At the Precipice

Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

By Shearer Davis Bowman

392 pp., 6.14 x 9.21, 12 illus., 4 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2136-4
    Published: May 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-9567-2
    Published: October 2010
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7029-2
    Published: October 2010

Littlefield History of the Civil War Era

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Why did eleven slave states secede from the Union in 1860-61? Why did the eighteen free states loyal to the Union deny the legitimacy of secession, and take concrete steps after Fort Sumter to subdue what President Abraham Lincoln deemed treasonous rebellion?

At the Precipice seeks to answer these and related questions by focusing on the different ways in which Americans, North and South, black and white, understood their interests, rights, and honor during the late antebellum years. Rather than give a narrative account of the crisis, Shearer Davis Bowman takes readers into the minds of the leading actors, examining the lives and thoughts of such key figures as Abraham Lincoln, James Buchanan, Jefferson Davis, John Tyler, and Martin Van Buren. Bowman also provides an especially vivid glimpse into what less famous men and women in both sections thought about themselves and the political, social, and cultural worlds in which they lived, and how their thoughts informed their actions in the secession period. Intriguingly, secessionists and Unionists alike glorified the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, yet they interpreted those sacred documents in markedly different ways and held very different notions of what constituted "American" values.

About the Author

Shearer Davis Bowman is an associate professor in history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of Masters and Lords: Mid-19th-Century U.S. Planters and Prussian Junkers.
For more information about Shearer Davis Bowman, visit the Author Page.


"[A] work that will be invaluable for graduate students and scholars interested in antebellum sectionalism and the secession crisis."--Journal of American History

"[Bowman] does . . . a fine job of nailing the basic beliefs of Americans on both sides of the sectional split. . . . [Bowman's] extensive research is apparent. Highly recommended."--Choice

"[A] rewarding read that provides a detailed account of what a wide spectrum of individuals--some famous and others virtually unknown--believed was happening to their beloved republic in the final years before the war."--Civil War Times

"Unconventional yet persuasive. . . . Readers . . . are likely to come away feeling both that the Civil War was largely inevitable and that the instinct of U.S. politics to find compromise solutions is so strong that only a conflict as stark as the one between slavery and human freedom could overcome it."--Foreign Affairs

"A compelling . . . addition to an underdeveloped field of history. . . . Worthy of reading for those interested in the American history of interracial relationships."--Arkansas Review

"Takes the reader into the thinking of the leading actors."--The Courier