This issue features essays on the political and social contexts of the sectional crisis, looking carefully at what Americans read and how they voted—and for whom and why—and situates the crisis squarely in a transatlantic context. Readers will find essays that push us to think again about the Civil War’s outcome, with an essay that uncovers the science of racial difference as it was being made in U.S. Army hospitals and another that nudges us to reconsider how we tell the story of the end of slavery.
Timothy Williams examines the reading habits of young men and women of the American South, finding that elite white southerners who came of age during the war turned to reading as escape, as a way to express their autonomy, and, both as a means of both self-expression and marking their group identity. In their diaries and letters, young southerners kept track of their reading, recommended good books and regretted time spent reading others, thought about what their reading meant to their senses of themselves as men and women, and established habits that defined them less, perhaps, as uniquely southern but as members of a generation. Once established, these reading habits proved hard to break; young readers carried them through the war and beyond.
Where Williams’s subjects read books Joshua Lynn’s read bodies—the body of presidential candidate, James Buchanan, in particular. Lynn shows how Democrats turned Buchanan’s bachelorhood into an asset. Pitted against the marital state of Jesse Frémont’s husband in the 1856 election, Buchanan’s bachelorhood became very much a political issue, with Republicans questioning his credentials and disparaging his manhood. Democrats touted Buchanan as a candidate who could temper northern radicalism like he controlled his sexual urges; his “portly” sixty-five-year-old frame embodied principles northern and southern men could embrace. As a “manly dough face,” candidate Buchanan had a body that was round, pure, and adroitly intersectional. President Buchanan’s liminality caused problems among his former defenders, who found their man naïve or, worse, dangerously unprincipled.
Joseph Murphy’s essay traces the history of an “antislavery nationalism” in the North. Exploring the critical period from Britain’s 1833 Emancipation Act to the 1842 U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Murphy notes how American jurists sought to reconcile American law, based on the law of nations, with the dramatic and abrupt changes wrought to the latter by Britain’s “war on slavery.” The debate about how to adjust to this new global reality took place in courtrooms where lawyers argued a number of cases involving American slave trading ships captured–or diverted due to rebellion–in national and international waters; each case raised questions about the security of “slave property” on the high seas and in the Constitution. For those seeking to draw a straight line from the Prigg decision that nullified states’ personal liberty laws to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Murphy’s essay challenges us to see in the decision’s denial of “a constitutional right to slave property” the seeds of an antislavery nationalism, nurtured in the transatlantic crosswinds during this crucial decade. Among the legacies of this antislavery nationalism, Murphy contends, are the principles of equality enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment.
Among the legacies of the United States Sanitary Commission was scientific racism. Although historians have rendered the story of the Commission as one of progress—progress toward medical modernity, progress toward gender equality, et cetera—they have not examined the commission’s role in advancing the science of race and racism. Leslie Schwalm’s essay indicates that the commission’s purposes were never limited to providing supplies and medical care to injured and ill U.S. Army soldiers. Guided by leaders such as Henry Bellows and Frederick Law Olmsted, the Commission aimed to amass “a body of ‘truly scientific work’” that would “document the belief that people of African descent constituted an indisputably inferior race.” Commission doctors turned their unprecedented access to black bodies—the men of the U. S. Colored Troops—into an opportunity to gather data that could be used to document and perpetuate their racial views. Perhaps Schwalm’s most devastating conclusion is that hundreds of thousands of USCT soldiers who enlisted in a war to end slavery, once measured, weighed, and examined by Commission doctors, were drafted to “a massive effort to ensure that racial ideologies would endure slavery’s destruction.” This essay will change the way we think about the Commission and its “humanitarian” work.
Erik Mathisen rounds out this issue with a review essay that identifies the key points of overlap in the scholarship on slavery and capitalism and on “the second slavery,” a term associated with the nineteenth-century expansion of slavery, and to point out the questions that remain. This scholarship has established slavery’s role in the development of capitalism—and vice versa—and has helped scholars of the U.S. Civil War explain the coming of the war. Scholars of second slavery have focused far less attention on the war and its aftermath. And, importantly, because this scholarship links the prerogatives of capitalism to a continuum of coerced labor, “emancipation in the United States looks less like a turning point and more like a moment of consolidation in the broader Atlantic history of labor.” In this flattened out account of the nineteenth century, what, Mathisen asks, is left of the effort to tell the history of emancipation as the result of human agency?