Off the Shelf: Gary Gallagher

July 26, 2012 — The essays in "A Political Nation" by prominent senior historians and their younger counterparts offer a fresh account of politics and culture of antebellum America, the secession crisis and the Civil War and Reconstruction.

For several generations, much of the scholarship on the political history of the period from 1840 to 1877 has carried a theme of failure of politicians in the antebellum years to prevent war, and those of the Civil War and Reconstruction to take advantage of opportunities to remake the nation. Moving beyond these older debates, these essays add complexity to our understanding of mid-19th-century American politics and politicians.

In the book, the contributors address the dynamics of political parties and factions, illuminate the presence of consensus and conflict in American political life, and analyze elections, voters and issues. In addition, the contributors address political leaders — those who made policy, ran for office, influenced elections and helped to shape American life from the early years of the second party system to the turbulent period of Reconstruction.

The book moves chronologically, beginning with an antebellum focus on how political actors behaved within their cultural surroundings. The authors then use the critical role of language, rhetoric, and ideology in mid-19th-century political culture as a lens through which to reevaluate the secession crisis. The collection closes with an examination of cultural and institutional influences on politicians in the Civil War and Reconstruction years. Stressing the role of federalism in understanding American political behavior, "A Political Nation" underscores the vitality of scholarship on mid-nineteenth-century American politics.

Historian Michael A. Morrison of Purdue University wrote in a review that the essays are "incredibly well written and accessible."
"Separately and together, these essays make a persuasive argument for a return to traditional political history," Morrison wrote. "Each contributor in the collection draws on the best of the extant literature in his or her field/bailiwick, synthesizes it and suggests either new avenues for exploration or ways to think about and bring coherence to a field (political history) that has become fragmented if not diffuse."

Co-editor Gallagher is John L. Nau III Professor of History at U.Va. and author, most recently, of "The Union War." He has studied and written about the Civil War for more than 25 years.