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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Department of Book Reports 58: 1858

It’s back to the non-fiction shelves with a nifty popular history, Bruce Chadwick’s 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See (Sourcebooks $24.95). That year was not just any normal year in the nation’s history. It was the year that the smoldering issue of slavery emerged as the dominant issue facing the country.

Following the Mexican War, the United States now spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific. With that expansion, the North and South began the argument of whether the ceded territories would be free or slave; and how that would be decided. “Bleeding Kansas” was smoldering with two different state constitutions being promoted. John Brown fought a guerrilla war against the pro-slavery factions there. In 1857, the Supreme Court, led by Roger Taney, issued the Dred Scott Decision, probably the worst decision ever made by that institution with Plessey v. Fergusson, and Gore v. Bush running a close second and third. 1858 was also an election year. In Illinois, Honest Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the Little Giant and the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee for 1860, held their series of debates as they ran for the U.S. Senate seat.

Chadwick traces this history with short biographies of the people mentioned in the subtitle, as well as William Tecumseh Sherman, William Seward and John Brown. Their personal relationships are discussed (Seward and Davis were close friends in spite of their conflicting views on slavery), and shows how it reflected the tenor of the times.

At the story’s center is President James Buchanan, a man with an impressive resume. He had served in the Pennsylvania legislature, in both the U.S. House and Senate, as minister to Russia and, later, Great Britain, as well as serving as Secretary of State in the Polk Administration. Yet in his single term as President, he managed to anger everyone and anyone he encountered. Lost in his own small world and mind, Buchanan believed the Dred Scott decision had settled the matter of slavery forever. He feuded with Stephen Douglas, working to stop Douglas’ reelection. He attempted to annex Cuba. He nearly came to a fighting war with Paraguay. Paraguay? At a time when Lincoln is giving his “a house divided” speech, and the country clearly heading towards a major meltdown, this President wants to go to war with a landlocked Latin American country. George W. Bush was not the first president to be completely delusional, believing the righteousness of his positions, and that History would absolve him. This history resonates today. Chadwick is a fine writer, and the book is an absorbing read.

This book was blurbed by yours truly for the April Book Sense picks. It is available at Jackson Street Books and fine Independent Bookstores everywhere!

democommie™™™™®© tells me that he couldn’t put 1858 down and read it in one sitting.

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