Sunday, June 01, 2014

Book Review: "Washington Brotherhood"

Rachel Shelden's Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (UNC Press, 2013) offers a fresh look at Washington society in the decades leading up to the Civil War, concentrating not on the occasional violent outburst but instead on the day-to-day camaraderie and social interactions of elected officials from across the regional and political spectrum. Shelden highlights a number of situations in which personal friendships between legislators had important consequences for the resolution of sectional differences, and argues for the existence of a Washington "bubble" that kept many of those who might have prevented the ultimate break from seeing it coming to the extent that they might have.

The author has done her research well, drawing on a wide range of unpublished papers, boardinghouse directories, Congressional seating charts, and other materials. She stresses the importance of not relying on the record of Congressional debates as the main source for sectional animus, noting that often legislators who were violently critical of their political opponents in public were close personal friends. She ably explains the Young Indians, a small group of Whig congressmen from across the sectional divide (including Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Stephens) who played a key role in the Whig selection of Zachary Taylor as the party's nominee in 1848 and cemented lasting personal bonds and perceptions between its members (for good and ill, as it turned out).

An excellent exploration of social and cultural connections which provide important context to the history of the antebellum period.

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