This is a fine book that puts the lead-up to America’s Civil War in human terms. Bruce Chadwick presents seven stories of different figures who played roles in the politics of the time. The stories are held together by their effects on James Buchanan’s presidency. The stories alternate with chapters on Buchanan, and it is easy to skip around in the book, reading the chapters that most interest you.
Buchanan must have been the most tone deaf president in history. He refused to believe that many Americans, North and South, saw every political action through the lenses of slavery. He never understood the abolitionist passions behind the fight over Kansas becoming a state. He “ended 1858 the way that he began it, completely blind to the slavery issue that threatened to destroy the United States.” He told the nation that “the slavery crisis that had divided America for years appeared to be over.”Buchanan was focused on expanding the United States. This was a period of American jingoism and manifest destiny. Many Americans held an imperialistic view of the United States that seems foreign today, but is not very far in our past. Buchanan aimed to control the entire western hemisphere, through purchase or annexation of territories and countries, the creation of “protectorates”, and even through military action. Private American citizens tried to take over South American countries and join the United States, as Texas had successfully done. Congress repeatedly turned down Buchanan’s grandest proposals, such as the purchase of Cuba, but he kept pushing his expansionist agenda.
I especially enjoyed the chapter on the Douglas-Lincoln debates. Chadwick provides a sense of what it must have been like to be there. Thousands of visitors arrived in the small town of Ottawa for the first debate. Railroads offered half-price tickets, and reporters slept on hotel lobby floors since the rooms were full. Douglas was the polished, nationally known figure, arriving in an elegant carriage, dressed in a fine suit. Lincoln, in contrast, appeared with unkempt hair and suits that never fit right. Lincoln started his speeches awkwardly, with a shrill voice, but as he continued to speak, his voice became mellow, his gestures dignified.
Of all the stories Chadwick tells, I was the most unfamiliar with the future President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. “He lived a life that a romantic novelist might have invented.” Handsome, fashionable, a forceful and eloquent speaker, he felt Northerners were attacking Southerners on many issues, not just on slavery. His struggles with health issues and his attempts to keep working through the pain are compelling.
It always surprises me to read how similar pre-Civil War politics were to today’s politics. Modern campaigning was emerging: presidential candidates personally campaigned nationwide; they used public opinion polls, dodged questions and dissembled on their positions. The press was unashamedly biased in ways that make criticisms against Fox and MSNBC seem mild. Lincoln and Douglas were different from today’s Washington politicians in one important way: the two fiery speakers were close friends.
Chadwick’s bibliography includes many primary sources, references to a large number of journals and books, and is sprinkled with over seven hundred footnotes. This documentation should help anyone using the book for research. But it is the view into the lives of these important figures in our history that makes the book worth reading.