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Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War.

Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War, by Michael A. Morrison. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, distributed by Scholarly Book Services, 1997. xii, 396 pp. $82.50 U.S. (cloth), $32.95 U.S. (paper).

"History," Michael Morrison reminds us, "is experienced forward; it is written backward." Knowing the outcome, historians concentrate on tracing causes thus making the past appear neater in print than in practice. In order to "read history forward," (p. 11) Morrison uses "traditional" methodologies of thoroughly examining contemporary sources to reconstruct both sides of the sectional debate over extending slavery. This was more than simple political rhetoric. Morrison asserts that the "mental world" of antebellum political discourse clearly demonstrates the "important interplay between belief and behavior" (p. 10) which eventually led to Civil War.

Morrison laments the failure of Civil War historiography to provide an acceptable synthesis. There was no "blundering generation," no "Slave Power" or "Black Republican" conspiracies, nor any "hopeless struggles over meaningless issues." Instead of "incompatible civilizations" he sees antebellum Americans linked by language, religion, and shared experiences. Although never fully developing the argument, he insists that industrialization and a continued reliance on agriculture were diminishing -- not intensifying -- sectional economic differences, while support for Know-Nothingism reflected a national concern for ethnic, racial, gender, and class fragmentation. Both sections resorted to States Rights arguments when convenient and each supported federal authority when advantageous. Even historians' emphasis on slavery as a divisive force is "too narrow" (p. 9) as both North and South were united by racism.

Morrison's Americans were, above all, united by a shared political culture based on the Revolution's premise that slavery defined the measure of freedom and liberty for free labour. For Revolutionary era Northerners, slavery meant the loss of liberty to powerful economic and political (British) oligarchies. To Southerners, it brought suppression of (colonists') minority rights by a self-serving (imperial) majority. With these ideals embodied in a common reverence for the Union and support of the Constitution, the new nation used nationally-based political parties to negotiate disagreements over economic policies (banks, tariffs) and political practices (federal authority versus states rights) well into the Jacksonian era.

In 1846, the Wilmot Proviso shifted a debate between political parties over war and expansion into a sectional controversy over the extension of slavery. Free Soilers wanted to "restrict" an institution which promoted "aristocratic privilege" (p. 62) and thus threatened Northern ideals of free labour and free land. Southerners, who insisted that slavery eased class conflict and thus ensured equal opportunity for free labour, in turn feared the growth of "wage slavery" which they felt promoted oligarchy and class tensions (p. 7). California statehood, the 1850 compromise, and the Kansas Act intensified these debates, which culminated in creation of a sectional free soil party in 1856 (p. 150).

Morrison's subsequent discussion of Dred Scott, the Lecompton crisis (which he convincingly argues shattered Democratic unity -- p. 189), John Brown, the 1860 election, and secession are treated not as discrete events but as perceptions within a "world in which politicians give voice to the fears and aspirations of their constituents" (p. 228). In 1860, he argues, no party had an "effective solution" to the sectional issue because the public had no solution. Yet some resolution was necessary. Thus the moderates (Douglas and Bell) who proposed to ignore or remove slavery from national politics were soundly defeated by those (Lincoln and Breckenridge) who planned to "agitate it and resolve it" (p. 231).

This important book is not for the novice. Morrison's exhaustive survey of Congressional debates, voting patterns, letters and diaries of politicians and their constituents leaves many speakers unidentified, often making it difficult to distinguish the author's voice from his sources. His assumption that the reader brings an understanding of American culture and history leads to some surprising omissions. There is little historical or historiographical discussion of the Revolution, westward expansion, Jacksonian politics, Manifest Destiny, or antebellum urban and industrial growth despite his emphasis on their important historical and ideological legacies. By concentrating on spokesmen from the major parties, Morrison makes the silent point that those privileged by gender, race, and class to participate in national politics reflected a national ideological consensus. Thus abolitionists, trade unions, and social reform groups which included gender and racial political outsiders are simply subsumed within the sectional debate over labour, liberty, and freedom.

Morrison's goal of "writing history forward" begins with the Revolution which "constructed a common past and provided a common identity." Because it used slavery as a "central symbol of American political ideology" to define the degrees of freedom and liberty for free labour (p. 277), later generations were forced to consider the "Americaness of slavery" in terms of their own perceptions of freedom and liberty. With elections serving as national referenda on essential questions, political debates from Jackson through Lincoln increasingly focused on the issue of "who best supports free labor" (p. 230). By 1860, controversy over the expansion of slavery was a major factor in shifting that debate into an irreconcilable sectional controversy.

Morrison argues that politicians of the era achieved their purpose of articulating the fears and hopes of their constituents, thus stimulating debate. By provoking thought, Morrison's book achieves a similar success with his own generation. It is difficult to ask more from any author.
David R. Farrell
University of Guelph
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Farrell, David R.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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