The best books about the run-up to the American Civil War

James Traub Author Of What Was Liberalism?: The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea
By James Traub

The Books I Picked & Why

Ordeal of the Union, Vol. 1: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852

By Allan Nevins

Ordeal of the Union, Vol. 1: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852

Why this book?

The epic, multi-volume work of one of America's great mid-century historians. An old-fashioned work of immense erudition, vivid narrative, decisive judgment. Never before or since have so many great and consequential speeches been delivered in Congress; Nevins furnishes every one of them with suitable embellishment. Vols. 2-4 (in the 8-volume version) offer wonderful set pieces on the great events of the time--the Kansas-Nebraska debate, the Dred Scott case, the rise and election of Abraham Lincoln.


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The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

By Eric Foner

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Why this book?

Perhaps the most fundamental fact about Lincoln is how very much he changed. Frederick Douglass recognized that the Lincoln of 1865 was committed to the abolition of slavery as the Lincoln of 1861 was not. Foner takes us through the development of a canny politician prepared to live with a practice he deplored to the candidate of a party committed to ending slavery's expansion to a President who fully plumbed the moral horror of America's founding sin.


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Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era

By Nicole Etcheson

Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era

Why this book?

Americans experienced a kind of practice round of the Civil War when both Southern and  Northern settlers flocked into Kansas--the first determined to make it a slave state, the second, a free one. The savage political and military conflict left both sides convinced that the nation could not, in fact, survive half slave and half free. Bleeding Kansas, though a work of serious scholarship, draws heavily on the letters and diaries of those settlers to depict an irreconcilable clash of rival ideologies, ambitions, characters; you would not want to be caught in a bar with the drunken lowlifes who poured across the border from Missouri to rig elections on behalf of slave-owners.


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The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

By Andrew Delbanco

The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

Why this book?

Even now we can't quite help thinking that America could have ended slavery without fighting a monstrous war. Delbanco argues that war was not only unavoidable--hardly, in fact, a controversial proposition--but that what made it so was not Kansas-Nebraska or Dred Scott but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Once Congress agreed that slave-owners could pursue escaped slaves into free territory, and mobilize the federal government to track them down, Northerners got to see first-hand just what it meant to treat humans as chattel. Those sickening scenes helped bring the Republican Party into existence and made its cause that of the North.


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"There Is a North": Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War

By John L. Brooke

"There Is a North": Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War

Why this book?

Southerners rarely spoke of "the South" until slavery began to be threatened in the 1840s; slavery made the South. The North was far more fragmented--until an anti-slavery culture took hold in the 1850s. Brooke is highly sensitive to the role of popular culture in forging that consensus--not just Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most influential novel in American history, but local theatricals and the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier. Here was the original, unbridgeable division between red and blue states.


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