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What is right and what is practicable are two different things… James Buchanan

America in 1857 : a nation on the brink Kenneth M. Stampp New York : Oxford University Press, 1990 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. ix, 388 p. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [341]-376) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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It was a year packed with unsettling events. The Panic of 1857 closed every bank in New York City, ruined thousands of businesses, and caused widespread unemployment among industrial workers. The Mormons in Utah Territory threatened rebellion when federal troops approached with a non-Mormon governor to replace Brigham Young.

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The Supreme Court outraged northern Republicans and abolitionists with the Dred Scott decision. And in Kansas Territory where John Brown committed his first abolitionist atrocities where President Buchanan reneged on a crucial commitment – a disastrous miscalculation which ultimately split the Democratic party in two.

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In America in 1857, historian Kenneth Stampp offers a narrative of this eventful year, covering the major crises while providing readers with a portrait of America at mid-century. Stampp gives us an account of the attempt by William Walker and his band of filibusters to conquer Nicaragua, of crime and corruption, and of street riots by urban gangs such as New York’s Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys and Baltimore’s Plug Uglies and Blood Tubs.

Four scenes from the riot in the Sixth Ward, New York City between the "Bowery Boys" and the "Dead Rabbits" showing: women and men throwing brickbats down on the police, a "Dead Rabbit," a "Bowery Boy," and a "Dead Rabbit," falling at the feet of policeman Shangles

Four scenes from the riot in the Sixth Ward, New York City between the “Bowery Boys” and the “Dead Rabbits” showing: women and men throwing brickbats down on the police, a “Dead Rabbit,” a “Bowery Boy,” and a “Dead Rabbit,” falling at the feet of policeman Shangles

But the focus continually returns to Kansas. He examines the outrageous political frauds perpetrated by Kansans, Buchanan’s calamitous response and Stephen Douglas’s break with the President (a rare event in American politics, a major party leader repudiating the president he helped elect), and the whirl of congressional votes and dramatic debates that led to a settlement humiliating to Buchanan – and devastating to the Democrats.

A general parody on the 1860 presidential contest, highlighting the impact of the Dred Scott decision on the race. That controversial decision, handed down in 1857 by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, ruled that neither the federal government nor territorial governments could prohibit slavery in the territories. The burning question of the future of slavery in the United States was addressed by several of the contenders during the 1860 race. Here the four presidential candidates dance with members of their supposed respective constituencies. The music is fiddled by Dred Scott, the slave whose suit precipitated the court's decision. Scott sits on a chair at center. In the upper left is Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge. He is paired with Democratic incumbent and ally James Buchanan, depicted as a goat or (as he was nicknamed) "Buck." At the upper right Republican Abraham Lincoln prances arm-in-arm with a black woman, a pejorative reference to his party's alignment with the abolitionists. At lower right Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell dances with an Indian brave. This pairing is puzzling but may allude to Bell's brief flirtation with Native American interests. At lower left Stephen A. Douglas dances with a ragged Irishman. Associated with Douglas in several cartoons the Irishman, here wearing a cross, may be intended as a reference to Douglas's backing among Irish immigrants and allegations of the candidate's Catholicism.

A general parody on the 1860 presidential contest, highlighting the impact of the Dred Scott decision on the race. That controversial decision, handed down in 1857 by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, ruled that neither the federal government nor territorial governments could prohibit slavery in the territories. The burning question of the future of slavery in the United States was addressed by several of the contenders during the 1860 race. Here the four presidential candidates dance with members of their supposed respective constituencies. The music is fiddled by Dred Scott, the slave whose suit precipitated the court’s decision. Scott sits on a chair at center. In the upper left is Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge. He is paired with Democratic incumbent and ally James Buchanan, depicted as a goat or (as he was nicknamed) “Buck.” At the upper right Republican Abraham Lincoln prances arm-in-arm with a black woman, a pejorative reference to his party’s alignment with the abolitionists. At lower right Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell dances with an Indian brave. This pairing is puzzling but may allude to Bell’s brief flirtation with Native American interests. At lower left Stephen A. Douglas dances with a ragged Irishman. Associated with Douglas in several cartoons the Irishman, here wearing a cross, may be intended as a reference to Douglas’s backing among Irish immigrants and allegations of the candidate’s Catholicism.

1857 marked a turning point, at which sectional conflict spun out of control and the country moved rapidly toward the final violent resolution in the Civil War. Stampp’s intensely focused look at this pivotal year illuminates the forces at work and the mood of the nation as it was misled
toward disaster.

 

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