Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877

  • Brenda Wineapple
  • Harper Collins
  • 736 pp.

An ambitious look at three critical decades in US history.

This is an ambitious, eclectic, sweeping book.

As the title suggests, Wineapple has attempted, in one volume, to narrate the history of the United States from 1848 through 1877. These three decades are usually considered three separate periods in American history: Antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction. To compress even one of those three complex periods into a single volume is difficult; to tackle all three is ambitious indeed.

Moreover, Wineapple is determined to tell not just a standard political and social history, but also an intellectual history. She therefore introduces and refers often to men and women like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Wendell Phillips, and Walt Whitman. This part of the book works very well, especially when she ties literary figures with political and military events, such as her description of Louisa May Alcott working as a nurse in wartime Washington.

To add to the degree of difficulty, Wineapple deliberately focuses on less familiar events. She begins her book, for example, with an account of the 1851 attempt “to export American freedom to Cuba and annex the island to the United States, as if it were a jeweled brooch destined for the lapel of Uncle Sam.” These pages are interesting not just because the episode is unfamiliar (at least to this reader) but because of the comparisons she draws. She points out that the quixotic Southern effort to annex Cuba was not all that different from John Brown’s quixotic effort (only a few years later) to foment a slave rebellion in Virginia. 

To take another example: Wineapple relates the tragic collapse of the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in January 1860. Again, the events were unfamiliar to this reader, and they reveal a good deal about the textile industry and the immigrants who worked there. The incident also demonstrates that Southerners had some justification for their common claim that Northern workers faced more dangerous conditions than southern slaves.

Given the ambitions of her book, it is not surprising that Wineapple makes many small factual errors. In her account of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, she says that John Hay and John Nicolay “had become Lincoln’s private secretaries” by the time of the debates. Not so: they became his secretaries in 1860. When describing the last days of the Buchanan administration, she notes that Edwin Stanton served as secretary of war. Not so: Stanton was attorney general. In the section on the election of 1872, she writes that Carl Schurz considered Charles Francis Adams Jr. the best candidate for the presidency. Not so: the candidate was Charles Francis Adams, the father and not the son.

There are also omissions that may be more serious. Wineapple writes at length about corruption during the Grant Administration, but says little about corruption under Buchanan, Lincoln, and Johnson. It is especially disappointing that she says nothing about the possibility, the probability, that Johnson escaped conviction by bribing a few Republican senators. Wineapple mentions only some of the more justifiable “deals” involved, such as Johnson’s agreement to appoint a new moderate secretary of war, not the cash under the table.

It would be impossible to find and read every book regarding such a long period of American history. But the errors and omissions left this reader, at least, somewhat less than ecstatic.

Walter Stahr is a Washington lawyer and the author of biographies of John Jay and William Henry Seward. He is now at work on a biography of Edwin Stanton.   

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