Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Five books on the coming of the Civil War

1. The Impending Crisis 1848-1861 by David M. Potter (1976).
Among the classics (including those of Kenneth Stampp), Potter's book is a pretty much undisputed masterpiece.
2. The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861
by William W. Freehling (2007).
Freehling's dense and often brilliant tome picks up where his The Road to Disunion, Vol. 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (1990) left off. Contingency was a popular theme at the time (also heavily influencing Nelson's Lankford's excellent Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road to the Civil War, 1861), and Freehling's book perhaps most interestingly shows how random events and the timing of individual actions influenced the nation's path toward secession and war.
3. Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
by Russell McClintock (2008).
McClintock's book gauges the northern public's reaction to secession by examining the views of a large number of thought leaders across a trio of states representing three major regions [Mid-Atlantic, New England, and Old Northwest]. Even better is the study's demonstration of how partisan party politics and patronage shaped President Lincoln's political options and his strategy for dealing with secession. Nearly a decade on, McClintock may also have to assume a spot on my Civil War one-hit-wonder list, too.
4. The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt (2004).
Holt's slim volume is a wonderfully incisive politico-centric summary of the territorial debates in Congress. His interpretation emphasizes shortsighted partisan political maneuvering and the breakdown of the two-party system as key driving forces behind the breakup of the nation.
5. Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War by Marc Egnal (2009).
I was going to reserve this last spot for a study of the Sumter crisis but really wanted to fit Egnal's book in here somewhere. It contains some really original and well thought out views on underlying regional and national economic forces that moved the sections apart, while also not losing sight of slavery's fundamental place among the forces involved.


  1. McClintock has been a tremendous source for me in my dissertation. The dissertation that evolved into the book is also very much worth checking out.
    Will Hickox

  2. Forty years after it was written, David M. Potter's book remains far and away the single best treatment on the coming of the Civil War. If your interested in the subject, don't hesitate.

    1. I think if I had it to do over again, I would have put Cooper's "We Have the War Upon Us" in there in place of Holt or Egnal. Are you done with blogging?

  3. Potter's book is indispensable.

    Freehling's book is not an easy read but worth the effort.

    1. Freehling was a slog. I picked at it for months.


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