The roundtable that we ran here last week on David Potter’s 1976 book, The Impending Crisis–a roundtable edited by Michael Landis–was by design quite critical of the book. (Not every contributor took issue with it, but several did.) Thus it’s no surprise that the roundtable sparked a strong response from a scholar who continues to think highly of Potter’s landmark book. Below is that response.
By Daniel W. Crofts, Professor of History at The College of New Jersey and author of several books about antebellum politics.
David M. Potter spent his career studying the watershed juncture in American history—runaway North-South sectionalism in the mid-nineteenth century, Southern secession, and the outbreak of war. He had a special interest in the glue that holds societies together—shared values, national character, and nationalism. He wanted to know why the United States experienced a sudden erosion of its common bonds between the 1840s and early 1861.
Potter provided essential starting points for any today who wish to address these matters. The issue of slavery in the territories involved more symbol than substance, he thought; it was a proxy for the real issue. The white South’s core grievance was a popular fear that “Black Republicans” planned to unleash slave rebels and slaughter white women and children. This fear had no basis in fact and was magnified all out of proportion. Growing numbers of white Northerners did think aristocratic slaveholders exercised too much power in the Union. But those who wanted the “slave power” curbed attempted to do so by casting ballots, not by shooting bullets, and few in the white North expected to ameliorate the lives of the enslaved. Nevertheless the territorial issue upended the existing political system and set the stage for war. It enabled Republicans to hold together an unwieldy coalition. At the same time, it became a wedge that ultimately split the Democratic Party.
Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party rode “blindly toward a crisis,” Potter wrote; they refused to see that the South might be in earnest when it threatened to secede. Republicans denied they were abolitionists and knew they harbored no plan to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. White Southern leaders were equally blind in assuming that their rule-or-ruin tactics might sway the Northern electorate. In short, both sides miscalculated perilously. “The South had no idea how ruthlessly its northern Democratic allies were prepared to deal with anyone who tried to tamper with the Union,” Potter observed. Likewise, “The North had no idea how fiercely Southern Unionists who valued the Union for themselves would defend the right of other Southerners to reject it for themselves and to break it up without being molested.” 
Potter had a keen antenna for moral complexity. He knew that many who considered slavery indefensible also loved “a Constitution and a Union which protected it.” The existence of conflicting values constrained him from imposing moral judgments on historical actors. But he well understood the potential power of moral sensibilities. Potter wrote that Stephen A. Douglas, even though no pro-slavery stooge, “did not believe that slavery really mattered very much, because he did not believe that Negroes had enough human affinity with him to make it necessary for him to concern himself with them.” By contrast, Lincoln “believed that slavery mattered, because he recognized a human affinity with blacks which made their plight a necessary matter of concern to him.” But Lincoln’s antislavery sentiments were qualified. He hoped white Southerners might voluntarily come to realize that free labor was more productive than slave labor. He also knew that opponents of slavery had no near-term leverage to change the status quo. Only the unexpected outbreak of war set in motion a dynamic that led to emancipation. 
The historian should try “to see the past through the imperfect eyes of those who lived it and not with his own omniscient twenty-twenty vision,” Potter advised. The Civil War did “result in the preservation of the Union and the abolition of chattel slavery,” but that could not have been known in advance. Hindsight tempts us “to attribute to the participants not only a decision to accept the alternative of a war whose magnitude they could not know, but also to credit them with choosing results which they could not foresee.” 
When Potter reached the pinnacle of his powers during the turbulent 1960s, he stood apart from the rush for engaged scholarship that tried directly to address present concerns. He cautioned against “the use of history to sanction meritorious values” and likewise saw the censure of scapegoats as a diversion from the principal responsibilities historians must shoulder. “Potter did not use history as a vehicle for proving or disproving anything,” noted Mark T. Carleton; his “lifelong commitment to that ideal may be his most important professional legacy.” 
Potter weighed evidence carefully. He used words with exquisite precision. His influence remains formidable almost a half century after his death. His reflection on the work of C. Vann Woodward—warm and generous while also raising hard, searching questions—offers a model for how one historian might best write about another.  Had Michael Landis followed Potter’s wise example, he might have contributed something more worthy of its subject.
 David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942), 9–19, quotation on 18; David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1846–1861, completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 484, 531–32, 553.
 Potter, Impending Crisis, 46, 354.
 David M. Potter, The South and the Sectional Conflict (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), 246.
 David M. Potter, “C. Vann Woodward,” in Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians, ed. Marcus Cunliffe and Robin Winks (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 393; Mark T. Carleton, “David M. Potter,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume Seventeen, Twentieth-Century American Historians, ed. Clyde N. Wilson (Detroit: Gale, 1983), 365.
 Potter, “C. Vann Woodward,” in Pastmasters, ed. Cunliffe and Winks; the essay is reprinted in Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., History and American Society: Essays of David M. Potter (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 135-79.