Friday, May 1, 2009

Abraham Lincoln's World: How Riverboats, Railroads, and Republicans Transformed America / Thomas Crump -- London: Continuum, 2009.

Thomas Crump distinguishes himself from the myriad other historians writing about Lincoln in the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth by noting he is probably the only such author who interviewed an eye witness to the Gettysburg Address. At the age of 80, Crump has given us a brief introduction to some of the most important currents of the first half of 19th century America.

Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln's World is uneven. At times Crump tells us the trivial, e.g., each state has two Senators. At other times, he makes quite interesting and insightful observations about the conditions in America during Lincoln's time. True to his subtitle, his treatment of steamships and railroads are quite valuable. He also provides valuable descriptions of the changing demographics of the country and internal migrations. However, his treatment of the better known aspects of the political history of the time is unremarkable. On the other hand, the chapters on the development of Illinois and California are detailed and well worth reading.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter deals with the settlement and rebellion of Texas. Contemporary interpretations of these events tend to vilify the Anglo Texas settlers. Crump treats them more sympathetically by portraying them not as pro-slavery ideologues seeking to expand slave territory, but as people seeking a better life -- not all of them sympathetic to slavery. He does a good job describing the internal chaos in Mexico that made the loss of Texas to Anglo immigration all but inevitable. The only myopia here is his cursory treatment of the Native American population.

Crump also does a good job conveying the boundaries of debate of the time regarding the issue of slavery. Today, many people view the period as a conflict between two actors: Abolitionists and the Slave Power, with a large uncommitted mass between them. Instead, Crump's political landscape is populated mostly by politicians residing between the extremes, struggling with the impossibility of a house divided against itself. This less ideological treatment of the slavery issue doesn't preclude 21st century moral judgements, but it does give real depth and texture to the description of the struggle over slavery.

Sadly, the work is also marred by numerous copy editing errors that sometimes complete reverse the meaning of Crump's statements.

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