The essays in this issue seek to reopen debates on topics central to our understanding of Civil War causes and the administration of the war, namely, tariffs, states’ rights, and Confederate draft exemption. Another essay revisits an important freedom suit that stood ominously in the background as the Dred Scott case was argued. In each, the author pays careful attention to the words and actions of legislators—and litigators—as they sought to respond to local needs while navigating a national crisis. There are all sorts of surprises here.
The issue opens with Earl Hess’s Tom Watson Brown acceptance speech. Hess issues a call to action for scholars to continue to find ways to revitalize military history by refusing to limit ourselves to four years and by continuing to internationalize the field. Hess also encourages scholars to take on the smallest aspects of military history, for in them we can illuminate larger issues in the history of war—something that Hess did with great effect in his Watson Brown Prize–winning book, Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness.
Daniel Peart’s essay reveals the fierce politicking at work as Congress deliberated the 1846 tariff. Rather than following their party, congressmen operated on a diverse set of interests, including the demands of their constituents and their personal principles. Peart reminds us of the importance of paying attention to agency and contingency within the party system as he charts the tariff’s unlikely passage, in a Democratic Senate, after an eleventh-hour resignation of a principled Democrat. Peart shows us that the period’s interminable tariff debates need not be narcolepsy-inducing but rather can offer historians a fresh perspective on antebellum politics.
Sarah Gronningsater tells the story of the freedom suit that, had it arrived at the Taney court, had the potential of bringing slavery into states that had long ago prohibited it. The case hinged on whether a Virginia couple—Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon—retained ownership of their slaves when they arrived in New York, where they prepared to board a steamer to New Orleans. Once there, a local black activist—Louis Napoleon—launched a freedom suit on the slaves’ behalf, one that, in the wake of Dred Scott, had the potential of receiving a ruling sympathetic to slave owners demanding an absolute right of safe transit for their slave property. Revisiting the 1852 Lemmon case allows Gronningsater to explore how black laborers used the legal process in the North to force the nation to debate the legal limits of slavery.
States’ rights, Michael E. Woods tells us, was an issue that northern Republicans felt keenly. Indeed, he argues that in the 1850s Republicans rediscovered and claimed “an alternate states’ rights tradition” and refined it into a powerful antislavery weapon, criticizing federal slavery policy. Republicans, Woods insists, were the real antebellum proponents of states’ rights, adhering closely to eighteenth-century precedents intended to protect civil liberties.
John Sacher reconsiders the controversial Confederate draft exemption called the “twenty-negro” law.” Popular resentment of the law, he argues, often focused on those who abused it, and, in any case, very few men were exempted for this reason. Stressing popular demands for protection from slave rebellion, Sacher refers to the law as an “overseer law” and examines how Confederate congressmen revised it in response to criticism. Sacher argues that rather than a regressive measure that fell heavily on the shoulders of the poor, the law was shaped to respond to their needs.
William Carrigan’s review essay on lynching rounds out this issue. Carrigan surveys recent scholarship expanding our perspective on lynching to include understudied groups—such as Native Americans and Chinese, Italian, and other immigrants—and new approaches, such as global and transnational perspectives. He finds that the Civil War era was a critical turning point in the history of American lynching, a point that has been missed in the scholarship that focuses on the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Historians have much to learn by situating the study of lynching in the history of mob violence, beginning in the antebellum period.
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