Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Holt's "The Fate of Their Country"

Every once in a while I feel the need to grab a refresher on the national politics leading up to the Civil War. Michael F. Holt's The Fate of Their Country : Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War is my latest effort in this regard. From what I gather, this slim volume is basically an unannotated distillation of Professor Holt's Political Crisis of the 1850s and The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party : Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. Running at only 127 pages of text, Holt provides a wonderful summary of the territorial debates in Congress, beginning with the Missouri Compromise and moving on through the Compromise of 1850 and ending with the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854).

Holt places partisan politics over mere sectional differences as the primary lead-in to Civil War. When the two can be separated, Whig-Democrat maneuvering for short term political gain at the expense of the fate of the nation is at least as damaging as the increasing split between North and South. His outline of the Janus-faced (Holt's term) political stances of Southern Whigs during much of this period is fascinating. He makes a powerful case. His argument that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was "arguably the most consequential piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress" is compelling. Nicole Etcheson makes much the same argument in her book Bleeding Kansas.

I was unaware of the level of Congressional discord and length of debate over the final demarcation of the western border of Texas. Holt's discussion of the Southerners' primary need to salvage honor/save face over any realistic expectation of the extension of slavery into the territories (a view certainly shared by others) is interesting as well. Overall, I think this book is a great introduction to politics at a national level for the 40 years preceding secession. It makes me wish to want to read Holt's "The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party" (alas, like Joyce's Ulysses, it would likely remain on the shelf as something simply to point at, something you would dearly love to say you have read but are extremely unlikely to actually do so).


  1. His Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party is a much more useful book. The Fate of Their Country is essentially a distillation of Holt's class lecture notes for a course he teaches on the subject, or at least, that's what I've been told. Can't remember who told me - it was in some of my comments, but that section of comments got eaten by a reorg, looks like.

    Short story shorter, Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party is a much, much different book from that of Fate of Their Country. The latter is a real let-down if you encounter it *after* Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party.

  2. Mitch,
    Thanks for your comments. Yeah, I doubt anyone would read this one if they had already consumed "Rise and Fall". I haven't gotten to his "Political Crisis of the 1850s" either. I thought "Fate of Their Country" might be a good Cliff Notes scale primer.


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