Just what I need: two more books to find time to read

July 2, 2012

Reviewed in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, two new books on the Civil War and the events leading to it.  America’s Great Debate, by Fergus M. Bordewich, and Fateful Lightning by Allen C. Guelzo.

This topic resonates with me because of my recent thinking on political polarization. After all, the mid-19th century was the one time in our history we were undeniably at least as polarized as now: so much so that a large part of the country tried secession, and almost managed to make it stick. Of course there’s no real likelihood of another Civil War breaking out; our differences don’t follow state lines quite as closely as they did then, and Federal institutions (and firepower) are much stronger. But the way our major political subcultures are screaming past each other, totally incapable of acknowledging the legitimacy of each other’s viewpoint, is certainly reminiscent of those days.

It all makes me wonder whether sometimes polarization is so great, so deep, that the only way out is for one side to beat the [deleted] out of the other.

The Bordewich book interests me especially because of its focus on the Compromise of 1850. I first read about it in Profiles in Courage when I was a kid; the book had a chapter on the vilification of Daniel Webster for his (courageous, the book said) support for the Compromise. I’ve always tended to sympathize more with the anti-Compromise abolitionists; but would we have ended up worse off, as is usually suggested, if instead secession had happened 10 years earlier?

And what did possess Stephen Douglas, just 4 years after his work in getting the Compromise enacted, to effectively override it with the Kansas-Nebraska Act? Without that, could the nation have carried on “half slave and half free” even longer?

More to come. Whether I read the books or not, I won’t stop thinking about the topic anytime soon. For now I leave you with this sentence I just found in Jefferson’s famous “Firebell in the Night” letter, about the beginnings of sectional polarization in 1820: “A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: