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The Stormy Present

Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865

By Adam I. P. Smith

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3389-3
    Published: October 2017
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3390-9
    Published: October 2017

Civil War America

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Awards & distinctions

2017 Jefferson Davis Award, American Civil War Museum

Finalist, Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In this engaging and nuanced political history of Northern communities in the Civil War era, Adam I. P. Smith offers a new interpretation of the familiar story of the path to war and ultimate victory. Smith looks beyond the political divisions between abolitionist Republicans and Copperhead Democrats to consider the everyday conservatism that characterized the majority of Northern voters. A sense of ongoing crisis in these Northern states created anxiety and instability, which manifested in a range of social and political tensions in individual communities.

In the face of such realities, Smith argues that a conservative impulse was more than just a historical or nostalgic tendency; it was fundamental to charting a path to the future. At stake for Northerners was their conception of the Union as the vanguard in a global struggle between democracy and despotism, and their ability to navigate their freedoms through the stormy waters of modernity. As a result, the language of conservatism was peculiarly, and revealingly, prominent in Northern politics during these years. The story this book tells is of conservative people coming, in the end, to accept radical change.

About the Author

Adam I. P. Smith is senior lecturer in U.S. history at University College London.
For more information about Adam I. P. Smith, visit the Author Page.


“A nuanced and complex study, this book is an important contribution to the era’s scholarship.”--Choice

“Most political histories of the antebellum era in the North see the world from an antislavery perspective, but Smith focuses instead on the people who did not yet see slavery as the most pressing issue. This approach offers new insights and understanding about northern politics.”--The Journal of Southern History

“Smith’s portrayal of a conservative and antislavery North is subtle and historiographically profound.”--Journal of the Civil War Era

“A major accomplishment”--Canadian Review of American Studies

"This brilliant, timely, and original book is a must-read for specialists and scholars of nineteenth-century U.S. History and American politics. Among his many contributions, Smith finds the sensible middle ground between conflicting interpretations of whether the Civil War was a war for abolition or for Union."--Elizabeth R. Varon, University of Virginia

"The Stormy Present accomplishes the rare and therefore vital task of presenting a narrative of the late antebellum sectional crisis that shows how sectionalist radicals drove events but conservatives and conservatism were also a force to be reckoned with. Smith’s is a precise, rich exploration of what conservatism meant to a wide range of Northerners that those subjects themselves would recognize, painting a nuanced portrait of both change and continuity in this era."--Matthew Mason, Brigham Young University