THE three decades immediately preceding the War Between the States have attracted some of the finest talents in the field of American historical scholarship. Allan Nevins’s Ordeal of the Union would seem destined to become a major contribution to the impressive list of studies dealing with that period of national travail and with its tragic denouement.
The first two volumes of Professor Nevins’s trilogy — he promises the third in a few months — span the eighteen-forties and fifties, with occasional glances ranging backward to the preceding decade. His main narrative, however, begins at General Winfield Scott’s headquarters “on the craggy height of Tacubaya” outside Mexico City, on the September day in 1860 which was to witness the end of the Mexican War. As a point of departure for this brilliant study of the political, social, and economic forces which were to sweep the nation into the grimmest of all civil wars in modern history, the author’s choice is an artistic triumph.
For the rumblings of earlier strife over the twin problems of slavery and preservation of national unity had been portents of danger rather then actual heralds of disaster. This triumph of arms in a war bitterly criticized throughout the young Republic actually opened the floodgates in the dispute between slave state and free.
Ordeal of the Union is both objective and vivacious in its narrative. Some chapters attain the high plateau of historical writing. The chronicle of the great debate in 1850, when Clay emerged from retirement and, abetted by Webster and moderates of all parties, won a resounding if transitory triumph, is an extraordinarily fine performance. The three closely packed chapters devoted to the economic and social impact of slavery upon the Southern states, and upon the country as a whole, carry implications which still trouble our nation.
One of the distinctions of Mr. Nevins’s history is that it touches upon many problems which the reader will identify as still current. The constitutional dilemmas flowing from weakness in the Presidency at times of growing crisis have seldom been set down more cogently than in this story of a succession of leaders, from Polk to Buchanan, who proved inadequate to meet crises. The fracturing of political parties, the quarrels of factions, and the profound and dangerous schisms implicit in sectional extremism stand clearly revealed in Ordeal of the Union as the penalties which any political system must pay it ineptitude at the executive level is matched by complacent evasions, expedients, and shifty opportunism in the legislative branch.
Professor Nevins has sought to present a balanced portrait of the times he depicts. He has succeeded to a notable degree. Richard Green’s admonition that “political history, to be intelligible, and just, must be based upon social history in its largest sense” has been the watchword of the author. He probes the depths as well as the heights; he is by turns the unflinching sociologist and the elucidator of national ideals, the portrayer of epic scenes, and a Hogarth of the roaring forties and fanatical fifties.
This work is excellently indexed in each volume and has some unusually interesting illustrations. It is to be hoped that the scattered typographical errors will be corrected; they have no place in a work of such painstaking skill as this.
JAMES H. POWERS