LIBERTY AND UNION, DAVID HERBERT DONALD,LITTLE, BROWN AND CO., BOSTON, 1978
For better or worst, and I think for the better, the bloody American Civil War of 1861-65 was a key turning point in the creation of a unitary American state. The successful completion of the twin tasks of eliminating slavery and the creation of a transcontinental state based on a single capitalist economy, a common communications network and common cultural aspirations by any standard represented the type of progress that a historical materialist can salute. Thus, in order to better understand the political tasks that are before us today and make sense of the promise that those long ago results produced it is necessary to study in some detail the trends that led up to the Civil War, what the conflict itself resolved and those trends that were accelerated by the Union victory. For those not familiar with, or who have forgotten some of the details of those events, Professor Donald’s book is a little refresher course that will steer you into further study of the issues.
Professor Donald’s main thesis is that as trying as the Civil War experience was the results of that clarifying act, with the usual fits and starts, allowed for a more normal democratic discourse and thereafter placed the military option for the resolution of political problems in the shade. In defense of that argument he does a more than adequate analysis of the political, social and economic trends in the North, South and critically the West that prefigured the crisis of 1860 when all hell broke loose. Of decisive importance was the fate of slavery in the territories that were critical to creating a national state but also were critical to the survival of slavery. The resolution, or rather lack of resolution of that issue acted as the catalyst to break the sections apart.
As for the war itself the professor makes an interesting point about how the political, military and diplomatic strategies for both North and South ran on parallel courses. And that makes sense in a situation where the leaderships learned from a common experience. One should also note that while, in hindsight, the Northern victory seemed almost inevitable as late as 1964 that was certainly not the case. A decisive military breakthrough by Lee could have turned the political winds toward defeatism in the North around quite quickly.
Professor Donald’s post-war analysis is the weakest part of his book. Although he has done a good job of setting up the key political, economic and social trends of the period there is a just a little too much of a sense historical inevitability of the leading role of the United States and the exemplar of its institutions for my taste. Although he recognizes that blacks were continually aggrieved during Reconstruction and after; that Native Americans were essentially exterminated in the interests of white settlers; that the working class took a serious beating from the ‘robber barons’; that the family farmers were beginning to go under; that no serious national culture developed he nevertheless, on balance, believes that political stabilization and economic growth were the main results of the Civil War. In short, on balance, a classic liberal interpretation of post-Civil War history. The reader will therefore have to dig deeper to understand the real impact on of the Civil War on the American psyche. But here is a place to start.