Niall Ferguson Recommends Five Books For Coming Civil War

UK historian and conservative political commentator Niall Ferguson has been “worrying for a while that we in the U.S. are living through a new version of the 8150s — a period of bitter polarization that is the prelude to civil war.” 

As such, Ferguson says he needs to read five books about the 1850s crisis, as recommended by the Wall Street Journal‘s Joanne B. Freeman. 

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First Blows of the Civil War

By James S. Pike (1879)

1. A Washington correspondent for the New-York Tribune in the 1850s, James Pike was an aggressive opponent of slavery—more so, perhaps, than even the paper’s abolitionist editor, Horace Greeley. In “First Blows of the Civil War,” Pike combines his strident journalism with correspondence from other antislavery advocates. His prose is merciless and blunt, with a power that becomes ever stronger as the nation moves toward civil war. As evident in a passage written during the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Pike had nothing but contempt for Northerners who failed to stand firm against the Slave Power: “For the mole-eyed squad of little Northern men at Washington who are accidentally the controlling political force of the government at this junction of public affairs, lighting the torches of civil discord and vainly dreaming that no conflagration is to ensue—we have but pity for their blindness and fatuity.” Pulsing with emotion, Pike’s book captures the fiery intensity of the 1850s and exemplifies the role the press played in fueling that fire.

Half a Century

By Jane Grey Swisshelm (1880)

2. Jane Grey Swisshelm aimed to give her readers an inside history of “the great Abolition war” and “the Woman’s Rights agitation” by telling her life story. With humor and power, she did that and more. Her memoir tells of ground-level struggles to free slaves, and of men beating down her door to quash her resistance. And resist she did. In the late 1840s she launched her own newspaper—a single sheet with six columns, but a newspaper nonetheless. By her account, editors responded as if “the world was falling. . . . A woman had started a political paper! A woman!” Pressmen were grabbing at their pants to save them from “that woman,” she jokes. As one of the earliest female political reporters in Washington, Swisshelm got what no woman had gotten before: a seat in the congressional reporters’ gallery. With a skilled, frequently acid pen, she illustrates the grip of the Slave Power and the power of the patriarchy, even as she resists them.

The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It

By Hinton Rowan Helper (1857)

3. “The Impending Crisis” was a rare thing in the 1850s: an antislavery tract written by a Southerner. A native North Carolinian who owned no slaves, Hinton Rowan Helper claimed that the institution of slavery was an economic hindrance to the South, arguing with biting rhetoric that slavery degraded hard labor and made the South dependent on the North. He noted that Southerners were swaddled in Northern muslin at birth, instructed from Northern books in their youth, treated by Northern medicine as adults and shrouded in Northern cambric at death, “borne to the grave in a Northern carriage, entombed with a Northern spade, and memor[ial]ized with a Northern slab!” To Helper, the solution was clear: The only way to save the South was to abolish slavery. His wildly controversial book, banned in the Southern states, raised the level of distrust between North and South to new heights.

Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870

By Benjamin Brown French Edited by Donald B. Cole & John J. McDonough (1989)

4. A congressional clerk, lobbyist and journalist, Benjamin Brown French lived his life watching, recording and maneuvering his way through the world of Congress for more than 30 years. His diary is a grippingly detailed account of the political scene during the nation’s peak decades of crisis over slavery, not least in its reporting on the growing rift between North and South. As early as 1833, French feared disunion; after entering the Capitol for the first time he wrote: “I viewed it with thoughts and emotions which I cannot express—will it always be the capitol of my happy country? I fear the seeds are already sown whose fruit will be disunion, but God forbid it!” Roughly 30 years later, he was praying to “the God of Battles” to deliver the Union, safe and sound. His diary reveals his agonizing transition from being a “doughface” New Hampshire Democrat, willing to do anything to appease the South and save the Union, to a diehard Republican raging against the Slave Power. Not only does he bring the crisis of the period to life, he does the same for antebellum Washington: the cows wandering the streets; the clouds of dust on the city’s broad avenues; and the city’s Southern flavor—the horse racing, the cockfighting and the slave pen clearly visible from inside the Capitol.

The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861

By David M. Potter (1976)

5. Civil War studies have gone in many directions since the publication of David Potter’s magnum opus. Abolitionism and abolitionists are more deeply understood. The influence of larger forces has been taken into account: world events; foreign powers; the push and pull of capitalism. But it would be hard to imagine a list of significant books about the crisis of the 1850s that did not include this one. Clear and straightforward in its style, “The Impending Crisis” eloquently evokes the human drama of the beginning of the decade as well as its many contingencies. Its piercing final sentences capture the result of the agonizing history laid out on its pages: “Slavery was dead; secession was dead; and six hundred thousand men were dead. That was the basic balance sheet of the sectional conflict.”