Berkeley history professor emeritus Stampp (The Imperiled Union, 1980, etc.) is best known for The Peculiar Institution (1956), a pioneering analysis of slavery. Now, turning to narrative history, he examines the year when ""the North and South reached the political point of no return--when it became well nigh impossible to head off a violent resolution of the differences between them."" While Stampp does attempt to cover other social history during this calamitous year--most notably urban street riots, flagrant corruption, the panic that closed thousands of businesses, William Walker's filibustering campaign in Nicaragua, and the clash between the Mormons and the federal government over control of Utah--he nevertheless rightly gives center stage to the overarching conflict over slavery. In an intriguing chapter on the infamous Dred Scott decision, Stampp goes behind the scenes to detail President Buchanan's successful attempt to influence the case's outcome, to explain why the legally dubious decision was such a ""breathtaking example of judicial activism,"" and to show how the case inflamed antislavery forces. Even more crucial, he feels, was the strife over Kansas statehood, which saw pro-slavery radicals elect territorial legislators through outrageous electoral fraud. The attempt by delegates at the Lecompton Convention to push through a pro-slavery constitution led to disastrous wrangling between the ""doughface"" Buchanan and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who correctly saw the rigged outcome as a violation of his ""popular sovereignty"" doctrine. The quarrel between the two Democrats caused a North-South split in their party, the bulwark of ""King Cotton,"" and assured victory in the 1860 Presidential election for the Republican Party, previously an uneasy coalition of ex-Whigs, nativists, Free-Soilers, and abolitionists. A skillful narrative about a pivotal year in an ""irrepressible conflict"" featuring the author's usual judicious analysis.