Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840-1860

By William E. Gienapp; Thomas B. Alexander et al. | Go to book overview

THOMAS J. PRESSLY


Introduction

THE decades of the 1840s and 1850s and the secession crisis which ended in the outbreak of the Civil War represent to historians what mountain peaks represent to mountain climbers. Those mid-nineteenth-century historical peaks have been a challenge to historianclimbers. For almost a century and a quarter, ever since 1861, they have made the ascent and brought back reports of what they found. Experienced historian-climbers are today aware of the differing routes followed by their predecessors, aware of the varied equipment their predecessors have used in their climbs, and aware of the varied findings they have reported upon their return. Now we can read the reports brought back by this latest group of historian-climbers, published here as the 1981 Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures.

All of the essays in this volume discuss one or another aspect of politics in the United States during those two crucial decades in the middle of the nineteenth century. The essays provide examples of both some of the newer approaches employed by historians in the 1980s and some of the persistent problems facing those who seek to understand the two decades. One of the most lasting of those problems may be stated as a dilemma: how to understand the 1840s and the 1850s as distinct historical periods in their own right and on their own terms, while recognizing their relationship to the secession crisis and the outbreak of war which followed. The dilemma is subtle, complex, and seemingly unavoidable. "Hindsight," as David Potter remarked, is both "the historian's chief asset and his main liability." Whatever the difficulties posed by that dilemma, the common focus of these essays upon the 1840s and 1850s provides an underlying unity to this volume despite differences among the individual essays in scope, in scale, in types of evidence consulted, in methods of analyzing evidence, and in general perspective.

Differences in scope and scale are reflected in the arrangement of

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