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The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 Paperback – Illustrated, March 15, 1977
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“With a rare combination of nuance and narrative drive, David Potter... vividly portrays a nation coming apart. ... Potter writes with such immediacy that events long past feel like the present unfolding before our eyes.” (Andrew Delbanco, Wall Street Journal)
“Modern scholarship’s most comprehensive account of the coming of the Civil War.” (Lacy K. Ford, Journal of Southern History)
“David M. Potter’s magisterial The Impending Crisis is the single best account to date of the coming of the Civil War.” (Civil War History)
“The classic study of antebellum America” (American Prospect)
“The magnum opus of a great American historian.” (Newsweek)
From the Back Cover
David M. Potter's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Impending Crisis is the definitive history of antebellum America. Potter's sweeping epic masterfully charts the chaotic forces that climaxed with the outbreak of the Civil War: westward expansion, the divisive issue of slavery, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's uprising, the ascension of Abraham Lincoln, and the drama of Southern succession. Now available in a new edition, The Impending Crisis remains one of the most celebrated works of American historical writing.
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Reading all three books offer the reader a firm background in the nature of the events of the era and will provide a true, in-depth understanding of their significance. Where David M. Potter's book really shines is in its tight focus on the critical years of 1848-1861. These were years in which the Mexican War provided America with its southwest. When the dust had cleared and hostilities had ceased, Mexico had lost about one-third of its territory, including nearly all of the present-day states of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
The 1857 Dred Scott decision in the Supreme Court held that blacks, whether now enslaved or free, and whose ancestors were imported into the U.S .and were sold as slaves, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court. The ruling essentially said that slaves were not people, but (valuable) property. Abolitionist John Brown resorted to violence in reaction to that ruling and to others. Especially significant was the rise of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency and his willingness to address the slavery issue head-on by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.
The Impending Crisis, with its keen focus on the final strife-ridden 13 years, is an especially fine introduction to the Civil War. The cascading calamities that led to war are the source of this book's superb narrative. If you are looking for an exceptional analysis of the Civil War's genesis. The Impending Crisis is one of the finest available. If you wish to place these final years in context, then read all three books for a superlative overview of events. The Impending Crisis 1848-1861 is a true classic of historical writing.
Potter first outlines the demographic and social conditions of the United States in the period which preceded the War. The turning point was the Mexican War which upset the balance between North and South with the addition of new territories whose status regarding slavery was unclear. Potter shows that ethnically, the American population in 1850 was quite homogeous---mostly Protestants of English backgroud. Thus, ethnic diversity was NOT the cause of the tensions between North and South. Potter shows that the extreme emotions regarding Kansas and the other new territories regarding the status of slavery in them was purely theoretical...the geographical, climatic and agricultural conditions there were not conducive to a slave economy, yet the South was extremely emotionally involved in this abstract argument.
The book then shows how national economic development was retarded by the South in such matters as the building of a Transcontinental Railroad and passage of the Homestead Act, both of which they opposed because they viewed them as strengthening anti-slavery elements in the US.
One particularly fascinating thing Potter shows is the fact that anti-slavery sentiment overlapped with anti-immigrant feeling which was espoused by the Know-Nothing nativists. Potter says this seems irrational to a modern person, but he shows how the anti-Catholic feelings aroused by the recent Irish immigration was part and parcel of view of Catholics being part of a supposedly sexually perverted, conspiratorialist organization which they believed the Catholic Church represented, but those who held this felt the same way about the aristocratic slave-owing plantation barons in the South. Thus the new anti-slavery Republican Party went out of its way to attract nativist, anti-Catholic voters.
Another interesting fact that is brought out is that many militantly anti-slavery and abolitionist people actually had little love for the Blacks and felt the best solution was to free them and then "send the back where they came from", i.e. Africa. Thus, many anti-slavery people held these views because they thought that slavery was bad for them, by giving slave owners inexpensive labor which free white laborers could not compete with, fearing that it would weaken the free labor movement in the US. Abraham Lincoln came across like this during his famous 1858 Senate race with Stephen Douglas, but Potter attributes this more to political opportunism and trying to win votes among racist Illinois voters than to real sentiments on Lincoln's part.
Another valuable section deals with the legal intracicies of the Dred Scott decision. I found out that it did NOT legalize slavery in the states, only Congress was stripped of the power of prohibiting slavery in the territories. It was then believed that states were sovereign and they did have the rigth to prohibit slavery within their borders.
Finally, Potter shows that up until Fort Sumter, the North thought the South was bluffing and would not go through with secession.
Both the Democratic and Whig parties had both Northern and Southern branches and both had pro- and anti-slavery wings so this political balance held the country together. The collapse of the Whigs and the victory of the anti-slavery, sectional (i.e. Northern only) Republican party in the election of 1860 was the straw that broke the camel's back.
I found the book a very good, well-written interesting read, and it provides a real education to the reader regarding social and political developments in a state of national crisis. Highly recommended.
Top international reviews
The expansion and protection of slavery was at the absolute heart of the conflict, Even if I liked the book, I found I learned nothing that the first
chapters of "Battle Cry of Freedom" did not cover, in a better fashion at that.
Good points for "The Impending Crisis" are the Lecompton story, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the hours leading to Fort Sumter's attack by P.T. Beauregard.
The weak point is that slavery is presented much like an abstract concept, not a living hell human beings were actually living. Also, the fact that the South was a backward region, where education for white children as well as blacks where of no concern to the politicians, among other things, are not mentionned, much less covered.
Although a good read, in my opinion it is still an incompte work.