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280CIVIL WAR HISTORY major ingredient missing here are illustrations,- but to have included them would have sent the cost of the set up to another and unappealing level. As it is now, this compilation is a bargain for anyone with a real interest in America's military past. James I. Robertson Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University The Opening ofAmerican Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion. By Robert H. Wiebe. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. Pp. xv, 427. $25.00.) Robert H. Wiebe's earlier studies have established a number of his metaphors—a segmented society, island communities, a late nineteenthcentury search for order—as virtual matters of fact. He now reaches new heights of abstraction in going back to an earlier epoch in which traditional "comprehensiveness" was rapidly supplanted by "extensiveness, individualized responsibility, and parallel opportunities" (376). His argument has three stages. Until 1820, an American gentry maintained , both in concept and in fact, a "hierarchical republic" and a "vertical axis" both of federal government over the states and of "notables" over the people. Then between 1820 and 1840, quasi-gentlemen "brokers" or "managers," seeking "to stretch the range of traditional possibilities," instead "transformed them" into, finally, a "new order" that included a "flattened conception of federalism" and an "amorphous," even "formless" society (248-51). It was not altogether formless, however, since a common commitment to progress and to an amicable "parallelism" permitted a multitude of commercial enterprises, religions, professions, families, and would-be reformers, to prosper and grow "side by side." The Civil War? Although Wiebe promises to show it developing "naturally . . . out of the new society" (xiii), ultimately he makes it an aberration , a brief (1857-60) breakdown in parallelism when North and South each saw itself challenged to "grow or die." The epilogue returns the country, until 1900, to the "democratic culture" of parallel segments. Wiebe's wealth of primary quotation may persuade any general reader who can follow his logical construct, confusing though it is as narrative. The initiated will profit from his frequent aperçus, especially in the ingenious chapter on the post-1840 "institutional web." But his general scheme is too abstractly deductive, too lacking either in antecedents or in European comparisons. Did the federal gentry really approximate a traditional aristocracy, or were they, as in England, simply the highest level of commoners? Did they themselves not recognize that, since the American social axis was more horizontal than vertical, the "national pyramid" (29) of 1787 had to be relatively flat? As for the classical republican paradigm with its two-thousand-year history (not at all limited to "gentry"), Wiebe, on the one hand, dismisses it as a "codeword" (18) for the "commonplaces of western political thought" (22) and, on the BOOK REVIEWS281 other, associates its leading concepts with the particular gentlemen in whose papers he finds them. Again, was his post-1840 "society in halves"—a respectably self-reliant upper half and a dependent lower one—indeed a production of the previous generation or, rather, the last stage of a medieval tradition with republican echoes? Whatever the origins of Wiebe's metaphorical abstractions, he implicitly reifies them—"neocolonialism" (18), "a new premise of equality" (165), an "assault on comprehensiveness" (234), and especially parallelism—into autonomous causes. But in what sense can "a new conception of the family" be said to have "laid the groundwork for America's democratic society" (265), particularly when it may well have lagged behind its European counterpart? Somehow everything is squeezable into Wiebe's design; that which isn't, like Southern insistence on slavery not merely for the sake of parallel growth but for the "security and peace" (371) of Southern society, he ignores even when it crops up in a quotation. Wiebe rejects both pathological and teleological interpretations of nineteenth-century American society. But there was, not insignificantly, a Civil War at the high point of the often "brutally" developed, "classriven democracy" (xiv, xv) of those island communities toward which his argument once again ineluctably tends. Rowland Berthoff Washington University The Partisan Imperative: The Dynamics ofAmerican Politics Before the Civil War. By Joel H. Silbey. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 280-281
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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