- A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History ed. by Gary W. Gallagher and Rachel A. Shelden
Since publishing his first book, Forging a Majority: The Formation of the Republican Party in Pittsburgh, 1848-1860 (Yale University Press), in 1969, historian Michael Holt has continued to influence scholarship in the field of nineteenth-century political history. His masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (Oxford University Press, 1999), solidified his position as the foremost expert on the Whigs and the dean of nineteenth-century political history. The authors whose essays make up the text of A Political Nation, many of whom studied under or have collaborated with [End Page 211] Michael Holt, honor the renowned scholar by their contributions. Editors Gary Gallagher and Rachel Shelden hope that these essays will "contribute to this revival of traditional American political history" (3) in the twenty-first century.
Ten essays from established and emerging scholars make up this collection. The authors pose new questions about political history and offer new approaches, methods, and sources to the study of nineteenth-century political life. Rachel Shelden's essay will be of particular interest to readers of this journal. General narratives of the coming of the Civil War usually point to the annexation of Texas and the resulting U.S.-Mexico War as a key cause of the conflict. Shelden analyzes several factors, but one of her most creative approaches looks at how national lawmakers chose boarding houses in Washington, D.C. She notices that members of both parties preferred to live together, regardless of section. The Texas annexation debate, therefore, did not split the Whigs on the issue of slavery. Shelden demonstrates that the party maintained greater unity than the Democrats and concludes, "Texas annexation did not create a sectional divide" (31).
Readers may also be interested in Mark Neely's piece that begins with the death of boxer and nativist political leader, Bill Pool. Neely makes a convincing case that Pool's death can teach political historians about local machine politics, the role of violence, and nativist influences in the turbulent 1850s. Jean Harvey Baker's concise and enlightening essay bridges the fields of women's and political history. J. Mills Thornton's essay points out that the class issues that led the Alabama State Legislature to reject black codes also influenced the same lawmakers to vote down the Fourteenth Amendment.
Other essays in the collection include Daniel Croft's examination of how former Whigs created the Opposition Party during the late 1850s, William Freehling's explanation of how fears about white slavery as well as concerns about black slavery led to the break-up of the Union, and William Cooper's intriguing argument that President-elect Abraham Lincoln's Illinois background made him less willing to compromise in the winter of secession. Additionally, Sean Nalty's essay examines the formation of the Union Party in Pennsylvania, while Erik Alexander's and Brooks Simpson's articles explore how political leaders assessed their standing and calculated their decisions in the sometimes chaotic post-Civil War environment.
This review is far too brief to discuss all the exciting and thought-provoking ideas to come out of A Political Nation. This volume is a welcome addition to the literature on the Civil War but may not be appropriate for general audiences who are not as familiar with the historical narrative. For students of the period, however, it is a blueprint for what is to come in the years ahead. [End Page 212]
Political history, as the essays in this collection demonstrate, is alive and well. The works presented here are a fitting tribute and testament to the influence of Michael Holt's work.