Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews



Union & Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era. Edited

by David W. Blight and Brooks D. Simpson. (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State

University Press, 1997. x + 231p.; illustrations, notes, selected bibliography,

index. $35.00.)


Examining the impact of slavery and race on American politics and culture dur-

ing the decades surrounding the Civil War, this collection of essays is especially

useful for scholars of northern party politics in the 1850s.

In the first of three essays on partisan ideology during the late antebellum era,

Robert E. May assesses the validity of Free Soil and Republican party claims that

American presidents were tacitly permitting private military expeditions designed

to spread slavery south of the United States. May demonstrates the falsehood of

these charges by documenting numerous efforts by Presidents Polk, Taylor,

Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan to prevent southern filibustering operations. May

fails, however, to account for Pierce's recognition in 1856 of William Walker's

filibuster regime in Nicaragua. Overall, though, May's exhaustive examination

succeeds in highlighting the exaggerated, paranoiac nature of antislavery politi-

cians' rhetoric about a Slave Power conspiracy.

Michael J. McManus's study expands the portrait of antebellum Republican

party ideology that has emerged from the scholarship of Eric Foner, Michael F.

Holt, and William E. Gienapp. Throughout the late 1850s, reveals McManus, the

Wisconsin Republican party justified its opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of

1850 by invoking the states' rights doctrine that historians typically associate

with the nineteenth-century Democratic party. The hostility toward national au-

thority that McManus discovers in the Wisconsin Republican party of the late

1850s suggests an explanation for the Republicans' willingness to endorse poli-

cies, such as congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories, that clearly

had the potential to disrupt the union. The important implications of this analy-

sis underscore the need for additional research on the pre-Civil War Republican or-

ganizations of other northern states.

Peter Knupfer illuminates the philosophy of the short-lived Constitutional

Union party of 1860. Citing the national party platform's advocacy of the union

and the Constitution, traditional historiography summarily characterizes the par-

ty's stance as an anachronistic evasion of the slavery issue without fully describ-

ing  the party's ideological perspective.  The recurring  message of the

Constitutional Union campaign, exposes Knupfer, was that the preservation of

the federal union depended on a return to a form of party politics that addressed

economic issues and excluded the sectionally divisive question of slavery.

Knupfer's insightful study would have been even more informative had it delin-

eated the party's political economic program.

The essays in this volume discuss not only electoral politics but also the policy

decisions of civil and military leaders during the Civil War era. Emphasizing the

primary role that the slaves themselves played in prompting President Lincoln to

issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Ira Berlin convincingly argues that slaves

proved to Lincoln their value to the Union war effort by fleeing to Union lines and

offering vital services to the Federal army. Berlin lucidly recapitulates the thesis

of scholars such as Vincent Harding and Barbara J. Fields, but could have offered a