Tag Archives: violence

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.

Abolitionism, Vigilance Associations, and the Rhetoric of “Law and Order”

In today’s heated political climate, only days away from a contentious Presidential election, Americans are no stranger to public threats of intimidation or violence as a mechanism for maintaining “law and order.” From Donald Trump’s frequent references to the need for restoring “law and order” in urban communities, to his pleas for poll watchers, to the Bundy brothers’ revolt in Oregon, and the state action against #NoDAPL protesters in North Dakota, this theme of restoring the rule of law is inescapable.[1] In many news outlets, and even in casual conversations across this nation, there is a sense that we have lost our way. In many cases, these statements are a reaction to a loss of political power or social hegemony; as women, African Americans, immigrants, the LGBT community, and other groups continue to fight for equality before the law, those who had previously enjoyed significant social privilege are left with a sense of powerlessness. Promises of restoring law and order are both a mechanism for taking back what has been lost and a strategy for silencing dissent.

Such concerns would have been quite familiar to western Missourians living in the 1850s. The strife of Bleeding Kansas had shaken their world. In April 1855, an antislavery minister named Frederick Starr documented the goings on in Platte County, Missouri, a center of pro-slavery sentiment on the Kansas-Missouri border (in what is now the Kansas City metro). He wrote in a letter that “we are in the midst of terrible times…. The ballot box is violated, the press overthrown, the church denounced, surely pro-slavery forces are making great advances and one victory crowds on the heels of another…. Glorious nation this.”[2] He referred here not only to the Kansas troubles, but also to a nearly year-long struggle between Missouri anti-slavery advocates, like himself, and their pro-slavery neighbors. In addition to the battle to populate Kansas, Platte County simultaneously encountered profound internal conflicts over the presence of free-soilers and abolitionists in their midst, men and women whose antislavery views challenged the social order.

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Frederick Starr, a Presbyterian minister in Platte County, Missouri. From Milton E. Bierbaum, “Frederick Starr, A Missouri Border Abolitionist: The Making of a Martyr” Missouri Historical Review 58, no. 3 (April 1964), 309.

To some extent, this was a contest between anti- and pro-slavery value systems, a battle for the future of the United States. But as abhorrent as anti-slavery views might be to slaveholding leaders, it was only once abolitionist, free-soil, or colonizationist views became public, that they became a public problem, and abolitionists became public nuisances. To protect their definition of how proper slaveholding communities should function, cracking down on dissenting views was necessary to maintain law and order. In response, dissenters like Frederick Starr presented their own interpretations of law and order, critiquing pro-slavery rhetoric and offering a counter-narrative of the community’s needs and values.

Despite the fact that Starr did not preach against slavery from the pulpit, by 1854 he had become known throughout Platte County as an opponent of slavery. Starr’s primary antagonist was an organization called the Platte County Self Defensive Association (PCSDA), which formed at a public meeting in Weston on July 20, 1854, to protect the community from abolitionist threats. These groups were often known as vigilance associations, or vigilance committees. They policed any “suspicious looking persons” who emigrated to Kansas, distributed abolitionist literature, or associated with slaves and free blacks. They also styled themselves as protectors of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas who might face abuse from Northern neighbors. They eventually adopted secret passwords and badges. The association had hundreds of members at its height, including such prominent figures as David Rice Atchison and Benjamin Stringfellow.[3]

Members of the PCSDA had repeatedly asked Starr to join, and he always politely declined, on the grounds that he had no slave property to protect. However, while shopping one day in a downtown Weston business, Starr found himself accosted by a slaveholder and PCSDA member, Jack Vineyard. Vineyard was frustrated by Starr’s refusal to recognize that “every good citizen, when there were certain legal institutions and interests in the community where he lived, should do all he could to maintain harmony and quiet and to protect legal property.”[4] In response to this very public disagreement, the PCSDA staged a mock “trial” of Starr. Several hundred people attended. In his vigorous defense, Starr outlined his own, competing definition of the challenge to law and order. Those who harassed citizens based on hearsay and false accusations were the true criminals, he believed, using extra-legal means and intimidation to silence citizens. When it came to Northern transplants like himself, Southerners could expect “that he will not be a disturber of the peace of the community nor disturb the legal rights of any man…. But it [the South] has no right to expect that a man will lay aside or change his opinions and principles.”[5]

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An early lithograph of the Weston waterfront. From Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri, http://www.kchistory.org/u?/Montgomery,7170.

By the fall of 1854, the Self Defensives’ posturing had tested the Weston community’s patience.[6] On September 1, 1854, citizens of Weston who opposed the use of violence (by either faction), and who were “favorable to law and order,” met in protest.[7] Their published pamphlet referenced the community’s need for stability and protection, stating that “our rights and privileges, as citizens of Weston, Platte county, Mo., have been disregarded, infringed upon, and grievously violated within the last few weeks, by certain members of the ‘Platte County Self-Defensive Association.’” Indeed, these actions had disrupted “the domestic quiet to our families, the sacred honor of our sons and daughters, the safety of our property, the security of our living and persons, the ‘good name’ our fathers left us, [and] the ‘good name’ of us all.”[8]

What mattered above all else, for those of either orientation, was stability. For slaveholders and their supporters, abolitionists were treasonous, cowardly, deceitful rabble-rousers who disrupted the peaceful workings of these Platte County communities. In response, anti-slavery residents, whether self-identified abolitionists or not, forwarded their own definition of law and order, decrying the PCSDA’s extra-legal maneuvers aimed at white dissenters and free blacks, their embrace of violence, and their attempts to constrain the freedoms of speech and press.

We find ourselves in a much different political context today, but Platte Countians’ internal war can provide some powerful lessons. The varying definitions of “law and order” that Republicans and Democrats adopt today—and that anti-slavery and pro-slavery partisans adopted in the 1850s—illustrate how divisive politics can be, particularly when it appears to threaten the normal, predictable workings of our society. This rhetoric of “law and order” speaks to our need for consistency and structure, and our human desire for a society that fundamentally makes sense. But claims (made by anyone) to restore law and order usually hearken to the need for extra-legal resistance as a mechanism to restore that law and order; Trump’s poll watchers and the PCSDA both serve as a perfect example of such cognitive dissonance. Such assumptions also liken the rule of law to justice, a dangerous false equivalency (as we learned from Nixon’s rhetoric in the 1970s, which led to an epidemic of mass incarceration). The American right to protest, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, gives the lie to the idea that law and order is the answer to injustice, or that restoring some mythic past will generate stability. Indeed, much of today’s rhetoric in this regard seeks to silence those who speak out against injustice, or to limit the rights of minority communities. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, this rhetoric carries weight, and those who engage in such language must bear the burden of that rhetoric if—or when—it leads to violence.


[1] For some examples, please consult “We Have to Bring Back Law and Order,” CNN Politics, http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2016/09/27/clinton-trump-debate-hofstra-stop-and-frisk-sot-five.cnn; Trip Gabriel, “Donald Trump’s Call to Monitor Polls Raises Fears of Intimidation,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/19/us/politics/donald-trump-voting-election-rigging.html?_r=0; Maxine Bernstein, “Jury finds all Oregon standoff defendants not guilty of federal conspiracy, gun charges,” The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com/oregon-standoff/2016/10/oregon_standoff_verdicts_annou.html; Sam Levin and Nicky Woolf, “Protesters pushed back after mass arrests at North Dakota pipeline site—as it happened,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2016/oct/27/north-dakota-access-pipeline-police-protesters-live-updates.

[2] Frederick Starr to Unknown, April 1855, Frederick Starr Papers, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Columbia, Missouri.

[3] History of Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri (St. Louis: National Historical Company, 1885), 634-635.

[4] Frederick Starr to Dear Father and All, October 30, 1854, Starr Papers, WHMC.

[5] Frederick Starr to Dear Father, January 15, 1855, Starr Papers, WHMC.

[6] Lester B. Baltimore, “Benjamin F. Stringfellow: The Fight for Slavery on the Missouri Border” Missouri Historical Review 62, no. 1 (October 1967), 18.

[7] At least four members of the committee appointed to draft their resolutions, George T. Hulse, Elijah Cody, A. B. Hathaway, and J. V. Parrott, were slaveholders according to the 1850 census.

[8] “Citizens Meeting,” Starr Papers, WHMC. This was published as a broadside that Starr included in his personal papers.

Kristen Epps

Dr. Kristen Epps is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. She is the author of Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Georgia, 2016). Her research focuses on slavery, abolition, and the sectional crisis. She can be reached at kkepps@uca.edu.

Hateful and Forgetful: Tarantino’s Latest Chooses Gore over Racial Commentary

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“The Hateful Eight.” Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company, 2015.

Is Minnie’s Haberdashery, the one room stagecoach stop in which all but a few scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight take place, the director’s version of hell? If so, hell is a cold place of contradictions, unexpected alliances, violence, vulgarity, and truly bad coffee. Stuck in Wyoming blizzard with a half-dozen unsavory characters, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) must keep himself and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) alive long enough to reach Red Rock and claim a $10,000 bounty. This not-yet-committed murder mystery whets the viewer’s appetite, but the film’s pace is lugubrious, as if slowed by the very snowdrifts that trap its characters. A full hour passes before wordy monologues introduce all “Hateful Eight.” But the film accelerates as the plot thickens: one of the eight is not who he claims to be. Despite its historical guise, Tarantino’s eighth feature is not about the West or postbellum America. More Reservoir Dogs than Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is another Tarantino argument for rhetorical, physical, and sexual violence as a creative art.

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“Production Still.” Image Courtesy of Andrew Cooper and Entertainment Weekly, 2015.

The Hateful Eight is big in every sense. With an ensemble cast and a score by Ennio Morricone, the maestro behind the music in classic Westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Hateful Eight runs 187 minutes (for the Road Show edition), is shot in Panavision and presented in 70mm widescreen. Like Morricone’s contribution, its format is an homage to the Golden Age of Westerns and epic films. Much heralded, the 70mm presentation feels underutilized in the close confines of Minnie’s. Those expecting the deep snow banks of Wyoming to recall the sweltering sand dunes of Lawrence of Arabia will be disappointed. The few shots of the Wyoming wilderness make the format seem like plenty of pomp but little circumstance.

Tarantino fills the film chock-full of monologues, flashbacks, twists, and a series of whodunits topped with gratuitous gore (he has a reputation to protect, after all). Yet the film’s under-explored themes make it seem hollow. Tarantino’s lusty use of racial epithets drowns out provocative lines about race in post-slavery America, memory and massacre, and the meaning of justice in the West. He condenses the complicated and tragic history of race in postbellum America into a one-Noun punch line.

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“Sheriff Chris Mannix.” Image Courtesy of The Weinstein Company, 2015.

With war criminals, outlaws, bushwackers, and bounty hunters trapped together indefinitely, Tarantino constructs an eternity in which the violence of the Civil War defines the postbellum, too. It seems simple: kill or be killed, question it and be killed, too. “That’s the thing about war, Mannix, people die,” John Ruth reminds the new sheriff, a former Confederate raider. But while characters condemn bloodlust in others and debate the meaning of “dispassionate justice,” this movie is ultimately about its director. It is Tarantino who decides who lives, who dies, who suffers and how, all the while expecting laughter and applause. The Hateful Eight is rated R for bloody violence, language, and a scene of violent sexual content. (187 minutes).

Tom Foley is a graduate student at Georgetown University.
He can be reached at tfoley2@gmail.com