Shearer Davis Bowman considers what Americans thought about "themselves and the world around them" and how those beliefs guided their actions during the secession crisis (12). Organized around different themes of the secession crisis as illustrated through paired biographies of representative Americans, At the Precipice conveys to readers the multiple fractures in mid-nineteenth-century American society and the mood of the country as it plunged into war. Bowman skillfully reads his sources in relation to recent scholarship and offers new insights into the lives of Americans both famous and unrenowned.
Rather than isolate a single source of conflict as the primary drama of secession, Bowman looks at the ways northerners and southerners navigated the major themes of mid-nineteenth-century American history. He begins with a discussion of slavery and slaveholders that devotes considerable attention to the nuances of states' rights constitutional theory. Secessionists' belief in "the legitimate right and absolute liberty of their state conventions" (67) provided a legal pretext for quitting the Union, but their fears of tyranny that motivated secession in the first place stemmed from "the far more populous North's hostility to slavery and the South's way of life" (64).
The book moves on to the importance of honor in American culture. Both northerners and southerners understood the events of the secession crisis through honor's ethical code. For southern whites, abolitionist criticism of slavery "constituted an insult to which men of honor must respond" (105). Yet just as fire-eating secessionists perceived Republican actions as outrages that had to be avenged, northern leaders also factored honor into their calculations of how to navigate the secession crisis. For example, [End Page 95] president-elect Abraham Lincoln worried about "an appearance of weakness" should his party concede to southern demands to allow slavery in federal territory (90).
A potential counterweight to aggrieved sectional honor was attachment to national political parties, institutions that supplemented the federal government in fostering national allegiance. Bowman charts the demise of the second party system through the lives of Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas and four southern politicians. Despite their leadership roles in the Whig and Democratic Parties, each man had a hand in breaking up those parties. The irony is perhaps most evident in the career of Douglas, whose Kansas-Nebraska Act brought down the Whigs and severely weakened the northern wing of the Democrats. Douglas nonetheless devoted himself to finding a compromise between the sections during the interregnum between Lincoln's election and his inauguration. When those efforts failed, Douglas, like his peers, chose the side of his section.
Bowman revisits slavery's meaning to southerners in a chapter on Mississippi planter-politician Jefferson Davis and Richmond merchant Horace Kent. Davis stands for the leaders of the Cotton South, whereas Kent, a Connecticut-born transplant to Virginia, illustrates the engagement with slavery by the middle class of the Upper South. Both men embraced the economic modernization under way in the mid-1800s, yet each also found slavery a profitable investment and a bulwark to regional identity despite its drag on industrial growth and internal improvements.
Lincoln and Henry Waller, a Chicago lawyer and real estate speculator raised by a family of Kentucky slaveholders, occupy center stage in Bowman's discussion of free labor and the North. Like southerners, Lincoln and Waller were enthusiastic modernizers. Bowman calls attention to Lincoln's lengthy career as a railroad lawyer to illustrate his ties to changes that turned the North into a bustling mix of farms and factories enmeshed in global markets. Unlike their relatives in Kentucky, however, Lincoln and Waller came to view free labor as more than simply an economic good. It also served as the organizing principle for a progressive society as northerners understood it.
Although evangelical Christianity receives attention throughout the book, Bowman spends more time on the subject in his treatment of South Carolinian Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard, a rare example of a female planter, and better-known New York antislavery activist and former slave...