Category Archives: Historiography

The messy reprieve of 1850

In America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, published this month, Fergus Bordewich recounts the various controversies that the architects of the Compromise of 1850 tried to resolve and the process by which that decade-long reprieve for the Union made its tortuous way through the halls of the Capitol.  The expansion of slavery was central to the whole affair, but this core issue manifested itself in a number of intertwined controversies whose complexity may surprise readers used to abridged accounts of the compromise as only one of several steps toward the Civil War.

One of these controversies involved California, where (by a stroke of either remarkably good or remarkably bad fortune) the discovery of gold shortly after the acquisition of that future state from Mexico forced the nation to quickly come to terms with the question of its admission to the Union.  The admission of a new state threatened to upset the delicate balance between free and slave states in the Senate, and both opponents and apologists for the spread of the peculiar institution put forth various proposals for the organization of territories gained in the Mexican War—an outright ban on slavery, popular sovereignty, an absence of any restriction on slavery whatsoever, and so on.  Combined with this dispute over the fate of slavery in the former Mexican territories, and related to it, was a bitter controversy involving territorial claims by Texas.  Texans insisted that their state’s jurisdiction extended west of the Rio Grande into present-day New Mexico, whereas New Mexicans denied encroachment on what they believed to be their own domain.  These disputes emerged at a time when passions about the fate of the peculiar institution and the federal government’s role in upholding it were at a fever pitch.

Into this web of controversy and contested suggestions for untangling it stepped Henry Clay, member of a generation of elder statesmen for whom the coming debate would be their last great act on the national stage.  Clay’s proposal to cut the Gordian knot of the dispute over the fate of slavery in the territories called for the admission of a free California, the restriction of Texan claims to eastern New Mexico, an abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital, a more effective fugitive slave law, and freedom from congressional interference in the interstate slave trade.

Clay feared that if these measures were presented to the Senate as a unit, extremists on both sides would balk at passing it.  That is precisely what happened, as opponents of slavery led by William Seward denounced the stiffer anti-fugitive provisions and the expansion of human bondage into the Mexican cessions while slavery advocates such as John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis claimed that prohibitions on the spread of he peculiar institution into the territories threatened the South.  Debate on the “omnibus” bill combining Clay’s proposals became so heated that at one point Mississippi’s Henry Foote drew a pistol on Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton.

Meanwhile, the crises which the compromise was meant to address continued to escalate, with delegates from nine slaveholding states meeting in Nashville to consider possible courses of action.  Among those possibilities was secession from the Union, a drastic measure ultimately repudiated the convention’s more moderate attendees.  After the packaged compromise proposals went down to defeat, Stephen Douglas herded the measures through the Senate separately; Texas was mollified with payment of her debts, a tougher fugitive slave law passed despite opposition from a few northern politicos, and California gained admission as a free state.

Adroit maneuvering by Speaker Howell Cobb secured passage of the compromise measures in the House of Representatives, even though hard-liners on both sides of the expansion and slavery debates continued to contest the implications of the individual provisions.  The beefed-up Fugitive Slave Law was a particularly bitter pill for Whigs in the North to swallow.  Despite continued tension, and the fact that the compromise ultimately proved to be a reprieve rather than a cure for sectional animosity, Bordewich concludes that it was a laudable political success, staving off as it did a rending of the Union and subsequent war which he claims the government was ill-prepared to face in 1850.

America’s Great Debate could benefit from additional attention to the way in which the country at large reacted to the wrangling in the Senate.  Some chapters take the reader on short forays into the disputed Texas-New Mexico border region, but for the most part Bordewich does not stray far from the halls of power in Washington.  Nor does he stray far from the conventions of narrative history; readers looking for intensive analysis and overt engagement with the secondary literature should look elsewhere.  Taken on its own terms as a straightforward narrative political history, however, this is a solid account, making effective use of published primary material and offering an intimate look at the inner workings of politics at the national level during the tumultuous mid-1800’s.

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A new collection on Rev War cavalry

…is coming out this fall.  Cool!

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Imprisoned Patriots

Carl Borick has a new book out, examining the plight of Revolutionary War prisoners in the South.  This one ought to be worth a read.  Borick previously published a book on the 1780 siege of Charleston, which I recommend, and organized a fantastic temporary exhibit on the occupation of that city at the Charleston Museum.

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Reconsidering Andrew Johnson

Dr. Paul Bergeron probably knows more about Andrew Johnson than anyone else does, so his newest book ought to be well worth a read.  Check out this article on Bergeron’s work in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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I’ve got a few remarks on the O’Reilly brouhaha

…over at the Abraham Lincoln Institute blog, in case anybody’s interested in reading them.

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Ed Bearss’s favorite Civil War books

Ed Bearss is a living legend when it comes to the history of the Civil War, so it was about time somebody asked him to name his favorite books on the subject.  I think his choices were pretty good.  Check it out.

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Thomas DiLorenzo takes issue with somebody. . .but who, exactly?

That’s the question I ponder at a new piece I’ve written for the Abraham Lincoln Institute blog.  See what you think, and feel free to add your comments over at that site.

I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to pitch in over at the Institute blog, both as a contributor and editor.  Let me take this opportunity to ask that you make it one of your regular online stops if you’re a history blog reader, and to add it to your blogroll if you’re a history blog writer.  In the near future we’ll be posting some interviews with Lincoln scholars and other material of interest, so check it out.

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John Ferling has a new book coming out

…later this month, about the movement for independence.  Here’s some info from the publisher.

I like Ferling’s work; I think his assessments are usually balanced and carefully thought-out.  His Almost a Miracle is probably the best one-volume history of the Revolutionary War out there.

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Just how bad is the state of popular Civil War writing?

Pretty bad, according to Dimitri Rotov:

The mass-market nonfiction reader is a kind of crackhead in search of fiction-quality narratives. The “kick” in nonfiction that reads better than a novel is that “it’s like, real man.”

We need sociologists to study these people. Instead we get Civil War authors who serve their segment of this market with elaborately contrived master narratives, books gushing with “novelistic” anecdotes ripped out of their natural context (of diaries and letters), and stripped down “stories” featuring “characters” who amuse and entertain. The crackhouse that is Civil War history has its corner in the larger slum of nonfiction publishing, with suburbanites cruising through to score their stuff on the way to the beach. Party on dudes.

I always enjoy reading Rotov’s thoughts on historiography, even though I have a great deal of respect for some of the authors he often singles out for criticism. Regardless of questions over which specific books are bad and which aren’t, he’s got a point here.  There is undeniably a lot of shallow, superficial tripe getting cranked out in the name of popularized Civil War history.

Next time you have a minute, browse through some reader reviews of popular historical books at Amazon.com and note how many customers gush over works that made them feel like they were reading a novel, or caught them up in the story, or made them forget that they were reading a history book, and so on.  If you can’t enjoy a history book unless you forget that it is, in fact, a history book, then why exactly did you buy it and start reading it in the first place?

Apparently we’ve become so addicted to diversion that we have to treat ourselves like kids, absorbing little nuggets of information surreptitiously in the same way that a toddler will eat vitamins only when Mom slips them into some chocolate pudding.  In this case, though, it’s ourselves we’re trying to fool: “It was so entertaining, I forgot I was reading a history book!”  When thou readest history, let not thy left brain know what thy right brain doeth.

Indeed, when we compare the number of shallow and commercially driven Civil War books to the number of genuinely original studies, the results might look a little dismaying.  The widespread interest in the war means that lots of commercially driven junk gets published because there are people who are willing to buy it.  You don’t get this level of commercial interest when it comes to, say, the Progressive Era or seventeenth-century English colonies, where more analytic or academic books are the norm, simply because there isn’t as much of a market for popular books in those fields.

Still, I think it’s easy to overstate the problem.  Leave aside for a moment the ratio of mediocre Civil War books to very good Civil War books.  Instead, compare the number of solid Civil War books getting published to the number of solid books being published in other historical fields of study, and I think the former discipline comes out looking pretty robust.

In fact, as someone whose special interests lie mainly in earlier periods of history, I don’t think Civil War readers know how comparatively well off they are. I’ve lamented before how surprising the lacunae in early American historiography can be; we have major historical actors without modern biographies, fundamental questions unanswered, and critical events unexamined.  You may not be entirely pleased with the available literature on a given Civil War topic, but chances are there is at least a literature in place, so that the student or scholar has some sort of foundation on which to build.

In any case, if you dislike commercialized historical writing, the best remedy is to avoid buying it.  Publishers will keep cranking out infotainment as long as there’s a market for it.

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Looking for a substantial research project?

Then consider writing a biography of an early national figure, particularly one from Tennessee.  Mark Cheatham is probably correct in guessing that “many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors.”

It’s a shame, because there are plenty of prominent early leaders about whom we just don’t know enough.  Both Gordon Belt and myself have lamented the lack of a good biography of John Sevier.  A few hagiographic treatments came out over a century ago, but as far as I can determine, the only scholarly attempt at a life of Sevier was Carl Driver’s, published back in the thirties.

William Blount’s life story would also make for a fascinating read.  A study of his conspiratorial dealings came out not too long ago, but as a member of the Constitutional Convention and governor of the Southwest Territory, Blount deserves a cradle-to-grave account, too.

In part, this dearth of early Tennessee biographies is symptomatic of a more general shortage of scholarship on the Volunteer State’s frontier period.  The good news is that those relatively few recent studies on early Tennessee history have been very good—such as John Finger’s overview of the Volunteer State’s early daysKevin Barksdale’s book on the Lost State of Franklin, and Cynthia Cumfer’s examination of early Tennessee’s three races.

But it’s also symptomatic of the surprising gaps that exist in the field of early American biography.  These gaps become readily apparent when you look at Rev War biography.  One thing that’s always struck me is the lack of a recent, full-scale life of Nathanael Greene, the remarkable general who took command in the South in late 1780 and turned that theater of war on its head, after having served under Washington in the major campaigns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Few men played a more critical role in the war.

Henry Knox, Washington’s resourceful artillery chief, also needs a full-scale, scholarly biography.  Don Higginbotham wrote a very good life of Daniel Morgan, but another look at the Old Wagoneer wouldn’t hurt, either.  Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates could also stand intensive biographies.

Let me point out that all these men were general officers, and yet we have more abundant published work on some Civil War colonels than on these guys.  Biographies of British commanders are just as hard to come by, perhaps more so.  In a sense, Rev War historiography has leapfrogged over the old military history and gone straight to the new.

Grad students and young scholars in search of dissertation or book topics need not worry about running out of material.  There are enough dead white guys in search of their Boswells to keep us all busy for a while.

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