Tag Archives: antebellum America

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.

Philadelphia’s Civil War: New Documentary Depicts Racial Tensions in Wartime City

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“Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” Image courtesy of History Making Productions, 2016.

The fourteen-part series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” produced by Sam Katz and History Making Productions, traces the development of American ideals, character, and democracy over four centuries of one of the nation’s most crucial cities. Episode six, “Disorder,” explores the decades before the Civil War (1820-1854), focusing on the tensions of a growing city. The episode examines three conflicts in particular: race, class, and ethnicity/religion, all of which were compounded by the autonomous nature of the city’s townships.

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“Portrait Identified as James Forten,” Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, date unknown.

By far the largest focus of the episode is racial tension in the years before the Civil War. Though technically in a northern state, Philadelphia was a city on the border, with strong business and familial ties to the southern slave states. As a result, tensions between whites and blacks were high, and racial violence was a constant threat. The episode focuses on wealthy sailmaker James Forten, whose family was active in antislavery efforts in the city. With the Forten family in the center of black activism, the documentary presents two major race riots of the era. First, in 1834 the destruction of a popular carousel the “Flying Horses” sparked riots against black businesses and homes. Four years later, the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society, an interracial organization, built Pennsylvania Hall as a meeting space for abolitionists. Less than a week after its opening, during a meeting including notable abolitionists such a Lucretia Mott, Angelina Grimke, and William Lloyd Garrison, a white mob attacked and burned the hall. Shortly thereafter Pennsylvania stripped African American men of their right to vote, leaving the black community in an even more precarious position in antebellum Philadelphia.

The second tension explored in the episode is that of class. Antebellum Philadelphia was the nation’s wealthiest city, due in large part to the Second Bank of the United States and its president, Nicholas Biddle. While the bank helped spark industrial growth of all sorts in the city, capitalists also benefitted by depressing wages of the city’s craftsmen. But President Andrew Jackson’s war against the Bank of the United States became a battle of laborers and industrial capitalists. Irish-born weaver John Ferral united workers across trades to challenge long hours, low wages, and unsafe working conditions. While his labor organization excluded black workers, he managed to unite Catholics and Protestants. In the summer of 1835, a strike of over twenty thousand workers effectively shut down the city until employers agreed to a ten hour workday, the first significant organized labor victory in the nation’s history.

The third major tension presented in the episode was ethnic/religious difference. This theme received far less attention than the others, and was limited to a brief mention of the Bible Riots. In the summer of 1844, nativists, wary of the growing Irish Catholic population in the city, attacked Catholic homes, and later churches.

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“Map of the City of Philadelphia as Consolidated in 1854,” Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The violence of the era was made possible in part by the autonomous nature of the city’s neighborhoods. Philadelphia was divided into 29 independent townships/districts, in which city officials had little to no authority. Districts like Southwark and Moyamensing were notorious centers for vice and gangs; rioters seeking safe havens had only to cross South Street to be protected from Philadelphia police. But the riots of this period provided strong incentive for unification. In 1854, Philadelphia consolidated into the largest metropolis in the United States. Not only did the city have new power to extend public services, but officials also had new authority to enforce law and order in previously independent townships.

Overall the documentary does a nice job of exploring the tensions, or perhaps more appropriately growing pains, of a developing city. Industrial growth, combined with the influx of African Americans from the south and immigrants from Europe created an environment ripe for violence, and the episode explores some of the more notable instances when tempers erupted. From a production standpoint I (uninformed though my opinion may be) thought the documentary was very well done. There is a nice balance of historical reenactments with period images enhanced with animations. There is also an effective use of local scholars and experts to provide further explanation and context to the narrative.

But perhaps this topic “Disorder” was a little ambitious for a single episode. The documentary tries to cover a lot in 25 minutes (excluding credits), and as a consequence makes specific references without going into detail. One example came with the mention of violence in townships like Moyamensing. Several gangs are mentioned specifically, most notably the Killers, but no details are offered. In a documentary that seeks to highlight notable individuals, the producers could have mentioned William “Bull” McMullen, a leader of the Killers and Moyamensing Hose Company (gangs and hose companies were largely interchangeable in this era) who became a prominent, if oftentimes notorious, Philadelphia politician for much of the nineteenth century.

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“Nativist Bible Riots of 1844,” Lithograph, Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The biggest disappointment is the treatment of the Bible Riots. The bulk of the episode is dedicated to racial tensions (and justifiably so), but with roughly one minute of coverage, the ethnic tensions seem thrown in as an afterthought. Sparked in part by requests from the Catholic Church to excuse Catholic students from using the King James Bible in public schools, the riots included nativists battling Irish Catholics, then nativists battling law enforcement and militia trying to protect the churches being targeted. The violence, notable for its severity and duration, contributed not only to calls for consolidation, but also the growth of self-segregated Catholic schools in the city. Plus, it sparked one of the best tough-guy lines in American History: upon learning of the violence in Philadelphia, Archbishop John Hughes of New York warned the city’s mayor that if a single Catholic Church were attacked in New York, “the city would become a second Moscow,” a reference to the Russian scorched-earth policy during Napoleon’s invasion. Taking Hughes at his word, no New York churches were harmed.

The ending of the episode is also a bit misleading. In the conclusion, a group of abolitionists successfully used the police force of the newly consolidated city to protect their meeting from a white mob. This offers a nice image of progress for the African American community in Philadelphia and a positive way to end the episode. But race relations still had a long way to go. Though perhaps worthy of protection under the law, the black struggle for equal rights and protections in the city would continue during and beyond the Civil War.

“Disorder” is an interesting documentary that explores the tensions and violence of a growing city during a tumultuous period. But in trying to cover several major themes over the course of three decades in under thirty minutes, the episode by necessity is selective in details and may leave curious viewers wanting more.

Michael Johnson is a PhD student at George Washington University

‘Break Free’ From A One-Dimensional Portrayal of Slavery: WGN’s new series, “Underground”

In the 1872 narrative, The Underground Rail Road, William Still stated that he owed “it to the cause of Freedom, and to the Fugitives and their posterity” to bring the activities of the Underground to “the public in the most truthful manner…to show what efforts were made and what success was gained for Freedom.” Still believed that in order to fully honor those freed by the Underground Railroad, it was essential to impart the historical memory of slavery and resistance to contemporary readers. WGN’s Underground looks to continue Still’s important work by adapting his self-emancipation narrative for a twenty-first century audience.Underground, which debuted on March 9th, airs Wednesdays at 10pm and is part of a 10-episode first season.

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“The Cast of Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

Underground offers viewers a nuanced cast of characters and at its center, Macon Plantation’s black community. In one compelling scene, Noah (Aldis Hodge), an enslaved blacksmith trusted with travel beyond the plantation, but also subject to his enslaver and the black overseer, Cato (Alano Miller), tells Rosalee, the Macon family’s house servant, (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) that “we all pretending in some way.” This formulation alerts viewers to the inner-life of the network of complex individuals that forms the core of this community. The series attempts to portray the emotional lives of enslaved people, beyond days punctuated by labor and other forms of violence. Underground also looks to expose how slavery’s gender and labor differentiation affected the lives of enslaved people. Although the plan of escape seems to be male centered, enslaved women are powerfully portrayed in the series when, in the first episode, wife and mother Pearly Mae (Adina Porter) is shown to be the holder of the word of freedom, not Moses (Mykelti Williamson), the enslaved community’s preacher.

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“Mykelti Williamson as Moses and Adina Porter as Pearly Mae in Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

Importantly, Underground portrays slavery as a system sustained by physical, mental, legal, and economic oppression that controlled the daily lives of African Americans and stood at the very center of the politics and economy of the nation. The first episode’s action takes place on the Macon Plantation just as the Supreme Court is considering the fate of Dred Scott, his wife, and two young daughters. William Still’s character demonstrates the crucial role of black abolitionists in the battle against systemic oppression. He not only rallies against harsh policies governing the fate of African Americans like Scott, but he also tries to convince the white anti-slavery lawyer, John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), to join his efforts and pushes Hawkes to advocate for the enslaved through more direct action. Hawkes continues to wrestle with how to advocate for the end of slavery without breaking the law and debates with his wife over whether he can do so by managing his slave-owner brother’s Senate campaign. August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), a white man who appears first as a conductor on the underground, delivers the episode’s first plot twist when he turns out to be a slave catcher—part of what Julie Winch dubbed the “other underground railroad.” Pullman’s earlier discussion of the future with the runaway woman he turns in, therefore, appears to be not so much about a world free of slavery but about the security of his family. This storyline highlights not only the physical and legal dangers of fugitive life but also the precarious economic and social positions of non-planter southern whites and the work many did to uphold the slave system.

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“Aldis Hodge as Noah and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

In the wake of recent films like 12 Years a Slave, there has been debate over slavery’s portrayal in popular culture. Critics have pressed the industry and audiences to defend decisions to repeatedly show and watch African American actors enduring the pain and brutality of enslavement. Others argue that the true horror of slavery has yet to be dealt with in all its complexity. Mychal Denzel Smith, for instance, makes the case for more “slavery films,” claiming that “no slavery narrative exists” in American culture because “we would rather pretend we know all there is to know about slavery and move on.” Popular narratives that have circulated since the nineteenth century have so often been historically inaccurate and also socially dangerous, flattening out and covering over the real history of American slavery. By placing enslaved and free black people at the center of resistance to slavery, and making all characters—both black and white—complicated and fully human, Underground has the potential to help viewers understand slavery as a system that shaped so many aspects of the world in which we continue to live. As such, the series has the potential to depict the experiences of those who labored to be free in all of their complexity. That work is still very necessary.


Smith, Mychal Denzel. “Why I’m Ready for More Slavery Films.” The Nation. January 29, 2016. http://www.thenation.com/article/why-im-ready-for-more-slavery-films/

Still, William. The Underground Rail Road… Philadelphia: Porter and Company, 1872. Archive.org. Accessed March 12, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/undergroundrailr00stil/undergroundrailr00stil_djvu.txt

Winch, Julie. “Philadelphia and the other Underground Railroad.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 111 (1987): 3-25.

Julia Bernier is a PhD candidate in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She can be reached at juliab@afroam.umass.edu.

CSI:Dixie: A Grim Archive of Slavery’s Violence

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“CSI:Dixie Logo,” Image courtesy of eHistory, 2014.

On March 14, 1846, Abraham Jones, a coroner in Edgefield County, South Carolina filed a report concerning the death of a female slave named Rose. According to the coroner, five days earlier a man named Robert Moore visited the home of Michael Long, a slaveholder who claimed Rose as his property. Long led Robert Moore to his meat house, where Moore saw Rose’s limp body, chained around the neck with her hands bound. Explaining that Rose’s death was “something there very strange,” Long nonetheless admitted that he had tied up the woman, secured the chain around her neck with a padlock, suspended her in the meat house, and returned ninety minutes later to find her dead. Abraham Jones marked Rose’s death a homicide in his coroner’s report, although Moore’s crime likely would remain unpunished. Jones recorded other such deaths over the years, leaving a grim archive of slavery’s violence. This shocking and tragic story and other forensic accounts can be accessed via the new digital history archive, CSI:Dixie.

Rose’s story is one of almost fifteen hundred coroners’ reports from nineteenth century South Carolina accessible via CSI:Dixie. This brand new site is the work of historian Stephen Berry, who began the project after stumbling upon these records and realizing their historical value and emotional potency. Jones’s report strikes the reader with not just egregiousness of Rose’s murder, but the cold composure with which her attacker Michael Long justified his actions. The evidence in these cases is detailed, the responses are lyrically written, and the website’s format is accessible and user-friendly. This site seamlessly unites digital history with emotional history, using its layout to tell poignant and sorrowful stories. The records catalogued on the site are a testament to how digital history can help users explore the emotional worlds of periods and people in the past. Reading the coroners’ reports on CSI: Dixie one is struck by the emotional detachment that sustained American slavery. This reader was left with a feeling of empathy for those who survived the institution and those who recorded its human costs.

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“Images of The State vs. the Dead Body of Rose Archival Records,” CSI:Dixie, eHistory, 2014.

When you arrive at CSI:Dixie, notice the images from nineteenth century burial places that first appear. These images are emotional themselves, imparting feelings of fear, loneliness, and loss. Contemporary pictures help to connect twenty-first century audiences with nineteenth century stories. At the top of the screen, the directory takes its names from different Biblical books, Genesis, Exodus, Revelation, to name a few. Berry carefully described why he chose these titles to organize his project, and his reasoning is fascinating. More importantly, these titles evoke religious reactions, another tool via which the site connects its audience to nineteenth century sensibilities. But the visceral reactions the archive generates are more a product of the stories themselves. The layout provides the atmosphere through which the audience can react to Rose’s murder, and the inner-workings of slaveholding culture in antebellum South Carolina.

Digital history is likely to provoke vigorous debate as historians continue to map the field. Connecting with an audience should remain an important part of that ongoing conversation. CSI:Dixie is a terrific example of how big data, record keeping, and the monotonous work of archiving can be communicated to the public with respect, empathy, and sentiment.

Rose’s murder opens a window through which users can view the nineteenth century South. Berry uncovered hundreds of stories, meticulously recorded by antebellum coroners. Abraham Jones, who ruled Rose’s death as a homicide—despite laws protecting Michael Long from the charge–continued to work for Edgefield County for at least another two decades, filing reports concerning deaths caused by murder, accident, and neglect. Three years after Rose’s murder crossed his desk, Jones recorded the details of another homicide victim, Michael Long, shot through the head with a double barrel shot gun, perhaps by “a negro man Kitts,” an associate of Long’s slave, Ellis. CSI:Dixie offers users an insider’s view of the violence of slavery, in which masters killed slaves with impunity and sometimes slaves struck back.

Blake McGready is a Graduate Assistant at Villanova University.