Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, Vol. 7 / Hermann von Holst -- Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1892

From 1889 to 1892, Professor Hermann von Holst of the University of Freiburg saw the publication of an English translation of his eight volume constitutional and political history of the United States. The first seven volumes trace events from 1750 to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in March of 1861. The final volume is an index to the work. Volume seven covers just the last two years of that period and consequently provides a hoard of fascinating details describing the collapse of any hope for avoiding the secession of the several Southern states and civil war.

Horst begins his work with an account of John Brown and his raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. He indicates that the overly excited reaction to Brown revealed a deep seated fear that the South was reaching the end of its ability to maintain control of federal institutions. His account of subsequent actions by Southern politicians makes a strong case. For example, the rabid reaction against Hinton Rowan Helper's book The Impending Crisis of the South indicated how tenuous the planter class felt their political power was over non-slave owning Southern whites.

Yet most of the Horst's work describes the efforts of Northern (or conservative) Democrats to placate the Southern radicals and the machinations of politicians of every party to advance their political goals. Central to these events were Constitutional interpretations related to the right to property in slaves and the right of a state to secede. His account of James Buchanan's view on secession is especially interesting. Buchanan held that while a state had no right to secede, the federal government had no right to use force to prevent its secession. Horst properly criticizes this view as incoherent, but does not make clear what Buchanan's motivations might have been for holding the view. At times, he seems to suggest that Buchanan was quietly encouraging the South to secede, but sought to avoid war while he was in office. At other times, it seems that Buchanan honestly believed that by taking a passive position on secession, prodigal states would soon enough return to the Union without war.

Other politicians (including some Republicans) seemed equally eager to accommodate the wishes of the Southern radicals in an effort to avoid war; however, the political division within the Democratic Party was too great for them to reach agreement on how to deal with slavery. Southern radicals sought to explicitly enshrine slavery in the Constitution, while conservative Democrats supported Stephen A. Douglas's doctrine of "popular sovereignty" in which states would be free to permit or prohibit slavery as they saw fit. These disagreements played out in a series of political conventions that ultimate split the Democratic Party and led to Lincoln's election by a Republican plurality.

What is most amazing was the unending efforts by politicians to reach a compromise and the willingness of many Republicans to abandon the slavery planks of their platform to head off war. The leading Republican of the time, William Seward, engaged in private negotiations prior to joining the Lincoln administration. According to Horst, Seward offered to accept slavery to avert the war; however, the inertia leading to secession was far too advanced to be stopped.

Horst's account is detailed and convincing and makes the reader wish Horst had continued the story at least to the conclusion of the war; however, one is consoled by the knowledge that this was only volume seven and that six previous volumes are likely to be equally engaging.

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