At a political crossroads in 1857, the United States took a tragic turning

January 20, 1991|By Vince Fitzpatrick



Kenneth M. Stampp.

Oxford University.

388 pages. $29.95. In 1857, only 70 years after the framing of the Constitution, America was ready to explode. The profound differences between North and South threatened the very existence of this country, one of the world's most remarkable experiments in democracy.

The South's agrarian economy stood opposed to the North's increasing industrialism. Southerners, extolling confederation, insisted upon their right to be left alone and maintain their indigenous culture. Northerners demanded that the Union be maintained, albeit on their terms. Hanging over this dispute was the ghastly institution of slavery, the "firebell in the night" that was ringing more stridently than it ever had.

In 1856, John Brown and a band that included four of his sons murdered five pro-slavery colonists at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas -- "bleeding Kansas," as the territory came to be known. Four years earlier, Harriet Beecher Stowe had opted for the pen rather than the sword to fight her moral crusade.

One of the two most fertile decades in American literary history, the 1850s witnessed the publication of novels by Melville and Hawthorne, prose non-fiction by Emerson and Thoreau, and Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," a landmark in American poetry. But the mood was such that readers paid more attention to "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Technically flawed, abrasively self-righteous, the novel transcended the conventional boundaries of art. It raised an outcry against the essential wrongness of things in pre-Civil War America, where one individual was permitted to own another. The book sold 300,000 copies during its first year; no previous American novel had approached such popularity.

The distinguished historian Kenneth M. Stampp is scrupulously fair in his discussion of the highly charged issue of slavery. The presence of 4 million slaves disgraced America, yet only about 10 percent of the Confederate soldiers were slave owners. He discusses the moderates as well as the irreconcilable enemies who caused the country to explode: the Yankee abolitionist and the Southern "fire-eaters."

In all, "America in 1857" offers a compelling portrait of "a nation on the brink." This was "probably the year," Dr. Stampp explains, "when the North and South reached the political point of no return -- when it became well nigh impossible to head off a violent resolution of the differences between them."

Concerned with both political and cultural history, Dr. Stampp makes considerable use of contemporary newspaper pieces and congressional records to set forth the major events of 1857. He discusses in detail the controversial Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court, denying black citizenship, ruled that Scott could not sue for his freedom in federal court.

The author writes at greatest length about the conflict in the Kansas territory, America's "running sore." Acutely conscious of America's balance of power, Free Soilers and pro-slavery advocates battled over the issue of statehood. It was

here that President Buchanan failed badly.

A Pennsylvanian "superbly trained for his responsibilities," Buchanan yielded to Southern influence and tried to uphold the Lecompton constitution, a pro-slavery document that had not been ratified by the majority of Kansans. This was, the author remarks pointedly, "one of the most tragic miscalculations that any President has ever made." At a pivotal moment in American history, an intelligent leader who meant well proved overmatched. We have encountered this scenario subsequently.

The study of history can provide a window upon the past. An appraisal of the American scene in 1857 shows how drastically several things have changed. The federal government, for example, then had only 20,000 employees, and there was an "embarrassing surplus" in the federal treasury.

Then as now, politicians and journalists watched each other vigilantly, with each side convinced that the other was comprised of scoundrels. A Detroit newspaper bludgeoned a newly elected senator as "a preposterous ignoramus . . . a loafer and an ass, and, comparatively speaking, an idiot." In our current litigious age, such copy, even if a journalist dared to write it, pwould never get past the editor's desk.

On the other hand, history can serve as a mirror upon the present and demonstrate just how little America has changed in the past 133 years. Hysterical nativists, drawing upon mob prejudice, lambasted immigrants -- the Irish were "bog trotters" -- and blacks and Catholics. Doomsayers, with a florid rhetoric that would do our televangelists proud, roared about moral decay in a "luxurious, licentious, money worshipping . . . diseased society." Then as now, the rich told the poor to be patient.

"In the life of a nation," Dr. Stampp remarks, "every year has its failures and disappointments, but 1857 had more than its share." The Democrats paid for Buchanan's mistakes by failing to elect another president until 1884. The country, however, paid far more dearly for miscalculation and indecisiveness during a time that required intelligent and prompt decisions.

Four years later, America indeed exploded when the Virginian Edmund Ruffin, "prince among fire-eaters," fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. The Civil War claimed about 1 million casualties. After Dixie died, Reconstruction, a hideous misnomer, cemented sectional differences. They created a distrust and hostility that remain in the American South to this day. The sins of our fathers linger just as long as their virtues do.

Mr. Fitzpatrick is the author of "H. L. Mencken" and co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book."

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