Matthew Mason is Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young University. This interview is based on his new book, Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Apostle of Union?
MM: Years ago I started work on what I thought was going to be a group biography of the “doughfaces” – Northern politicians whose willingness to compromise on slavery was key to Southern domination of the federal government and Congressional compromises. In the midst of that research, I was agonizing over how to possibly fit Edward Everett into one chapter of that study. His career in slavery politics was so long and complicated, and revealed so much about an understudied Unionist political culture throughout the antebellum era, that I couldn’t see just one chapter on him. Plus he was more interesting to me than many of the Democratic doughfaces I was studying, because he was seeking to balance a strong Whiggish commitment to moral reform with a conservatively antislavery position (whereas the Democrats tended to be simpler, just wanting to exclude morality from politics). So I decided to pursue this single biography instead and have never looked back.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Apostle of Union?
MM: Edward Everett had an unusually complicated political career – stretching from the 1810s through the Civil War – operating at the unstable intersection of the politics of slavery, reform, and Unionism. The shifting ways he sought to balance those competing priorities, and the shifting popular responses he got to those efforts, tell us a lot about the nature and fortunes of Unionism in the antebellum decades and the Civil War.
JF: Why do we need to read Apostle of Union?
MM: For scholars, I hope the book illuminates multiple political episodes stretching across five decades. It seeks to do so by connecting the political history to the cultural history, given that Everett linked those two repeatedly (never more effectively than during his campaign during the late 1850s to save Mount Vernon as a shrine for Unionism). It shows how one especially acute politician and orator shifted his stances on slavery in response to the constantly changing context in which that issue came up, so I hope it will advance our understanding of how the politics of slavery worked. For those scholars and general readers concerned with the causes of the Civil War, the book makes the best case I could make for how the sectional conflict was actually a 3-way rather than a 2-way conflict. I think a biography is a good way to put a human face on all these complex antebellum issues, and Everett I think is a pretty sympathetic character overall. Finally, for scholars and general readers alike in the 2010s, there is a salience to our own times in studying how a moderate sought to deal creatively with the vexations of a polarizing political climate.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MM: I decided to embark on this path as an undergraduate taking history classes at the University of Utah in the early 1990s. I found that my American history classes resonated powerfully with events shaping our nation at that point in its history. None of the themes of those classes seemed more relevant than the history of race relations in America, even for a 20-something in Utah. I certainly don’t think that has changed in 2016.
JF: What is your next project?
MM: Right now I’m at work on a study of the Anglo-American politics of slavery from the era of the American Revolution through the late 19th century. The British presence in the American debates over slavery and abolition has been an important subtheme in much of my previous work, but I want to devote my full attention to this issue, across this long period of time. I also want to investigate the impact of the American presence in British debates over slavery and abolition, something I have not attended to much in my past work. I am at times terrified by the scope of this project, but most of the time I am energized by it.
JF: Thanks, Matthew! Sounds like some great stuff.