Sunday, December 5, 2010

Two Roads to Sumter by William and Bruce Catton

This is part of phase one of my Civil War Book Challenge, where I follow the war's 150th anniversary in a series of books from the pre-war years to the start of reconstruction. Feel free to join me!

Progress so far: 2 of 5 books set in the pre-war era.

Bruce Catton formed the heart of my Civil War reading when I was growing up and first learning about the conflict. His books feel a bit old-fashioned now, showing as they do the best of the well-known names such as Lee, Grant, and Lincoln, without the touches of realism and human frailty that we expect from history books today.

Are we better off now that we know more about the men who waged the war, right down to their most personal problems? I'm not sure, but when you try to go back to the classics, it sometimes can be a jarring experience. Two Roads to Sumter spends a lot of its time trying to think the best of Lincoln and Davis, occasionally to the point of distraction. There's really not much you can do to make a man look better when he's advocating for the perpetuation and extension of slavery and denying the right of African Americans to participate in even the most basic aspects of American society.

Sorry guys, but Jefferson Davis might have been an upstanding gentleman who thought he was right, but you can't wash the taint off his hatred by couching it in context and high rhetoric. (It's a lesson I hope we'll soon see extended to the look back at extreme hatred in America today towards groups that did nothing but be different from the norm or look different from others.) The book is stronger in lionizing Lincoln, who certainly had his faults but clearly believed in human rights for all people, even if he wasn't as sure on the particulars or as free from bias as we'd like to think. Still, he too feels a bit larger than life here, able to rise above the petty manipulations of rival Seward, once he's been freed from the extreme partisanship that apparently marred his term in Congress.

Despite some of the problems inherent in writing in an age where criticisms of heroes were tricky to manage, the Cattons do bring interesting ideas to the table that were new to me. Lincoln's extreme partisanship and manipulations for power (I don't think I knew he ran for US Senate in 1854 as well, for instance) aren't as well documented, at least not in the books I'd read previously on the rail splitter. Similarly, I had no idea that Davis was often considered too conservative for his Southern audience, an irony that explains a lot about the problems faced by Jefferson Davis the President.

I also thought it was interesting that this book spends so much time looking at how the Democratic Party might have been able to stave off the war (and extend the life of slavery) by swallowing some pride and looking past the nose on their face to see the bigger picture. It confirms for me that American politics really don't work all that well and thinking they ever did was folly. It also shows how extremists can take control of the political process if given an opportunity, a lesson we're about to learn again soon, I think. In terms of the contemporary politics of the time, our pair of writers leaves no mistake that the feelings of the 1850s echo the 1950s in ways both similar and striking. Cleverly, they even leave those links for the reader to grab onto, rather than spell them out. It's a nice case of understatement that I think served the text well.

It's a bit hard to tell who is writing where, but the lengthy digressions into politics strike me as more from William, where the character profiles fits with those we see in Bruce's solo outings on the Civil War. The two mesh these ideas rather well, I think, with neither dominating. This prevents the book from either becoming too dry or too full of useless character studies that don't show how two of America's best known figures made their way through the years before the Civil War.

The book's central premise is that Lincoln and Davis, who both had roots in Kentucky, were not dissimilar men. They both came from the idea of frontier and expansion, though Davis would advocate it while Lincoln (perhaps in reaction to his father, an idea that's not explored here) rejects rampant growth, especially in light of the slavery question. They both had poor beginnings, but Davis gets a guardian angel in the form of an older brother. This is the key moment that changes the two men, as both face personal setbacks but only one has to really work for his opportunities. The difference gets more and more striking, as the book shows, until there's no way for these two men, who are arguably moderate for their day, to ever agree without bloodshed.

In this way, Lincoln and Davis are avatars for the regions they represent, two factions unable to come to terms because, like parallel lines, their visions for America could never co-exist as long as one based their philosophy on the slavery of an entire race. It took the war to, however unevenly, blend the two lines together. Two Roads to Sumter shows that, while possible, it was unlikely that anything other than the Civil War could have happened, given the actors in play at the time on the political stage. I think this book puts the lie to the idea that slavery would have died a quiet death if left alone. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. There were too many people trying to cling to outdated ideas, another echo of the 1950s and even today.

As I'd expect with most books that take such a specialized perspective on a part of history, this book is not going to have a lot of general interest. It is, however, one of the best books I've read on the pre-war years, however. (Keep in mind that's a limited number, so don't go by just me.) Unlike the book about the Compromise of 1850s, this text takes the time and space to explain is arguments, including why people such as Clay, Davis, and Lincoln acted as they did and what they might have done differently. I may not agree with the alternatives proposed by the book, especially the theory that President Douglas in 1856 might have saved the Union, but at least arguments are made that have real backing and explanation.

Those interested in the politics of the 1850s should definitely check out Two Roads to Sumter. It may have some problems that all older history books share, but it's still a strong study of the time period that presents logical arguments and crucial details I'd never seen before. It definitely belongs in the library of any historian of the Civil War era and should be of interest to fans of older American politics as well.

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