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THE WRITING OF HISTORY OF THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLAVE POWER INAMERICA John L. Myers No MAJOR PARTICIPANT in the events of the Civil War era undertook the task to write such a comprehensive and lengthy record of those years as Henry Wilson with his History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. One of his recent biographers, Earnest McKay, has characterized Wilson's three volumes as "a gigantic job, for the sheer effort alone, the amassing of more than two thousand pages demands respect" and has maintained that "writers on the causes of the Civil War give Wilson's interpretation of the slave power respectful attention." Writing about the same time, a second biographer, Richard H. Abbott, styles the work as "a monument" to Wilson's life. "Each volume revealed a prodigious amount of research and investigation, and despite Wilson's obvious biases, many of his conclusions and characterizations were drawn with restraint and fairness." Concentrating on how Americans Interpret Their Civil War, Thomas J. Pressly in the 1950s appraised Wilson's volumes as "of particular importance as a detailed statement of the postwar views of Northern antislavery extremists." They were a "biography of what he [Wilson] called the 'slave power.'" Pressly described Wilson as a "representative of the humanitarian idealistic extremists in the North, a group which had given important support to Reconstruction policies of the Republican party."1 Appreciation for and use of History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America has fluctuated. Many contemporaries rated it highly. William Lloyd Garrison spoke of the "fair and comprehensive treatment" of the first volume and "its immense amount of valuable and historical information." A reviewer in the Boston Transcript was impressed with it as an "invaluable manual of facts." Wilson's longtime associate, poet The author expresses his appreciation to the American Philosophical Society and the Research Foundation of SUNY for their financial assistance in support of this research. 'Ernest McKay, Henry Wilson: Practical Radical (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971), p. 220; Richard H. Abbott, Cobbler in Congress: The Life of Henry Wibon, 1812-1875 (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1972), p. 259; Thomas J. Pressly, Americans Interpret Their Civil War (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1954), p. 38-40, 43. SLAVE POWER IN AMERICA145 John Greenleaf Whittier, contended no man was better fitted to collect, arrange, and present the facts of these matters. Writing from the perspective of thirty years after the publication of the first volume, Pennsylvania politician A. K. McClure pronounced the history to be "altogether the best presentation of this great struggle for the overthrow of slavery that has been given by an author." That praise did not continue. By the standards of the pre-World War I generation of professionally trained American historians, Wilson's work had become "partisan and biased" in its views. McKay sees more worth in Wilson's interpretations, but claims the three volumes "do not carry much weight among modern scholars."2 Indeed, modern historians appear not to have used Rise and Fall to the extent one would anticipate. A wise historian would naturally approach cautiously interpretations given to events by one as extensively involved in his era as Wilson was. Anyone today concerned about the causes and proceedings of the Civil War period would also take into account the mass of data unavailable to an author over one hundred years ago, the greater sophistication today of historical interpretation, and the advantages of being divorced from the rancors of the Civil War generation . Yet a modern commentator will find many of the interpretations within Wilson's work worthy of consideration, and the mass of facts about the Civil War era the author provided should not be ignored. An examination of twenty books dealing with aspects of the history of abolition, political events of the 1840s through the 1860s, the South and the Civil War—topics covered in Rise and Fall—reveals a limited use by twentieth-century historians of Wilson's work. Only ten of the books list Rise and Fall in their bibliography, although admittedly several have such short bibliographical notes that they exclude many other important publications...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 144-162
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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