A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History ed. by Gary W. Gallagher and Rachel A. Shelden (review)
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A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History. Edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Rachel A. Shelden. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012. Pp. 272. $40.00 cloth; $40.00 e-book)

This collection of essays challenges prevailing views of nineteenth-century politics by questioning the certainties that populate the morally charged historiography of the Civil War era. The editors unabashedly endorse a “revival of traditional American political history” in the spirit of Michael F. Holt, the muse who inspires these pages (p. 3). The volume contains work on parties, political elites, and political culture. Through contributions that are heavily researched and ably argued, the authors seek to reassess this intensively chronicled era, whether by reevaluating a critical election or a leader’s performance.

A detailed appreciation of how politics functioned at both the individual and party levels constitutes the overall contribution of this book. These essays do not so much provide new “directions” for political historians as new interpretations of classic debates, arrived at by tried-and-true methods. Mark E. Neely Jr.’s piece, in its recognition of violence as a vital component of the second party system, is unique in relying on culturally thick description to understand politics. Similarly, Jean H. Baker is alone in defining “the political” expansively enough to include women. For most of the essays, the boundaries of the political correspond roughly to those of the legislative hall or, in Rachel A. Shelden’s nuanced and creative approach, the boardinghouses where legislators lived.

The contributors do precisely what mid-nineteenth-century conservatives and Unionists urged—they restrain the passions and [End Page 246] take a sober second thought regarding sectionalism. By stressing contingency and deemphasizing divisions such as those over race and slavery, the essays challenge the standard trajectory of the coming of the Civil War and its aftermath by reconsidering the hardly straightforward tradeoff between partisanship and sectionalism. Party loyalty, for example, often trumped sectionalism, and acrimony over race and slavery were not always the central determinants of party realignment (Daniel W. Crofts, Sean Nalty, J. Mills Thornton, and Erik B. Alexander). Personal and domestic relationships among congressmen in particular alleviated sectional tensions (Shelden). William W. Freehling contends that secession cannot be understood without appreciating that the cry of states’ rights transcended empty rhetoric. In terms of leadership, Lincoln may not have been as heroic as historians wish (William J. Cooper), while Grant was not quite the lackluster president he is often made out to be (Brooks D. Simpson). A return to leadership and parties as the vehicles for exploring nineteenth-century politics should be welcomed by all political historians, and this volume shows that the field continues to yield riches.

While these essays do not wrench the weighty pendulum of Civil War historiography back to arguments about needless war, they do have the subtle effect of questioning the intractability of divisions such as race and sectionalism and the inevitability of the war itself. Stressing that partisanship stubbornly endured does not explain how sectionalism ultimately triumphed over intersectional political loyalties. Noting that Lincoln failed to live up to the legacy of Henry Clay during the secession crisis implies that the Great Compromiser could have avoided war. These essays excel in a deeply contextualized and sourced rendering of nineteenth-century politics, yet they do not explain why the war came, why some political divisions were in fact insurmountable, and why the deep scars of war lingered.

In short, maintaining that missed opportunities could have tamped down sectionalism while Reconstruction was the only outcome among impossible alternatives suggests a neoconsensus view of [End Page 247] the Civil War era. Even though Lincolnian exceptionalism does not haunt these pages, the essays collectively adhere to the Great Emancipator’s advice by showing charity for all. By forcing historians to revisit orthodoxies regarding the war and Reconstruction and in more broadly encouraging historians to fully appreciate the intricacies of nineteenth-century politics, this volume testifies to the vibrancy of political history and its enduring relevance.

Joshua A. Lynn

Joshua A. Lynn is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He...