Book Reviews: Spring 2014

James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War, Edited by John W. Quist and Michael J. BirknerJames Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War
Edited by John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner
Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2013
282 pp., B&W illustrations, index
$69.95 hardcover

As the only Pennsylvania native to hold the highest office in the land, James Buchanan is often regarded as the worst president in American history. When his successor, Abraham Lincoln, came to office, he was faced with Buchanan’s legacy of sectional strife, economic woes, and a country on the brink of war. But does Buchanan deserve to be as maligned as he is?

Editors John Quist and Michael Birkner have pulled together a compilation of nine essays and conversations debating the Buchanan administration and its impact on mid-19th century America. These essays, such as the investigation of Buchanan’s handling of the Utah War and Mormon leader Brigham Young’s separatist agenda, and his foreign policy record, are carefully researched and written. The collection serves to complicate the picture of this president. While not an apologist work, “James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War” adds depth to our understanding of the man and the era. It teaches us that history is not as simple as a “Top Ten Worst Presidents” list might have us believe.

Reviewed by Kelly Anderson Gregg, Assistant Editor, Heinz History Center

A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig MinerA Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862
By Craig Miner
Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2010
341 pp., with notes and index
$34.95 hardcover

American character both shaped, and was shaped by, the railroad. Drawing on a search of 400,000 articles, and thousands of books and pamphlets from the 19th century, author Craig Miner emphasizes the emergence of the railroad in America as a social and cultural phenomenon. However, he does not ignore the politics of intercity rivalries, and the economic forces at play. He delineates the trend towards centralization that overcame problems of standardization for track gauge, time, work rules, schedules, and locomotive design. Miner examines the themes of immigration, labor, race relations, mail transport, land speculation, public debt, and city livability. He also discusses the dark side of the railroad, which was disruptive to both city and county life, rife with swindles, monopolistic, disgustingly unclean, and notoriously accident-prone.

Historians who dispute the “moonlight and magnolias” depiction of a rural South will find plenty of ammunition against the idea that industrialization was univocally decried as a Northern evil by Jeffersonian pastoralists. Southerners may have been quicker to question the constitutionality of federal land grants to the railroads than their Northern counterparts, but they did not fail to grasp how this rapidly developing transportation revolution could benefit a slave-based economy. Miner’s skillful weaving of grandiose rhetoric and scathing criticisms from diverse newspaper sources has produced an entertaining discussion of America’s soaring ambitions, obsession with speed, and a technology that we take for granted today. Ultimately he connects the social and individual transformations wrought by railroad development with the issues posed by subsequent innovations such as aviation, television, and the Internet.

Reviewed by Gerard O’Neil, Publications Intern, History Center

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