As an undergraduate student in Professor Michael Holt’s “Coming of the Civil War” class at the University of Virginia, I felt rather lost for the first part of the semester. It was a large lecture class that made it intimidating to ask questions or make comments (not that I would have anyway). Moreover, Dr. Holt was the quintessential university professor – impeccably dressed in a sport coat and bowtie (this was UVa after all) with a shock of white hair – and he treated us as though we already had an intensive handle on the history of antebellum America. Which I definitely did not. The central texts for the course were Holt’s own book, The Political Crisis of the 1850s and Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, and though I did the reading, I was having trouble understanding the finer points of the arguments of both. In class, I zoned out during his erudite lectures on Jacksonian America and national expansion. The political buildup and breakdown of the Whig Party, Andrew Jackson’s war on the second Bank of the United States, the machinations of the Democrats, and the role of abolitionism or nativism in antebellum politics seemed incomprehensible, and frankly – boring.
Not surprisingly, I received a rather middling grade on the first exam, and as the date for turning in the final paper approached, I grew nervous. My pride was wounded that I hadn’t done that well on the midterm, and here I was, supposed to be declaring History as a major. The paper assignment (as the course name indicated) was to assess the question of how politics and the second American party system related to the outbreak of the Civil War. I knew that somehow Holt and Foner were having an argument about what caused the war, and it was my job to explain that in the paper, but I was having trouble reading between the lines of their prose. Feeling a bit desperate, I gathered my courage to go to his office hours and ask for help on how to structure my response. Much to my relief, Mr. Holt was friendly and kind, patient in answering my questions, and gave me a suggestion that changed the course of my life as a student – “Read the footnotes.”
Dutifully that week, I spent hours re-reading the two books and then checking out almost every note in the back, trying to understand where these two historians were differing and why. I grew fascinated with Holt’s research methods – he examined hundreds of maps and registration rolls, looking for clues about voter behavior – why somebody would choose to vote Whig or Democrat, or Republican. As I sat in the library with an ever-growing sheaf of scribbled notes in front of me, my inner historian was born. As ridiculous as it sounds, a week spent writing one paper opened my eyes to the importance of historiography. I experienced a moment in which I realized history does not consist of an unbroken series of definite, undisputed chronological events.
Sometimes I see this moment occur again with my own students that I teach in my U.S. History course. The student recognizes that the past, and how it is interpreted, consists of any number of unions, combinations, fractures, breaks and splits emerging every which way from the mass of humanity populating this earth – upwards, downwards, sideways and in between. And when the student further realizes that historians argue with each other and write whole books with completely different viewpoints about the meaning and significance of those movements – well, that can be intellectually transformative. As it was for me.
In my final paper for Holt’s class, I analyzed why one of Foner’s major arguments in Free Soil was that the second American Party system was an artificial organism – one whose internal divisions did not respond to the realities contained in sectional divisions, and consciously neglected sectional questions in favor of party unity. He asserts that slavery “burst into the political arena,” as an “irrepressible conflict.” I then identified Holt’s major difference in interpretation. Holt maintains that sectional issues were the food and drink of both parties all along, accusing Foner of overplaying the economic consensus theory at the expense of ignoring politics as the primary motivator for the war. In this way, as Holt explains, the parties made room for all types of political beliefs. The second American party system was extremely adept at absorbing third party contenders like the abolitionist Liberty Party, or the Know Nothings. The Whigs proved this most particularly during the election of 1840 when they effectively combined abolitionist sentiment, anti-Catholic sentiment, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the values of the Southern planter elite to push William Henry Harrison and John Tyler to victory over the Democrats’ running of Van Buren (whom they accused of being a “used up Man” and the cause of the Panic of 1837). For Holt, the political infighting and brokering of slavery deals signaled not an impending breakdown, but the vital health of the antebellum political system right through the year 1860.
Distilling these two historians’ arguments into a five-page paper opened my eyes to what it is that historians do, how they make their arguments, the types of evidence they use, and the myriad interpretations that one event or series of events can elicit. It is for this reason that Holt’s The Political Crisis has been my most intellectually formative work. This remains so today, despite the fact that my doctoral studies have led me far from the path of antebellum American politics. Yet recalling how I studied and analyzed these works – albeit in a rather simple way – laid the foundation for my comprehension of far more complicated arguments and theories on all kinds of topics. And thanks to my graduate seminars, it would be an interesting exercise to rewrite my old paper, given the serious issues other historians have presented in recent years with both Foner and Holt’s respective arguments. Works by David Roediger, Bruce Laurie, James Brewer Stewart and others have done an effective job of pointing out Holt’s rather myopic treatment of the role of political abolitionism or Foner’s questionable assessment of the Democrats as non-racists.
I’ll end with a confession – I myself now find Foner’s arguments far more convincing that Holt’s on this question of sectional ideology, party loyalty and the role of slavery in the outbreak of the Civil War. Yet Holt’s book still has a firm place in my own personal American history canon. It sits on my shelf, mixed in with all my other dissertation-in-progress books on women’s rights, eugenics and Spiritualism, as a way to remind me of what I’m trying to do. And though I am positive Mr. Holt has no memory of our meeting, he was very kind and reassuring to an anxious undergraduate. His work and his arguments with other historians encouraged me to think about history in a way that would eventually spur me to push myself further, and enter graduate school. For this, I am eternally grateful.