LIBERTY AND UNION by David Herbert Donald
Kirkus Star


Email this review


Eschewing traditional historiographical barriers, Donald--a noted historian and Pulitzer winner--treats the years from 1845 to 1890 as one era and in so doing creates an illuminating new synthesis. He believes that in this period America experienced in particularly pressing ways the dilemma of the democratic society: the problem of how to reconcile majority rule with minority rights, taking the form of nationalism versus particularism. Donald sees the calamity of antebellum disunity (promoted by misunderstanding and irrational passions) that threatened national authority as succeeded by an opposite tendency towards accretion of power by both the Union and Confederate national governments during the Civil War. This dangerous centralizing trend, we are told, spilled over into the postwar years, fostered by the Northern nationalism aroused during the War and the consolidation of the economy promoted by the rise of big business. But the danger, the author concludes, was stemmed by, among other things, the coalition nature of political parties (which forced Radical Republicans to modify proposals for imposing revolutionary change upon the Southern states) and the strength of entrenched regional and local interests (which secured modification of high tariff and hard money policies and won state laws regulating powerful economic interests). In sum, by 1890 a balance had been reached that ""protected, though within limits more constricted than in 1860, the minority rights of regions and states and localities."" Donald's own evidence indicates that the Confederate government was slower to accumulate power than the Union's, and the state regulatory laws were of dubious efficacy. But by and large his portrayal of centripetal and centrifugal forces is sound. The work's usefulness lies not in any new information but in its rearrangement of familiar facts to highlight the important truth that democracy is never a finished product but the result of an ongoing tension between power and liberty.

Pub Date: Oct. 10th, 1978
Publisher: Little, Brown