Gentle Readers, I aim for transparency here. Where possible, I link you through to the primary sources I use. You can go and read them yourselves to see if I judge them fairly or not. I also try to quote generously so you have fullest context. There’s no reason anybody can’t just dive right into the primary sources and get history from there, but I also find secondary works indispensable. A good secondary source will not just give a narrative of events, and some don’t really do narratives as such, but also a generous helping of footnotes or endnotes to plumb for further reading. I have discovered most of the primary sources I use through these notes and hunting around the internet. A lucky search can land you free copies of even paywalled journal articles from recent decades that some kind professor put up for students’ convenience. But I advise getting some grounding in the secondary literature before diving in. This way you can learn the cast of characters, the major movements, and important background concerns that a primary source may simply assume familiarity with.
You can go to almost any bookstore and find a plethora of Civil War books, but the antebellum gets rather less coverage. So today I’d like to recommend some good survey texts, all of which I’ve used in one way or another in the course of writing. I know others exist, but I can only speak to those I have read. I have also restricted my list to books presently in print and present them in rough order of readability and friendliness to a layperson.
The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David Potter.
A classic of the field, Potter’s work shows its age in some places. His dislike for abolitionist rhetoric shows through more than once. In some places, he sounds very much like a grumpy white conservative in the Civil Rights Era. In keeping with common usage at the time, he refers to black Americans almost exclusively as Negroes. Potter has a very old school approach to history with a strong focus on political actors, which I share to some degree, but the nuts and bolts narrative communicates very well just what happened when and who did it. Potter covers the whole era in good detail for such a short work, including valuable insights about the nature of state and national loyalties and the connection between antislavery politics and nativism. Furthermore, he writes well and with a minimum of jargon. If you read only one of these books, read Potter.
Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth Varon
Varon’s work only came out in 2008. She writes in a very modern, approachable voice. Don’t let her introductory words on schools of historiography and the rhetoric of disunion put you off. The opening gives the impression that one has in hand a history of ideas about disunion. While that remains a theme of the book, Varon devotes most of her attention to a general narrative. Between the greater sweep and changes in historical fashion, she spends much less time on detailed analysis of policy evolution than Potter does. However, she integrates intellectual, political, and even gender history into the narrative to a far greater degree. She and Potter will both tell you what happened and why, but Varon looks further under the hood. If gender history doesn’t sound like it has much to do with politics, then Varon’s work will prove otherwise. She has a keen eye for the use of gendered language in period sources, both by women seeking to legitimate their political involvement in antislavery causes and the counters by proslavery writers that they emasculated antislavery men. If you ever wonder what social history in its various modes has to do with more traditional approaches, reading Varon will tell you.
The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 and Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861 by William W. Freehling
Recommending a two volume work takes a bit of cheek, I know. Bear with me. Freehling’s survey of Southern politics from independence until secession does not always make for the most engaging read. Freehling can write very well, but can also turn convoluted and lose you in a forest of his personal slang. If that doesn’t do it, then the cast of characters might. Both of these criticisms apply less to the second volume than the first. The first also has slave dialog written in eye dialect, which strikes me as on the edge of good taste even by the standards of 1990.
His forward to the second volume makes it clear that Freehling understands the major issues with his first and sought to remedy them. He succeeded with the dialect and uses fewer nicknames, but I still had several points where I had to hit the index or look elsewhere to help me keep the players straight. If you stick it out with Freehling, he will introduce you to a colorful cast of characters and the ways their personal lives informed their politics. He writes a great biographical sketch. Some reviewers think he goes too far in this, reducing everything to individual eccentricities, but to my reading he generally keeps a broader perspective. That perspective comes deeply informed by social history, including many insights into the minds of slaveholders and the ways in which their authoritarian habits at home influenced both sectional and national politics. The first volume, for all its problematic writing, earns its keep in the introductory chapters alone. There Freehling gives a tour of the antebellum South right down to the number of times you have to change trains.
I understand that Freehling’s explanation of Upper South secession does not meet with universal acceptance; I don’t know that he entirely convinced me with it. However, his running argument that the fear of dissent within the white South informed a great deal of sectional politics bears consideration. It doesn’t explain the entire South or hold true to the same degree at all times, but he convinced me that we should take it seriously as a factor in proslavery thought and action. We have far too an easy a time imagining the white South as monolithic. The fear of white dissent arose out of tensions within Southern society, so attention to it as a theme helps explain just why proslavery radicals both became extreme and gained followers as time went on. Freehling confines most of his writing directed at fellow professionals to the endnotes, but they make for informative reading in themselves and include at least one moment where he graciously admits to a flaw in his own work.