Title Reviewed:
An Historian and the Civil War

Author Reviewed:
Avery Craven

James W. Silver


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 60, Issue 4, pp 370-371

Article Type:
Book Review

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An Historian and the Civil War. By Avery Craven. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964. Pp. v, 233. Notes. $5.95.)

As one who had his fling at challenging established historians and then, much later, found his own work attacked by revisionists, Avery Craven is well aware that there is no ultimate history, that "the historian is doomed to be forever writing in the sand." Many of us who can remember as far back as the depression fully recognize that the scholar hailed as profound in one generation may be the object of pity in the next. And yet, in this collection of fourteen essays originally published between 1928 and 1964, Mr. Craven never intimates any regret for having chosen his "historical adventure."

At least to this reviewer Mr. Craven has contributed more than anyone else to an understanding of the Civil War, though it is hard to go along with what he calls the "futility of trying to understand and explain the causes" of that conflict. The explanations are just more sophisticated than most people are willing to contemplate. We still don't know all we need to know about this most "tragic story of the failure of the democratic process," whether or not we believe "a stumbling, blundering generation" got itself into a needless war. According to Craven, the "war was the product not so much of sectional differences as of emotions developed about differences, which by 1861 made it impossible to reason, to trust, or to compromise" (p. 46).

Still, through the Mexican War the experiment in democracy seemed to be working well enough. National parties were able to compromise sectional differences, that is until the Democratic party became the vehicle of slavery, using the Constitution to check northern "progress." At this point Craven reminds us that alongside the Constitution "stands that other troublesome document, the Declaration of Independence, with its promise of greater freedom and equality. If politicians and parties do not sometimes give it heed, they may learn to their sorrow that the great document was written to justify revolt. That too may be a fatal weakness in the democratic process" (p. 97).

One wonders whether the essayist really had in mind the 1850's or his own day when he wrote: "It was inevitable in such an atmosphere that the extremist … should have appeared with his doctrine that the end justifies the necessary means. Bearing letters of marque from God, his patience exhausted by delay, he was ready to accept personal responsibility for a people's failure to meet their obligations to mankind. He was certain that the only language the opponent could understand was that of force. He was willing to risk war if that were the price for setting the world in order" (p. 146).

In any case, in the Old Northwest inequality and privilege and economic failure (of farmers and workers) led to frustrations soon turned by pious cranks and clever politicians against the slaveholding leadership which had, in fact, held up federal participation in the rapid exploitation of natural resources. "Thus the halo of democracy and morality … was placed upon the brow of western needs, and its bitterness from unrealized ambitions became a holy sentiment" (p. 35). The Republican party "was one with God and the world's great experiment in Democracy" (p. 42). At the same time the South became self-conscious and bitter also, turned to self-defense, and the Southerner emerged a superior man in a superior civilization. Concrete issues were reduced to abstract principles and conflicts were simplified to the point where men felt more than they reasoned.

In these essays written at widely separated times and now brought together in a single volume, there was bound to be considerable repetition. Some problems such as the impact of the Negrophobic backlash of that day (the reason for Lincoln's victory over Douglas?) are unresolved and there is no satisfactory picture of the South's efforts to gain and retain the friendship and loyalty of the Northwest. Yet no one will ever again be considered knowledgeable in the period of the Civil War without a solid acquaintance with the research, thinking, and writing of Avery Craven. The sand in which he wrote will not revert to nature after having been arranged so carefully.

University of Mississippi

James W. Silver

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.