90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
‘Ecstatic Nation’

“Ecstatic Nation.”  A new book looks at the passions and polarization that drove America to civil war.

 Slaves Waiting for Sale - Richmond, Virginia. Oil, 20¾ x 31½ inches. Painted upon the sketch of 1853 -- Eyre Crow (Wikimedia Commons)

Slaves Waiting for Sale – Richmond, Virginia. Oil, 20¾ x 31½ inches. Painted upon the sketch of 1853 — Eyre Crow (Wikimedia Commons)

The lazy days of August have calmed the din just a bit.  But we know we’ve been living in a time of extraordinary political passions and polarization.

In a brilliant new book called “Ecstatic Nation,” historian Brenda Wineapple takes us back in a new way to the years around America’s ultimate meltdown in passion – the years around the Civil War.

Not just the bills and moves and maneuvers that left the nation at war with itself.  But the people – from P.T. Barnum to Walt Whitman to Red Cloud to Jefferson Davis.

This hour, On Point:  “Ecstatic Nation,” and American polarization, then and now.

- Tom Ashbrook


Brenda Wineapple, author of “Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877.” She teaches in the MFA programs at the New School University and Columbia University, and is a professor of modern literary and historical studies at Union College.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times: Patriotic Roar — “Wineapple gives us history as it feels in real time: full of plans that backfire, schemes foiled by chance, outliers who suddenly change everything and happy endings that turn out to be not too happy after all. And, somehow, the whole untidy situation pushes us toward social progress. ‘Ecstatic Nation’ is not a book with an overt agenda. Its message is delivered through its vivid portrayal of the human side of an era, following the roiling tides of emotions — erratic, shifting and ultimately overpowering.”

Salon: ‘It is the nation’s time’: How women won the vote – “Elizabeth Cady Stanton continued to lecture, but mainly she wrote; she composed a history of the entire suffrage movement and a monumental two-volume Women’s Bible. Susan B. Anthony kept traveling across America as a suffrage speaker. In Rochester, in the fall of 1872, she tried to cast her ballot in the presidential election. Arrested, convicted, and fined, she never served a day in jail and never paid the fine; rather, she trooped on, becoming the mother of us all.”

Excerpt: ‘Ecstatic Nation’

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Coastghost

    WHAT? The US was “creeping to (civil) war” as early as 1832: the commotion did not die down appreciably in the interim, regardless of whatever distraction the war with Mexico provided.

  • geraldfnord

    I don’t know what attitudes toward war were like ante bellum, but I would guess that they would have more to do with notions of glory and honor and the righteous crusade than with the sight, sounds, and smell of gut-shot boys calling for their mothers.

    Sam Clemens was surely being facetious when he blamed Sir Walter Scott for the whole affair, but did he have a point? Did some hold their manhood cheap whiles [sic] any spoke who had killed some Mexicans in the then-recent war? (And perhaps Grant was not right but relevant when he considered the Civil War a divine Judgement on our Mexican adventure, in the sense that both were an expression of an age in which faster transport and communication both allowed more centralised government and made it harder for the nation to exist half-slave and half-free.) (For the first see: German and Italian unification, the consolidation of the British Raj, and [a little later] a moribund Russian Empire bumping up rising Japanese such. For the second, see the British and French anti-slavery movements: it got harder and harder to ignore what things were like in their colonies, though a certain extreme level of callousness and rationalisation helped—but regardless of that, it probably tipped the balance against Britain’s recognising the Rebels’ government.)

  • PithHelmut

    One thing we never mention…wars are not a human-induced problem they are a male-induced problem. Do you see women jousting each other with swords or smashing tanks into each other. Why? Women have just as much access to guns and weapons and men but they don’t behave this way anywhere near the degree that men do. If we want to survive the next wave of war technology, the highest probability for doing so is to delegitimize male rule and create matriarchal rule. No more killing – killing is not a solution to conflict it is an admission of a total lack of creativity and imagination.

    • Coastghost

      Not even history poses a rebuke to utopian politics: Elizabeth I of England was as bloodthirsty as they come. Her queenly ambitions have cut a broad swath across the entire modern period. The myth of pacific “dainty women” continues to be a fatuous conceit.

    • Coastghost

      More recently: Madeline Albright gave the rationale and the urge to launch Clinton’s humanitarian war in the Balkans. Condy Rice played the role she played in shaping policy for Afghanistan and Iraq. Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton helped lead Obama to take down Gaddafi.
      (S. Power no doubt is already playing a large role in fomenting the coming US response to Assad’s Syria.)

    • ThirdWayForward

      Power itself corrupts — it changes all those who wield it, including women.

      One cannot extrapolate from personal propensities for violence to the willingness to engage in mass violence (war). Our individual reactions to (and propensities for) violence are manipulated for propagandistic purposes in order to gain support for war, but the cold calculated decision-making processes that usually trigger the initiation of war are fairly far removed from personal tendencies for anger and hostility.

      Men hold no monopoly on violence — women can be just as vicious as men, given the opportunity. But in the past women have had fewer opportunities for power, and as a result there are fewer egregious historical examples of feminine mass murder (i.e. nothing on par with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Tamerlane, et al).

      Putting women in the same positions of power, which does aid gender equality, a good thing, unfortunately does not help make it more difficult for states to engage in mass violence. Women in power are always under pressure to prove that they can be as aggressive as their male counterparts.

      In lieu of an immediate and grave threat to the existence our homeland, Congress should be required to formally declare war before substantial military action can be taken. Better yet would be a national referendum on whether to go to war.

      Democracy does not guarantee that unnecessary wars will not be fought, but it can serve as a brake to slow down the process and allow more time for reasoned, broader deliberation.

  • Charles Vigneron

    Benjamin Lundy, Quaker, was against ‘War in Texas’ and known to J. Q. Adams. Lundy took the fight of abolition to the steps of Baltimore at a slave auction. He took lots of Southern beatings.

  • Coastghost

    Postdated proof-texting of narrative assumptions: this monograph sounds congenial enough for the NPR and Northeast Corridor crowd . . . .

  • Coastghost

    –and yet again: no Northern historian makes much of the moral scruples against Southern slaveholding that post-bellum was deployed by Northern victors against Plains Indians: the Northern practice of wholesale slaughter somehow lacks the same shiny pristine morality.

    • ThirdWayForward

      The reprehensible treatment of the Indians in no way excuses the evils of slavery. Pointing out potential moral blind-spots of some historians should not act as a diversion from the evils themselves.

      Historians have their own perspectives and biases, and one must search for truth amongst the various points of view.

      However, one must acknowledge that pro-Confederacy apologists go through very great lengths to whitewash the evils of Southern slavery (and we imagine that they don’t deal well either with how the Indians were treated).

      • Coastghost

        My argument is that post-bellum Northern treatment of Plains Indians DOES SOMETHING to the very conception that the War of Northern Aggression commenced with any unambiguous morality in its service: if the morality governing Northern prosecution of the war was so sterling, how did it become so utterly tarnished in just a handful of years? I simply cannot believe that the defense of “primitive” peoples was the avowed hallmark of Northern polity in the second half of the 19th century. (Hint: I don’t make much of the Northern moral justification of its war efforts. I make nothing of any moral justification of slavery, but neither do I judge it by standards that only became available following World War II.)

        • Ray in VT

          One need not judge slavery to be abominable by “standards that only came to mind following World War II” when condemning the South for attempting to perpetuate it in 1861. The institution of African slavery had been under increasing pressure for years, with various states outlawing it throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, not to mention the British abolition of the practice in 1833. Those committed to enforcing race-based human slavery were just stubbornly holding onto an outdated system that deprived millions of the right to be human beings.

          • Coastghost

            Ray: with due respect your last sentence completely vitiates your first sentence: 19th cent. slaveholders commonly did not deem themselves to be “stubbornly holding onto an outdated system” because they operated with a temporal and historical viewpoint that WE enjoy the luxury of deeming “archaic” or “anachronistic” or “atavistic”. They seem not to have viewed their circumstance with OUR historical 20/20 vision: if anything, 19th century slaveholders can likely be rebuked for operating with 18th cent. mental habits: Walter Scott played no small part. (Americans have been imposing anachronistic interpretations upon the entire conflict for a good long while.)

          • Ray in VT

            So the vast national and international abolitionist movement, which had been under way for decades by 1861, should not be a contemporary basis by which to judge those seeking to perpetuate the peculiar institution? It seems that there is plenty of 18th and 19th century precedent by which to judge the system as outdated and archaic.

          • Coastghost

            If to your 21st century eyes it was so obviously “outdated” in 1861, what kind of acute impatience required Northern hostilities? I agree slavery was already a doomed institution, but it continued to make economic sense up until war broke out, per the arguments of Fogel and Engerman, et al. Slavery was vanishing all across the Western hemisphere over succeeding decades, just as agricultural mechanization was hastening its demise. The “war to end slavery” was gratuitous to that specific outcome, arguably.
            I still wait to hear how Northern moralists distinguish their rationale for simultaneously opposing slavery while endorsing and practicing genocidal policies against Plains Indians: we never hear down here how these two rather incommensurate positions came to be held in the same hearts and minds.

          • Ray in VT

            Open rebellion against the legitimate government of the United States of America.

            Slavery was also an institution capable of adaptation. Jefferson mechanized his operation quite successfully, and the will to continue to such a race based institution could have caused it to carry on for some time, regardless of the profitability, depending upon how fervently the masters wanted to continue their domination.

            People are full of contradictions, and various groups have conferred status upon peoples at different times, so by judging the North for not judging opposition to slavery and equitable treatment of the Native American population equally, then are you not engaging in the same sort of 21st century hindsight that you accuse others of partaking in?

            Were you also referring to the Fogel and Engerman work that attributed some positive benefits for enslaved versus free people and that has been described more recently as a “bold but not discredited work”?

          • Coastghost

            I refer specifically to F&E’s mid-70s Time on the Cross, a breakthrough in cliometrics, justly challenged in Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, and duly appraised in Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men.
            Oh yes, of course I’m engaging in my own form of anachronistic study, and I propose to continue with it until the practice is roundly discredited in professional circles by some one with much more authority than I could possibly claim. I am no historian, professional or otherwise, yet I’d be willing to approach the subject in documentary fashion to see what contemporary participants thought of the matter, if it ever dawned upon them, that is: the absence of documentation would tell its own tale.

    • J__o__h__n

      The South had been expanding west too. Southerner Andrew Jackson was hardly a friend of the Native Americans.

  • ThirdWayForward

    We certainly have our fire-eaters today in the reddest parts of the South and midwest — they are constantly calling for secession and for destabilizing the federal government.

    One does wonder how much of the right would support slavery even today. Until very recently many Southern states would have voted to keep mixed-race marriage illegal — striking down miscegenation laws took a judgement from the Supreme Court. Some of the Ayn Rand right support a wage-slavery race to the bottom where all social supports (health care access, minimum wage, social security, food support) are dismantled and business owners are given completely free reign. The radical right is the spiritual descendent of the Southern pro-slavery establishment. Republican controlled legislatures are now busy trying to disenfranchise as many minority and young voters as they can.

    Historical counterfactuals are always highly speculative, but we wonder whether our society would have undergone a civil war had the American Revolution not succeeded (there were certainly many turning points where it might have floundered). Canada and other British colonies abolished slavery much earlier than the US did, and without civil war. Our understanding is that slave owners in the British Empire were “bought off” at favorable prices, so that many of them went along with ending the institution. Was that solution ever even a remote possibility in the US context?

  • Coastghost

    Nor does history suggest that the spurious notion of Progress is anything but the spurious secular sanctification of the future, which not even science can locate anywhere (astronomy and photography both declare that only the past exists).

  • Bruce94

    Excellent show today and very timely as it follows the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and numerous calls for a renewed struggle against some of the same extreme, right-wing forces that created and sustained Jim Crow.

    The neoconfederate, pro-secessionist supporters and ex-staffers of Rand Paul, whom you featured in a recent program, would do well to open any book, but might benefit enormously from the one authored by today’s guest since it seems to put into proper perspective the corrosive effects of ideological rigor mortis and obstructionism as embodied by groups like the Tea Party.

    It also occurred to me that “Ecstatic Nation” would make a great addition to those university programs and libraries in NC where a few millionaire donors convinced university officials to approve Ayn Rand novels as required reading. The libertarian phobias and fantasies that the Tar Heel State’s university system and GOP apparatus are indulging could be balanced to some extent by the logic and reason with which Wineapple approaches history and its relevance to the increased polarization in our politics and demographics.

  • OldVet

    Fine beginnings of a profound deliberation. I hope your producers continue this thread. The cake is cut on a new axis and our society cannot shift its perception.

    One thread worth pursuing of civil war causes and possible recapitulations would be to interview Scott Reynolds Nelson author of A Nation of Deadbeats. He shows in depth the financial/technological/political bets that banks make…… and refuse to clear if they lose. War being the result.

    The writing is so large on the wall that it is difficult to see. How is King Cotton vs Railroads so different from coal-oil vs solar-wind.

    Great Show! …. worth a continuing series.

Sep 18, 2014
Flickr/Steve Rhodes

After a summer of deadly clashes between Gaza and Israel, we talk to Jews on the left and right about the future of liberal Zionism. Some say it’s over.

Sep 18, 2014

Billionaires. We’ll look at the super super rich, and their global shaping of our world.

Sep 17, 2014
Bob Dylan and Victor Maymudes at "The Castle" in LA before the 1965 world tour. Lisa Law/The Archive Agency)

A new take on the life and music of Bob Dylan, from way inside the Dylan story. “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”

Sep 17, 2014
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson watches from the sidelines against the Oakland Raiders during the second half of a preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

The NFL’s Adrian Peterson and the emotional debate underway about how far is too far to go when it comes to disciplining children.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Talking Through The Issue Of Corporal Punishment For Kids
Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014

On Point dove into the debate over corporal punishment on Wednesday — as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson faces charges in Texas after he allegedly hit his four-year-old son with a switch.

More »
Our Week In The Web: September 12, 2014
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

In which you had varied reactions to the prospect of a robotic spouse.

More »
Beverly Gooden on #WhyIStayed
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

Beverly Gooden — who originated the #WhyIStayed hashtag that has taken off across Twitter — joined us today for our discussion on domestic violence.

More »
1 Comment