Synopses & Reviews
Was slavery really the most significant issue in American politics just before the Civil War? No, says Joel Silbey in this provocative revisionist work. Using the insights of the new political history (to which he has been a major contributor), Silbey shows how local issues, ethnic and religious attitudes, and, most important, the power and persistence of national political parties were actually the key elements animating the political life of the era.
Silbey argues that ethnocultural factors and partisanship not only gave shape and substance to the period's political conflicts but also affected the coming of the Civil War in direct and crucial ways. Pointing to the fervor and seriousness with which the people of the period embraced the parties, he contends that parties both delayed and worked against the flowering and growth of sectional influences and for a long time frustrated the demands of sectional spokesmen, both North and South. These same elements, he says, also affected the way Northerners and Southerners understood each other and contributed to the growth of the Republican party as well as to the South's decision to secede from the Union.
The book thus provides a very different framework for understanding one of the most critical periods in our nation's political development, a time when many long-standing customs and political institutions first took shape. Offering fresh insights into a dramatic and fascinating era, Silbey's iconoclastic perspective will both affect the way historians view the period hereafter and suggest an agenda for future research.
About the Author:
Joel H. Silbey is Professor of American History at Cornell University. His previous books include The Shrine of Party, The Transformation of American Politics, and A Respectable Majority.
In this provocative reinterpretation of American politics before the Civil War, Joel Silbey argues that local issues, ethnic and religious considerations, and the power of the national political parties were even more important than slavery in animating the political life of the era. He traces the tensions that divided the nation in this critical period and offers intriguing explanations for how and why they developed. These essays significantly contribute to the existing perspectives on the Civil War and also pave the way for new approaches to understanding a vital time in American history.