U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reflections on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, part 5

The following is the fifth and final entry in our roundtable on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. For part one, by Frank Towers, go here. For part two, by Keri Leigh Merritt, go here. For part three, by Lauren N. Haumesser, go here. For part for, by Rebecca Brenner, go here.

Potter’s Impending Crisis: Problems Aplenty

By Michael Todd Landis, Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas and author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis. (Thanks to Michael for organizing and editing the roundtable.)

As Keri Leigh Merritt and Rebecca Brenner have noted, there are some problems with Potter’s approach to the sectional crisis.  Most problematic, however, is his bias against anti-slavery activists and in favor of white pro-slavery Southerners.  Potter’s bias manifests in four different ways: conceptual bias; linguistic bias; misrepresenting events; and outright defense of Southern actions. 

Conceptual Bias

In order to tell his tale of political “crisis” and dramatic divisions of the 1850s, Potter needs a nation previously united.  Thus, Potter begins his study on the pretext of the “basic homogeneity” of all Americans, minimizing demographic realities and the strong currents of mid-nineteenth century dissent. [1]  Abolitionists, Transcendentalists, Indigenous Americans, social reformers of all stripes, and millions of enslaved people of color would be appalled to learn that Potter lumps them together with enslavers, Indian killers, and war mongers, just as Westerners, Southerners, and New Englanders would have balked at a similar white-washing of regional differences.  In reality, the adolescent USA was fractured and fractious; a variety of disparate groups wrangled with each other over the future of the country while an entrenched Slave Power ruled with an iron fist. [2]

Central to this premise of “homogeneity” is the denigration and diminution of the anti-slavery movement.  As the work of Manisha Sinha and others have demonstrated, the fight against slavery was dynamic, determined, powerful, and progressive.  Yet Potter reduces it to mere “anti-Negro” sentiment. [3]  The Underground Railroad, too, he relegates to fictional “legend.”  “The historian must not be too impatient with the popular yearning to find drama in the past and fabricate it where it is lacking,” counsels Potter on understanding anti-slavery activism. [4]  And later he posits that the entire territorial crisis was a “drama” concocted by abolitionists for publicity: “To arouse public opinion against the proslavery party, a drama was necessary, in which there would be heroes and villains embodying good and evil.  Once this conception was put into effect, it worked to distort much of the evidence available to the historian.” [5]  In other words, historians must be weary of abolitionist “distortions.”

Likewise, major Congressional crises over slavery, such as Missouri, Nullification, the “Gag Rule,” and the annexation of Texas, are shrugged-off as “minor contests” and “marginal affairs.” [6]  Potter creates a mythical, united, homogenous nation in order to set the stage for the dramatic divisions of the 1850s.  His pre-1850s America must be peaceful, benevolent, and uniform so that he can assign blame for its destruction.  Despite his warning to his colleagues about “heroes and villains,” he employs that approach, pitting heroic Unionists against villainous abolitionists.

Language Bias

At every opportunity, Potter employs language to clarify his preference for Unionism, and, by implication, the rule of the Slave Power.  The Civil War, for him and many of his generation, was something to be prevented and lamented – the great catastrophe that could have and should have been avoided.  If that meant keeping millions of Americans in bondage and unfathomable suffering, so be it.

Potter’s language reflects his bias against anti-slavery machinations.  Abolitionist efforts are labeled “extremist,” “less moral,” and with little value beyond “keeping the emotions of the public at a high pitch;” their publications are derided as  “sanctimonious indignation;” and their politicians condemned as “political free lances who lacked a normal basis of political support” or craven politicos with “an insatiable craving for boodle.” [7]  On the other hand, those who labored to appease enslavers and acquiesced to the spread of slavery are celebrated as “moderate” or “Unionist.”

For Potter, pro-slavery Unionism is the “middle ground” between the sectional extremes of abolitionism and secession.  He defends the policy of “popular sovereignty,” for instance, as a “middle-ground alternative” to opposing the expansion of slavery. [8]  When, in July 1848, John Clayton of Delaware submitted a bill that would “establish no restrictions on slavery,” Potter gives it his blessing, labeling it “the middle-ground position.” [9]  And when pro-slavery militants hijacked the Kansas Territory in 1854-55, Potter laments the absence of “a middle ground of accommodation.” [10]  Time and again, Potter makes it clear he prefers an outcome that “accommodates” pro-slavery interests for the sake of the Union.

Potter’s language throughout the book is strategic.  “Impetuous” Northern “hotheads” “breathed fire” while “cool-headed” Southerners “responded by stating openly” what they “preferred.” [11]  But even when he is less obnoxious with adjectives, his treatment of motives is telling: Southerners act of out principle and thoughtful Constitutional interpretation, while anti-slavery Northerners are characterized as reckless zealots motivated by emotion.  Southerners, moreover, are always depicted as being on the defensive, parrying thrusts from aggressive Yankees.  He even uses the term “handicap” to describe Southerners’ supposed vulnerability. [12]  Small linguistic choices, but powerful nonetheless.  Hundreds of pages of biased language like this can have a deep effect on the reader’s perception.  As Paul Finkelman, Ed Baptist, and myself have recently argued, words matter[13]

Another tactic of Potter’s, and one recently employed by President Trump, is to blame “partisans on both sides” for the crises. [14]  Both secessionists and abolitionists stirred-up trouble, enflamed emotions, and catastrophized partisanship, he asserts; they played an equal part, equally worthy of condemnation.  Such a seemingly neutral assessment is actually a pro-slavery position.  It undermines the moral righteousness of the abolitionist cause and makes “Unionism” (the spread of slavery under the Slave Power regime) the beau ideal.  At other times, Potter drops the façade of neutrality and openly paints anti-slavery politicos as the enemies of progress.  In his treatment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, for example, the narrative style builds exciting momentum behind supporters of the bill with a thesaurus full of positive adjectives for the bill’s managers, leading readers to get frustrated when Free Soilers “revolt,” “refuse,” and “bury” the bill – negative words selected to generate negative feelings.  Potter was a gifted writer, and he knew the power of language.  “The greatest problem for the historian confronting the developments of 1854,” lectures Potter, “is not to penetrate what is hidden so much as to clear away the propaganda smokescreen employed with great effectiveness by the free soilers in their campaign against the Kansas-Nebraska Act.” [15]  In short, anti-slavery activists were full of shit.

Misrepresenting Events

In addition to a biased narrative style, Potter misrepresents key events to make Southerners look good and abolitionists look bad.

As careful historians know, the so-called “Compromise of 1850” was boldly pro-slavery and virtually one-sided, granting almost every demand of the enslavers.  “It was never a compromise at all,” explains Paul Finkelman.  “It gave almost everything to slavery and almost nothing to freedom.” [16]  Nevertheless, Potter refuses to concede the pro-slavery victory in 1850 (concessions to the slave states were “rather limited,” he contends) and is content to praise it as a “great accomplishment.” [17]  Moreover, he issues a multi-page defense of the package as the only viable option.  “The South had either to be conciliated or to be coerced,” he reasons. [18]  Then, later: “If, as Lincoln believed, the cause of freedom was linked with the cause of Union, a policy which dealt recklessly with the destiny of the Union [anti-slavery] could hardly have promoted the cause of freedom.” [19]  A blunt admission of his bias toward appeasement.

Potter also misrepresents the antebellum Democratic Party, laboring to separate the organization from slavery and its enslaver leadership.  Newly-elected President Pierce, for instance, was, according to Potter, pledged to “keeping the slavery question out of politics.” [20]  But the opposite was true: Pierce won the nomination by guaranteeing an actively pro-slavery administration, and his inaugural address promised aggressive territorial expansion and vigorous enforcement of the new Fugitive Slave Law.  One white Southerner could hardly contain her enthusiasm for the sour New Englander, celebrating his agenda as “bold pro-slaveryism.” [21]  Potter’s claim that Pierce and the Democrats intended to minimize slavery is either a willful misreading of the sources or a careless treatment of the material.  Either way, such mistakes greatly undermine Potter’s credibility.

Another example of anti-abolitionist spin is his brief coverage of the near-murder of US Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in May 1856 by pro-slavery firebrand Preston Brooks of South Carolina.  Potter places blame on the victim, whose “remarkably vituperative” speech against slavery days earlier was “uniquely offensive” to his Southern colleagues. [22]  Only a very shallow understanding of Congressional oratory and antebellum politics could yield such a conclusion.  As more balanced and vigilant historians have shown, there was little that was unique or especially outrageous about Sumner’s speech. [23]  By claiming Sumner violated Senate rules of decorum and etiquette, Potter hints that the abolitionist got what he deserved.

Outright Defense of White Southerners

My final warning to readers is that Potter’s repeated criticism of abolitionists and his frequent defenses of slavery make The Impending Crisis deeply flawed.  As I have pointed out above, Potter’s premise, language, and treatment of the material are all biased toward enslavers, but at certain points his disgust for abolitionism becomes manifest and he loses his patience.  For instance, in the middle of his discussion of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (which permitted the spread of slavery into formerly free territory), Potter lashes out at abolitionists who dared to oppose the bill (which Potter, of course, insists was about railroads, not slavery): “The Appeal of the Independent Democrats [a public anti-slavery manifesto] was significant for its highly effective use of an antislavery tactic which had been used already by the abolitionists and which is perhaps always used in any situation of angry controversy, but which reached a supreme level of effectiveness in 1854, and the years following.  This was the tactic of attacking the defenders of slavery not on the merits or demerits of their position, but on the grounds that they were vicious, dishonest, and evil.  Ironically, this accusation, which was in many cases not true, proved much more effective for publicity or propaganda . . ..” [24]  So enslavers who spent their lives murdering, torturing, and raping for both pleasure and financial gain were not “evil” or “vicious”?!  And anyone who has studied the planter politicians of the American South can attest to their loose relationship with truth, especially concerning their beloved peculiar institution.

By the time readers reach the secession winter of 1860-61, Potter is ready to drop the ideological hammer, so to speak.  He devotes an entire chapter to the legitimacy of Southern nationalism and the legality and viability of secession.  In highly affectionate language, Potter explains that secession leaders “were lawyers who confined themselves largely to drawing refined inferences from the exact wording of the Constitution and following every clue as to the intentions of the framers.”  They had, he concludes, “quite a strong case.” [25]  Then, acting as a secessionist lawyer himself, he lays out five reasons for the legality of disunion.

In the end, Potter’s The Impending Crisis is essentially a rehashing of the old Southern, racist canard: vicious, conniving Yankee abolitionists attacked principled Southerners, fabricated a national crisis through lies and propaganda, and provoked an unnecessary and regrettable Civil War.  His linguistic choices, his narrative style, and his constant defense of a pro-slavery “middle ground” present the reader with a distorted version of events.

Despite these disturbing flaws, Potter has become a mainstay of reading lists, syllabi, and bibliographies, much to my dismay.  Even if you do not agree with all of my assertions herein, I hope that my contribution to this roundtable will at least make you more cautious about Potter’s treatment of the material.  But, ideally, I would be happiest if you never used Potter at all.

[1] David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 14.

[2] See Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, 2016); Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York, 2009); Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1984); Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (Chapel Hill, 2010); Kyle Volk, Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy (New York: 2017).

[3] Potter, Impending Crisis, 35-36.

[4] Potter, Impending Crisis, 137.

[5] Potter, Impending Crisis, 217.

[6] Potter, Impending Crisis, 52.

[7] Potter, Impending Crisis, 164, 215, 216.

[8] Potter, Impending Crisis, 59, 164.

[9] Potter, Impending Crisis, 73-74.

[10] Potter, Impending Crisis, 206.

[11] Potter, Impending Crisis, 67-68, 201, 205.

[12] Potter, Impending Crisis, 65, 224.

[13] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/proposal-change-vocabulary-we-use-when-talking-about-civil-war-180956547/

[14] Potter, Impending Crisis, 135.

[15] Potter, Impending Crisis, 167-68.

[16] Paul Finkelman, “The Appeasement of 1850” in  Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon, eds., Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s (Athens, 2012), 79.

[17] Potter, Impending Crisis, 113-14, 122.

[18] Potter, Impending Crisis, 118.

[19] Potter, Impending Crisis, 119.

[20] Potter, Impending Crisis, 143.

[21] Virginia Clay-Clopton, A Belle of the Fifties . . . (London, 1905), 59; see also Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties (Ithaca, 2014).

[22] Potter, Impending Crisis, 210.

[23] Manisha Sinha, “The Caning of Charles Sumner: Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War,” The Journal of the Early Republic 23, No. 2 (Summer 2003): 233-262.

[24] Potter, Impending Crisis, 163.

[25] Potter, Impending Crisis, 479.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Since you consider Potter’s conceptualizing, it might be worth noting he gave considerable attention earlier to how concepts of nations and nationalism, national identity and national character were understood and discussed in the 1950s and before. In the first couple of chapters of “People of Plenty. Economic Abundance and the American Character,” 1954, he reviewed a lot of work done on these topics in history and the social sciences, including in sub-fields such as culture and personality. I’d also recommend the very interesting article, “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” AHR, July 1962.

Comments are closed.