Monday, January 2, 2012

Book Review: Manifest Destinies, by Steven Woodworth

Steven E. Woodworth
copyright 2010
Alfred A. Knopf

One aspect of the Civil War that perhaps I could study more frequently is the time before the war, the ante bellum years as often described, and how the country ended up in Civil War.  I suspect that I have a solid understanding of much of what happened in that time frame, especially the turbulent decade of the 1850s, but Steven Woodworth's Manifest Destinies is a good reminder of how much more there is to study and that sectional arguments and controversies existed for more than just the one decade before the war came.

In this very fine and enjoyable book, Woodworth explores the concept of manifest destiny, the feeling that the United States of the early 19th century was destined to cover the entire North American continent. This book serves almost as a biography of the 1840s, focusing on the various Presidential elections, congressional debates, migration to western lands, the influence of and turbulence within political parties, and has a long discussion of the Mexican War. Was it a war to expand slavery or was  it simply a more nationalistic attempt to gain land for the benefit of the entire country, under the concept of manifest destiny?

Of course, slavery is a frequent topic in this book, as Woodworth shows how the controversy over it grew as the decade moved forward.

Woodworth's writing style in this book is very easy to read and helps make the book more enjoyable, interesting and informative.Its organization is chronological, starting with the "Tippencanoe and Tyler too" election of 1840 and ending with discussion of the compromise of 1850 as the nation moved into a new, but not less controversial, decade. This work has five parts - the two-party system, westward expansion, politics of expansion, war with Mexico and the political system and controversies of expansion, all of which are closely related. This organization is very effective and Woodworth's ability to describe such different factors as political campaigns, the startup of a new religion, and a war was something I appreciated very much.

Not only did the author describe the events very effectively, but he did not hesitate from stating his own findings and opinions strongly at times. He is fairly harsh on legendary Whig politician Henry Clay in several sections and in other places used stronger language (not profane) than is often found in such books. For instance, on page 277, he described one idea not as "unworkable" "unlikely" or some other critical, but fairly kind term, but, rather, as "laughable." 

His description of how the two-party system (influenced strongly by Martin Van Buren) helped keep the issue of slavery at bay for years was one concept that was new to me. With both major parties trying to keep party unity together by avoiding such a potentially divisive issue, the topic remained in the background for years before it became impossible to ignore. True abolitionists were small in number as the decade began, but managed to grow in influence during these years, as happenings like the Mexican War and Wilmot Proviso also brought slavery to the forefront of American politics.  Even Van Buren, who had began the decade trying to avoid this controversial topic finally voiced an opposition to allowing slavery into new territories.

The various personalities that showed up through this book demonstrate the diversity of the issues that consumed American politics in this decade. Politicians like John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, James Polk, Stephen Douglas and more; warriors like Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, Robert E. Lee and others; proud old men like Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, up-and-comers like John C. Freemont and religious leaders like John Smith and Brigham Young are just some of the famous names whose actions, thoughts and beliefs filled those years and now fill the pages of this book.

Many other fascinating people and topics that I cannot mention here also make their presence felt in this fine narrative. The stories that Woodworth weaves together - and tells in such a readable style - really shed light on how much happened in the 1840s, at least to me. As shown at the start of this entry, I had an appreciation for all the controversy of the 1850s, and perhaps the late 1840s, but now I have a much better understanding of how the decade described in this book contributed to what happened in the 1850s and then the 1860s. It also makes me wonder if there is a similar book on the 1830s that I should try to read some day, to explore issues that led to the nullification crisis and the Gag rule, and how they contributed to the coming of Civil War. That's another sign of a very good book - not only did I learn from (and enjoy) it, but it opened my mind to other areas of study to pursue. 

I heartily recommend this book not only for its relation to the "Road to the Civil War" but as an interesting look at a fascinating period of time on the North American continent. The stories of the Mormons, the Gold Rush and the Mexican War, among others, are fascinating on their own, but even more so when told together in a narrative that shows how they influenced the future of the United States.

In the end, I wonder if perhaps the true "Manifest Destiny" of the United States was the conflict over slavery and the war that came with it, not just the spreading of American civilization over the western lands of much of North America.

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