The following guest post by Erik B. Alexander, assistant professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, is yet another response to our roundtable on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis.
The recent roundtable, “Reflections on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis,” organized by Michael Landis, offers assessments and critiques of Potter’s work from several different perspectives, and from a range of scholars at different stages of their careers. It is interesting that this collection of essays has produced several divergent—even contradictory—views of Potter’s arguments. Most of the essays comment on Potter’s place in the extensive historiography of the coming of the Civil War, with at least two claiming that “Potter sides with the fundamentalists: he recognizes that slavery caused the Civil War” and that he “puts a very heavy emphasis on the issue of slavery as responsible for” the emergence of the Republican Party. Frank Towers also points out that “Potter recognized the centrality of slavery” because it was “the focal point for political polarization.” Yet, in a different essay, Potter simultaneously “underemphasizes slavery” and “deflects attention from the institution of slavery as the primary catalyst for the war.” Some of the essays laud Potter’s influence and relevance for current questions about antebellum politics and the coming of the Civil War. Others sharply reprove Potter’s staying power in modern scholarship and classrooms. How are we to reconcile some of these conflicting views?
Scholars rightfully recognize Potter’s The Impending Crisis as his posthumous opus (though as my friend Rachel Shelden pointed out to me in conversation recently, any serious evaluation of the book must account for the substantial role Don Fehrenbacher played in shaping its final form). Interestingly enough, however, it may not actually be Potter’s most important piece of writing. Rather, that honor arguably belongs to Potter’s 1962 essay “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa.”  Many of the themes that would come to dominate Potter’s later work and thinking—especially The Impending Crisis, but also his 1968 The South and the Sectional Conflict—first appeared in that earlier essay.  There, he explored some of the ideas so central to his scholarship, in particular questions of nationalism, and how the problem of hindsight can affect the historian’s craft. The essay subsequently became enormously influential in a wide range of fields, particularly in shaping the current scholarly consensus that has identified the shared commitment among white Southerners to Confederate nationalism during the Civil War. 
The article is a tour de force of pure logic, and a notoriously challenging read. Potter pointed out a number of paradoxes and problems of circular reasoning in the ways scholars then approached questions surrounding nationalism. Some of these problems were small, such as “the historian who defines all the land within a given national jurisdiction as a ‘common territory’ and then uses the concept that is a common territory to prove the validity of the national jurisdiction” (Potter pointed out the irony that Detroit and San Francisco are connected by common territory, while Detroit and Toronto are not).  Others were more basic problems, such as the hindsight of historical perspective determining whether one views a revolution as a war of independence carried out by patriots, or a rebellion and insurrection carried out by traitors.
Parts of the essay now seem quite dated, as cultural anthropology and other fields have substantially expanded our understanding and definitions of nationalism. Yet, there are also parts of Potter’s arguments that now seem more relevant than ever. Potter was particularly concerned with the problem of hindsight. Even more specifically, Potter cautioned against the ways in which applying morality and evaluative judgments to the past can lead to inconsistencies in historical analysis. As Potter argued, allowing the hindsight of moral judgments to cloud historical thinking “sometimes impels the historian to deny nationality to groups of whom he morally disapproves, even though the group may in every sense fulfill his theoretical criteria of nationality.” Potter found this approach “questionable” because it “makes it difficult for the historian to attribute nationality to movements of which he morally disapproves. For the attribution itself would imply that the movement has a kind of validity. This factor has certainly influenced the treatment of the question whether the Confederacy was a nation, for the issue between the Union and the Confederacy also became an issue between freedom and slavery. To ascribe nationality to the South is to validate the right of a proslavery movement to autonomy and self-determination.” 
Thus, in my estimation, Potter’s interest in nationalism was twofold. First, as Dan Crofts notes, Potter “had a special interest in the glue that holds societies together,” and particularly in why that glue lost its adhesive power in the United States during the 1840s and 1850s (here, Michael Landis raises an important question as to whether or not that glue was always as strong as Potter believed—it certainly would not have been from the vantage point of the enslaved). Second, Potter was deeply apprehensive about applying hindsight to nationalism. For Potter, combining historical analysis with moral judgments could lead to inconsistent and faulty reasoning, and the application of double standards.
Though, to my knowledge, Potter never used the term, the fundamental problem he was describing was presentism—interpreting the past through the lens of modern values and standards. This problem presents itself in the essay by Michael Landis. Landis rejects Potter’s emphasis on Unionism, and the importance of the concept and value of pro-Union sentiments to so many Americans living in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, for Landis, Unionism was, “by implication, the rule of the Slave Power.” The problem with this approach rests with Landis’s clear suggestion that historical actors who adhered to anything but strict anti-slavery sentiment and modern standards of racial equality were, by definition, part of the pro-slavery side, and therefore unworthy of anything but immediate and utter condemnation, much less any kind of serious consideration or analysis. Further, Landis dismisses any historian (or historical figure for that matter) who does not agree with this approach as a Southern sympathizer.
David Potter spent much of his scholarly career contemplating the hazards that accompany this very style of thinking, correctly emphasizing that such an approach is fraught with logical pitfalls. In The Impending Crisis, Potter’s interpretation combined elements of both the fundamentalist and revisionist approaches to the debate over Civil War causation. He recognized the centrality of slavery and reasserted that the sectional conflict contained an inherent disagreement over the institution’s morality. At the same time, he also rejected the fundamentalists’ logical slippery slope of inevitability, and instead embraced a neo-revisionist emphasis on the importance of historical contingency and timing to explaining the causes of the war. Indeed, it is that latter focus on historical timing that influenced the thinking of so many important scholars who followed him, as Frank Towers’s thoughtful (and in my estimation, accurate) essay suggests.
Lamentably, like so many of the original revisionists and other scholars of Potter’s generation, race and emancipation were not as central to his understanding of the past as they are for historians writing today. Yet, rather than condemning his views for falling short of our own, is it not preferable to attempt to put them in context? Much of the point underlying the original revisionism was the view of its proponents that the Civil War was not something we should celebrate. This was not because Potter and others were unabashed racists or pro-slavery apologists. They viewed the war as “needless”—and therefore a tragedy—because the most current scholarship at the time argued that slavery would have disappeared on its own (indeed, it was only the revelation of slavery studies in the 1970s that slavery was in fact growing stronger that pushed later neo-revisionists to abandon the idea that the Civil War was unnecessary). Instead, for Potter and others writing at midcentury, the Civil War was a tragedy because the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans was not something they took lightly.
I wonder if this is a point that should continue to weigh on our minds, even as we rightfully remain focused on the destruction of slavery. For Potter and others, writing in the midst of two world wars, the value of Union was simply not the same thing as the acceptance or celebration of pro-slavery sentiments. Potter’s “middle ground” was not “pro-slavery Unionism” and compromise was not the appeasement of enslavers. Rather, the importance of Union was an acknowledgment of what disunion would come to mean: a profound loss of life and limb. Perhaps we are seeing a partial return to that view, with the recent scholarly turn among military historians to the “dark side” of the Civil War. 
Nevertheless, equating compromise with appeasement, and pro-Union with pro-slavery, prevents us from recognizing the uncomfortable reality that there were many Americans in the 1850s—likely the vast majority of white Northerners—who strongly opposed slavery, yet simultaneously valued the Union, and were willing to accept—and even defend—the contradiction of a Union with slavery (a point clearly demonstrated in Elizabeth Varon’s 2008 Disunion!).  David Potter recognized that they did not equate pro-Union with pro-slavery. Potter’s emphasis on Union and compromise was the consequence of his attempt to see the conflict from their perspective, and that perspective is lost when we impose our own moral standards on the past.
Admittedly, that perspective did not always include the marginalized and enslaved. While it may be unfortunate that Potter and others were not as attuned to problems of race, or to the many roles that four million enslaved African Americans played in the very historical problems he spent his entire career studying, lost in this sustained critique of Potter is any sense of the historical context in which he was writing. Potter did not benefit from the incredible explosion of scholarship in the last fifty years in social and cultural history, with the added perspectives of race, class, and gender, which have so fundamentally transformed our understanding of the past. So, yes, our understandings of the South, the institution of slavery, African-American agency, the Underground Railroad, and the abolitionist movement have all been dramatically revised by the fine work of so many talented historians, including Stephanie Camp, Edward Baptist, Eric Foner, and Manisha Sinha, to name just a few.  Yet, to fault Potter for failing to anticipate the insights that would come nearly a half-century after his death strikes me as grossly unfair. Questioning whether Potter’s work should still receive pride of place in our scholarship and classrooms given what we have learned in the forty-one years since its publication is an important, and legitimate, discussion. I would argue, however, that it makes better sense to frame that conversation around the insights later work has provided, rather than the ways in which Potter’s work fell short of those insights.
The duality presented by the Civil War is the celebration of the end of slavery accompanied by the simultaneous recognition of the cost in human life that came with it. David Potter was well aware of this dilemma. He did “not mean to deny the priority of moral values” as he acknowledged the war “may well be justified by the emancipation of 3,950,000 slaves.”  Rather, Potter suggested that whatever standards we choose to use when we evaluate the past, we do so impartially. Ironically, much of what this roundtable on David Potter could have used, is a heavy dose of David Potter himself.
 David M. Potter, “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” The American Historical Review 67 (4) (July 1962):924–950.
 See David M. Potter, The South and the Sectional Conflict (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968).
 On this point, see Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), chapter 2, esp. 69–70.
 Potter, “Historian’s Use of Nationalism,” 933.
 Ibid., 932, 940.
 On this point, see the helpful review essay by Yael Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented? The Anti-War Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3 (2) (June 2013):239–256.
 Elizabeth Varon, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789–1859 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Echoing Edward L. Ayers, Varon also does a masterful job of pushing the question of Civil War causation beyond the constraints of the fundamentalist/revisionist debate.
 See Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014); Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015); and Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016).
 Potter, “Historian’s Use of Nationalism,” 941n16.