Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: "The Impending Crisis"

It's been awhile since my last book review, and it's because I was tackling "The Impending Crisis" by David M. Potter. It is a massive and thorough analysis of the years 1848-1861 and the multiple complex issues, ideas, personalities, and events that formed the kinetic and challenging antebellum period. This book is, in short, a masterwork of historical method and covers a huge and complex expanse of our nation's history in a brilliant and staggering way.
There are three principles that Potter adheres to most vigorously as he crafted this tome:
1. a commitment to primary sources and rigorous citation, thus giving credibility and immediacy to the issues under investigation.
2. drawing the reader into the moment being discussed while at the same time keeping the scope of that moment broad, so as to demonstrate the multitude of variables at work.
3. a strict avoidance of editorializing or bloviating, he lets the facts do the talking.
This first point is one that is incredibly striking in nearly every chapter, you are pulled into the moment and the immediacy of the issue because you are reading just what was said at the time. As Walter Cleamons of Newsweek said, "The rejection of hindsight, with the insistence of trying to see events from the point of view of the participants, was a governing theme with Potter...watching him apply it is a revelation." As you are taken through, for example, the Lecompton crisis, you are presented with the records of what was said, by whom, and what the direct effects of each action was, it's as close as you can get to a time machine.
The second point is one that always keeps us in touch with the larger context as minutiae is explored. We are always reminded of the ramifications of an issue throughout the Union and beyond, for example, Potter points out the virulent anger in the Midwest over secession as it would jeopardize access to the Mississippi; find that point in any other text.
By sticking to the third point, Potter is able to maintain his credibility as an objective writer. He does not inject himself or his biases into the discussion, we are left newly informed and free to draw our own conclusions.
With this understanding of his approach, we can really look at how the author structures his approach to the myriad issues in the period. Potter takes the turbulent years of 1848-1861 and breaks them into pieces based upon theme, not time. There are chapters on John Brown, Dred Scott, the secession crisis, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, etc. This thematic structure gives significant chronological overlap, so you really get a flavor for how much people were trying to digest and deal with at any one time, from the farmstead to the White House.
Each theme chapter has a similar structure: Potter sets the context and introduces a few of the primary characters, then skillfully dissects the minutiae of the issue in question. This latter part he does masterfully; he is clearly at the top of the heap in addressing legislative history and Constitutional law. To watch him break down and analyze a legislative agenda (an example being the Compromise of 1850) is really quite incredible. He closes each chapter not by a gray recitation of facts, but by putting us again in historical context, discussing the repercussions of what has just occurred, and setting the stage for the end game.
In taking this approach, Potter builds the suspense quite brilliantly, as we see issues that are disparate in nature slowly being pulled towards a single conclusion through the overlap of time and attitude. Potter shows us clearly how for example the end of the Mexican-American War and the Dred Scott decision, though separated by years, personalities, and issues, were part of the inexorable tide that brought Civil War. We are drawn into the final chapters where we see the election of 1860, secession, and eventual war, and all of the pieces fit together. We are shown plainly and without judgement how the United States came to its darkest years. The chapter entitled "The Nature of Southern Separatism", for example, is a brilliant summary of the Southern attitudes and rationalizations towards the Republicans, Lincoln, abolitionists, and secession and is, for me, the most evocative section of the book.
This is a tremendous book, plain and simple, and paints an amazing picture of this incredible time in our nations' history. Make no mistake, it is a long read and takes time to properly digest, but don't let that daunt you. If you find your way to this book and read it, you will not only have an amazing understanding of the antebellum period, but will have shared in a magnum opus of American history. Highly recommended.

No comments: