Reading, Writing, And History


And a reader of the text can hardly fail to be struck by the fact that for all their thoroughness in debate both men stayed away from the fundamental issue that lay beneath the slavery issue itself: How, in a nation dedicated to freedom and democracy, do black and white races finally get along with each other? If slavery ends, what relationship takes its place? Are all men created equal, no matter what the color of their skins, and if they are, how do they go about living together? With this question the debaters refused to grapple.

Resort to Force

When debate fails, action comes; and an instructive companion book to Mr. Angle’s is the excellent First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter , by W. A. Swanberg.

Mr. Swanberg stations himself right where the dam finally burst—at Charleston Harbor, in South Carolina—and examines the course of events from, roughly, the fall of 1860 to the April day in 1861 when the guns opened fire. When he begins, the United States is still one nation, rather lackadaisically maintaining certain badly run-down military installations in one of its seaports; before he gets very far the one nation has unaccountably become two, and the men responsible for these military installations (to say nothing of the men responsible for the two nations) are trying to do the best they can under conditions of unheard-of complexity and difficulty; and when he concludes the two nations have gone to war, and what could not be debated out will be fought out.

This makes a wholly fascinating story; a record of the strange, exciting, and sometimes incomprehensible things men did when a war that nobody really planned came over the horizon and became inevitable and at last actual. It is more than a simple account of the things done by soldiers and elected officials, although it gives the complete story of their doings.

First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter , by W. A. Swanberg. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 373 pp. $5.95.

In effect, all hope of a political solution had died, when Mr. Swanberg begins his story. Somewhere along the line—perhaps before Lincoln and Douglas ever began to debate with one another, perhaps while they were talking, perhaps afterward—the American political mechanism had broken down. A settlement had gone out of reach, and instead of trying to persuade one another, men of North and South were mounting guns around Charleston Harbor.

… A long step, this, from Thoreau’s pious hope that a man could withdraw from an unsatisfactory world? Long enough, certainly; and the question of how man, the social animal, adjusts himself and his society to the demands of his ideals still is unanswered.