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Outlines of English and American Literature
The Period of Conflict
by Long, William J.


(1840-1876)

  The muffled drum's sad roll has beat
    The soldier's last tattoo;
  No more on Life's parade shall meet
    That brave and fallen few.
  On Fame's eternal camping-ground
    Their silent tents are spread,
  And Glory guards, with solemn round,
    The bivouac of the dead.

           O'Hara, "The Bivouac of the Dead"


Political History

To study the history of America after 1840 is to have our attention drawn as by a powerful lodestone to the Civil War. It looms there in the middle of the nineteenth century, a stupendous thing, dominating and dwarfing all others. To it converge many ways that then seemed aimless or wandering, the unanswered questions of the Constitution, the compromises of statesmen, the intrigues of politicians, the clamor of impatient reformers, the silent degradation of the slave. And from it, all its passion and suffering forgotten, its heroism remembered, proceed the unexpected blessings of a finer love of country, a broader sense of union, a surer faith in democracy, a better understanding of the spirit of America, more gratitude for her glorious past, more hope for her future. So every thought or mention of the mighty conflict draws us onward, as the first sight of the Rockies, massive and snow crowned, lures the feet of the wanderer on the plains.

We shall not attempt here to summarize the war between the South and the North or even to list its causes and consequences. The theme is too vast. We note only that the main issues of the conflict, state rights and slavery, had been debated for the better part of a century, and might still have found peaceful solution had they not been complicated by the minor issues of such an age of agitation as America never saw before and, as we devoutly hope, may never see again.

The Age of Agitation

Such agitation was perhaps inevitable in a country that had grown too rapidly for its government to assimilate the new possessions. By the Oregon treaty, the war with Mexico and the annexation of Texas vast territories had suddenly been added to the Union, each with its problem that called for patient and wise deliberation, but that a passionate and half-informed Congress was expected to settle overnight. With the expansion of territory in the West came a marvelous increase of trade and wealth in the North, and a corresponding growth in the value of cotton and slave labor in the South. Then arose an economic strife; the agricultural interests of one part of the country clashed with the manufacturing interests of another (in such matters as the tariff, for example), and in the tumult of party politics it was impossible to reach any harmonious adjustment. Finally, the violent agitation of the slave question forced it to the front not simply as a moral or human but as a political issue; for the old "balance of power" between the states was upset when the North began to outstrip the South in population, and every state was then fiercely jealous of its individual rights and obligations in a way that we can now hardly comprehend.

As a result of these conflicting interests and the local or sectional passions which they aroused, there was seldom a year after 1840 when the country did not face a situation of extreme difficulty or danger. Indeed, even while Webster was meditating his prophetic oration with its superb climax of "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable," many of the most thoughtful minds, south and north, believed that Congress faced a problem beyond its power to solve; that no single government was wise enough or strong enough to meet the situation, especially a government divided against itself.

The Wind and the Whirlwind

In the midst of the political tumult, which was increased by the clamor of agitators and reformers, came suddenly the secession of a state from the Union, an act long threatened, long feared, but which arrived at last with the paralyzing effect of a thunderbolt. Then the clamor ceased; minor questions were swept aside as by a tempest, and the main issues were settled not by constitutional rights, not by orderly process of law or the ballot, but by the fearful arbitrament of the sword. And even as the thunderbolt fell and the Union trembled, came also unheralded one gaunt, heroic, heaven-sent man to lead the nation in its hour of peril:

      Oh, slow to smite and swift to spare,
        Gentle and merciful and just!
      Who in the fear of God didst bear
        The sword of power, a nation's trust!


Such is an outline of the period of conflict, an outline to which the political measures or compromises of the time, its sectional antagonism, its score of political parties, its agitators, reformers, and all other matters of which we read confusedly in the histories, are but so many illuminating details.

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