- Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War
The advent a generation ago of the New Political History, which aimed to take the focus off the opinions of party elites and emphasize the behavior of voters, dealt a stunning blow to the study of Civil War politics. The essential insights of that new interpretive framework for American political history—party "systems," "critical" elections with their subsequent voter "realignments," and the "ethnocultural thesis" on voting behavior in the nineteenth century—left Civil War politics begging. The Civil War party "system," pitting Republicans against Democrats, was established before the war and persisted long afterward. The "critical" election that realigned the voters occurred before the war, in 1856. And the "ethnocultural thesis," stressing religion and ethnicity as determinants of voting behavior, proved not plausibly applicable to the issues that arose in wartime elections. Strangely, the greatest political upheaval of the whole century became a subject of only minor interest to political historians.
The collapse of the New Political History in recent times has helped bring new life to the political history of the Civil War, and Michael S. Green's book stands as proof of the renewed interest in the subject. He set as his ambitious task, filling in the great gap in the history of the Republican party left by Eric Foner's Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (1970), which ended in 1860, and Foner's Reconstruction, 1863-1877: America's Unfinished Revolution (1988), which resumed the party's history only with Reconstruction issues and mostly after war's end.
"What follows," Green says in his preface, "may strike some as fitting the mold [End Page 207] of traditional history, and some may believe that mold is an appropriate word to describe traditional history" (xii). Perhaps, but most readers of Civil War History are more likely to think of political history as a perennial interest that can be approached by different methods, some of them traditional. Green's method is quite traditional. He has surveyed manuscript collections of the correspondence of major political leaders of the era, read newspapers, and consulted published secondary sources for the period. He weaves the information gleaned from these together, relying on frequent quotations of a sentence or two (the appearance of a lengthy bloc quotation near the end comes as a most surprising change of rhythm in the book's seamless prose). The Republican party depicted in the book, therefore, is the leaders, and the major ones at that. The great masses of people who voted Republican, many of whom likely called themselves Republicans, go substantially without examination, as though the New Political History had never existed.
This approach seems symptomatic of the nature of the recovery of Civil War political history: it is marked by emphasis on ideology, not elections. Freedom, Union, and Power lacks an index entry for elections, and though Chapter 8 deals with the presidential election of 1864, popular voting totals are not dealt with. Only the electoral college total for 1864 and a handful of congressional votes on key measures put in appearances for the book. Therefore, one recovers little sense of calculation on the part of the politicians whose ideas are described in the book, and political history without calculation lacks a sense of suspense, contingency, and reality.
To be sure, the ideology of the Republican party is an important subject, but even a study limited to ideology must put some emphasis on method. For one thing, it is difficult to recover the sharp outlines of a party's ideology without contrasting it with the beliefs of the opposition. And serious consideration must be given always to calculation, that is, to the context in which the politicians made the statements that historians assemble and label as ideologies. Without such systematic approach, historians can run into problems. Green argues that the ideology of the Republican party during the war can be summed up as...