America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation
On the 150th anniversary of the onset of the US Civil War, a lively, compelling account of its roots.
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Southerners, on the other hand, realized that without new slave states, they would be increasingly marginalized politically.Skip to next paragraph
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Goldfield doesn’t really break new ground. He agrees with his mentor, Avery Craven of the University of Maryland, that also-ran politicians – such as President James Buchanan, who followed giants like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun – were not up to the challenge of avoiding a bloody civil war. He also blames the infusion of evangelical religious fervor into politics as a key factor in making compromise virtually impossible as the 1850s progressed.
The incivility in Washington during the 1850s, highlighted by an incident in which one senator viciously assaulted another with a cane, makes our modern pols look like pikers.
The book’s one flaw is that Goldfield asserts that the tragedy of the Civil War was avoidable, and that slavery, its expansion, and its very existence, could have been solved without resort to violence. He never explains how this might have occurred, other than to assert that more adept politicians would have found a way.
Elsewhere, Goldfield maintains that Americans were used to using violence to get their way – against Mexico, against Indians, and against immigrants and labor unions. They did so because it worked.
That violence was not a good strategy for the South is evident in the postwar statistics Goldfield cites: Two-thirds of the South’s wealth disappeared (it would take six decades to bring it back to what it was in 1860); a quarter of its men between the ages of 20 and 40 died; and in the greatest internal migration in our history, more than 28 million Southerners, black and white, fled the defeated, stagnating Confederate states in the decades following the war.
What, then, did this imperfect war fought by imperfect men for imperfect ends finally signify? Goldfield sums it up nicely: “America’s second century would become more inclusive, and it would do so primarily because the Union victory had saved the ideals of the first century.”
David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.