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Jay Sexton’s A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History (Basic) is our Book of the Year in History because it presents a challenging new perspective in 200 tightly written pages. Instead of telling a conventional story of America’s evolution, he offers the historian’s equivalent of a biologist’s “punctuated equilibrium”: long periods of little change punctuated by dramatic disasters that create surprising benefits.
Sexton’s section on the Civil War shows how denominational divides among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians set the stage for civil war. “How little is to be expected from any other Union, if the union of Christians fail,” one reporter noted in 1845. Henry Clay said, “If the Churches divide on the subject of slavery, there will be nothing left to bind our people together but trade and commerce.”
Political splits followed theological ones: In slave states “candidates for office raced to establish themselves as the most ardent defender of Southern institutions and honor. There was little political incentive for Southern statesmen to pursue compromise with ... Northern Democrats.” In the North, the massive immigration of the 1840s and 1850s increased tensions: “Each vessel that arrived from the Old World with more migrants increased the ire of ‘native’ white Protestants.”
Worries about increased labor competition contributed to the demise of the Whig Party: Some young men of modest means “joined the nativist American Party, popularly known as the Know-Nothing Party … whose name came from the response members were to give when asked about their political association.” Know-Nothing concerns brought new people into the political process, and one result was formation of a new party, the Republicans.
Immigration also made the difference in the Civil War. Some 543,000 Union army soldiers—about one-fourth of the total—were foreign-born. About 84,000 foreign-born seamen made up 40 percent of the whole Union navy. The Union’s 144,000 Irish soldiers outnumbered Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The Union (Republican) Party platform in 1864 supported “foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed.”
Sexton notes that today “immigration has also divided the country, as the percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born reached 13.4 percent in 2015, close to its historic high of 14.8 percent in 1890.” He doesn’t go into a major difference, though: In the 19th century immigrants entered a melting pot and through both education and experience came to value America. Today, a professor who praises the “melting pot” concept is likely to be fired.
Now, reaction to the Central American caravan heading north illustrates our problem. Abraham Lincoln in 1861 said the Civil War “presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic … can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes.” Some U.S. cheerleaders for the caravan are so devoted to upsetting the apple cart that they don’t pay attention to millions of apples rolling into the gutter.
Sexton does explain that our current political conflicts are not new: “As in the past, politics at home have been destabilized by changes in the international system that followed an American triumph. … The sudden implosion of Soviet-led communism transformed the international landscape, eliminating America’s ideological rival while freeing up resources and political energy previously devoted to the half-century-long struggle.”
That makes sense to me. I was able to develop “compassionate conservatism” during the decade between Soviet demise in 1991 and Islamist assault in 2001. America had the luxury of thinking we had no foreign enemies, so we could concentrate on problems at home and agree that an enemy-less America could afford to be compassionate. That frame of mind changed on 9/11.
Sexton rightly says, “A moment of flux such as the present is precisely the time in which we should embrace the more complex historical record of volatility, unanticipated change, and moments of crisis.”
(Please read our short list for Books of the Year in History.)