This is a very different type of Civil War book. Rather than battles or politics, it takes a long look at the reasons that things turned out the way they did, about the evolution of American society and institutions, of the feelings of the people of the period. The breadth of the portrait, in time covered but also the lives lived, is astonishingly dense.
On one level, it is a splendid introduction for the general reader. Starting in the 1830s, it goes all the way to the end - the definitive failure - of Reconstruction in 1876. The bulk of the events in the book are, of course, during the Civil War itself, but Goldfield also covers the end of the Indian Wars, the establishment of modernism as industrialization accelerated, and the way that American institutions took the form that have more or less lasted to the present day. This is presented as a narrative, stories following the lifetimes of many interesting characters (e.g. Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Jefferson Davis), but with plenty of analyses seamlessly woven in. Whether you know the events and concepts or not, the tableau that Goldfield paints is an extraordinary pleasure to read, vivid, and written with an elegant precision that is absolutely masterful.
On a deeper level, he has a number of points that he wants to make. This is where the book gets original, even hard hitting in its unflinching interpretations. Because he is arguing against what can only be called myths, there are many who will vehemently disagree with his take.
First, he looks at the causes of the Civil War. On the one hand, he argues that the question of slavery was indeed the principal reason that North opposed South and vice versa. This was the case, he argues, because of the importance of slavery to the society of the South. Not only did it allow slaveowners to create a kind of stagnant, pseudo-aristocratic lifestyle in spite of the industrial revolution underway, but even poor whites had a class to look down upon and humiliate as inferiors. If slavery ended as an institution, the balance of this society as it was would die. Interestingly, this is the precise line of argument that Southerners have sought to demolish or suppress through a political and academic machine for the last 150 years, arguing that it was states' rights, that they were victims of Northern aggression, etc.
On the other hand, Goldfield goes into great detail about the impact of the Second Great Awakening, the extraordinary upsurge of evangelical protestantism from the early 1830s. This was the time that Mormonisn, Seventh Day Adventism, and hundreds of other denominations were established, espousing absolute certainly in their views and the ability to personally discern the intent of God. This reinforced America's sense of its uniqueness and mission as the only democratic nation in existence and as the place that God had chosen for paradise. Taken together, this fatally hardened the views of both North and South, he argues, with each church asserting that it represented the absolute just cause - and guaranteed quick success in war.
Second, the reason that the North was so fanatically devoted to maintaining the Union was the fear of anarchy and disintegration: observers had closely followed events in Europe, starting with the "terror" of the French Revolution but focusing on the contemporary crises as embodied in the apparently failed revolutions of 1848. They worried that "too much democracy" would lead to chaos and dissipate energies in petty disputes and wars. According to this logic, the breakup of the Union was only the beginning of a slide to anarchy, whereby other states would break off and the result would be tiny states incessantly warring on each other. The Union, and the democratic experiment it represented, had to go on in their view.
Third, the Civil War accelerated a number of economic and technological trends underway. In many ways, it was the culmination of the modernism that began with the French Revolution and steam-powered industrialization: societies were no longer static and cyclical, based on rigid class privileges and incontrovertible limits, but opening up in completely unpredictable ways. America was linking itself with rail roads, enabling commerce to develop but also the use of industrial organization to wage war: it was the first truly modern war, revealing America even then as a great power that would surpass the older colonial powers in Europe. This was, he argues, the pragmatic ideology - with its profound belief in progress and science - that took the place of the ideological absolutism of the 1830s Evangelical movements, particularly once the soldiers realized that God's will did not extend to the battlefield but led instead to unimaginable carnage. Replacing faith alone, the vocabulary of science gained a permanent place in the American political discourse.
Fourth, he believes, the failure of Reconstruction was entirely due to the reprise of power by the same people who held office and property in the South before the Civil War. The principal mechanism to accomplish this was the complete political disenfranchisement of blacks, who had gained some role in Reconstruction. According to Goldfield, there was no northern misrule, no humiliation of whites (beyond losing the war), and no unusual corruption in a very corrupt age. It was less about the rights of whites than about their psychological need to dominate the former slaves, essentially keeping them down with cruelty and violence. The Ku Klux Klan was America's first terrorist organization and was completely effective in its aims.
Fifth, the result was that the South, however exotic and charming it appeared from the outside, remained a backward region for the next century, lacking a competitive labor force due to cheap black labor without protection by law, based on political oppression, and supported by a sense of victimhood and self-righteous religious fervor, psychologically stunted and full of willful delusion. Meanwhile, the North progressed with explosive dynamism, fulfilling its promise to lead the world alongside the European powers. With its ideology of progress and fascination with science, the North developed world-class educational institutions and research universities and served as the base of industrial investment.
My criticisms of the book are few. I still cannot quite get my head around the failure of Reconstruction, however much this book helped to clarify matters such as power relations and the mentality of the South. The last 3rd of the book seemed to wander a bit to me, lacking the tightness of focus of the earlier portions that covered the march to war.
This is very powerful stuff, bound for controversy. Though a Northerner, I grew up with close family in the South, so I have a particular affection for the region as well as some understanding of the underside. In my opinion, much of what Goldfield argues is correct. What is truly great about this book is how Goldfield ties it all together. It is compulsively readable and every page fascinates and stimulates the reader to search for more. This is one of the best history books I have read in years. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.