Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War

By Rachel A. Shelden

Univ. of North Carolina. 281 pp. $34.95

Standard political histories of the 1850s focus on slavery, sectionalism and secession. In “Washington Brotherhood,” Rachel A. Shelden, an assistant professor of history at Georgia College and State University, takes a different approach. She details the interplay of personal relationships and political culture in the nation’s capital as the United States lurched toward civil war.

Thoroughly researched and richly detailed, “Washington Brotherhood” describes how Democrats and Whigs, fire-breathing Southerners and anti-slavery Northerners, bonded over boardinghouse dinners, card games and booze. They worshiped and socialized together, participated in professional associations and secret societies, and sometimes formed their own organizations. Alexander Stephens of Georgia and another congressman, an Illinoisan named Abraham Lincoln, belonged to one such group, the Young Indian Club, which supported Zachary Taylor’s presidential candidacy in 1848. As much as the pull of sectional animosity, the social and cultural milieu of Washington shaped everything from the anti-slavery Wilmot Proviso of 1846 to the doomed Peace Conference of February 1861.

In Shelden’s account, the dynamics of Washington life often promoted compromise and muted disagreement. She argues that the Compromise of 1850, which balanced admission of California as a free state with a draconian fugitive-slave law, passed Congress in part because of the social skills of Washington banker William Corcoran and President Millard Fillmore. When Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina mercilessly beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor, Northern opinion was outraged, and Southerners rejoiced in the defense of their honor. But in Washington itself, where alcohol-fueled political violence was common, the incident was shrugged off.

‘Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War’ by Rachel A. Shelden (Univ. of North Carolina )

Even so, Shelden concedes, the caning of Sumner exacerbated sectional tensions elsewhere and may have contributed to the onset of the war — which raises a point that will gnaw at some readers. In the end, the capital’s capacity for fostering cross-sectional friendship and calming differences over slavery proved unequal to the task of preventing secession and civil war.

In 1865, a Confederate delegation led by Stephens met with Lincoln at Hampton Roads to discuss ending the hostilities, but the bonds of friendship enjoyed by the onetime Young Indians were no match for the profound differences soon to be resolved at Appomattox. Whether she intended this or not, Shelden’s interesting and colorful tale offers a cautionary note for all who believe that political discord can be smoothed over if only the politicians in Washington would get along better. Sometimes, the issues are too big.

Robert Mitchell