Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s ed. by Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon (review)
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Keywords

Sectionalism, Compromise of 1850, Slavery, Territorial expansion, Kansas

Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s. Edited by Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012. Pp. 231. Cloth, $49.95.)

In Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s, editors Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon have assembled the work of a coterie of scholars who focus on the political travails of the decade before the Civil War through sharply contrasting prisms. This fascinating collection of viewpoints on sectionalism and congressional politics exhibits the continued interest in, and ongoing historiographical differences concerning, politics and Civil War causation. From the Compromise of 1850 to Kansas statehood, each author weighs in on the relative importance of slavery, territorial aggrandizement, and sectionalism in the crisis of the 1850s. Readers will not [End Page 599] find close narrative unity among these essays; the book's real value lies in how these eight scholars disagree on interpreting politics in the decade before the Civil War.

The collection begins with two contrasting interpretations of the Compromise of 1850 and that law's implications for sectional politics. Michael F. Holt surpasses most scholars in his ability to translate labyrinthine political negotiations into clear, coherent narrative; here he provides an alternative explanation of the means by which the compromise passed Congress. Holt argues that northern Democrats and southern Whigs joined together in support of compromise measures because of factional disputes that had created a stalemate in the Thirty-First Congress. A select group of northern Democrats, pledging their support for popular sovereignty in the Mexican Cession, had seized control of the compromise negotiations. Southern Whigs, more moderate on the questions of California statehood and the Texas-New Mexico boundary issue, ended up supporting the northern Democratic agenda. Only with the real threat of war over the Texas-New Mexico boundary, and resolution of ongoing disputes over patronage in the Fillmore administration, did the stalemate dissolve.

Whereas Holt sees an epic political struggle, Paul Finkelman stresses the South's crusade to preserve and extend the boundaries of slavery. The latter interpretation depicts a burgeoning Slave Power in 1850 while the former points to antebellum politics as usual. Finkelman argues that doughfaces appeased southern interests by proffering a "compromise" that yielded to almost every southern demand.

Yet the stakes involved in the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850 becoming law became all too apparent as the nation continued to wrestle with expansion, political upheaval, and the growing northern discontent over slavery. Amy Greenberg offers a condensed version of her work on martial manhood and westward expansion by studying how the two became linked, thereby luring southerners in particular to further the cause of Manifest Destiny in the 1850s. Aggressive territorial expansion not only reflected a cultural strain, but it also proved central to the crises that emerged during the decade itself, as expansion—by force or diplomacy—remained a viable and desirable option. Just as the Compromise of 1850 left unsettled the possibility of expansion, so too did it leave the slavery issue subject to ongoing contention. As Spencer R. Crew argues in his essay on the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the compromisers sought to clarify portions of the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution and the [End Page 600] Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 by providing concrete legislation to protect slave property. Instead, Congress unwittingly provided a platform for African Americans to crusade against the law and slavery itself. Antislavery forces decried the law as an egregious abuse of federal power and an affront to the principle of liberty.

Two essays investigate personalities in Congress during the 1850s. Martin Hershock studies Kinsley Bingham of Michigan and his conversion to Republicanism. By contrasting the Free Soiler Bingham's experience with his more cautious contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, Hershock reveals some of the differences inherent in the formation of the Republican Party. Perhaps no one in Congress took the antislavery clarion call more seriously than Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who threw caution to the wind when speaking against slavery. Brooks Simpson writes on Sumner's infamous speech, "The Crime Against Kansas," and his subsequent caning by South Carolinian Preston Brooks. Bleeding Kansas and...