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Twenty-five years ago, I published a massive tome, 1,200 pages in length, titled Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution. It sold out within 13 months. It was picked up by the History Book Club, then reprinted in 1994 in three paperback volumes; and it is still in print and was recently released on Kindle.
One of the arguments that I advanced in that work was that the chief cause of the American Revolution was regime difference. Put simply, after 1688, England went one direction, and America went another. On our side of the Atlantic, the government was in practice organized in accord with the principles advanced by the Radical Whigs. On the other side of the Atlantic, the government was organized on the basis of an agreement gradually worked out in the wake of the Glorious Revolution between the Tories who had sought James II’s ouster and those of the Whigs who were willing to settle for de facto parliamentary dominion.
For a long time, this did not much matter, and there was a tacit agreement between those dominant in Parliament and the Americans to let sleeping dogs lie. We ran our own affairs; they ran theirs; and we cooperated amicably in a great variety of ways. But, in the wake of the French and Indian War, a generation took power in Great Britain that was intent on reining in the American colonies. In consequence, it became painfully evident that the two parties entertained different notions of the dictates of justice and that we could neither understand nor sympathize with one another’s outlook. We Americans could not accept the absolute supremacy of king-in-parliament, and our cousins across the Atlantic could not accept our claim that the autonomy we had long been allowed was a matter of right and not mere legislative grace. The upshot was bloodshed and a bitter, angry divorce.
In passing, in that work, I also suggested that our own Civil War could be explained in similar terms. In one part of the country, slavery was gradually abolished. In another part, it became hegemonic. What had been in embryo a single political regime based on the principles laid out by a reluctant slaveowner in the Declaration of Independence became two separate political regimes organized on opposed principles. In the interim between 1776 and 1860, the Union was held together by a series of compromises. But, in time, the opposition of the two sides produced a division within the Baptist and Methodist churches, the Whig party, and finally the Democratic party fatal to their unity — and it was no longer possible to find common ground.
At the time that I published Republics Ancient and Modern, I entertained the possibility of writing another massive tome on the origins of the Civil War. But I was drawn into the composition of other volumes focused on the English revolution, early modern political thought, and ancient Greece, and I can now report that someone else has done the job I once contemplated and that he has done a better job than I would have been apt to do.
I have in mind Forrest A. Nabors’ new book From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction, which is slated for release on December 26 but is, in fact, being shipped now.
Do not be fooled by the title. The book starts with Reconstruction, but it does not end there. It moves back to examine the Old South, its character, and the reason for secession; and it seeks also to explain the failure of Reconstruction.
Forrest begins with the Reconstruction Congress, studying in detail the deliberations that gave rise to Reconstruction. Then, he asks whether Congress’ analysis of the pre-Civil War South was accurate, and he turns to the evidence. And, finally, he examines the fate of Reconstruction.
I will not give away the plot. I will only say this. In my lifetime, scholars have tended to focus their attention on slavery, on the masters, and on their slaves — and Eugene D. Genovese, who was the godfather of my eldest child, was the ablest of those who did so. Next to no one has paid close attention to the non-slaveholding whites of the South. It is Forrest’s argument that they are the key to the puzzle. I wish Gene were alive to read Forrest’s book. He would be enthralled. It is the only work on the South that I have read in the last half-century that is better than the best of his volumes.
If you want to understand the origins of the Civil War, why the North won, the outcome’s consequences for this country, and race relations over the last 150 years, this book is the place to start. It is a masterpiece, and it is going to have an immense impact.
Two-thirds of all of the books sold in this country every year are sold at this time of year. If you have a loved one who enjoys reading histories, this is the book to send as a gift. Trust me. I just ordered a copy for my father-in-law.