The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era

The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era

by Mark E. Neely

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Did preoccupations with family and work crowd out interest in politics in the nineteenth century, as some have argued? Arguing that social historians have gone too far in concluding that Americans were not deeply engaged in public life and that political historians have gone too far in asserting that politics informed all of Americans' lives, Mark Neely seeks to gauge… See more details below


Did preoccupations with family and work crowd out interest in politics in the nineteenth century, as some have argued? Arguing that social historians have gone too far in concluding that Americans were not deeply engaged in public life and that political historians have gone too far in asserting that politics informed all of Americans' lives, Mark Neely seeks to gauge the importance of politics for ordinary people in the Civil War era.

Looking beyond the usual markers of political activity, Neely sifts through the political bric-a-brac of the era--lithographs and engravings of political heroes, campaign buttons, songsters filled with political lyrics, photo albums, newspapers, and political cartoons. In each of four chapters, he examines a different sphere--the home, the workplace, the gentlemen's Union League Club, and the minstrel stage--where political engagement was expressed in material culture. Neely acknowledges that there were boundaries to political life, however. But as his investigation shows, political expression permeated the public and private realms of Civil War America.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A ground-breaking look at how the average American thought and participated in politics in the decades around the Civil War."
The NYMAS Review

"A rich work, well researched and thought provoking, yet surprisingly modest in bulk and heft. . . . Clear and direct in argument, Neely supports his thesis well and avoids the trap of overcomplicated prose. A great piece of scholarship, it will prove interesting for both students and scholars of American history and politics."
Arkansas Review

"Reinvigorates the debate over the pervasiveness and character of politics. . . . An important read for political, social, and public historians alike."
The Historian

"An admirable effort to understand what exactly politics meant to the mid-nineteenth-century American electorate. It is essential reading for those interested in nineteenth-century politics, and it is a model in its innovative reading of political material culture."
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography

"A fresh and idiosyncratic view of political culture that can serve as a model for other investigations."
Civil War Book Review

"[A] splendid little volume . . . unfailingly smart, imaginative, and thought provoking. . . . A joy to read. All those interested in the political culture of the Civil War Era will want this book on their shelves."
Journal of Southern History

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The University of North Carolina Press
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Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era
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The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era

By Mark E. Neely Jr.

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2986-8


In March 2002 I gave the Stephen and Janice Brose Lectures for the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State. The three lectures made a case for the importance of politics in understanding the lives of ordinary Americans in the North during the Civil War era.

It may seem odd that I should have to make a case for the importance of political life in the middle of the nineteenth century, now famous as the period when Americans devised the mass political party and enthusiastic campaigning techniques. Many of the people who heard the lectures, however, knew their modern context well: the currently confused and beleaguered status of political history.

The introduction to a recent book of essays on American political history, for example, recalled the complaints of political historians expressed at a professional meeting in 1995: "Their field was becoming marginalized in the profession, even excluded from it. Back in the 1970s, social history had passed political history as the subfield producing the most doctoral dissertations, so that political historians were now outnumbered in their own departments. More seriously, senior chairs were no longer being replaced, and graduate students could not get jobs." Nine years later, at the annual meeting of the same association, a panel was convened to discuss why political history was dead and whether there were any signs it might recover. Apparently, many at the meeting thought recovery unlikely.

A landmark of the demise of political history is Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin's Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century, published in 2000. That book launched the most sweeping attack ever made on the importance of politics to the daily lives of nineteenth-century Americans. My Brose Lectures were originally conceived as an answer to it.

But in the course of revising the lectures for publication I came to see that circling the wagons was an inadequate response. I could not merely reassert the centrality of political life in nineteenth-century America, reminding readers that the national attic remains full of political ribbons, badges, cartoons, and posters from that era. In the first place, the authors of Rude Republic made generous exception for the Civil War era itself, saying that politics, though insignificant in the lives of most Americans throughout the century, did reach the apogee of their ability to engage people's attention over the issues that led to civil war, especially slavery and related constitutional issues. And what I was most familiar with was the politics of the Civil War era.

Second, political historians who had never doubted the importance of politics in the nineteenth century had themselves done much to downgrade the political history of the Civil War itself. Surely no survey of the American political system in the nineteenth century had less to say about the Civil War than Joel H. Silbey's American Political Nation, 1838-1893 (1991). Silbey's interpretation of the important developments in the political parties of the century made a case for the insignificance of the Civil War. Third, it was true also that political historians, whatever their degree of emphasis on the importance of the four-year period of war at midcentury, had exaggerated the centrality of political concerns in the overall period: America was more than a "political nation." Its citizens were concerned, as Altschuler and Blumin were justifiably at pains to point out, about family and workplace and schools and religion and other private matters into the consideration of which partisan politics did not always intrude.

So the book resulting from those lectures is more concerned with locating the boundaries between the spheres of political and private life than with making imperialist assertions for one sphere or the other.

The evidence that first seemed to me to call Rude Republic's conclusions into question came from material culture. In the first lecture, "Household Gods," popular prints provided a link between home and public political concerns that Rude Republic had overlooked. But material culture soon caused me to reexamine other important arguments about political experience in the period. The second lecture, "A New Branch of Trade," recovered innovations in political technique and in the production of campaign souvenirs based on photography, which in turn suggested an image of political life so vibrant and dynamic as to call seriously into question the dismissive attitude toward Civil War politics taken in The American Political Nation. In the third lecture, "A Secret Fund," the production and distribution of forward-looking campaign posters and persuasive political pamphlets by the Union League Clubs during the Civil War provoked a reexamination of the class-bound and hidebound image of these clubs given influential expression in Iver Bernstein's The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (1990). Finally, the chapter on "Manhood and Minstrelsy," which is entirely new and was not a part of the original lectures, developed from encounters in rare book rooms with tiny and ephemeral presidential campaign songsters. These necessitated a reassessment of the relationship between political parties and popular race prejudice described in Jean H. Baker's Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (1983).

Finally, I am continually surprised by the insight on American society that can be derived by diligent reading of nineteenth-century newspapers. They were so different from the modern press as almost to constitute a class of artifact alongside popular prints, songsters, and old campaign buttons. They were so eagerly and one-sidedly partisan and so completely absorbed in political life that over the years they had fallen out of favor as historical sources. My time in graduate school thirty-five years ago coincided with a low point in the reputation of newspapers as sources. They were regarded as hopelessly partisan and elitist, and I was left for years thereafter with little inclination to pore over the numerous dailies and weeklies of the century. Rude Republic helped point the way to rediscovering nineteenth-century newspapers as essential sources, though its authors derived very different lessons from reading them. I have relied heavily on old newspapers for the evidence in this book.

In the end, material culture and the return to reading the popular press of the nineteenth century had caused me to reexamine critically the arguments in four key works of great influence on the writing of political history.

Rude Republic attacked the whole idea of the importance of politics in the daily lives of nineteenth-century Americans. That idea will be closely examined in this preface and in the first chapter. The American Political Nation, in many ways the polar opposite of Rude Republic, nevertheless argued for the insignificance of the Civil War to American political development in the nineteenth century-while Rude Republic made allowance for intensified interest in politics in that era alone. The dismissive view of American Civil War politics will be put under the microscope in the second chapter.

The New York City Draft Riots may seem a work of such tight geographical and chronological focus as to be in strange company with the other two books, which have great chronological sweep. But Bernstein's arguments transcended the five days of violence in New York City in the summer of 1863 so that his book has been taken as a model of integrating political and social history-in a way, offering a method for bringing together the two different views of American politics we read about in Rude Republic and The American Political Nation.

In truth, The New York City Draft Riots stands as much more a work of social than political history. The index to the book has but one entry for elections, and that an incidental one to the New York City election riot of 1834, an event that occurred a generation before the draft riots. The book offers more class analysis than focus on elections and electioneering, an approach that needs to be examined in detail and will be in the third chapter of this book.

Finally, Baker's Affairs of Party stood as an eye-opening attempt to use the idea of "political culture" to bring new life to the political history of the nineteenth century. Like Bernstein's influential work, it sought common ground for political and social history. It similarly diverted the gaze from election results and voting returns. The results of this anthropologically sweeping approach to American politics are examined in the fourth chapter.

It is crucial to remember that all four of these books are excellent and thought-provoking. Only very good books stimulate debate and send us back to the sources to look further into historical questions. Even as I argue with their conclusions, I mean to show respect for their importance and achievement. But ultimately history written in the academy is more an argument than a story. This book began life in the academy, and animated dialogue with other historians is a sure way to advance historical understanding.

The first chapter will focus on the surprising range of political material that might be found in the nineteenth-century home: popular lithographs on the walls, newspapers on the parlor table, statuary in nooks, and collectible photographs of celebrities in albums. The second chapter examines materials found in more public areas: political cartoons in poster format, most notably. It also calls attention to underappreciated developments in political campaign ephemera in the Civil War era, capitalizing on photography in a period that exploded with advertising novelty in politics. All of these materials required talent and money to produce, and the third chapter deals with the rise of a Civil War institution, the Union League Clubs, that adroitly brought money and talent to the spread of mass political culture. In some areas they virtually covered the walls of public buildings with posters, and hardly any part of the Union escaped the reach of their cheap pamphlets. The materials mass-produced for electioneering seasons naturally relied on familiar stereotypes and "melodies"-embodied literally in the smallest and perhaps the most neglected of printed campaign ephemera, songbooks. The fourth chapter explores the indebtedness of these musical materials to the popular entertainment genre of the nineteenth century, the minstrel show. Throughout, the real focus of this book is not on the materials themselves-this is not a book for collectors-but on their meaning for the era and their utility in giving historians a better description of American political culture.

Whatever means historians use to describe American political culture in the period, the effort seems worthwhile, for the real theme of such work is American people, great masses of them who did not leave historians systematic written records in letters, diaries, or memoirs, as the political elites often did. The study of political culture, like voting analysis, is a way to reach those people indirectly through the symbols, devices, literature, and institutions that engaged their attention.

Many of my views on material culture had their origins in interpretations of prints and photographs used in nineteenth-century politics that Harold Holzer, Gabor Boritt, and I formulated in several works published between 1984 and 2000. Association with Professors Edmund Sullivan and Roger Fischer, true pioneers in the study of material political culture, in their efforts years ago to bring life to the Museum of American Political Life at the University of Hartford also gave me some acquaintance with other kinds of political ephemera and their vital meanings.

My familiarity with prints and material culture, generally unfamiliar materials for most academic historians, stemmed from my career before university teaching, when I labored in a museum and rare book library devoted to materials on Abraham Lincoln. Then I could handle such items daily and not merely on brief research trips to reading rooms where these materials can be called up and studied only by painstakingly slow and difficult process. Also because of the two decades I spent at the Lincoln Museum, this book has a special reliance on Lincoln-related sources.

Stephen and Janice Brose made these lectures possible by generous funding and made them better by patient personal support, attending the lectures themselves, asking probing questions from the audience, and keeping in touch in the time that has passed since the public presentation, while I have been rewriting and reconsidering my arguments. Harold Holzer, the senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and my coauthor in previous books, read the manuscript at a crucial stage and provided the sort of advice and criticism that wrought important changes in the book. My other coauthor, Gabor S. Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, likewise read the manuscript at that stage and offered extremely valuable criticism. My colleague Professor William Blair, who directs the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State and manages the Brose Lectures, trustingly allowed me to be the first speaker in a three-lecture format. He also provided searching criticism of Chapter 4, which no other historian had read. Anonymous readers at the University of Virginia Press and the University of North Carolina Press commented on the manuscript as well.

Professor Amy Greenberg, another of my colleagues in the History Department, has all along asked prodding questions while offering genuine encouragement. Important advice and criticism on Chapter 4 came from Professors W. Fitzhugh Brundage and John Kasson of the University of North Carolina. Since coming to Penn State, I have been aided in searching for relevant materials in the Rare Book Room of the Paterno Library by Sandy Steltz, James Quigle, and Jane Charles. Thomas F. Schwartz, the Illinois state historian, opened the doors of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum while it was under construction and officially closed. He then took off his hard hat and himself fetched campaign songsters crucial to Chapter 4; Tom provided generous help with illustrations, too. I am indebted to the staff of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, as well. Eric Novotny, humanities librarian at the Penn State University Library, helped me gain access to noncirculating materials for illustrations. Alan Jutzi, curator, Rare Books, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, provided information on Union League broadsides. Karen Ebeling of the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State helped me make the proper payments for rights to the photographs which make an important contribution to the book. The research funds so generously attached to the McCabe-Greer Professorship paid for the photographs and reproduction rights necessary for the illustrations-themselves critical, I believe, to a book based substantially on evidence from material culture. As always, Sylvia Neely read the manuscript, listened to the lectures, offered the proper balance of criticism and encouragement, and put the final manuscript into a format that the University of North Carolina Press could turn into this book.

Ultimately, the analytical approach I take to American political history I learned thirty-five years ago as a graduate student from Michael F. Holt, now the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. He gave this manuscript a virtually transformative reading, for which I am grateful but to which I cannot do justice.

To dismiss the engagement of Americans in political life in the nineteenth century would, of course, pose the greatest threat to our understanding of the Civil War era. It is, therefore, crucial now to make certain that historians do not somehow demote politics to the margins of the daily lives of Americans who lived in those times. So we must begin by meeting the arguments in Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin's book Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century, published in the year 2000.

Mark E. Neely Jr. Pennsylvania State University


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