U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reflections on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, part 3

The following is part three in our ongoing roundtable on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. For part one, by Frank Towers, go here. For part two, by Keri Leigh Merritt, go here.

Gendered Political Rhetoric and the Coming Civil War

By Lauren N. Haumesser, a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Virginia who specializes in nineteenth-century gender history.

Published in 1976, David Potter’s The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 chronicles the dramatic, chaotic, and ultimately tragic events that led to the American Civil War. It has stood the test of time. To undergraduate students or anyone else studying the 1850s for the first time, Potter’s work offers a clear, detailed narrative of the decade. To scholars, Impending Crisis offers something even greater: a compelling argument that slavery caused the Civil War, and a call to historians to examine why and how it did. Decades of scholarship has sprung from this fertile ground.

Before Potter wrote, a debate raged among historians. What, exactly, had caused the Civil War? Historians divided themselves into two camps. Fundamentalists argued that slavery had created profound ideological, economic, and cultural differences between the North and the South. Echoing New York Republican William Seward’s 1858 description of sectional tensions as an “irrepressible conflict,” these historians argued that the differences between the two sections led irrevocably to war. Revisionists disagreed. Arguing that the North and South did not differ profoundly in terms of ideology, culture, or economy, the revisionists instead alternately blamed bumbling politicians (like James Buchanan) or sectional extremists (like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison or fire-eater William Yancey) for exacerbating otherwise manageable problems.

In Impending Crisis, Potter sides with the fundamentalists: he recognizes that slavery caused the Civil War. But he does so in a way that incorporates the revisionists’ valid concern for historical contingency. Moral conflict alone did not cause the war. Some northerners and southerners had disagreed on the morality of slavery for decades, and yet war did not break out until 1861. Potter argues that debates over the expansion of slavery between 1848 and 1861 brought that moral conflict into the political sphere and ultimately tore the country in two.

By asking not whether slavery caused the sectional conflict but rather why and how it did, Potter laid the groundwork for decades of productive research. While Potter argued that the politicization of slavery catalyzed the conflict, Edward Ayers has called for “deep contingency,” which Ayers describes as understanding “society as a whole, its soft structures of ideology, culture, and faith as well as its hard structures of economics and politics.” [1] Debates over slavery’s extension were divisive, but political rhetoric (as Elizabeth Varon demonstrates), religion (as Mark Noll argues), and gender and class relations (as Stephanie McCurry proves), made those conflicts even harder to solve.[2]

Indeed, Potter’s work has opened up avenues of inquiry that Potter himself may not have been able to imagine in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I owe the ability to do my work—on gendered political rhetoric and the Democratic Party—equally to Potter and to feminist historians and theorists who wrote decades after Potter passed away.

Disagreeing over how to manage slavery’s expansion, northern and southern Democrats nominated separate candidates in 1860, handing the election to Lincoln and precipitating southern secession. Historians, including Potter, agree that the Democratic Party’s collapse hastened the coming of the Civil War. Just as Potter asks why the Civil War happened when it did, I had to ask: why did the Democratic Party split when it did? As late as 1856, the Democratic Party held together as a national institution, and northerners and southerners were able to unite to nominate and elect a Democratic president. So what happened in 1860? My work argues that gendered political rhetoric initially helped paper over Democrats’ disagreements about slavery’s extension, but that same rhetoric ultimately exacerbated those same disagreements by 1860-61.

Take, for instance, secessionist sentiment in the months following Lincoln’s election. As Potter argues, maintaining slavery had always required a relatively conservative, static society. “The more speculative a society became in its social thought,” Potter argues, “the more readily it might challenge the tenets of the established order.”[3] So the South tended toward cultural orthodoxy—including, I argue, in terms of gender norms, which emphasized patriarchal control of households.

But here is my contribution to our understanding of deep contingency. There had long been differences between southern slave society and northern free society. Since 1856, however, northern Democrats had joined southern Democrats in caricaturing Republicans as social radicals who wanted to impose a program of woman’s rights, free love, and abolition on the South. Though northern Democrats frantically tried to walk back this rhetoric after the election, it was no use: southern Democrats had come to believe their society was profoundly different from, superior to, and under threat northern free society. By combining a gendered appeal with a political one, southern secessionists pushed wavering southern moderates toward war.

Other historians may disagree with my use of evidence or with the conclusions I draw. But because of Potter, I do not have to justify my basic premise: that slavery caused the Civil War, and that we need to know more about how and why it did so. For that, I am thankful.

[1] Edward L. Ayers, What Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 143.

[2] Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[3] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 456.

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  1. It is worth noting that even if all three of Lincoln’s competitors had united (and Herculean efforts were made to this end at the state level), Lincoln would still have won the election.

  2. Lauren, I think you are right on about gender rhetoric. The issue of “free love,” and how ever that is defined from allowing divorce to unrestrained sexuality, has been a constant implicit theme (at times becoming explicit) in the debates between conservative and progressive political forces. One could write a book on the many lives of “free love” in American social and political discourse. The issue of political freedom for women is tied to ideas about sexual freedom and the meaning of her body. Your work is an excellent contribution to thinking about gender in American thought.

  3. There’s one problem with this piece. It presumes the Democratic split was the cause of Lincoln’s victory, as Michael already notes.

    Not so.

    Add the popular vote of Douglas, Breckenridge AND Constitutional Union candidate John Bell Hood together. Assuming normal winner-take-all by state on the electoral college, Lincoln still wins, 169-134.

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