead in the Civil War exceeded in combination all those who died from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea combined. Provocatively Goldfield calculates that the Civil War cost around $6.7 billion in 1860s currency. He then asserts that if "the government had purchased the freedom of four million slaves and granted a 40-acre farm to each slave family, the total cost would have been $3.1 billion, leaving $3.6 billion for reparations to make up for a century of lost wages. And not a single life would have been lost."
The "Ifs" and "buts" of this book make for an absorbing tour de force of scholarship when equally combined with a very solid narrative about the course of the civil war. In particular Goldfield's scrutiny of the inherent weaknesses of the Reconstruction or as some southerners saw it "the redemption" with the restoration of white supremacy is brilliantly done. More than anything else Goldfield's book is a warning about the toxic mix of religion and politics which the framers of the constitution sought to avoid but which consistently rears it ugly head in US politics often with the worse of consequences (there are some chilling similarities with the present). If you are a civil war "buff" seek out "America Aflame" for a refreshing, controversial and panoramic study of the defining event of American History.
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Initial post: Jul 17, 2013 10:05:45 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 17, 2013 10:07:25 AM PDT
longtime amazon customer says:
"America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation" by David Goldfield "lost" me when I got to the part about wild hogs eating the dead - and perhaps wounded at Shiloh.
The author spares the reader none of the horrific descriptions and details of the deaths and injuries caused by more modern weapons used with tactics of the Revolutionary War.
Posted on Feb 14, 2014 5:00:45 PM PST
Alan Meyer says:
If I remember Bruce Catton's histories correctly, Lincoln was well aware of the fact that the cost of all of the slaves was far less than the cost of the war and attempted to convince a meeting of border state Congressmen and Senators to accept the purchase of freedom of all of the slaves in their states. They turned him down and, by the end of the war, they all lost their slaves with no financial compensation at all.
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