Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Booknotes: Looming Civil War

New Arrival:
Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future
  by Jason Phillips (Oxford UP, 2018).

In his new book Looming Civil War, historian Jason Phillips asks a question not often considered at length, namely "(h)ow did Americans imagine the Civil War before it happened?" Of course, this assumes that a sizable spectrum of citizens not only believed that some great moment of national strife was either possible, probable, or inevitable in the near future but also put a great deal of deep thought into the matter. Apparently, that was very much true for many antebellum Americans. According to Phillips, the cataclysmic event was foreseen and discussed "in novels, prophecies, dreams, diaries, speeches, and newspapers decades before the first shots at Fort Sumter." Those that did write about it considered all manner of manifestations, among them "a frontier filibuster, an economic clash between free and slave labor, a race war, a revolution, a war for liberation, and Armageddon."

Innumerable elements of the human condition went into shaping such views and "(r)eading their premonitions reveals how several factors, including race, religion, age, gender, region, and class, shaped what people thought about the future and how they imagined it. Some Americans pictured the future as an open, contested era that they progressed toward and molded with their thoughts and actions. Others saw the future as a closed, predetermined world that approached them and sealed their fate. When the war began, these opposing temporalities informed how Americans grasped and waged the conflict."

More from the description: "In this creative history, Jason Phillips explains how the expectations of a host of characters-generals, politicians, radicals, citizens, and slaves-affected how people understood the unfolding drama and acted when the future became present. He reconsiders the war's origins without looking at sources using hindsight, that is, without considering what caused the cataclysm and whether it was inevitable. As a result, Phillips dispels a popular myth that all Americans thought the Civil War would be short and glorious at the outset, a ninety-day affair full of fun and adventure." In the end, the Civil War "changed more than America's future; it transformed how Americans imagined the future and how Americans have thought about the future ever since." Interesting.

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