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David M. Potter’s scholarship explains how the North saw Southern rhetoric as ‘crying wolf’

David M. Potter’s work has influenced me throughout my professional career. While in graduate school, I read Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1942; revised edition, 1962), The South and the Sectional Conflict (1968), which included a version of Potter’s brilliant essay titled “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” and The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (1976), a volume in the prestigious New American Nation series. All three revealed Potter’s gifts for writing analytical narratives, explaining complex issues clearly, and highlighting the need to engage historical actors within the circumstances of their eras. 

Lincoln and His Party alerted me to what Potter calls “the fallacy of reading history backward.” I refer to it as the “Appomattox syndrome,” the phenomenon of beginning with the end of a historical story firmly in mind and then searching back in the evidence to understand what happened. This approach almost always obscures at least as much as it reveals and promotes a sense of historical inevitability historians should try to avoid. 

Potter’s works should be studied by anyone interested in the war’s meaning. (Courtesy of Emory University)

In Lincoln and His Party, Potter cautions about assuming that Republican leaders, as they debated how to deal with threats of secession in 1860, must have known that war was possible. “Inasmuch as they had been the first to foresee an ‘Irrepressible Conflict,’” he remarks regarding a common perception about Republicans, “it seems implausible that they should have been the last to recognize that the conflict was on the eve of materializing.” Historians and lay readers who knew battles such as Shiloh and Gettysburg followed secession and establishment of the Confederacy found it “scarcely credible that the Republicans should have been so oblivious to the impending tragedy.”

But Potter’s discussion of evidence reveals how Republicans could have misjudged the likelihood of secession and war. Sources from the time indicate “that the only reliable indices of the future were the warnings of secession which came from Southern politicians, editors, and legislators”—and Republicans, as well as Democrats, had “long experience of Southern threats which had never led to action. For thirty years the Republic had flourished and expanded under constant threats of dissolution.” President James Buchanan remarked in 1856 that Southern members of his Democratic Party “have so often cried ‘wolf’…that it is difficult to make people believe it.” Three years later, a Republican congressman from Indiana somewhat humorously alluded to how “our Southern friends have dissolved the Union forty or fifty times.”

First to last, judges Potter, Republicans sought to find a nonmilitary solution to the sectional crisis. At first doubtful that secession would come and subsequently convinced that unionism among Southerners “would restore their states to the Union,” Lincoln and the Republicans refused to compromise on slavery’s extension into western territories. “Tactically,” states Potter, “the policy was executed with great skill. Strategically, it was defective in that it overestimated the extent of Southern Unionism in some measure, and misconceived the character of Southern Unionism entirely.” 

Potter also taught me to assume complexity beyond any simplistic—and often beguiling—formulation when dealing with such things as human motivation. He applied this insight to his exploration of the topic of loyalty in “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa.” Rather than frame the issue as forcing individuals to choose between the Union and their native state (Robert E. Lee’s example often is presented in these terms), Potter reminds readers that every human being possesses numerous overlapping and often mutually reinforcing loyalties, with different ones emerging as most important at various times. He mentions, among other things, cultural factors, “the invigorating effect which war had had upon national spirit,” and “community of interest, not in the narrow sense of economic advantage only, but in the broad sense of welfare and security through membership in the society.” Within the South during the Civil War era, the last of these applied most obviously to white insistence on maintaining supremacy in a society that included millions of enslaved black people. 

The Impending Crisis, 1861-1865 served as a capstone to much of Potter’s earlier work. His death at age 60 in 1971 left the manuscript just short of completion, and Don E. Fehrenbacher, a colleague at Stanford University, wrote the last two chapters.

After more than 40 years, this 600-page study, for which Potter posthumously won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for History, remains the best narrative on the coming of the Civil War. Brimming with perceptive analysis, it instructs about history’s vexing complications. The war with Mexico establishes the starting point for Potter’s narrative. A moment when U.S. victory and “acquisition of the Southwest had sealed the triumph of national expansion…it had also triggered the release of forces of sectional dissension.” How best to develop the vast western areas fueled escalating political warfare over the ensuing quarter-century. 

Fehrenbacher’s two closing chapters revisit consistent themes throughout Potter’s work. They call for rejecting “an illusion produced by scholarly logic infused with scholarly hindsight” and viewing the secession winter “as contemporaries did, in all its disorderly and changing variety of options and potential consequences….” The political crisis, replete with contingent twists and turns, was “over secession and not, in any direct way, over slavery. Yet all of the efforts at compromise in Congress dealt with the issue of slavery and only obliquely with the problem of secession.” In other words, the crisis had everything to do with slavery’s powerful influence over American political affairs, but the increasingly heated rhetoric did not focus on whether the nation would keep or jettison the institution. Four years of war settled “the issues that inflamed the antebellum years….Slavery was dead; secession was dead; and six hundred thousand men were dead. That was the basic balance sheet of the sectional conflict.”  

Anyone interested in antebellum sectionalism or the conduct and meaning of the Civil War should explore David M. Potter’s writings. He belongs on any short list of the most perceptive interpreters of mid-19th-century United States history.

This column appeared in the February 2020 issue of Civil War Times.