- The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America
The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath seems certain to become essential reading on the era of good feelings and the origins of the second-party system. Forbes places slavery at the center not only of the Missouri Crisis but also of the political transformation of antebellum America. He thereby challenges accounts, whether national myths or recent histories, that submerge slavery beneath issues of personality, politics, and economics. He shows that the positions taken and the arguments advanced during the Missouri crisis, particularly by opponents of congressional efforts to restrict slavery, laid the foundations for the political, intellectual, and institutional structures of the next three decades. He sees the Missouri Crisis as "our most valuable text" for "understanding the meaning of slavery in America" (2).
The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath is an extremely rich and complex work. Most of the book covers the fifteen years from the accession of James Monroe to the presidency in 1817 to the conclusion of the Nullification Crisis in 1833. The two central, national figures in this account are Monroe and Martin Van Buren. The former is presented as unfairly maligned by historians, and the latter as unduly championed. But Forbes' focus is not simply on the national level; instead, it constantly shifts in intriguing ways. At times, he details the backroom machinations of politicians in Albany, Charleston, Philadelphia, Richmond, or Washington or examines the complex positions of pamphleteers, orators, and organizers in both North and South. At other times, he discusses the consequences and implications of these acts and works in the broadest imaginable terms, reaching to the foundations of our understanding of the antebellum era.
This book is not without problems. There are surprising absences in the secondary source reading. Given that the era of good feelings has not been an especially dynamic historical field in recent years, the failure to address, or at least acknowledge, significant books and articles is unsettling. At times, moreover, the primary sources are stretched nearly to the breaking point to make his case. Although Forbes is generally careful to use such language as "presumably" or "conceivably" (65, 72), in some sections, the stretching is frequent and integral, particularly for his rehabilitation of Monroe. But the larger problems are in the gap between the micro- and macro-level analysis. Forbes' choices about what issues or events deserve close scrutiny are not always well explained. He provides detailed accounts of Virginia in one chapter, Pennsylvania in another, and South Carolina in a third, but he does not always explain why these states are privileged above others. The attempt to connect the particular to the general is one of the most interesting methodological components of this book, but it is not always successful.
As important and intriguing as this book is, it is not really interdisciplinary. [End Page 135] Though often focused on politics, Forbes does not approach the material as a political scientist or theorist. Though often attuned to language, he does not rely upon the analysis or the jargon of literary critics. Instead, he pulls together a variety of approaches from the discipline of history—political, intellectual, social, and cultural—into a generally unified and certainly effective whole.