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“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 magnum opus of a great American historian.” —Newsweek Now in a new edition for the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, David Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of antebellum America offers an indispensible analysis of the causes “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 magnum opus of a great American historian.” —Newsweek Now in a new edition for the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, David Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of antebellum America offers an indispensible analysis of the causes of the war between the states. The Journal of Southern History calls Potter’s incisive account, “modern scholarship’s most comprehensive account of the coming of the Civil War,” and the New York Times Book Review hails it as “profound and original…. History in the grand tradition.”


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“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 magnum opus of a great American historian.” —Newsweek Now in a new edition for the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, David Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of antebellum America offers an indispensible analysis of the causes “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 magnum opus of a great American historian.” —Newsweek Now in a new edition for the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, David Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of antebellum America offers an indispensible analysis of the causes of the war between the states. The Journal of Southern History calls Potter’s incisive account, “modern scholarship’s most comprehensive account of the coming of the Civil War,” and the New York Times Book Review hails it as “profound and original…. History in the grand tradition.”

30 review for The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    “Slavery presented an inescapable ethical question which precipitated a sharp conflict of values. It constituted a vast economic interest…The stakes were large in the rivalry of slavery and freedom for ascendancy in the territories. Also, slavery was basic to the cultural divergence of North and South, because it was inextricably fused into the key elements of southern life – the staple crop and plantation system, the social and political ascendancy of the planter class, the authoritarian system “Slavery presented an inescapable ethical question which precipitated a sharp conflict of values. It constituted a vast economic interest…The stakes were large in the rivalry of slavery and freedom for ascendancy in the territories. Also, slavery was basic to the cultural divergence of North and South, because it was inextricably fused into the key elements of southern life – the staple crop and plantation system, the social and political ascendancy of the planter class, the authoritarian system of social control. Similarly, slavery shaped southern economic features in such a way as to accentuate their clash with those of the North. The southern commitment to the use of slave labor inhibited economic diversification and industrialization and strengthened the tyranny of King Cotton…” - David Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 David Potter’s sweeping, epic, and award-winning The Impending Crisis presents a long look at America from the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 to the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861. It tells the story of how the suppurating wound of slavery finally infected the whole of the United States, causing a rupture that resulted in a bloody four-year war, decades of legalized racism, and enormous efforts on behalf of civil rights activists to even begin to heal. The work, of course, is still not done. In trying to see a way forward, it is often helpful to use the past as a guide, if for no other reason than to help define the problem. To that end, for anyone seeking a fuller picture of how things came to be as they are with regard to race in America, The Impending Crisis is indispensable reading. It provides both wide coverage and sharp analysis as it traces the role of slavery in antebellum American politics – and how that all culminated in a war we are still trying to resolve. The Impending Crisis begins with the apotheosis of early-American nationalism. As we open, General Winfield Scott’s invading army has already demolished the Mexican forces in its path, marched into Mexico City, and forced Mexico to sign a treaty ceding enormous tracts of land in exchange for cash. In a way, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo turned into a poisoned chalice. No sooner had America received the deed of title than the issue of slavery – whether these newly-acquired lands would be free or not – rose with an uncontrolled ferocity. The issue which had been patched over since the signing of the Constitution could no longer be ignored. As Potter notes, David Wilmot set the limits of the question with his famous proviso banning slavery in these new territories. The resulting firestorm saw nationalism give way to sectionalism, and sectionalism to secession. In these tumultuous years, Potter devotes space to the Compromise of 1850, the saga of Bleeding Kansas, and the failed revolt at Harper’s Ferry. He traces the metamorphosis of the various political parties, as northern and southern Democrats split, the Whigs died, and the Republican Party was born (from the ashes of various other single-issue parties). Potter follows Stephen Douglas as his attempts to secure a western railroad leads him to make dangerous political calculations. He touches on the Fugitive Slave Act and Dred Scott, and follows Lincoln and Douglas during their famous debates. There’s even room given to attempts to annex Cuba in order to facilitate the spread of slavery to more hospitable climes. (The filibusterer William Walker deserves his own updated biography). This is a comprehensive book, but it approaches its many topics from the constrained angle of politics. There is a lot of talking, but not much action. Moreover, this is a volume that is heavy on analysis, and rather light on narrative. Accordingly, its prose can be a bit heavy at times, as Potter expounds on his concepts: The importance of slavery…is evident…in its polarizing effect upon the sections. No other sectional factor could have brought about this effect in the same way. Culturally, the dualism of a democratic North and an aristocratic South was not complete, for the North had its quota of blue-bloods and grandees who felt an affinity with those of the South, and the South had its backwoods democrats, who resented the lordly airs of the planters. Similarly, the glib antithesis of a dynamic “commercial” North and a static “feudal” South cannot conceal the profoundly commercial and capitalistic impulses of the plantation system. But slavery really had a polarizing effect, for the North had no slaveholders – at least not of resident slaves – and the South had virtually no abolitionists. Looking simply at the prose, this is not the kind of wordsmithing that’s going to knock your socks off, studded as it is with academic phrases much-loved by professors. (It should be noted that Potter died before this book was finished. It was completed and edited by Don Fehrenbacher, and later won the Pulitzer Prize). While this is far from unreadable, there are points where The Impending Crisis gets really slow and dense. This goes beyond the heaviness of the sentences. Specifically, you can only discuss the differences between 19th century political parties for so long before it feels necessary to take a break. By focusing on the politics, the narrative possibilities of, say, John Brown and Bleeding Kansas, are lost. This focus also tends to make slavery – which is this book’s chief subject – into something of an abstract concept. Potter is concerned with ideas, principles, competing ideologies; he spends no time imagining the actual physical consequences of slavery, which makes some of his statements (such as those regarding the Underground Railroad) irritatingly glib. (I would recommend The Half Has Never Been Told and River of Dark Dreams as examples of books that take a different tact, focusing on the experiences of the enslaved, while sharpening the rhetoric). Every once in a while, though, Potter (or Fehrenbacher) will get on a roll, and the words take flight, and The Impending Crisis becomes magnetic. I loved, for instance, the description of the great debate over the Compromise of 1850: Here, for the last time together, appeared a triumvirate of old men, relics of a golden age, who still towered like giants above the creatures of a later time: Webster, the kind of senator that Richard Wagner might have created at the height of his powers; Calhoun, the most majestic champion of error since Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost; and Clay, the old Conciliator, who had already saved the Union twice and now came out of retirement to save it with his silver voice and his master touch once again before he died. If the recent movement to remove monuments relating to slavery have shown us anything, it is that while we may be done with the Civil War, the Civil War is not done with us. In order to understand the years between 1861-1865 – and the legacy those years have given us – we must study the decades that came before. The Impending Crisis can be heavy at times, but it is thorough, fair, and demonstrates with exactitude that all roads to civil war went through slavery.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Perron

    David Potter died before this book was published so all the success and praise, including a Pulitzer Prize, could only be received posthumously. It is however a magnificent work that captures the over a decade period that was leading up to the Civil War. The book is part of the New American History series not the Oxford History series that I had been reading. Unlike the Oxford History volumes, it does not dive as deep into the average people as well as the elites with the same amount of elegant David Potter died before this book was published so all the success and praise, including a Pulitzer Prize, could only be received posthumously. It is however a magnificent work that captures the over a decade period that was leading up to the Civil War. The book is part of the New American History series not the Oxford History series that I had been reading. Unlike the Oxford History volumes, it does not dive as deep into the average people as well as the elites with the same amount of elegant detail, nevertheless it is a great book. A small note to any readers that when they read this book they may to want to be aware beforehand: it was written before the term 'African-American' became widely accepted and instead uses the anachronistic word 'Negro'. It actually took me a minute to catch on because when reading about the past one comes about the word Negro quite a bit, normally I just view the term in its historic lens, but as I read further the term was used quite generally referring to 'the Negro population' and to Fredrick Douglass as a 'leading Negro thinker' even when not talking from a historical perspective. This book covers the political battles of the many participants who were in the political arena in the late 1850s; the work also covers the political theories of the state of American Nationalism, and the formation of Southern Nationalism. Potter also discusses how the impact of books and literature that were written in the 1850s impacted the time period. One example of a powerful and hard-hitting book was the original The Impending Crisis that dealt with the problem of slavery from a southern prospective of non-slaveholding whites. A more famous example of strong literature is the immortal Uncle Tom's Cabin. "In almost every respect, Uncle Tom's Cabin lacked the standard qualifications for such great literary success. It may plausibly be argued that Mrs. Stowe's characters were impossible and her Negroes were blackface stereotypes, that her plot was sentimental, her dialect absurd, her literary technique crude, and her overall picture of the conditions of slavery distorted. But without any of the vituperation in which the abolitionists were so fluent, and with a sincere though unappreciated effort to avoid blaming the South, she made vivid the plight of the slave as a human being held in bondage. It was perhaps because of the steadiness with which she held this focus that Lord Palmerston, a man noted for his cynicism, admired the book not only for 'its story but for the statesmanship of it.' History cannot evaluate with precision the influence of a novel upon public opinion, but the northern attitude toward slavery was never quite the same after Uncle Tom's Cabin. Men who had remained unmoved by real fugitives wept for Tom under the lash and cheered for Eliza with the bloodhounds on her track."p.140 One of the things Potter discusses in the book that I was very pleased to here is the tendency for most people to look back at the past with the feeling of inevitability. This attitude does everyone a disservice because it creates a misinterpretation of the past and the people who were living in it. Although, his own title of this book helps with that narrative that he was trying to combat. "Seen this way the decade of the fifties becomes a kind of vortex, whirling the country in ever narrower circles and more rapid revolutions into the pit of war. Because of the need for a theme and focus in any history, this is probably inevitable. But for the sake of realism, it should be remembered that most human beings during these years went about their daily lives, preoccupied with their personal affairs, with no sense of impending disaster nor any fixation on the issue of slavery."p.145 Potter also discusses the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and while doing so he tries to cut though the legend and misinterpretations that often are made about this event. He tries to make it plain what the two opponents believed and what they were fighting for. "The difference between Douglas and Lincoln--and in a large sense between proslavery and antislavery thought--was not that Douglas believed in chattel servitude (for he did not), or that Lincoln believed in an unqualified, full equality of blacks and whites (for he did not). The difference was that Douglas did not believe that slavery really mattered very much, because he did not believe that Negroes had enough human affinity with him to make it necessary for him to concern himself with them. Lincoln, on the contrary, believed that slavery mattered, because he recognized the human affinity with blacks which made their plight a necessary."p354 He explains the raid of Harper's Ferry and the antislavery crusader John Brown in his rather insane attempt to cause a slave rebellion. In Potter's narrative what Brown lacks as an armed rebel he excels as a martyr. The North morns his death, which infuriates the South and makes them feel more isolated. Thus after the election of Lincoln they begin their attempts to break the South away from the Union. Everything discussed in this review and more is covered in this incredible book. I would recommend it to people who already have a strong knowledge of the history of this country who would like to increase their understanding of this difficult time period.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Porter Broyles

    I would love to give Potter’s book more than 3 stars, but this was a book that I struggled to read despite enjoying it. Unlike most books, it took me months to read this one, I kept finding reasons to put off reading it. One of the reasons was simply the appearance of the book. You know how you sometimes pick up a 250 page book and thinks, “Wow, the publisher did everything they could to stretch this book to 250 pages?” The margins are large, the font is big, the spacing is wide, etc. The author I would love to give Potter’s book more than 3 stars, but this was a book that I struggled to read despite enjoying it. Unlike most books, it took me months to read this one, I kept finding reasons to put off reading it. One of the reasons was simply the appearance of the book. You know how you sometimes pick up a 250 page book and thinks, “Wow, the publisher did everything they could to stretch this book to 250 pages?” The margins are large, the font is big, the spacing is wide, etc. The author delivered 120 pages of text, but the publisher wanted a bigger book? This book was the exact opposite. It was just under 600 pages, but the font is small, the spacing is neglible, and the margins are non-existent. It is almost as if the author produced a 900 page book, but the publisher didn’t think a 900 page book could sell, so did everything to squeeze it into 600 pages. This gave the book a cramped feel. As for the book itself, I had a love/hate relationship with it. For the most part I loved it, but there were sections that dragged and were too compact—more of a list of facts than a narrative. But the parts that excelled, were great. But what makes reading a 43 year old history interesting is that it is a reflection upon the culture that wrote the book. This book was the best book on antebellum history as it was understood in 1976. Ideas that are accepted today, were novel or unheard of 43 years ago. Ideas that were accepted 43 years ago, have been rejected in the meantime. Issues that were focused on have changed. But what makes reading a 43 year old history interesting is that sometimes you realize that the issues that are pervasive today, were pervasive then, and 170 years ago. History may not repeat itself, but it definitely rhymes. Reading old history about history makes this fact come to life.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    A clear, rich history of the lead-up to the Civil War. Potter begins with the debate over the Wilmot Proviso and ends with the first shots at Fort Sumter, and clearly presents all of the economic, social and political aspects of the sectional conflict in between (with the most emphasis on the latter) All of Potter’s arguments are solidly backed up. Interestingly, Potter deals with the era as people saw it as the time, meaning he often covers issues that other historians skip over just because the A clear, rich history of the lead-up to the Civil War. Potter begins with the debate over the Wilmot Proviso and ends with the first shots at Fort Sumter, and clearly presents all of the economic, social and political aspects of the sectional conflict in between (with the most emphasis on the latter) All of Potter’s arguments are solidly backed up. Interestingly, Potter deals with the era as people saw it as the time, meaning he often covers issues that other historians skip over just because they don’t directly relate to the sectional crisis. He also portrays John Brown’s raid as a publicity stunt and his treatment of James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas is rather sympathetic. Potter also emphasizes how the South scored many tactical victories in the sectional conflict that later turned out to be strategic defeats. An evenhanded, consistent history, although social and economic history seems to take a relative backseat at times, and his downplaying of the Dred Scott case is not entirely convincing.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Brian Willis

    Even a Pulitzer Prize can date a little. Great book though probably not as "modern" as academic concerns currently are preoccupied with. Nonetheless, it threads the needle between the Mexican War that clearly escalated the slavery crisis through the Compromise of 1850 to the Kansas Nebraska Act to the declarations of succession. It's eminently readable for such a potentially dense subject and is probably still the book on this era. If you want to read up on the causes of the Civil War, few books Even a Pulitzer Prize can date a little. Great book though probably not as "modern" as academic concerns currently are preoccupied with. Nonetheless, it threads the needle between the Mexican War that clearly escalated the slavery crisis through the Compromise of 1850 to the Kansas Nebraska Act to the declarations of succession. It's eminently readable for such a potentially dense subject and is probably still the book on this era. If you want to read up on the causes of the Civil War, few books do it better.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Ellis

    This is an amazing book. It took me a long time to read because each page contains a wealth of information, and it's not something you can just breeze through if you're truly interested in the subject. I've been reading about the Civil War for almost 60 years now but have always been neglectful of material dealing with the 1850s. This volume cured that! There are several rather dry chapters on the political compromises dealing with the creation of new territories and addition of new states to th This is an amazing book. It took me a long time to read because each page contains a wealth of information, and it's not something you can just breeze through if you're truly interested in the subject. I've been reading about the Civil War for almost 60 years now but have always been neglectful of material dealing with the 1850s. This volume cured that! There are several rather dry chapters on the political compromises dealing with the creation of new territories and addition of new states to the Union, the politicians attempting to avoid dealing with the issue of slavery. I found the later chapters on the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the John Brown fiasco at Harper's Ferry to be especially fascinating, making up for slogging through the political debates! At the end, I truly felt as if I had come to a much better understanding of how it all erupted into a civil war. Perhaps the greatest lesson we could all learn is to never judge the past based on the present. Just as that old proverb says: Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in his shoes. Unfortunately, we cannot travel back in time to share their experiences, so perhaps it's best that we keep our judgmental mouths shut and try to learn from history instead of repeating it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Don

    This is just an excellent and highly readable account of the period leading up to the Civil War. It is a political history of the country during that period; it doesn't cover social, cultural or economic developments except as they bear upon the subject matter. In the last few years, a number of Southerners have asserted that the Civil War was not really fought over the issue of slavery, but rather over states' rights issues, tariffs, etc. This book, written in 1976 and the winner of the Pulitzer This is just an excellent and highly readable account of the period leading up to the Civil War. It is a political history of the country during that period; it doesn't cover social, cultural or economic developments except as they bear upon the subject matter. In the last few years, a number of Southerners have asserted that the Civil War was not really fought over the issue of slavery, but rather over states' rights issues, tariffs, etc. This book, written in 1976 and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize back then, makes an overwhelmingly compelling case that this is wrong, that slavery was not only the most important issue leading to the war, but in fact the only issue.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin

    focuses more on nationalism vs. sectionalism. I would put more emphasis on either ideology or material economic factors driving the wedge. The focus is mostly on the political arena in congress and sausage making legislation while important on the surface politics is moved by sentiments of populations which in turn is driven by the material factors that go into such sentiments. So while this book puts the headlines in congress and events in general its flaw is it doesn't go deep into the pressur focuses more on nationalism vs. sectionalism. I would put more emphasis on either ideology or material economic factors driving the wedge. The focus is mostly on the political arena in congress and sausage making legislation while important on the surface politics is moved by sentiments of populations which in turn is driven by the material factors that go into such sentiments. So while this book puts the headlines in congress and events in general its flaw is it doesn't go deep into the pressures driving it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Hana

    Reading Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner has reminded me of all the gaps in my knowledge of this critical period in U.S. history. This looks like a splendid overview of key events in the years just before the war. Reading Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner has reminded me of all the gaps in my knowledge of this critical period in U.S. history. This looks like a splendid overview of key events in the years just before the war.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    This is an extremely well-written book about the 1850's and the issues that led up to the Civil War. The secession of the South was about far more than the issue of slavery. In fact, even the issue of slavery was about more than slavery. Potter lays out the major happenings of the 1850's and how each one led to the distrust of the Union by the Southern States. For example, when the United States won the Mexican American War in 1848, we took over a lot of territory held originally by Mexico (Calif This is an extremely well-written book about the 1850's and the issues that led up to the Civil War. The secession of the South was about far more than the issue of slavery. In fact, even the issue of slavery was about more than slavery. Potter lays out the major happenings of the 1850's and how each one led to the distrust of the Union by the Southern States. For example, when the United States won the Mexican American War in 1848, we took over a lot of territory held originally by Mexico (California, New Mexico, Arizona). In the aftermath there was much argument about whether the territories would permit slavery or not. The politicians of the Southern States argued that this was a states' right issue and that the people of the territories should decide. The politicians and leaders in the Northern States wanted Congress to pass laws prohibiting slavery in the territories but allowing the people to vote on whether they wanted to be a free or slave state when they submitted for statehood. This was, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to outlaw slavery in the new states. By prohibiting slavery in the territories there would be no slavery supporters to vote for slavery when applying for statehood. While this seems to be about slavery, slavery actually plays a nominal role in this argument. For one thing, according to Potter, very few slave owners were going to move to the new territories because they were not conducive to using slaves to farm the crops. For another, the argument was really about how much power the central government would have. Remember that at this time in our history, states had much more power than they do now, and the politicians in those states did not want to relinquish it. Potter uses the other historical high points of the 1850's to show how this battle over states rights, the breakup of the Whig party, the internal fracturing of the Democratic Party, the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, etc. each contributed another drop to the cauldron of disunion until it overflowed in Civil War.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Blanks

    Very well researched and clearly written. Its sometimes contrarian assertions are well supported, but it nevertheless suffers when it tries to be too objective regarding the white Southern perspective. It would be too much to say this book apologizes for the South, but in (otherwise appropriately) correcting the dominant narrative about the beneficence of the North, the narrative misses the day to day life in the South that informed the ‘Great Man’ politics in which this book relies. Written mor Very well researched and clearly written. Its sometimes contrarian assertions are well supported, but it nevertheless suffers when it tries to be too objective regarding the white Southern perspective. It would be too much to say this book apologizes for the South, but in (otherwise appropriately) correcting the dominant narrative about the beneficence of the North, the narrative misses the day to day life in the South that informed the ‘Great Man’ politics in which this book relies. Written more than 40 years ago, it is not conservative in the way that today’s whitewashing of the antebellum South tends to operate, but at the same time a reader of histories written in the decades since will notice the conspicuous dearth of voices of those whose bondage was at the core of the coming conflict. All that said, it’s a remarkable work and I learned a great deal from it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Donna

    This historic account of the state of the Union in the years prior to the Civil War focuses primarily on the slavery question--how matters were compromised and how the compromises broke down. It was written in the 1960s, so some of the theses younger historians have developed are not represented. It is an interesting book in that Lincoln plays so little a part in the story (as is correct), but also because Potter doesn't appear to be a big fan of Lincoln generally (he seems to dismiss Lincoln's This historic account of the state of the Union in the years prior to the Civil War focuses primarily on the slavery question--how matters were compromised and how the compromises broke down. It was written in the 1960s, so some of the theses younger historians have developed are not represented. It is an interesting book in that Lincoln plays so little a part in the story (as is correct), but also because Potter doesn't appear to be a big fan of Lincoln generally (he seems to dismiss Lincoln's role in the 1858 senatorial debates as not that important. Well worth reading, but not the entire story of the period.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bronwyn Echols

    Brilliant, subtle, scholarly, an extraordinary work of history.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    The North and the South forgot how to talk to one another. Deep dive into antebellum politics.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Silverman

    This is an outstanding history of the 13 years leading to the American Civil War. The focus is heavily on the political maneuvering on the part of congress and presidents, but social-cultural factors are attended to as well. I found it both brilliant and riveting. There are too many ways in which the polarization of the country in the 1850s have distressing parallels today, but these only add to the strong interest of this book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    I was looking for a good overview of the period between James K. Polk's presidency and the beginning of the Civil War, and this was it. Written in the early 70s by David Potter and published by his estate in 1976, it provides a solid history of the fight over slavery in the new territories, Dred Scott, the transformations of the Democratic and Republican parties, and Southern efforts that began it's move toward secession. In fact, one of the most revealing aspects of the book was the inclusion o I was looking for a good overview of the period between James K. Polk's presidency and the beginning of the Civil War, and this was it. Written in the early 70s by David Potter and published by his estate in 1976, it provides a solid history of the fight over slavery in the new territories, Dred Scott, the transformations of the Democratic and Republican parties, and Southern efforts that began it's move toward secession. In fact, one of the most revealing aspects of the book was the inclusion of excerpts from the Congressional Globe, which was the predecessor to the current Congressional Record. In it, the words of Southern congressmen clearly articulate their pro-slavery views and their use of slavery as the primary cause of eventual Southern secession.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Michael A

    This book is an extremely political take on the events leading up to the first shots of the Civil War starting with President Polk's all too successful imperialist grab for Mexican land in 1846-1847. It's so political in its focus that it mentions slaves as actual people barely at all and, rather, focuses on political events related to slavery in the abstract almost every time it can (everything surrounding the admission of Kansas as a territory, Dred Scott, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and so on). This book is an extremely political take on the events leading up to the first shots of the Civil War starting with President Polk's all too successful imperialist grab for Mexican land in 1846-1847. It's so political in its focus that it mentions slaves as actual people barely at all and, rather, focuses on political events related to slavery in the abstract almost every time it can (everything surrounding the admission of Kansas as a territory, Dred Scott, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and so on). This makes the reading come off a bit "bloodless" or some such adjective. I felt it was so dry, abstract, and so narrow that it leaves a lot of gaping holes in other significant areas -- cultural history, economic trends at the time, military history, and gender/social history for a start. Consequently, I would not recommend this as your first reading on the historical time period here. However, I do think it does a great job of filling in lots of little gaps present in the larger Oxford surveys that I have been reading recently about the political situation of the time. You get a much better sense of why the Mexican War led to the Civil War and the events marking the breakdown of the great parties of the Second Party Era that held the nation together uncomfortably over about 30 years. My final verdict -- a great resource for those of us interested in political antebellum history but definitely a bit too dense and dry at times. Read it slowly and take notes along the way for best retention. Its approach probably works best in combination with a number of other books that approach this time period from different historical foci. Now I have only two left on the list: "Battle Cry of Freedom" and Eric Foner's "Reconstruction" -- after those two I will start finding books dealing with much narrower historical topics and events before moving on to the "Modern American" phase of the project (1870s - today).

  18. 4 out of 5

    Dylan

    Good writing, terrible coverage, doesn't live up to the title. 300 pages in and the totally myopic focus on Congressional political wrangling has just made this impossible to finish for me. Well written but with little discussion of culture and zero discussion of economics or everyday life. Despite the title, this is nothing close to a comprehensive account of the era. Read only as a supplement to other works.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Greg Boles

    A masterpiece of historical scholarship and beautiful writing...

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mike H

    Even as early as the 1960s, the field of literature on the origins of the Civil War was crowded. Nevertheless, David Potter has produced a volume that stands atop all that has come before it and continues to hold incredible relevance to the present day. Through a detailed political analysis, Potter traces how the United States stood united in nationalistic fervor in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. The treaty resolving the war ironically unleashed latent sectional tension regarding h Even as early as the 1960s, the field of literature on the origins of the Civil War was crowded. Nevertheless, David Potter has produced a volume that stands atop all that has come before it and continues to hold incredible relevance to the present day. Through a detailed political analysis, Potter traces how the United States stood united in nationalistic fervor in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. The treaty resolving the war ironically unleashed latent sectional tension regarding how to govern the newly squired Mexican territory, which sent the United States on an arduous journey down a path that ended in Civil War. Although this transition may seem either obvious or somewhat overstated in hindsight, Potter deftly shows that this journey from nationalism to sectional war was a process – a slow erosion, rather than a sharp break – in the political institutions that bound the country together. Rather than seeking to blame a single party or event, Potter focuses on the process, crafting a rich, understandable answer to the question of why the nation went to war with itself. Potter earned his Ph.D. in 1940, going on to teach history at Yale and Stanford as a specialist in the American South and the history of women. His numerous books have contributed much to the field. Works such as Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1942) and People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (1954) are still continually cited as key works. The Impending Crisis was his final work, completed posthumously. The final two chapters were composed by his colleague, Don E. Fehrenbacher. This is arguably one of the few weaknesses of the book – the tone and style of the final two chapters are clearly the work of another author. Yet it is not meant as a slight to Fehrenbacher's work to say that his final two chapters do not hold up to the monumental standards set by Potter's masterful prose. Potter treats the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo as a key turning point for the nation. He presents the image of a United States that is truly united in nationalistic exuberance as manifest destiny spreads the nation across the continent. Although some general disagreements existed between the sections, most of the conflict was between the two political parties, both of which were bisectional. Yet the gain of new territory opened a Pandora’s Box for the United States by forcing questions of whether or not these areas would support slavery. This fundamental question started a long process of transformation, by which the Whigs shattered into fragments until the northern-based Republican Party formed. Similarly, the Democratic Party’s center of power grew in the South until it split as well, many of its alienated northerners joining the Republicans. Potter identifies four main options for handling slavery in the new territory: The Wilmont Proviso consisted of total exclusion. James Buchanan offered the extension of the Missouri Compromise line. Lewis Cass proposed an intentionally vague definition of popular sovereignty. Finally, Calhoun argued for unlimited slavery based on a constitutional argument of limited federal power. Potter emphasizes that each section habitually misconstrued what these options truly meant. For example, many southerners assumed the Wilmont Proviso was part of a larger attempt to destroy southern society or incite a servile war. Similarly, some northerners feared that the Southern end-game was to spread slavery across the continent and restrict free labor. Each side had sufficient reason for these beliefs, and may not have been far off the mark, even if their justifiable fear grew into unrealistic hysteria. Despite this growing tension, Potter emphasizes that both sides were united by a strong sense of unionism that bound them together and kept threats of disunion from being taken too seriously. However, the sections were driven further and further apart through divisive events such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which essentially made the settlement of Kansas a competition between pro-slavery and antislavery groups. Ironically, very few slaves existed in Kansas, yet the issue of slavery was fought there most ferociously, to the point of violence. The Dred Scott decision poured more fuel on the fire, bolstering theories of a slave power conspiracy. Potter's analysis here is especially insightful, arguing that the justices in this case were so legalistic that they elevated the letter of the constitution above basic American values. The net effect of the decision was to make slavery the default national state and make freedom a local – and thus limited – anomaly. John Brown's raid receives an equal quality of analysis and Potter's narration of the events is gripping. In navigating the difficulties of ascertaining the truth of Brown’s raid, Potter rightly asserts that what matters is not what actually happened, but what Americans across the nation thought had happened. Thus, the role of propaganda, journalism, and the habit of believing the worst about the opposing section each contributed to the erosion of unionism. Potter focuses almost entirely on the political aspects of the growing division, which is at its best in his discussion of the Democratic Convention of 1860. He demonstrates how finally, after years of bitter sectional tension, the party finally split into factions. Potter's analysis consists of a careful consideration of many interlocking factors, yet he places primacy on the highly charged emotional atmosphere. With a noted lack of communication and self-imposed propagandizing, both sections based their view of one another on their own assumptions and misunderstandings, and thus came to see each other as cartoonish, exaggerated caricatures of their true selves. The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln did indeed provide the trigger for secession, but Potter insists that it first created a crisis within the South regarding how to proceed. He presents the decision to secede as less of an organized event than an unplanned stumble. However, the speed with which the dominoes of the lower South fell suggests that many states had been ready to secede for some time and simply did not want to be the first to cross that line. The North, on the other hand, tended to view the secession crisis as the South merely “having another temper tantrum” (517). Fehrenbacher's final chapters draw attention to the fact that the Union's decision making was at this stage not guided by a concern over slavery but a concern over secession. This is a key distinction. This work demonstrates that although the Civil War was clearly fought over slavery, the catalyst for initiation was the political issue of secession. Political issues dominate this work. It can easily be critiqued for lacking coverage of social history, yet that is not the book that Potter set out to write and is thus an unfair critique. In terms of handling the complicated, shifting political relationships, it is difficult to imagine that a more admirable account could be written. It may be a cliché to say that the origins of the Civil War are complex. Yet Potter digs in and explores what the details of those complexities are, and why they came to be. He ultimately presents a gripping story of the erosion of national unity as a result of continual agitation of whether or not the expansion of American territory would allow the spread of chattel servitude. His work is not only well-researched and insightful, but it is also emotional and powerful in a way that few histories are. Already past its fiftieth anniversary, it is likely to stay relevant and authoritative for the foreseeable future.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    Years ago I cracked open a very thick book about the Civil War and found myself perplexed when it just jumped in right at the beginning of the fighting. "But how did we get here?" I wanted to know. I knew from history class the causes of the Civil War were arguments over slavery and state's rights, but how exactly did the North and South go from compromising to killing on a battlefield? When I found an old copy of David Potter's The Impending Crisis at a used book sale, it turned out to be exact Years ago I cracked open a very thick book about the Civil War and found myself perplexed when it just jumped in right at the beginning of the fighting. "But how did we get here?" I wanted to know. I knew from history class the causes of the Civil War were arguments over slavery and state's rights, but how exactly did the North and South go from compromising to killing on a battlefield? When I found an old copy of David Potter's The Impending Crisis at a used book sale, it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. This book starts in the 1840s and details the legislative and political activity in America all the way through 1861, ending with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. It discusses how during that time a series of events led to hardening of the sectionalism present since the founding of America into an uncompromisable political divide between North and South. This book is primarily a political history. The majority of the text dedicated to activity in Congress, with some social history sprinkled into add context. Potter is a very dynamic writer, and he frames each element (the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, etc) so that you never forget the bloody climax we are building towards. Potter also never looses sight of the true source of conflict - protection of slavery in the South - when recounting all the various proxy battles in Congress on territorial issues. The politicking and legislative gridlock are uncomfortably familiar to a modern reader, which can be jarring as over it all hangs the specter of profound moral evil. It's extremely thought-provoking, especially since we still feel the consequences in modern America. Overall, I enjoyed this book very much and I learned an enormous amount. I took one star off for a couple of reasons. First, the beginning is a little disorienting as the book assumes the reader has detailed knowledge of American politics in the 1840s. I don't, so it took some time to get into it. The chapter on the Dred Scott Decision was also dense with nitpicky legal arguments, which I personally found pretty tedious. The second and more important criticism I have is that for a book about slavery, the viewpoint of Black people is conspicuously absent. This book is primarily concerned with arguments between White people - specifically White men - about slavery. Apart from some quotes by Frederick Douglass, people actually affected by slavery don't get a voice. As a political history, this makes a certain amount of sense given only White men could vote or hold office at time. From the perspective of 2020, however, a pretty huge piece of the picture is missing.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rob Melich

    I finished this amazing book minutes after the announcement of the completion of the Mueller report. The timing was appropriate. (Is this 2019 investigation the Dred Scott decision of our times? Maybe?) I read a lot of history covering all generations and types. This is the best American history book I've read to date. It is a challenging read because it covers all elements of antebellum America: economic, cultural, political, legal and constitutional, and biographical. The depth of analysis and I finished this amazing book minutes after the announcement of the completion of the Mueller report. The timing was appropriate. (Is this 2019 investigation the Dred Scott decision of our times? Maybe?) I read a lot of history covering all generations and types. This is the best American history book I've read to date. It is a challenging read because it covers all elements of antebellum America: economic, cultural, political, legal and constitutional, and biographical. The depth of analysis and the extensive use of data to support claims made throughout make it unique, and at times slow reading (but well worth it). Anyone who has interest in the causes of the Civil War and want context around sectionalism, slavery, Dred Scott, slave rebellions (John Brown), the presidency, tariffs, and so much more will come away well informed. The lesson I learned is that the roots of the 2019 American divisions go back to our founding and the founders (mostly slave holders) inability to resolve the paradox of universal suffrage while maintaining an economic system derived from slave and indentured (low cost) labor. This book should be the only text needed for both a high school and college American history, political science, and economics course. It would be the only book needed to teach these topics well.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Paul Huffman

    Overall an engrossing and thorough review of the conditions and issues which led up to the U.S. Civil War. This is a topic that is discussed a lot, and for which there are a lot of opinions. Dr. Potter does not let himself be lured into a simple and potentially newsworthy answer while providing a plainly stated and logical answer to that question early on. He then walks through the events and personalities of the country in the period preceding the civil war, and illustrates how the underlying s Overall an engrossing and thorough review of the conditions and issues which led up to the U.S. Civil War. This is a topic that is discussed a lot, and for which there are a lot of opinions. Dr. Potter does not let himself be lured into a simple and potentially newsworthy answer while providing a plainly stated and logical answer to that question early on. He then walks through the events and personalities of the country in the period preceding the civil war, and illustrates how the underlying structural conflicts in the founding of the United States made some event such as the civil war almost inevitable. The footnoting is extensive and provides additional references for the dedicated historian and provided additional details and anecdotes to provide the full picture of events, personalities and positions. I can't say this is an easy read as it's written in a somewhat academic manner, however after getting into Dr. Potter's style and syntax, it really picked up. If you're looking for a comprehensive history of the events and issues leading to the Civil War, this is it.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Phil Gavenda

    I read this as an assigned book for an undergraduate American History course on "The Coming of the Civil War" in 1987. I was told it was a fascinating course; I was skeptical, but it turned out to be true. And "The Impending Crisis" was one reason I ended up going to Graduate school in US History; it turned what one might have felt to be a boring topic into a fascinating read. It's been over thirty years and I can't tell you many details from it, but I recall it being an extraordinary good read I read this as an assigned book for an undergraduate American History course on "The Coming of the Civil War" in 1987. I was told it was a fascinating course; I was skeptical, but it turned out to be true. And "The Impending Crisis" was one reason I ended up going to Graduate school in US History; it turned what one might have felt to be a boring topic into a fascinating read. It's been over thirty years and I can't tell you many details from it, but I recall it being an extraordinary good read as well as compelling narrative of the chain of events leading up to the secession crisis and Civil War, starting (mostly) with the end of the war with Mexico. No spoilers here; you'll have to read it to find out what happens to the U.S. in 1861.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Pedro

    I would not recommend this book for people passively interested in antebellum America. It's heavy. That said, it's an interesting dive into pre-Civil War America. I've read enough books about this Civil War at this point (both from the perspective of Northern and Southern historians) that to me there's no mistaking why that war was started - the disgraceful "peculiar institution", slavery. It's interesting to see this nation full of people who "speak the same language, but don't understand each I would not recommend this book for people passively interested in antebellum America. It's heavy. That said, it's an interesting dive into pre-Civil War America. I've read enough books about this Civil War at this point (both from the perspective of Northern and Southern historians) that to me there's no mistaking why that war was started - the disgraceful "peculiar institution", slavery. It's interesting to see this nation full of people who "speak the same language, but don't understand each other" focus inward on their selfishness, and turn towards their perceived area and political party "needs" instead of advancing the nation in the right direction. Similarities to modern times about in that regard. *sigh*

  26. 4 out of 5

    David

    A good history of the lead-up to the civil war. The writing was OK but not excellent. I would recommend among the books to read about this era. I was towards the end of Revolutions podcast’s season in the revolutions of 1848 while reading this book, so I found the connections in it between some people’s support for slavery and liberal revolution in European very interesting.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Joe Hodes

    This is an outstanding history of the build-up to the American Civil War. It has great currency with our time and its divisions. Looking back, the Civil War seems inevitable, but a combination of events and personalities failed to prevent it while others hastened it, and it was by no means unavoidable. Well worthy of the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded in 1977.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Peter Shonka

    The best history of the United States covering the period from the end of the war with Mexico in 1848 and the beginning of the Civil War. Highly recommend this book for the history buff who wants to learn the many facets of the events leading up to succession of the lower south and the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Alex Orr

    A terriffic, deep-dive into the immediate social and political underpinnings and events leading up to the Civil War. Despite often being a very dense, exhaustively researched, and frequently deep-in-the-weeds book it also manages to function as a very compelling and highly readable work of American history.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    This is a little dry, and very specialized. But if you like history, and the civil war, this is very good. I quit page 448, after Lincoln was elected, as I want to learn more about the run up to the war. But I may go back and read the rest at some point.

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