When John Quincy Adams died in 1848, much of the nation was in the midst of exuberance and exultation. For many people it was a time of great optimism, for reasons including the discovery of gold in California and the establishment of the new Free Soil political party. At the same time, there was also greed, violence and a refusal by many to consider a solution to the nation’s most controversial issue: slavery. In her masterful, sweeping synthesis of a transformative time, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, Brenda Wineapple explores what followed Adams’ death in a wonderfully readable book that holds our interest on every page. It is a rare combination of cultural, political, intellectual and military history that brings this pivotal period to vivid life.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention, realizing that their entire project could rise or fall depending on how they handled the issue of slavery, had decided to leave the word “slave” out of their final document. Through the years other compromises were reached on slavery until the word “compromise” went from being regarded as an act of statesmanship to an epithet. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips noted, “The great poison of the age is race hatred,” which affected white attitudes not only toward black slaves but also toward Native Americans.
By the spring of 1866, in the wake of the Civil War, Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared the women’s rights movement was in “deep water.” Led by Frederick Douglass and Henry Ward Beecher, among others, the American Equal Rights Association was created to lobby the government for equal rights for all, female and male, black and white. But many abolitionists felt it was only the “Negro’s hour,” rather than, as Stanton said it should be, the “nation’s hour.”
Wineapple introduces us to familiar names such as Clara Barton and P.T. Barnum, as well as a wide array of lesser-known figures, such as Lydia Maria Child, a popular author of children’s literature who was also an abolitionist. Child is best known today for the Thanksgiving Day jingle “Over the river, and through the wood,” but her other works included an influential book advocating immediate emancipation of the slaves, a novel about interracial marriage and a compilation on the condition of women.
In Ecstatic Nation, Wineapple offers a beautifully written and skillfully woven narrative that anyone interested in American history should enjoy.