It wasn’t slavery per se but the debates about the extension of slavery into new territories and states that sent the nation careening into civil war, argues Holt (History/Univ. of Virginia) in a work that aims at a broader audience than did his The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (1999).
As in that comprehensive, scholarly history, the author returns to the era of presidents whose visages will never adorn Mt. Rushmore (Polk, Taylor, Pierce, Buchanan) and politicians whose personal interests trumped the interests of the nation. (Stephen A. Douglas worked hard for the transcontinental railroad, in part to make sure it would pass through some of his land holdings.) With the confidence born of intimate knowledge, Holt guides us through some extraordinary complexities: the Missouri Compromise, the Mexican War, the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He explores the reasoning and motivations of some of the most well-known names in American history, including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. He does not, however, see much honor among the political thieves of the era. “Politicians made decisions,” he writes, “from short-term calculations of partisan, factional, or personal advantage rather than from any long-term concern for the health, indeed, the very preservation of the Union.” Holt implies that times have not changed much, and perhaps it was the contemporary parallels that led him, as he states in the text, to attempt both to sharpen the focus of his study of American Whigs and to attract a more general readership. He has certainly accomplished the former: few passages deal with anything other than politics, with glimpses of Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown providing occasional relief. But attracting a general readership is a more dubious proposition. Holt’s prose is heavy, leaden, and veers at times into the inelegant.
Important but occasionally tedious analysis of a most critical period in our history. (map; 8 pp. b&w illustrations, not seen)