"Holt has distilled a lifetime of scholarship in this impressive account of America's greatest political crisis. There is no better introduction to the intricate yet explosive politics of the 1850s."—Harry L. Watson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill"A superb account of the nation's descent into civil war. A skilled political historian, Michael Holt focuses on the decisions that political leaders made, their arousal of the most divisive passions, and their loss of control of a system present in American life."—Joel H. Silbey, author of Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics "While modern historians often focus on the activities of marginalized groups that lacked true political power, the well-respected Holt reaffirms the importance of politics and politicians as he re-examines the often studied coming of the Civil War. This short volume reiterates a thesis Holt offered earlier in The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, which declares that the war resulted from a series of political decisions and actions relating to the extension of slavery rather than moral or social differences over slavery. This concise book, with four chapters focusing on significant political events of the prewar period and a useful appendix of primary sources, makes Holt's theories available to a wider audience. Reference to the current conflict in Iraq demonstrates the continuing importance of Holt's approach. Likely to be used for years to come, this work is highly recommended for academic and public libraries of all sizes."—Library Journal "University of Virginia historian Holt provides an elegant, brief analysis of the partisan political forces that, via the great debate over the extension of slavery into the American West, eventually plunged the United States into civil war. Holt discounts the view that the war arose inevitably from two irreconcilable economies as well as the more naïve interpretation that it derived from righteous Northern outrage over slavery. Instead he argues that shortsighted and self-absorbed politicians from both the South and the North (their agendas focused, for the most part, on simple re-election) needlessly exploited the slavery-extension debate and escalated the associated rhetoric to a crescendo that finally made disunion inevitable. Holt provides brilliant thumbnail portraits of such key players as Abraham Lincoln, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, James K. Polk, Daniel Webster, and Stephen A. Douglas. He also offers vitally lucid analyses of such key legislative issues as the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Stating his case in a nutshell, Holt writes, 'At few other times in American history did policy makers' decisions have such a profound—and calamitous—effect on the nation as they did in the 1840s and 1850s.'"—Publishers Weekly
Michael F. Holt teaches at the University of Virginia. He is the author of numerous books, including The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party and The Political Crisis of the 1850s, and a coauthor of the newly revised edition of The Civil War and Reconstruction.