Conflict is good. Conflict of the political nature, suggests Michael F. Holt, prevented the coming of the Civil War for decades. Neither slavery, sectionalism, nor a Republican victory guaranteed the divisive conflict in 1861. Rather, the failure of the two party political system led to a real feeling of crisis and fear in America, a fear that the republic and popular rule would disappear and be replaced by either aggressive northern political leadership or a southern slaveholding elite. As politicians seized that fear and manipulated it into a crisis, America headed toward a split and conflict based on a lack of political choice, republican ideologies, and political survival. In his 1978 monograph The Political Crisis of the 1850s, Professor Holt argues that by the 1850s politicians scrambled for ways to differentiate themselves from rival candidates and factions, all while parties seemed to be growing closer together. This lack of conflict, this lack of options for the common man, left the general population without valid political access and, ironically, led directly to deadly conflict. He argues, not completely convincingly, that slavery and sectionalism were supporting players for the real political causal factor leading to secession and war. Overall, Michael F. Holt presents a fascinating alternative investigation into causal factors of the American Civil War, examining not what the causes were, but why politics and politicians could not control and limit the conflict. Central to a critique of Holt?s work is an understanding of his place in the approach to the causality of the American Civil War. Holt is a member of what Eric Foner calls the ?New? political historians, analysts who view antebellum North and South as similar sections and discount ideology as causal. Furthermore, these historians reject slavery as a major cause of the war. Instead, the ?new? historians suggest an ?irrational crisis of fear? that permeated America and created a cultural clash that brought on secession and war. (Foner, 1997, p. 91) Holt, however, does not completely fit Foner?s description. Rather than deny slavery?s centrality to the conflict, Holt clearly admits that ?if the institution had not existed, there probably would never have been a war.? (258) Furthermore, the author demonstrates that sectional conflicts existed, yet holds that these conflicts were flamed by politicians seeking issues for campaigns. Written at a time when social history was replacing intellectual history as the analysis of choice, Holt?s work connects common men and political leaders to republican ideology and a real, not irrational, crisis of fear that Americans would lose their republic. The fear and process of that loss become Holt?s causation of conflict. Above all else, antebellum America revered the republican form of government, the right of individuals to control their own destiny. According to Holt, this republican ideology drove politicians and common men down the road to war. The protection of this republican way of life from real and perceived enemies brought America together. Indeed, Eric Foner praises Holt for examining commonalities between sections and parties in antebellum America, citing the need to understand differing views of the same principle rather than assuming that antagonistic differences were inherent in the process of moving to war. Regardless of geographic location or culture, Holt argues that Americans were ?always nervous that republican society might be undermined or corrupted.? Indeed, ?Americans were determined to protect self-government, liberty, and equality for whites from anything that threatened those most cherished possessions.?(vii) According to Holt, republicanism outweighed all other values and consideration, regardless of geography. Leading up to and during the 1850s, both northerners and southerners, Whigs and Democrats accused their foes of infringing on their republican rights and freedoms. Indeed, as events carried America toward war, ?each section began to view the other as the subverter of republicanism, as a lawless and usurping tyrant bent on perverting the traditional basis of society and government.?(6) Jacksonian politics had given the people the feeling that they controlled the country, according to Holt, and that their vote left control in the hands of individuals. However, as time went on people began to notice politicians and factions attempting to grab power away from them, and to hijack the political process. The need for power, especially among politicians, had become extremely important as America faced problems like expansion and slavery. In the 1840s, northern resentment toward the South grew as plantation owners seemed to control the path of events in America. In fact, many northerners viewed a growing elite class of pretentious slaveowners with distrust believing them to be ?an aristocratic society in the South dominated socially, economically, and politically by a small oligarchy of planters in defiance of the republican principle of majority rule.?(51) According to Holt, northern opposition to the slave world was a fight for republican ideology, not against slavery or the South. Instead, it was a struggle against the planter class, its ?Slave Power? and the planters? desire for expansion. Indeed, the expansion of the Kansas-Nebraska Act galvanized sectional moral outrage against the Slave Power and its ability to engineer the repeal of the 1820 Compromise. As a whole, northerners began to look for ways to ?crush the Slave Power and save the Republic.?(151) The North, however, was not alone in its distrust of competing sections of the country. Southerners, like northerners, looked to protect republicanism from perceived threats. The proposition of the Wilmot Proviso, for instance, alarmed southerners because of its threat to republican ideals. At its base, the Proviso signaled to southerners the ability of the North to subjugate the South in major decisions. In essence, the North would have been able to dictate to the South what, where, and when it could expand. According to Holt, this became a question of equality rather than slavery. After all, most white southerners did not own slaves, but they did have rights. Through Wilmot, a majority of white southerners believed that the North was trying to take away their equality, placing them into ideological slavery. Central to Holt?s argument surrounding a political crisis is the notion that the two party political system operated as a kind of stop gap that protected republican rights. Early in antebellum America, party politics were more important than sectional loyalty. The give and take of the two party system mitigated problems and prevented politicians from garnering power for themselves by taking radical stances. Party loyalty, in other words, restricted loose cannons from causing trouble. In addition, Holt suggests that a well-functioning two party system gave people the idea that their concerns were being debated and resolved. The common man consistently had alternatives, and those alternatives guaranteed liberty. Even more, the political arena became the accepted venue for fighting battles. According to Holt, the public became convinced during the 1820s that political parties were ?the best vehicles to advance (their) interests.?(19) In fact, political activity was very important to the antebellum citizen, and part of that activity was a staunch party loyalty. According to Holt, ?many voters viewed themselves primarily as Democrats or Whigs, and they brought to those identities a determination to defeat the political foe similar to the present-day fans? enthusiasm for the local football team.?(35) This loyalty, according to the author, guaranteed choices that came with controlled conflict provided by the two party system.
Alibris, the Alibris logo, and Alibris.com are registered trademarks of Alibris, Inc.
Copyright in bibliographic data and cover images is held by Nielsen Book Services Limited, Baker & Taylor, Inc., or by their respective licensors, or by the publishers, or by their respective licensors. For personal use only. All rights reserved. All rights in images of books or other publications are reserved by the original copyright holders.