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The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861

Author: David M. Potter

tl;dr:Winner of the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for History. I read this when things were getting..a little hot..after the 2016 election, in order to put things in perspective. Conclusion, we’re nowhere near that. Second conclusion, when emotions are running hot, it only takes a single event to serve as the spark plug for things to spiral.

While Lincoln’s election set off the wave of of states seceding, John Brown’s raid on a WV armory significantly raised the temperature despite the fact he only had ~20 guys with him. But Americans took sides and tensions quickly rose.

Everything you may have tacit knowledge of from 10th grade history - Dred Scott, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln/Douglas debates, etc.; Potter goes very deep on. He also brings a surplus of background and context to everything from the Wilmot Proviso, to Bleeding Kansas, to the destruction of the Whigs, to rise and fall of the Know Nothing party, to the Calhoun Doctrine, to a sober analysis of Buchanan’s problems.

The civil war often gets reduced to a war over slavery, this is true. But it’s also true there are a lot more details below the surface that serve prerequisites to understanding the conflict. Potter illustrates these in great detail.

I personally gained a ton of respect for Stephen Douglas. After it was clear he wasn’t going to win, he kept campaigning to avoid war and find a peaceful solution at the expense of his own political capital. How many politicians today would sacrifice their careers and livelihoods for the good of the nation?

Potter died in 1971 before being able to finish the book. His editor, Don Fehrenbacher, put the finishing touches on the book including most of the last two chapters.


Amazon: The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861

First published on May 23, 2020