A comprehensive, detailed study of life, the economy, and politics in the United States on the eve of the Civil War.
First-time author Hahn aims to provide a context for the Civil War that goes beyond the well-known issues of slavery and states’ rights. He analyzes the political climate and cultural changes of the United States just prior to the Civil War and considers “how the people…worked and lived” in an attempt to reach a fuller understanding of the times without being overly biased by contemporary views. Hahn makes clear that the country was not just growing at an unprecedented rate, it was also developing a radically new society—a democracy in an era of empires and a literate, progressive society in a world of hidebound traditions. Hahn catalogs these developments with a prodigious array of census data and contemporary accounts from letters, newspapers, and even novels. Early chapters cover resources, technology, infrastructure, domestic life, and education. Later ones deal with communication, religion, finance, and military preparedness. Hovering over it all, of course, is slavery, and the author examines economic facts as well as prevailing attitudes in the North and South. To unify his themes, Hahn ends with a discussion of the 1860 presidential election and the inevitable consequences of the election of Abraham Lincoln. This book has some significant flaws, however. There are no charts, graphs, or maps. All of the quantitative information is relayed in the text. This frequently makes for ponderous reading. Hahn also tends to overstuff chapters without supplying adequate transitions. As a result, the information becomes choppy and disjointed.
A prodigious, fascinating effort that needs a stronger unifying narrative to make it more readable.