Liberty and Union

This book by Professor David Herbert Donald, published in 1978, provides us his interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. He writes, “In studying the years from 1845 to about 1890 as a whole, I have become convinced that these important economic, social, and ideological conflicts can best be understood as special instances of a more general problem that nineteenth-century Americans confronted. Nearly all of them accepted Abraham Lincoln’s pronouncement: ‘A majority … is the only true sovereign of a free people.’ At the same time they believed in the ‘sacred principle’ Thomas Jefferson announced in his inaugural address: ‘that the minority possess their equal rights which equal law must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.’ In short, as Mr. Justice Frankfurter was later to observe, the central dilemma of a democratic society was to ‘reconcile the conflicting claims of liberty and authority.’ Throughout the nineteenth century, these two principles were in unstable equilibrium. During the decades before the Civil War, minority rights were protected to the detriment of the national interest. In the war years central authority, in both the Union and the Confederacy, flourished at the expense of local and parochial interests. Postwar nationalism was checked by the reemergence of powerful minorities, so that only modest changes, not a social and economic revolution, were the outcome of Union victory. By the end of the century a new balance had been achieved. It assured what none of the compromises proposed before the Civil War had been able to guarantee. The federal government retained enough strength and continuity to carry out the will of the majority of the American people, and at the same time local and minority interests won enough latitude so that they, too, could survive.” [p. viii]

Professor Donald then identifies his own preconceptions for us: “First, I am an unabashed American nationalist, proud of my country, and happy that it was able to maintain its unity. I cannot see that the successful separation of the Confederacy from the United States would have benefited either North or South or that it would have helped either the white or the black race. Tot he contrary, I am convinced that division of the United States would have had disastrous consequences in later decades when America (or, had the Confederates succeeded, two Americas) become a world power. Second, as a nationalist, I am not much impressed by the importance of sectional, or ethnic, or racial, or religious differences in the United States. … I was born and raised in the South, was educated in the West, and have spent most of my adult years in the East; and I have discovered that Americans of all sections, races, and creeds are much alike. Taken as a whole, they are far more different from Europeans Africans, or Asians than they are from each other. In holding this position, I am not subscribing to a saccharine ‘consensus’ view that there have been no real conflicts in American history. We have quarreled among ourselves vigorously and at times viciously; but I insist that our quarrels have been family quarrels. Third, as a conservative I have little faith in legislated solutions or constitutional mechanisms to solve a nation’s problems. … Finally, in writing a book that deals with majority rule and minority rights in nineteenth century America, I am necessarily influenced by the fact that I am living in the twentieth century, where this same problem, though in different forms, is still very much with us.” [pp. viii-ix]

Although the book is dated, it also has some good information in it. For example, “The influence of the abolitionist movement was disproportionate to its numbers. After ten years of agitation only one of every twenty Northern voters was an abolitionist, and the newly created antislavery Liberty party was conspicuously unsuccessful in the 1840 presidential election. But the abolitionist minority, with few members and few votes, could boast of real achievements. First, the abolitionists clarified the terms of debate over slavery. Stripping away the veil of vague antislavery sentiment, they showed that most advocates of colonization were, at heart, defenders of the peculiar institution. Second, they persuaded many Northerners who did not belong to their movement that the continued existence of slavery endangered the rights of free men. Abolitionists instituted a relentless campaign of sending petitions to Congress, urging it to act against slavery in the District of Columbia and in the few other areas where it clearly had constitutional power to do so. With the legislative hoppers flooded, both House and Senate in self-defense had to adopt ‘gag’ rules, automatically tabling or refusing to receive all such petitions. Abolitionists then used this refusal to prove that the defenders of slavery were the opponents of free speech. Third, the abolitionists exhibited considerable political sagacity. Though their Liberty party never became a major political force, their presidential nominee, Birney, in 1844 received just enough votes to deprive thhe Whig candidate, Henry Clay, of the election and to ensure the choice of a Democrat, James K. Polk. Thereafter the abolitionist vote, though only a tiny minority of the total, was a factor to be considered in all national elections. In state elections, too, this organized minority, because it was strategically placed, was able to send to the Congress men belonging to one of the major parties but pledged to the abolitionists’ goals: Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio; former President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts; and John P. Hale of New Hampshire.” [p. 17]

Donald is at his best when discussing the political situation prior to the Civil War. His weakest area is the military action of the war. There is much he doesn’t understand about the military aspects. He’s forced to rely on what was the then current consensus evaluation of military leaders and actions, with their weaknesses and all. Additionally, he consistently refers to former confederate states being brought back into the Union, a union they never legally left. In fact, the states were brought back to representation in Congress, not back into the Union, as the legislation clearly said. On page 169 he says Congress passed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in February of 1865. It actually passed the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865, having previously been passed in the Senate. Lincoln signed the joint resolution to send it to the states on February 1. He gives us a useful bibliographic essay at the end of the book, reminiscent of the extensive bibliographic essay at the end of the third edition of The Civil War and Reconstruction by James G. Randall that he finished. Since it’s from 1978, it is way behind the current scholarship.

Mostly accurate, the book remains dated, and there are other works that are of more use to students of the war. As a result, I can’t recommend this book.

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