Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War Analysis

Eric Foner

Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Eric Foner’s collection of essays Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War is a refreshing departure from the direction the historiography of this field has taken in the past decade. The study of the Civil War and Reconstruction era needs the challenge of new approaches and ideas which the author provides. In the 1970’s, political historians became somewhat beleaguered by charges from a generation of “new social” historians that scholarship must shift from the traditional emphasis on institutions, politics, and ideas to subfields of social investigation in which quantifiable data can be utilized. Many historians who continued to research and write in the field of political history began to ignore pointedly ideology as well as national issues and explain voter behavior in terms of ethnocultural affiliations and other social factors. Thus, historical scholarship became increasingly fragmented as researchers sought the social roots of ideas. Rather than taking ideas seriously in their own right, many historians attempted to study them either as direct reflections of underlying social processes or as inferences from statistically ascertainable data about human behavior. Customs, values, and psychological motivations began to take the place of ideas.

Foner’s collection of essays, most of which were previously published, address major concerns ignored in recent years: politics and ideology. Written between 1965 and 1980, they offer interpretations with respect to the causes and consequences of the Civil War and reflect the author’s ongoing desire to reintegrate the political, social, and intellectual history of the period. The major theme running through many of the essays is “the interplay in a society undergoing both a sectional confrontation and an economic revolution.” He describes the conflict which occurred between the American tradition of republican government and the complex, interrelated issues of race, class, and ethnicity. In addition, Foner documents the dichotomy of maintaining a society based on freedoms derived from natural law constantly being fractured by slavery, sectionalism, and other devisive forces.

Fundamentally, Foner reasserts the centrality of the Civil War to the people of this period. The first section of the book deals with the causes of the sectional conflict, the second discusses the antislavery movement, and a final group of essays treats land and labor after the war, especially the way in which the complex issues of race, class, and ethnicity affected Reconstruction and the evolution of radical movements. A consistent pattern discerned by the author is the contradiction between republican ideology (a lasting legacy of the American Revolution) and the expansion of capitalism. This tension between “virtue and commerce” posed ideological problems for the antislavery movement, shaped the debates of the Reconstruction era, and affected virtually every subsequent effort to recast American society. A second theme is the development of an American radicalism based on economic independence as the key to personal freedom.

Foner is at his best in dealing with the causes of the Civil War. In the essay entitled “Politics, Ideology, and the Origins of the American Civil War,” he carefully chronicles how the American political system became increasingly ineffective as a mechanism for relieving social tensions, ordering group conflict, and integrating the society. National political parties attempted to forge alliances between political elites in various sections of the country. As the North and South took different paths of economic and social development, however, and as contrasting value systems...

(The entire section is 1505 words.)