Ecstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.
Summary: Ecstatic Nation explores the period of 1848-1877, and the heightened feelings and frenzy of a country contending over slavery, going to war with itself, and then engaging in the conflicts of westward expansion and Reconstruction.
Ecstatic Nation opens with the death of John Quincy Adams in the chambers of the House of Representatives. Adams was the last tie with the founding generation, and the compact that was forged by intelligent, thoughtful men who created a nation. His passing marked a passage into a tumultuous period of national life as a growing nation wrestled with future of slavery and how the rights of men (and women) would be determined in this growing republic.
Wineapple gives us a narrative as expansive as the spirit of the people of this time, encompassing both the colorless James Buchanan and Rutherford B Hayes, and the colorful Nathan Bedford Forrest and P.T. Barnum and George Armstrong Custer. We have the revivalist Charles Finney and the advocates for women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
The book is organized into three parts. The first covers the years of 1848-1861 and the attempts to seek alternately compromises that balanced slave and free state representation as the nation pushed westward and territories became states and changed the political fabric of the country. We have the abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and the nullifiers like John Calhoun. We learn of the dashed hopes of women, who must wait another half century for the right to vote because a nation couldn’t focus on both abolition and women’s rights. And there are all those in between trying to preserve the fabric of the nation. Most striking, and tragic, was Stephen Douglas, dying months after his failed attempt to garner enough Southern support to win the presidency, and save the Union.
The second part is the Civil War itself and the paroxysm of feelings both on and off of the battlefields matched by the almost mystical sense Lincoln had of the war as some form of expiation for the sins of slavery, even while he sought for the military leadership that he found in Grant and Sherman to bring an end to the terrible conflict. We glimpse the anticipated the work of reconstruction that would give the black man what the Union had fought so hard to achieve, while pursuing the reconciliation that would heal the wounds of the war.
The third part tells the story of the dashed hopes of Reconstruction, beginning with the death of Lincoln in the midst of the glow of victory and renewed hope. We see amendments passed and rights bestowed to land and the vote, only to be seized away to be replaced with the law of Jim Crow. And there is the westward expansion, hungry for land and gold and the war on the Indian led by Sherman and Sheridan, punctuated by the tragic folly of George Armstrong Custer. The period ends with the election of the colorless Rutherford B Hayes, and the compromises he makes with southern states to obtain that presidency.
“Ecstatic” is indeed an apt description of the period. At the same time, it seemed to me that Wineapple was content to narrate the ecstasy of the period without attempting to tease out the underlying causes of the kind of messy, destructive tumult we went through as a nation. Yet one cannot read a narrative like this without wondering whether it would have been possible to avert the paroxysms of conflict and brutal expansion, or whether this was simply the inevitable outgrowth of social and political structures unable to contain the expanding and changing nation.
Nor is this merely idle historical speculation. I wonder about our own day and the seeming breakdown of political discourse, continued racial discord, gun violence and various social fault lines. We have our own bloviating pundits and politicians whose incendiary rhetoric seems to overwhelm the voices of reason trying to appeal to our highest ideals. It leaves me wondering who will prevail, and with what consequence?
Wineapple’s book neither asks nor answers those questions. It simply shows what a mess we can make of things, and how slow real social progress often can be. And perhaps that can be good to give us pause before we enter ecstatically into “crusades” that turn citizens with whom we differ into enemies who we must fight, defeat, and maybe even kill.