U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: Reflections on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, part 1

Editor's Note

The following roundtable has been organized by guest editor Michael Landis.


Like the hissing cicadas emerging from their multi-year sleep cycle, the screeching debate over “blame” in the Civil War has returned.  President Trump’s August 2017 comments defending white supremacist violence and condemning the fictional “Alt-Left” have inspired Americans, and especially scholars of the nineteenth century, to do battle once again against Lost Cause mythology.

Public debates over slavery and the Civil War make our blog series on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis (1976) timely indeed, as Potter, too, was interested in causation and blame.  His nearly 600-page book is as close to a comprehensive examination of 1850s partisanship we have yet seen.  But time has not been kind to The Impending Crisis, for new generations of scholars have dramatically revised the antebellum narrative and challenged some of his central arguments and premises.  Nevertheless, Potter still pops up in footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies, not to mention reading lists and syllabi.  He continues to be the go-to author on the politics of the late antebellum era.  To better understand Potter’s persistent popularity and stubborn legacy, I have asked scholars from different backgrounds to offer their perspectives.

Dr. Frank Towers (University of Calgary), an expert on nineteenth US politics and arguably the best authority on the historiography of the “coming of the Civil War,” will provide context for The Impending Crisis and deliver an overview of historical debate before and after Potter (his post is below the fold).  Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt (independent scholar), whose new book on white Southerners has received critical and popular acclaim, will follow-up by analyzing Potter’s treatment of “poor whites” and explaining the connections between The Impending Crisis and Hinton Helper’s 1857 firebomb The Impending Crisis of the South.  Next, we will get the perspective of two graduate students who approach Potter with fresh eyes, so to speak.  Lauren Haumesser (University of Virginia), who is in the midst of her dissertation research on gender and the antebellum Democratic Party, will describe how Potter “opened up avenues of inquiry” for her own work.  Likewise, Rebecca Brenner (American University), a doctoral student of US intellectual history and secretary for S-USIH, will provide her initial reactions to The Impending Crisis, a book she read for the first time for this blog series.  To wrap things up, I will provide a critical analysis of what I consider the book’s deep flaws and Potter’s troublesome biases.

By the end of the “roundtable,” I hope that readers will have both a deeper appreciation for Potter’s influence, as well as a healthy skepticism about his method and conclusions.  Please post your thoughts on each contribution, offer your own experiences with The Impending Crisis, and share them on social media.  These few posts are designed to spark a larger discussion, not only about nineteenth century politics but about the historian’s craft.  Thank you.

Michael Landis

A Latent Classic

by Frank Towers, University of Calgary, author of The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War.

The Impending Crisis might best be understood as a latent classic of Civil War era political history. For roughly twenty years it was known more for David Potter’s writing and command of his subject than for the book’s interpretive power. In more recent times, however, Potter’s themes and methods have flourished, giving The Impending Crisis resonance that few could have foreseen in the immediate aftermath of its publication in 1976, five years after Potter’s death and with the assistance of Don Fehrenbacher who completed and edited the manuscript.

Early reviews by historians such as William Barney and Robert Johannsen praised the book’s depth and narrative power, but they also faulted it for failing to connect the political drama of the 1850s with deeper social forces. That criticism drew on influential studies of plantation slavery and political ideology, particularly Eugene Genovese’s interpretation of the planters as a distinct social class that needed to expand and Eric Foner’s application of small ”r” republican ideology to the capital “R” Republican Party, which revealed a northern majority deeply committed to a “free labor” social order and deeply worried about slaveholders’ threat to that vision. These and other studies from the 1960s and 70s made a compelling case for the inevitability of the Civil War and the importance of social and economic relationships as causal factors.

Potter recognized the centrality of slavery, but he resisted inevitability and fundamental differences. “The slavery issue gave a false clarity and simplicity to sectional diversities which were otherwise qualified and diffuse,” he wrote. “ One might say that the issue structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional; interest diverged” (43).  Slavery was not the basis for a ”glib antithesis” of a “commercial” North and a “feudal” South (42), but rather the focal point for political polarization.

The collapse of the Union came down to a set of contingent actions, the most precipitate being Polk’s decision to invade Mexico and then annex its northern territories. Congressional battles over slavery in these lands meant “the sectionalism of the mid-century expressed itself primarily in political strife” (27). For Potter, the American political system was ill suited to combatting sectional polarization. Frequent elections, southern power in the Senate v. northern dominance in the House, rewards for politicians who played to extremism at the local level, and a general commitment to limited federal action created ideal conditions for sectionalism, once let out of the bottle of prior compromise structures, to overwhelm national politics.

Although never as explicitly stated in The Impending Crisis as in the books of peers like Roy Nichols and David Donald, Potter made inflamed emotions the motive force that overtook rational calculation during the late 1850s. For example, he opened his chapter on Harper’s Ferry by saying “If Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 caused a considerable part of the American public to think about philosophical aspects of slavery, John Brown in 1859 focused attention dramatically on its emotional aspects. The emotional aspects proved to be much the more powerful of the two” (356). Fire-eating secessionists in the Deep South also played on popular emotions. “The crucial fact, as secessionists clearly realized, was that all of the states were acting in an atmosphere of excitement approaching hysteria . . . They seized the momentum of a popular emotional reaction to Lincoln’s election and rode it through astonishing speed” (500-01). Secession owed more to collective emotions than structural factors. “When Lincoln’s election came at last, the people of the slaveholding states were not united in any commitment to southern nationalism . . . but they were united by a sense of terrible danger” (478).

This argument was a reaction against what Potter and others perceived as a stale debate between the deterministic accounts of the Progressive historians, such as Charles and Mary Beard, who explained the Civil War as a clash between an industrial North and an agricultural South, and “needless war” revisionists like Avery Craven who argued that slavery would have faded away but for a blundering generation of inept politicians goaded on by fanatics. The argument for a collective panic not only gave historical actors more complexity than being pawns of regional economies or simply inept, it also drew on recent work in behavioral psychology and functionalist sociology that treated social and institutional stability as normative and regarded insurgent challenges as deviant.

By 1976, structural functionalism and psycho-historical analysis had given way to cultural anthropology, neo-Marxism, and an array of other theories that looked for the internal logic of past societies and avoided judgments about rationality and normality. In this intellectual climate, The Impending Crisis had less influence on the interpretation of coming of the Civil War than did work by Foner, Barney, Mills Thornton, William Cooper, Michael Holt, Daniel Crofts and William Freehling that continued to place politicians at the center of the story but connected those actors to larger frameworks such as ideology and social class. In these studies, the electorate and its experience of social change played a causal role not afforded to it by Potter’s generation.

And yet, The Impending Crisis endures. Any reader conversant with recent works on the coming of the Civil War will recognize current themes in Potter’s work. Beginning with Edward Ayers’ In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003), the case for contingency has flourished. Similarly, traditional studies of the political elite and key moments are thriving. For example, Russell McClintock’s Lincoln and the Decision for War (2008) revisits Potter’s earlier book on Lincoln during the secession crisis. Along with a shelf of Lincoln studies, party leaders have been the subject of books by Sean Wilentz, Rachel Shelden and Michael Landis. Critical events like the election of 1860 and Bleeding Kansas have been revisited in collected essays and individual monographs. In 2014, Michael Woods’ prize-winning Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States re-examined the importance of emotions in late antebellum politics. Perhaps the greatest delayed impact of Potter’s work has been the renewed interest in national allegiance in the sectional crisis. Paul Quigley, Robert Bonner, Anne Rubin, Andre Fleche, Michael O’Brien, Peter and Nicholas Onuf, among others have brought nationalism back to forefront of explaining the collapse of the Union as well as its ultimate endurance. None of the scholars listed above cites Potter as their primary inspiration, nor do they replicate his ideas in their entirety, but careful readers will find traces of the lines of argument laid out by Potter almost a half century ago.

To briefly speculate about why The Impending Crisis seems more relevant now than in the late 1970s, some of the change reflects the decline of the late twentieth century scholarly consensus about inevitability and southern distinctiveness. Without agreement on the fundamental conflict between a slave South and a free North, historians have returned to more open-ended explanations of the Civil War’s causes. Another reason relates to events outside the academy. Potter’s story of politics polarizing a nation that had previously been bound together by a common culture and economy seems eerily familiar to the present. Whatever one’s point of entry into studying the 1850s, The Impending Crisis remains an engrossing account that will yield fresh insights even to veteran readers of the period’s history.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I was in the last class Potter taught at Stanford, just a few weeks before he died. He said many memorable things,and one of the most memorable was when he told us grad students to take every word of Lincoln’s with the utmost seriousness. His example was “All believed that slavery was somehow the cause of the war”–if my my memory serves me on the exact quote.

  2. I have a few corrections and additional thoughts about my post.

    First, I am in error when I say that “None of the scholars listed above cites Potter as their primary inspiration.” In his 2003 book _In the Presence of Mine Enemies_, Ed Ayers says that “David Potter, more than any other scholar, has influenced my approach” (428).

    Thanks to Dan Crofts for bringing his quote to my attention.

    Thanks also to John Quist who steered me to an interesting long review of The Impending Crisis written by Michael Holt in 1977. It provides valuable insights into how the book was received immediately after its publication. http://www.vqronline.org/problem-civil-war-causation.

    In another testament to the The Impending Crisis’s reception, it should be noted it won the Pulitzer Prize for History.

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