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The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (The New American Nation Series)

4.09 of 5 stars 4.09  ·  rating details  ·  746 ratings  ·  40 reviews
David M. Potter's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Impending Crisis is the definitive history of antebellum America. Potter's sweeping epic masterfully charts the chaotic forces that climaxed with the outbreak of the Civil War: westward expansion, the divisive issue of slavery, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's uprising, the ascension of Abraham Lincoln, and the drama of Sou ...more
Paperback, 672 pages
Published March 15th 2011 by Harper Perennial (first published January 1st 1976)
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Community Reviews

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Lately, I’ve allowed my History of Slavery in America reading project to go dormant. This, unfortunately, happens to many of my life’s projects (time machine, perpetual motion machine, raising my children, etc.). In this case, the reading project had simultaneously become an exercise in tilting at windmills and in beating a dead horse. At a certain point, enough becomes enough. If I’m getting tired of my self-righteousness and didacticism, I can only imagine that other people must want to punch ...more
Jeremy Perron
David Potter died before this book was published so all the success and praise, including a Pulitzer Prize, could only be received posthumously. It is however a magnificent work that captures the over a decade period that was leading up to the Civil War. The book is part of the New American History series not the Oxford History series that I had been reading. Unlike the Oxford History volumes, it does not dive as deep into the average people as well as the elites with the same amount of elegant ...more
This is just an excellent and highly readable account of the period leading up to the Civil War. It is a political history of the country during that period; it doesn't cover social, cultural or economic developments except as they bear upon the subject matter.

In the last few years, a number of Southerners have asserted that the Civil War was not really fought over the issue of slavery, but rather over states' rights issues, tariffs, etc. This book, written in 1976 and the winner of the Pulitzer
Reading Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner has reminded me of all the gaps in my knowledge of this critical period in U.S. history. This looks like a splendid overview of key events in the years just before the war.
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After I finished this book, my imagination took me to a place where maybe David Potter met up with Edwin Stanton in a faraway place and these words could have been uttered with a handshake; Mr. Potter, your words are for the ages and future historians.
David M. Potter was born in December 1910 in the southern state of Georgia. From the moment of his birth it could be construed that he was destined to grasp history in one form or another, he was after all born and bred in the heart of Dixie. Lucki
John E
Probably the best book I've ever found on the politics leading to the American Civil War. While other books in this series (The New American Nation Series) cover other aspects of the period, this book limits itself to the political world. It follows each of the crisis points of the era in the development of sectionalism in the nation leading to the position of the South that it is a separate "nation" with irreconcilable differences with the North. The fact that the book was outlined and started ...more
Greg Boles
A masterpiece of historical scholarship and beautiful writing...
This book is incredible. David Potter's writing is clear, and he lays out the complexities of the sectional crisis in such a way that really puts slavery at the front and center of the conflict.
The thing I found most incredible about this period, and what Potter makes clear, is that the Southern political "victories" of the 1850's - the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, were almost all symbolic, at best, and did more than anything else to precipitate conflict
Mike Hankins
Even as early as the 1960s, the field of literature on the origins of the Civil War was crowded. Nevertheless, David Potter has produced a volume that stands atop all that has come before it and continues to hold incredible relevance to the present day. Through a detailed political analysis, Potter traces how the United States stood united in nationalistic fervor in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. The treaty resolving the war ironically unleashed latent sectional tension regarding h ...more
Frank Stein
A beautiful, classic piece of historical scholarship that focuses on the political battles that led up to the Civil War. Modern historians often eschew things like the congressional fights over committees or the mechanics of constitutional conventions in the territories, but Potter elicits the drama in such political minutiae.

For instance, he recounts the charged battle for the speakership of the House in 1859, where Republicans had 109 votes to 101 for the Democrats, with 27 Whigs or "American
Bryn Dunham
The "Impending Crisis" is a terrific book about the political crisis that led to the Civil War beginning with the conclusion of Mexican-American War and ending at Fort Sumter. This is not so much about America in general during that period like "Empire of Liberty" and "What Hath God Wrought" are, but strictly the political history of that time. As could be imagined it is very dense and hence why I gave it three stars for "readability"; it is not casual reading and probably wouldn't be for somebo ...more
This is a great book, giving me many new insights into the period before the Civil war. It was written decades ago, and so lacks the treatment that one finds in most books on history these days, namely social, cultural and economic history. As a work focusing on political history however, it does shine, making one think deeply about Lincoln, especially as a foil to Stephen A Douglass. Also, a sympathetic nod is given to the 15th president, James Buchanan which was refreshing and necessary step i ...more
Monte Lamb
This is an excellent book on the period leading up to the Civil War. It is academic with many footnotes, but shows the full story from 1848 until the firing on Ft. Sumter. He weighs alternative options and opinions fairly and gives good support in his arguments. You get the facts as well as the emotions involved in this highly divisive period.
It's about that US from 1848 to 1861. The Civil war. It's pretty good. The book won the pulitzer prize. I believe. No comment. Here's a comment from my mom:

"If it isn't an intellectual book, I won't read it", so, it's an intellectual book.

I would recommend it to a friend, if it was a friend who had any brains.

Josh Liller
I would have finished this faster if I wasn't taking notes from it for a presentation and needed a break in the middle.

A very deserving Pulitzer-winning book on the period leading up to the Civil War, this book covers the issue and events really well. If I could, I'd give this 4 1/2 stars: the footnotes are a little distracting and the writing is a little long winded at times, including more than a few page-long paragraphs. But the information and analysis is just so good I don't hesitate to lea
Greg Fanoe
This presents mostly a legislative history of the US pre-Civil War, with very little space given to economic situation, cultural issues, etc. Also, it almost exclusively focuses on the slavery issue, which is pretty accurate given the time period, but don't come here if you are looking for arguments on tariffs and the like.

However, it is informative and well organized, plus it contains its fair share of insight. Does a really good job of putting events and arguments in the context of their times
"Sweeping epic" is an apt description. Really tough read for a general reader, and it was a long read for me. Having said that, this book was what I wanted and what thought it would be, an excellent study of the steadily leviathan incidents, situations, and calamities leading up to the War Between the States. Now for something MUCH "lighter." Or maybe two or three...
A detailed study of the years preceding the Civil War that typically get skipped in your American history classes.
Kathy Kattenburg
Fascinating, impeccably researched history of the events between 1848 and 1861, which led up to the Civil War.
A tersely written and comprehensive account of politics in America in the era leading up to the Civil War. I might have wished for a little more of the narrative to describe American culture and society in that period, but there are other works that do that (although Potter did briefly portray the underlying forces), and the descriptions of the issues and personalities involved are first rate. If you're interested in the causes of the Civil War, I'd say that this book is pretty much required rea ...more
Very thorough treatment of the subject. More of a political bent, but still did a good job focusing on culture.
A comprehensive, if meandering, account of the pivotal decade before the Civil War. I wish I could have given this one a higher rating, but I was very turned off by the author's style. He wasted too much time in idle speculation, and his focus was far too academic for my taste. While it fails to live up to Battle Cry of Freedom, one of my personal favorites, The Impending Crisis is still a worthwhile read for anyone interested in America on the eve of the Civil War.
John Petersen
I can see why this book won the Pulitzer Prize. A phenomenal piece of scholarship.
This was a really insightful look at the lead up to the Civil War. Extremely well constructed and well written. Not simply a narrative of what happened - but truly deep look into the causes and psychology that lead history along the path that it eventually took. Highly recommended.

I think if you want to understand how and why the Civil War happened then this book must be read. This book really talks about all the issues and it is fantastic. It is very long, but a very good book.
If you have an interest in this topic, then I would rate this book a 5; if you are reading it as a school assignment, I'm afraid I can only give this dense Congressional history a 3. Average of a 4.
B. Hallward
Although marred by some dated language, this is a deep and nuanced analysis of the sectional and political developments in the years leading up to the American civil war.
Everything you could possibly want to know about why there was an American Civil War. Gives me a whole different view of the war. Highly recommended.
Read at the University of Southern Mississippi as part of a history class
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