- Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett by Matthew Mason
Good biographies do more than simply bring a historical figure's story to life; the best accounts shed light on the complex moment in which that actor lived. From this perspective, Matthew Mason's political biography of Massachusetts conservative Edward Everett is an exceptional contribution to the history of the Civil War era. In ten tightly argued chapters, Mason demonstrates that Everett's political career was defined by an overwhelming commitment to the American Union above all else, disrupting the standard narrative of a sectional politics defined solely by northern or southern interests. Everett sought (sometimes successfully) to promote a vision of the Union based in "nationalism, law and order, and reform" even as the sectional crisis over slavery repeatedly threatened and disrupted that vision (8). In this way, Everett was a prisoner of his historical context but also managed to substantially shape the political world in which he lived.
Mason traces Everett's political career from his early life as a scholar and newspaper editor during James Monroe's administration through his time as a congressman, diplomat, secretary of state, and private citizen during the remainder of the antebellum and Civil War years. Throughout, Mason portrays the Massachusetts Whig as an "ardent party and nation builder," committed to the Benevolent Empire, "restrained manhood and political moderation," and a close reader of American history (60, 69). While most of these interests blended easily within Everett's unionism, occasionally they could come into conflict. During Everett's early years in Washington, for example, the Massachusetts congressman's resistance to Indian Removal—which he believed threatened the Union—led him further from the political center. In this way, Mason builds on the key insights of David Potter and others that "loyalty is always complex and situational" (320).
Nothing challenged Everett's loyalties more than what he called the "knotty subject of slavery" (99). While the Massachusetts politician repeatedly tried to avoid becoming enmeshed in debates over the peculiar institution, he was ultimately unable to transcend the sectional conflict that raged throughout the antebellum period. Slavery agitation disrupted many of his political goals, including his internal improvements agenda as Massachusetts governor, his diplomatic efforts as minister to Great Britain, and especially his campaign against the Republican Party during the 1860 election. Yet, Mason does not portray Everett as an unprincipled "doughface"; although maintaining the Union was his primary goal, Everett held a consistent "conservative antislavery position" (199). In fact, the Civil War allowed him to "resolve" many of these loyalties; "by the end of his life," Mason argues, Everett "had achieved a full synthesis of his love of the Union, antipathy to slavery, and commitment to benevolent reform" (269).
Mason's biography is part of a growing body of literature interested in understanding unionism that includes Elizabeth Varon's Disunion! (2008) and Gary Gallagher's [End Page 430] The Union War (2011). He offers a cogent explanation for the importance of moderates in that ideology: although historians typically portray the antebellum period as a binary struggle between sectional visions of the nation—the northern commitment to free labor and southern insistence on a pro-slavery future—Everett's ideology demonstrates that there was "a three-way contest between Northern sectionalists, Southern sectionalists, and committed Unionists" (9). In other words, Mason provides a critical corrective that shows there was a tension between those who defined the Union in relationship to slavery (both North and South) and those who did not.
Furthermore, even though Everett was unable to avoid the sectional controversy, Mason shows that his efforts to build unionist sentiment in the antebellum and Civil War years did have important successes. Throughout his career, Everett was "determined to use the past to shape the present," lecturing and writing about the lives of the founders as a means of promoting unionism (215). Perhaps Everett's most important contribution to American nationalism came in his efforts to save and purchase...