The Political Crisis of the 1850s by Michael F. Holt
Implicitly advancing the “blundering generation” thesis of Civil War causation, Michael F. Holt contends that the decisive ideological values for which over 600,000 men gave their lives “were basically political, not social, moral, or economic” (vii). Despite Holt’s accepting slavery’s centrality to the conflict between North and South, he insists that, on their own, issues such as race and restriction do not explain why the war came when it did. Furthermore, he questions the “new political historians” by asserting that a purely ethnocultural interpretation does not fully account for why the Republican Party and not the Know Nothings were victorious in 1860, either. Breaking new ground in 1978, Holt claims that a sectional war broke out in 1861 instead of another year, 1820 or 1850, for example, because of the commitment all Americans had to republicanism.
As the organizing theme of political life, Holt briefly defines republicanism as government by and for the people, and argues that discord over how best to perfect republican government during the 1820s, 30s, and 40s sustained the Second Party System. The Democratic and Whig parties thus satisfied American voters by offering distinct political programs primarily concerned with “banking and currency, corporate monopoly, state promotion of economic growth, and the general question of equality versus privilege” (18). Slavery was one of many issues over which Americans disagreed. But as long as the voting public perceived a viable alternative, the system worked because people would turn to their parties to address their grievances. By 1853, however, this system had “disintegrated,” owing not to the emergence of slavery as a sectional issue—which Holt claims “had characterized the Second Party System throughout its history”—but to an apparent consensus (103, 10). With little or nothing to distinguish the old parties, there was a feeling that the republic was in danger; therefore, with the traditional mechanism rendered impotent, “voters who had a specific idea of what was wrong and what the remedy should be formed new parties to meet their needs” (130).
In the North, the collapse of the Whigs—their attempt to make inroads among the increasing number of immigrant Catholic voters was the last nail in the party’s coffin—saw the emergence of two parties seeking to fill the political vacuum and save the nation from tyranny. Playing on ethnocultural fears and employing “traditional” political rhetoric, the Know Nothings “benefited from preexisting apprehensions that republicanism was ailing,” in addition to the socio-economic dislocation brought on by rapid industrialization in urban areas, by citing the Church of Rome as the “chief subverter of the Republic” (156, 162). Contrary to the major previous study on the Republican Party, Holt argues that in order to be successful the GOP recognized nativism as a powerful cultural force and so shaped its own political platform to accommodate it.1 In addition to blaming religious minorities and foreigners as the cause of the nation’s woes, albeit in a more tempered fashion, the Republicans pointed south, to the Slave Power that they alleged had hijacked the federal government and manipulated the Constitution for the benefit of a the slaveholding oligarchy. Holt believes that this “anti-Southern or anti-slaveholder” platform, not a commitment to free soil, free labor, or free men characterized early Republican politics (189). In his own words, “To say that Republican politicians agitated and exploited sectional grievances in order to build a winning party is a simple description of fact” (185).
While posting impressive election results in 1856, the Know Nothings ultimately failed four years later not because their issues were not important to voters, but because their opponents out-politicked them. With only the Democracy left in the Lower South and the only truly viable party in the Upper South, the sectionalization of politics was complete by 1860 with both North and South casting the other as “unrepublican.” For the South to remain in the union as an unequal partner and have their rights rode over roughshod by a tyrannical northern majority could not be accepted. They would, therefore, secede to uphold the spirit of 1776. For Republicans, to tolerate secession was to allow for the destruction of republican government: “If the South could reject the results of an election merely because they did not like the victor, then the principle of majority rule that was the only guarantee of the freedom and equality of Northerners in the Union would be destroyed” (257). And so the war came.
Holt makes a number of assumptions in The Political Crisis of the 1850s, the most important of which deal with his methodology. His assertion that two-party systems require conflict to survive is central to his overall project, as well as that nativism in antebellum America existed as both a cultural as well as a political force (263, 276). In fact, his viewing the period through a limited but still somewhat clear ethnocultural lens allows him attack the ideological foundations of the Republican Party for being “as much a vehicle for ethnic and religious resentments as it was for an anti-slavery and anti-Southern feeling (275). Holt’s primary source data collection, especially the voting statistics, is exemplary. “Unfortunately,” though, notes Eric Foner in the Journal of American History, “he does not seem to have familiarized himself with the extensive literature on the social and cultural dimensions of republican thought. As a result, he never defines precisely what he means by ‘republicanism,’ aside from a commitment to popular control of the government.”2
Holt’s thesis is intriguing and not without some support in the academy, but the limits he places on black slavery’s role in the sectional conflict are yet to be proven. By his own admission, he notes “the state level of politics was beyond doubt the most important in the nineteenth century” and so “any complete account of prewar politics must analyze each individual state” (ix). His does not. Likewise, his portrayal of the Republican Party as essentially a negative political force warrants further analysis. If, as Holt claims, for the majority of “Republican voters Lincoln’s victory and Democratic defeat was the only triumph over the South, the Slave Power, and slavery they required,” then one might be left wondering why the same voters later advocated the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (216). Holt’s provocative conclusions regarding Civil War causation will certainly keep scholars busy for a long time to come in their efforts to either refute or defend this excellent combination of the behavioral and ideological approaches to political history.
1 See Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).
2 Foner, Eric. American Historical Review, 1979-04, 555 (2).