- - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

ECSTATIC NATION: CONFIDENCE, CRISIS, AND COMPROMISE, 1848-1877
By Brenda Wineapple
Harper, $35, 736 pages

Onetime Yale historian Edmund Morgan described ideal history writing as that which provided the reader a “vicarious experience,” of another world. Many books crack a window through which a reader can view aspects of another time — politics, culture, society, technology. By combining all of these, Brenda Wineapple’s “Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise” opens a door through which readers can become as fully immersed in the mad world of mid-19th-century America as is possible.

The author begins her account of America from 1848-1877 with the death of John Quincy Adams on the floor of the old House of Representatives. She deftly portrays the contradictions that abounded in the decades before the Civil War, placing the Union under increasing strain.

A nation founded on the premise that “All men are created equal” had, in the name of compromise, preserved the right of some to enslave others. As Miss Wineapple chronicles, though, the real fault line of pre-Civil War American politics was not between pro- and anti-slavery forces so much as between those who thought that preserving the Union was vital and those for whom their position on slavery, pro or con, was transcendent.

This tension between principle and compromise is always present in Miss Wineapple’s account, and with the demise of a generation of statesmen committed to the Union of 1787 — Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, even anti-slavery John Quincy Adams — a void was left, filled by those for whom “compromise had become anathema” and who were “just plain sick and tired of a problem that did not seem to go away and that admitted of no easy solution.”

This theme of compromise versus principle extends beyond politics to her discussion of period literature. Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” is portrayed as a conflict between the fanatical Ahab and his more balanced first mate Starbuck, who Miss Wineapple compares to the Great Compromiser Henry Clay. Harriet Beecher Stowe, on the other hand, is more a “monomaniacal Ahab” than a “compromising Starbuck.” Yet her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would explain the anti-slavery movement to the masses in a way the movement’s more established leaders were unable.

Even if the story of “Ecstatic Nation” is a familiar one, it’s told in an unfamiliar way that will make it seem fresh and compelling. Along with the now largely forgotten presidents that preceded Lincoln (no list of “worst presidents” is complete without Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan), Miss Wineapple’s readers meet more compelling, worthy characters.

P.T. Barnum, Cyrus Field and others illustrate America’s enthusiasm for big deeds and great spectacle (legitimate or otherwise). Favoring primary sources, she writes in a captivating manner more reminiscent of Barbara Tuchman than the young academics struggling for tenure in today’s graduate departments.

Miss Wineapple’s attempts to capture three very complex periods of American history, which are often served by multiple volumes each, requires what must have been painful editorial decisions. For instance, we read little of Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant rise from humble origins that shape much of his political thinking and hence many of his decisions about the war’s conduct.

The story of his nomination by the Republican Party is absent (in contrast, the Democrats’ split in 1860 is nicely summarized, and Stephen Douglas’ redemption during the campaign is a typical Wineapple touch — an important fact all too often neglected by others). She stresses the importance of maintaining the Union to Lincoln and many others as a war aim, but fails to explain why the notion of the Union was so dear to so many.

Perhaps the best word to describe Miss Wineapple’s treatment is “vivid,” both in her own prose and her well-chosen selection of quotes. Her use of Wendell Phillips’ observation of Anna Dickinson as the “young elephant sent forward to try the bridges to see if they were safe for older ones to cross” perfectly conveys the vital role the 21-year-old played in the abolitionist movement and explains why such a young woman would be invited to address the U.S. Congress.

Her description of Copperhead Clement Vallandigham as not an appeaser but a “fantasist” nicely summarizes the movement’s central conundrum. “Hard, deep, bloody and unmerciful” are terrific adjectives to describe John Brown.

Miss Wineapple does run into some difficulties from time to time, as would be expected with anyone dealing with the book’s immense scope in a single volume. She misquotes the Copperhead creed in a manner that will confuse readers. Her account of the first Battle of Bull Run misstates the size of the Union force and will raise some eyebrows among Civil War aficionados.

Most odd in a book that so clearly recognizes the importance of photographic technology in shaping the period is that it lacks a single image. These are minor failings in what is a vastly successful enterprise, however, and for readers seeking a beautifully written, overall survey of mid-19th century America that leaves no major theme or character out (while including many fascinating, lesser-known ones), Miss Wineapple’s account gets the highest recommendation.

“Ecstatic Nation” closes as it opens; namely, with a funeral. This time, lying in the grave is Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Reconstruction is also on its deathbed, ushered out by the Compromise of 1877, placing Rutherford Hayes in the White House in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

Story Continues →