- Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett by Matthew Mason
Abraham Lincoln told Americans that they could not escape history. Edward Everett could have said the same, albeit more verbosely. Matthew Mason's rigorously researched and delicately argued biography of the great orator presents him as both a shaper of history and a hostage to it. Although successful in articulating ideological and emotional Unionism, Everett could not temper the divisiveness of sectionalism and slavery. Mason's portrayal of Everett and the tension between union and slavery that molded his thought and career underscores that the moderate middle ground of Civil War–era politics deserves more attention, especially because compromisers and nationalists, despite their best efforts, could not escape the historical force of American slavery.
The dynamic among Everett's Unionism, antislavery convictions, and benevolent reformism structures Mason's account of his life. When not distracted by slavery, Everett preferred to further the partisan cause of national Whiggery, crusade on behalf of the Benevolent Empire, inculcate Unionism, and indulge in scholarly and literary pursuits. He opposed slavery yet would not reduce his politics to that one issue at the expense of American nationalism. He crafted a "Union of sentiment and attraction" [End Page 486] and cultivated European-style nationalism, most famously through his national speaking tour to preserve Mount Vernon as an intersectional shrine in the late 1850s (34). Yet Everett's Union was still a slaveholding republic. To his chagrin, political adversaries cast him as either a prosouthern doughface or a Yankee fanatic, in spite of his attempts to eschew sectional politics. While minister to Great Britain, the New Englander found himself championing not just America's exceptional republic, but also slaveholders' rights. Everett's Unionism existed in a precarious space between sectional extremes. Still, Mason convincingly concludes, his "emotional nationalism" mobilized Americans when war came (85). Unionism resonated in American political culture owing to Everett's tireless exertions. He could not save the Union from secession and war, but he did define one worth fighting for.
Mason's treatment of Everett stands out among a recent wave of scholarship reassessing the antebellum era's squishy moderates. Doughfaces, Hunkers, Silver Grays, and Cotton Whigs, we have come to learn, were not simply craven compromisers or acolytes of the slave power. They were principled and impassioned politicians. Everett was just as ideologically and emotionally committed as the sectionalists with whom he sparred. Apostle of Union thus doubles as an impressive intellectual biography, in which Mason traces the influences on Everett's thought and reconstructs his political theory, theology, and nationalism. Ideological conservatism characterized his thought and politics. Everett deemed disunion and immediate emancipation greater evils than slavery itself, and he tolerated lesser evils lest their extirpation yield greater ones. Mason's discussion of conservatism is nicely done and reveals that Everett aligned with self-identified conservatives across parties in denouncing sectionalism and "fanatical" reformism.
Understanding Everett's conservatism places his political principles in historical context and demonstrates that he was more than a shallow pragmatist. His conservatism often dictated compromise with white southerners for the good of the Union. Yet, as a conservative who also opposed slavery, he had to resist the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, both for its destabilizing impact and its naked proslavery motivation. The Civil War finally allowed Everett to synthesize Unionism and antislavery. The wartime context made antislavery less radical, and Everett salvaged his national reputation by embracing emancipation as preservative of the Union. Appreciating the interplay of Everett's "principled" Unionism and "conservative antislavery position" enlarges the antebellum political spectrum (169, 199). Conservatives could detest slavery, even if not vehemently, and nationalism could coexist with sectionalism. [End Page 487]
This "political biography" could address additional aspects of Everett's life that were inherently political, according to Mason's own expansive conceptualization of antebellum political culture. Mason discusses women's political roles and Everett's alliance with female reformers, especially within the Benevolent Empire and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union. Mason...