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Going Along, Getting Along and Falling Apart

The hundreds of men who died at Burnside’s Bridge as Toombs’ outmanned brigades poured fire down on them from the bluffs above Antietam Creek almost 13 years after his Wilmot Proviso speech might have given the Georgian’s 1849 threats of disunion a more serious hearing than his contemporaries (or Shelden), had they been in attendance.

It’s fine to guard against an over-reliance on the official record. But, as it turned out, the perceptions created by all that thunder and theater proved to be a more reliable indicator of the mood of the country than did the pleasant social interaction of the insulated Washington set, as Shelden herself ably demonstrates.

Washington society in the 1840s and 1850s was a highly organized and ritualistic affair. Lawmakers and other government officials would make calls, host parties, dance at balls and attend levees without regard to political differences.

Housing patterns reflected the nonpartisan nature of the capital, with Democrats and Whigs, Northerners and Southerners sharing rooming houses and hotels.

All this social interaction helped grease the legislative wheels, despite the often hostile nature of debate in Congress.

Viewed through the lens of history, the 1856 caning of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina is seen as a turning point in antebellum America. At the time, “the overwhelming response of Washington politicians was to move on from the event,” Shelden writes. The attack happened in May. By June, the “Sumner affair” had “flamed out.” Even Sumner noted after the attack that “Republicans fraternize most amiably with men who sustain every enormity, even with those who were accomplices after if not before the act under which I am suffering.”

All this fraternizing served a useful purpose. It made legislating possible even in the face of irreconcilable differences over slavery.

Hardly anyone was immune.

Abraham Lincoln, during his one term in the House, was part of a clique that called itself the Young Indians, which included Toombs and future Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Lincoln backed slaveholding Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor for president in 1848, even though he had opposed the war. Taylor, he thought, would help the Whigs carry Illinois.

Among the most accommodating lawmakers was William Seward, considered a radical by many. One of his closest friends was Jefferson Davis.

But while the insularity of the congressional community aided the legislative process, it had dire consequences for the union.

Betrayed by their own friendships with each other, many lawmakers failed to see the ferocity of the coming storm. In 1860, Stephens remembered Lincoln as “just as good, safe and sound a man as Mr. Buchanan” and was certain he “would administer the Government so far as he is individually concerned just as safely for the South and as honestly and faithfully in every particular.”

Lincoln was no radical, but no one who had been paying close attention through the 1850s could seriously believe he would offer no change in policy from President James Buchanan. Stephens was blinded by his personal relationship.

Lincoln had much the same kinds of delusions, wildly underestimating Southern intransigence. And why not? All the men he knew from the South were calm, reasonable men with whom one could share a drink, a game of whist and a good story.

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