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346CIVIL WAR HISTORY America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. By Kenneth M. Stampp. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Pp. xii, 388. $29.95.) Not since Bernard DeVoto's work on 1846 as "The Year of Decision" has a major American historian sought to depict the events of a single year as being crucial to the developments of the nation's history. DeVoto's book has become a classic; Stampp's work deserves to be. Stampp's thesis is simple and straightforward: "1857 was probably the year when the North and South reached the political point of no return—when it became well nigh impossible to head off a violent resolution of the differences between them" (viii). While some historians, who have devoted great energy to describing Lincoln's role in the Ft. Sumter crisis of 1861 as crucial to a peaceful or non-peaceful resolution of the secession crisis, might cavil at this, the thrust of the author's argument does much to restore our understanding of the shock many Americans experienced as the events of the year-end unfolded. The author begins his synthesis by showing how Americans perceived, in January of the fateful year, that the crisis of the Union was behind them, that 1856 had been the danger year, and that 1857 promised to be a year of reunification—of growing together again after the excitement of the recent presidential campaign. Stampp begins his explanation of Americans ' sanguineness toward the future by describing the many nondivisive, nonsectional events that were characteristic of and at work in American society. Here we are given the details of the Cunningham-Burdell murder in New York as evidence of the growing urban crime wave. Nativism stalked the whole land, as did a virulent racism. We learn again that disgust with the corruption that pervaded national, state, and local government cut across both party and sectional lines, although the scandals (ranging from the sale of votes in Congress on tariff bills and territorial land grants to the theft of funds from state treasuries to the granting of street railway franchises) were more frequently Northern than Southern in location. The condemnation of Mormon polygamy and of the "Mountain Meadows" massacre of the Fancher wagon train by a mixed force of Mormon militia and Indians knew no sectional boundaries. A second reason for the sense of cautious optimism about the future, as Stampp notes, was the decline in the strength of the Republican party. Stampp is the first major author to incorporate and synthesize the recent studies of William Gienapp, Thomas Holt, and the authors of a number of state-based scholarly articles in his examination of the political process in 1857. Surveying state and local contests, especially the fall elections in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, Stampp concludes that "the Democracy's future looked bright" (257). If the trends established across the North in those fall 1857 elections BOOK REVIEWS347 had continued, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin could have been added to the five Northern states carried by Buchanan in 1856 and, in 1860, "the Democracy would inflict upon the Republicans a crushing defeat" (257). This would have happened, the author suggests, in spite of the Supreme Court's decision in the case Dred Scott v. Sandford. Although the author agrees with Don Fehrenbacher's monumental study of that case and has given us a brilliant synthesis of it, he also notes that the Republicans were seemingly unable to translate Northern dismay with the activist, proslavery opinion of Chief Justice Taney into support at the ballot box. Finally, what promoted antisectional feelings was the commitment of the new national Democratic administration to carrying out a policy that sought to get a clear, fair, and acceptable referendum on the issue of whether or not Kansas would become a slave state. Here again Stampp is at his best in combining his own original research with the most current published research on the Kansas issue. He affirms that the Buchanan administration remained firm in support of the programs of its Kansas territorial governor, Robert J. Walker, well into November. Those policies revolved around the governor's commitment to see...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 346-349
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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