- The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 by Adam I. P. Smith
With politicians today outdoing one another regarding who is more "conservative," it should come as no surprise that political actors sparred over that designation in the past. Everyone in the Civil War era, it seemed, wanted to be regarded as conservative. Democrats like Stephen Douglas aspired to conserve the racial and gender hierarchies bequeathed by Andrew Jackson. Republicans like Abraham Lincoln countered that gradually ending slavery was true conservatism. Nativist and anti-Catholic Know-Nothings posed as the real conservatives, as did Whigs, even as they failed to conserve their own party. Everyone promised to conserve something, whether the Union, social order, or white supremacy.
In The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865, Adam I. P. Smith underscores that conservatism was a coveted and contested category in the Civil War North, with the competition over who could lay claim to conservatism reflecting the [End Page 707] fact that most white northerners were conservatives. Smith detects a convergence in northern political culture, whereby a conservative disposition shaped white northerners' reactions to the sectional crisis, war, and emancipation. Conservatism, Smith concludes, turned white northerners into slavery's opponents. This intuitively conservative people found a scapegoat for antebellum America's anarchy—the slave power. The majority of white northerners swung against the slave power because it undermined a free society's orderly development and imperiled their already perfect republic. The conflation of lawlessness and disorder with the slave power facilitated a conservative, antislavery consensus and a resolution to fight and emancipate to restore order and defend republicanism. Defining Civil War era conservatism, Smith redefines antislavery.
Conservatism is tricky for historians. More a creature of context than other political persuasions, because it is enlisted to preserve a specific present, conservatism demands rigorous historicizing, mitigating against its deployment as a broad historical category. Even as he acknowledges their differences, Smith corrals a dizzying cast of "conservatives," including Copperhead Clement Vallandigham, Republican Horace Greeley, reformer Dorothea Dix, and crusty elitists like Sidney George Fisher. He lumps together ideological liberals with those who jettisoned the social contract and natural rights tradition. Smith helps readers make sense of this roster by articulating a common basis to their conservatism. He locates conservatism midway between a simple rhetorical ploy and a full-blown ideology by treating it as a loose-fitting disposition.
While this carefully defined conservative temperament lends coherence to Smith's narrative, dispositional conservatism sometimes seems a low threshold for political convergence between northern Democrats and Republicans. Even if their conservatism itself was not ideological, Republicans and Democrats had ideologically distinct visions of an ideal republic worth preserving. Readers will be skeptical when Smith minimizes the differences between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Smith contends that the parties converged on popular sovereignty as an antislavery tool specifically and in defending free labor generally. Yet convergence would be harder to find if northern Democrats were restored to their actual context, that of political and cultural affinity with white southerners and their conservatism. Like many studies of Civil War politics, this work discusses only one section. Yet northern Democrats usually had more in common with southern Democrats as fellow partisans and fellow conservatives. Smith's convincing argument for conservatism's pervasiveness in the free states, which relies on a rich and eclectic array of archival and [End Page 708] print sources by politicians, religious leaders, and public intellectuals, will spur subsequent exploration of the distinctions among conservatives.
A conservative worldview includes culture. Conservatives often wish to perpetuate normative notions of race relations, gender roles, sexuality, and domesticity, in addition to political economy. Smith does consider conservatives' emotional appeals and their social and cultural concerns, noting, for instance, that they blamed divorce and other social ills on the slave power's corrosive morality. He also determines that conservatives evinced a distinct manhood, characterized by an embrace of...