An idiosyncratic survey of the American political scene as the clouds gathered for Civil War.
The 1856 election of President James Buchanan, the 1857 Dred Scott decision and the proposed pro-slavery, Lecompton Constitution for the new state of Kansas threatened to settle the slavery issue in America, perpetuating forever the peculiar institution that had made the Founders squirm. In 1858, the direction of the political debate changed. Against the backdrop of Buchanan’s fecklessness, Chadwick (The General and Mrs. Washington, 2006, etc.) focuses mostly on personalities and incidents headlining the antislavery movement’s pushback. The already notorious John Brown’s Christmas raid into Missouri and the story of the Oberlin Rescuers both received national press attention, inspiring abolitionists and enraging the South. New York Senator William Seward, in speeches appealing to a “higher law” than the Constitution and warning of an “irrepressible conflict” ahead, positioned himself as the most prominent antislavery elected official and the likely presidential nominee for the Republicans in 1860. Meanwhile, Seward’s good friend, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, solidified his position as the South’s foremost defender and spokesman. In a series of debates during the Illinois senate race—memorably detailed in Allen Guelzo’s Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, 2007—Abraham Lincoln made a national reputation for himself and destroyed the hope of the formidable and fence-straddling Stephen A. Douglas for higher office. Throughout the tumultuous year, Buchanan remained in deep denial, preoccupied with foreign policy and visions of territorial expansion, and more concerned with settling intra-party scores, especially with the fiery Douglas, than with effectively governing the nation. In other chapters seemingly less harmonious with his larger thesis—but forgivable for a writer incapable of dull storytelling—Chadwick looks at the pre-war careers of Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman, two unknowns in 1858 destined for later fame.
For the general reader, an account of a president who fiddled while the ingredients for a major conflagration assembled before his eyes.