At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis.

In This Review

At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era)
By Shearer Davis Bowman
The University of North Carolina Press, 2010
480 pp. $30.00

The secession crisis that began 150 years ago with the election of President Abraham Lincoln and culminated in the American Civil War was not the first bitter struggle between the North and the South -- but it was the only one to end in war rather than compromise. Bowman attempts to identify the ideological, political, and cultural forces that made the crisis of 1860 impossible to resolve peacefully. Taking the unconventional yet persuasive route of looking in depth at the lives and thoughts of a diverse group of influential people in the North and the South, Bowman demonstrates the degree to which each side had come to view the other as a conspiratorial, ruthless power that would not stop until it had subjugated its rival. The South viewed the Republicans' strategy of "containing" the "peculiar institution" as a plan for its ultimate extinction. Northerners, meanwhile, were leery of the South's desire to secure slavery's future by extending its reach into new territories in the tropics and ensuring the right of slaveholders to take their human property into federal territory. They saw this as a plan that would imperil the ability of Northern states to keep "the Slave Power" and even slavery itself at bay. Readers of At the Precipice are likely to come away feeling both that the Civil War was largely inevitable and that the instinct of U.S. politics to find compromise solutions is so strong that only a conflict as stark as the one between slavery and human freedom could overcome it.

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