Tag Archives: AHA

New Political Histories of the Sectional Crisis: A Report from the AHA

In August 2016, Kenneth Osgood and Fredrik Logevall (fresh from winning the Pulitzer Prize for his recent book on the Vietnam War, Embers of War) co-authored an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?”[1] Like so many nostalgic jeremiads, it assumes that we have stopped teaching political history (or military history, or “traditional” history, etc.), and that politics is now a marginalized field. This is a familiar complaint rising and falling with predictable regularity, and it remains a relevant discussion in Civil War and Reconstruction studies.

At an AHA panel in Denver, historians presented their work in response to this op-ed at Session 150, “Linking the Local and the National in the Politics of Sectional Conflict.” The panel was chaired by Amy Greenberg and included roundtable presentations and discussion featuring Rachel Shelden, Corey Brooks, and Joanne Freeman. Their scholarship confirmed what we were all probably thinking when we saw the Logevall/Osgood op-ed: historians of the antebellum and Civil War eras have never stopped writing or teaching political history. Yes, certainly, there are historians working on less overtly political topics, yet we recognize the many ways in which social and cultural history supplement or alter our writing and teaching about politics. As social and cultural histories become integrated into political history, New Political History emerged, and perhaps what we are all engaged in now is as I once heard Jonathan Earle ironically call label it: the New New Political History. Put whatever label you’d like to on it, but as Shelden emphasized, political history remains as urgent a field of inquiry as ever for scholars of sectionalism.

Shelden’s Washington Brotherhood (2013) exemplifies the way in which political historians have integrated social and cultural history into their studies of the deeply widening sectional conflicts between the war with Mexico and the Civil War. In her current research, Shelden plans to provide just the same new political history approach—integrating non-traditional forms of social and cultural history into her examination of how personal engagement and friendship, collegiality and rivalry, partisanship and ideology all affected the judicial outcomes of the era. Shelden maintains that compared to the Presidency and Congress, the judiciary remains understudied. There is nothing more traditionally political than giving a branch of the federal government close scrutiny, and detractors aside, political history today must be more than the traditional focus on only elite actors in official capacities. Her examination of the pre-Civil War judiciary proposes to be just the kind of scholarship that would satisfy both political and social historians, because it will take the best of both approaches and illuminate an area of the emerging political crisis of the Civil War so often overshadowed by case studies of Dred Scott.

In his book Liberty Power (2016), and at the session, Corey Brooks argues that antislavery activists and the few politicians sympathetic to their aims used Congressional debates not to win over colleagues, and therefore votes, but instead as a national lyceum. The published speeches and reprinted pamphlets provided much needed labor in building a northern consensus from the 1830s to the 1860s that slavery, if not abolished, certainly needed to be limited in the West. Through the antislavery associations and ultimately through the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party, and Republican Party, Brooks attends closely to the ways in which partisans made effective use of both Congress and the press to move public opinion in the years leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln. For Brooks, the election of Lincoln, and perhaps the Civil War itself, is best explained by studying how political antislavery activists and politicians lobbied, petitioned, and simply harangued their constituents until politicians like Lincoln could express sentiments or support for policies (policies that a generation or two before would have been inconceivably marginal). For many historians of abolition, it is the social pressure of Garrisonians and the moral weight of antislavery intellectuals like Frederick Douglass which capture our attention when writing and teaching about antislavery. Often it is our understanding of the increasing anxiety in the U.S. about how to integrate newly acquired western lands into a nation with sharply diverging sectional economic structures, or the rise of Southern nationalism, or the collapse of the Democratic party, which dominate our understanding of the rise of the Republican party in the 1850s. Brooks, like Shelden, makes the best use of social and cultural history produced over the past twenty-five years in support of his argument that antislavery third-party politics needs greater attention because its role in the politics of the 1840s and 1850s has too long been overshadowed by other explanations for why the War came.

In her classic work Affairs of Honor (2001), Joanne Freeman may well have established the model for the New New Political History by taking seriously the role that cultural traits related to honor, reputation, and violence played in the lives and careers of early national politicians. Not surprisingly, the Hamilton-Burr duel brings many readers to Freeman’s book. (Too soon to call it a classic? I will anyway.) Since its publication Freeman edited Alexander Hamilton: Writings (2001) for the Library of America and has been consumed lately with interviews about the Broadway musical Hamilton (its success attests to the public’s continued interest in “traditional” political history). Her next research project carries her interest in political violence and early U.S. history into the 1830s and 1850s. For Freeman, this period experienced a noticeable shift in print culture in terms of format, content, and accessibility, which along with western expansion, led to the rise of a particular class of “fighting men” within partisan politics. Beyond “affairs of honor” such as duels, these antebellum fighting men provided election day muscle to intimidate people into voting (or not), demonstrated to voters and partisan opponents that words would and often were backed by actions, and may well have led to the escalation of violence in America’s urban centers, but also, of course, in Kansas. She suggests that Representative Preston Brooks’s vicious caning of Senator Charles Sumner in 1856 is in need of greater political context than traditional explanations of Southern honor codes and widening sectional indecorum on the floor of Congress. So frequently in the Northern antebellum press, but also in our scholarship, political violence is attributed to either the genteel Southerner bound to defend his reputation or, alternatively, the barbaric lower classes, often immigrants, who resorted to violence rather than politics or law to settle their disputes. Despite these assumptions, Freeman has identified “fighting men” in the North and South, among Democrats and Republicans, and it may no longer be tenable to maintain that political violence operated on the margins, utilized only be those to be deplored.

Generally, when anyone bewails the decline of the study of traditional forms of history, I tend to shrug because I know that they are wrong. Traditional history is just fine, and I also find the ongoing inquiry into less traditional topics to be both interesting in its own right, but also so obviously useful to political historians like those who participated in this AHA panel. For models of scholarship that integrate social and cultural history into political history on the coming of the Civil War, you could do little better than reading or teaching these panelists.

[1] Fredrick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/opinion/why-did-we-stop-teaching-political-history.html (accessed January 17, 2017).

Nicholas Cox

Nicholas P. Cox is currently the Program Coordinator for the History Department of Houston Community College. He is currently writing a political biography of Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, as well as instructional supplements for OUP’s Texas history textbook, Gone to Texas. He has given presentations on his research and teaching at the AHA, SHEAR, TXSHA, ETHA, and HASH; referees article submissions for the Journal of South Texas; and reviews books for a number of journals. You can easily find him on Twitter @npcox or by email at nicholas.cox@hccs.edu.