U.S. Intellectual History Blog

More Reflections on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis

Editor's Note

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.

David M. Potter: A Brief Appreciation

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.” [1]

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. [2]

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.” [3]

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.” [4]

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. [5]  Had Michael Landis followed Potter’s wise example, he might have contributed something more worthy of its subject.

[1] 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.

[2] Potter, Impending Crisis, 46, 354.

[3] David M. Potter, The South and the Sectional Conflict (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), 246.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Historians of the early American republic will recognize the following narrative concerning race and slavery between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The ideal of universal equality contained within the Declaration of Independence unleashed what Bernard Bailyn termed a “contagion of liberty” which led to a flowering of Revolutionary antislavery. During the American Revolution, emancipation was effected in the North, slavery was banned (technically) in the Northwest Territory, manumissions occurred in the Upper South, and the Atlantic slave trade was banned.

    After this flurry of activity, there is exists a great lull. There was the “firebell in the night” of the Missouri Controversy, but other than a few African-American activists, and the Garrisonian abolitionists, there exists a great vacuum of antislavery agitation until the 1850s. Historians therefore try to answer the question of “Why was there no antislavery agitation during this period?” Historians are good at describing what happened, but are often on perilous interpretive ground when asking why something that “should” happen does not. The most famous example of this type of question is the “Why is there no socialism in America?” When historians ask this type of question, there is a natural inclination to adopt a consensus answer. There is no socialism because of a Hartzian consensus. The solution for the sudden demise of Revolutionary antislavery is a hardening racist consensus which puts the kibosh on any abolitionist reforms. If there was such racist consensus, why did abolitionists even attempt to effect emancipation in the first place? We have numerous studies on the emancipation movements in the North states showing the conditions necessary for success which were not available when Potter’s book was published in the 1970s.

    The other interpretive problem that occurs by accepting this template for explaining the Civil War, is explaining the tinderbox of the 1850s. The default interpretations are either that the conflict was unavoidable due to structural differences in the Northern and Southern societies, or that a bunch of blundering politicians replaced the great statesmen who died off shortly after the Compromise of 1850. Neither of these historical cliches are satisfying in terms of explanatory power.

    David Potter’s book is by no means unique. It is very much an example of his generation. Staughton Lynd in one of the essays within Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution wrote that Beard and Turner’s progressive interpretations pushed slavery to the side in favor of other more important issues. During the 20th century the historical profession dutifully followed their lead. Also there existed a certain level of racial prejudice within the genteel halls of academia which still existed into the 1960s and 70s. (Even as recently as last year, a major Presidential candidate was regurgitating the Dunning school interpretation.) Potter’s book was written before Nathan Huggins wrote his masterful, “The Deforming Mirror of Truth: Slavery and the Master Narrative of American History. In my opinion, the book has too many flaws to be of use for reasons other than historiographical.

    The question begs asking. “Why is it still being assigned today?” Is it simply due to “path dependency” much like the QWERTY typewriter keyboard, or is it because the historical profession, deep down craves “ideological discipline” as was shown in physicist Jeff Schmidt’s delightful book on academic professionals entitled, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives.

    There is a flowering of really good studies of slavery in the early republic and the political battles over antislavery being produced by numerous young scholars such as Matthew Mason, John Craig Hammond, Richard Newman, Padraig Riley, and Donald Ratcliffe which show the ongoing conflict concerning slavery from 1787 onward.

  2. Manisha Sinha’s magisterial “The Slave’s Cause” puts to rest any question about anti-slavery vigor from the colonial era through the Civil War. Potter and his adherents are loathe to recognize it.

    • I think you’ve set up a false dichotomy here, Michael. To begin with, many folks who admire Potter (myself included) are not, in fact, “loathe to recognize” Manisha Sinha’s masterful The Slave’s Cause (it’s true David Potter himself did not, but I would think that would be hard to do from the grave). I cannot speak for all of Potter’s “adherents” as you call them, but I personally think Manisha’s book is among the 4 or 5 best monographs of the last year. In other words, it is not difficult to see the benefits of Potter’s thinking and scholarship (particularly on nationalism and southern-ness) while also recognizing major moves in the field over the course of the last 40 years. Which leads to the second point, that Potter was a master thinker and logician, but he was also very much a product of his time. I don’t agree that he is “biased against abolitionists” but even if you did assume that premise, it is wise to consider the historiographical context in which he was writing. In other words, Potter himself was not a scholar of abolitionism and therefore no doubt relied on the work of his fellow scholars so as not to reinvent the wheel (as we all still do). Thus, understanding his approach to the abolitionists also requires understanding what the dominant themes within abolitionist scholarship were in the 1960s (as Potter died in 1971) — and much of this literature (though of course not all) painted abolitionist motives in a lesser light. The turn in antislavery scholarship may have begun in the 1960s, but solidified mostly in the years after Potter’s death (eg: Walters, The Antislavery Appeal (1978); and Stewart’s important book, Holy Warriors (1976)). Undoubtedly the scholarship on abolitionism itself has changed so much even since then — all for the better — that we cannot ascribe our improved modern understanding to a book written almost half a century ago. All of us rely on other scholarship that defines our moment; 50 years from now we will be judged in similar terms. Are we to stop reading old books simply because they are outdated or wrong in some ways, in part because the supporting literature has changed? I think Potter must be understood in context but his skill and logic are worthy of our admiration.

  3. Dr. Crofts makes excellent observations about Potter’s overall work and his nuanced approach to social/political crises. However, Dr. Crofts fails to address my central argument that _The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861_ is biased against abolitionists.

  4. In his separate post, Erik Alexander notes that the five original entries on this blog series offer different assessments of what Potter actually argued in TIC. I agree with Erik that Potter’s work can be “a notoriously challenging read,” especially for anyone seeking a concise and consistently argued thesis. Indicative of this frustration, in his otherwise praiseworthy 1977 review of TIC Michael Holt said “Potter never provides an explicit answer” to the book’s primary question: “why the long-standing sectional conflict over slavery became so disruptive in the 1850’s?” The same might be said of Potter’s views on the antislavery movement, the subject of Michael Landis criticism of the book.

    Potter’s insistence on looking at history from all sides combined with length of TIC, make his discussion of antislavery one of several themes open to contrasting readings. I went back to the book and found a lot more nuance than indicated in the short excerpts Michael provided. (In Michael’s defense, we were constrained by word count limits). From that reading I’m not convinced of Potter’s “bias against abolitionists.”

    When Potter talked about antislavery he emphasized its varieties, most importantly the difference between immediate abolitionists, motivated by justice and morality, versus free-soilers and gradual emancipationists, who were more interested in removing African Americans from areas of white settlement and feared slaveholders’ political and economic power. I think this distinction is lost when Michael says that Potter “reduces [abolitionism] to mere ‘anti-Negro’ sentiment.”

    To see the complexity of Potter’s views on antislavery I recommend his extended discussion of abolitionism in chapter 2 (esp. pp.36-41), which Michael also cites. On page 36 Potter distinguishes between the racist self-interested motives of gradual emancipationists and free soilers and those of “a handful of militant abolitionists” who weren’t motivated by racism. If we stopped here Potter would be endorsing the widely held interpretation of the North’s politics as divided between an abolitionist vanguard and a more conservative free-soil coalition that came to dominate the Republican Party that was more popular because it pandered to white prejudice.

    But he doesn’t end up there. In fact, Potter went on to criticize this standard view of northern politics. On the next pages (38-41) he breaks from his own claim about the nation’s uniformity to say “the people of the North did differ profoundly from those of the South in their attitudes towards slavery” (38). After narrating the growth of northern opposition to slavery, and describing “the antislavery movement” as a “powerful force in American life,” Potter says it grew in strength “because so many people sensed that slavery presented a giant contradiction to the two most basic American values–equality and freedom–and the to the Christian concept of the brotherhood of man” (41). This conclusion jars with an assessment of TIC as “essentially a rehashing of the old Southern, racist canard” about abolitionism.

    Potter’s emphasis on racism also plays out in the passage about the Underground Railroad in which he says “The historian must not be too impatient with the popular yearning to find drama in the past and fabricate it where it is lacking” (137). Rather than denigrating all abolitionists activism, here he disputes contemporary claims that put Underground RR assisted escapes in the tens of thousands annually. Potter argued, based on his own census calculations, that escapes were closer to 1,000/year. He makes this point with dismissive language, and as a matter of style readers may dislike Potter’s tendency to these offhand judgments, not to mention his outmoded use of the term “Negro.” But what was he saying on page 137 about antislavery?

    Here is the next sentence. “One of the regrettable aspects of the underground railroad is that, while escalating the role of the abolitionists, who seldom risked a great deal, it has drawn attention away from the heroism of the fugitives themselves, who often staked their lives against incredible odds.”

    If anything, Potter anticipates a point common to more recent scholarship that emphasizes the agency of African Americans in the antislavery movement. This is a major theme of Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause. Potter does much, much less with black activism than does Sinha, however. On that score his emphasis on political leaders to the neglect of disenfranchised Americans working through civil society shows the book’s age and conceptual limits. But those choices of method do not add up to the sweeping charge that TIC recycled proslavery critiques of the immediatists.

    As Dan Crofts notes, Potter “had a keen antenna for moral complexity.” Potter also emphasized contingency and rarely sided wholeheartedly with any of the historiographic trends of his time or of earlier ones. These tendencies make his work frustrating to categorize and full of unique insights and ideas that have been more fully developed by subsequent scholars. Therefore, I’ll return to my original conclusion and say that, as this series and its responses are demonstrating, there’s much to be learned by reading TIC, even if you disagree with it.

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