Rebels and martyrs: the debate over slavery in American popular culture, 1822-1865

Roth, Sarah Nelson, Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Holt, Michael F., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Penningroth, Dylan, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the attempts by proslavery and antislavery advocates during the antebellum period to win over the American public to their respective positions on the slavery issue through the use of various popular culture media. In their efforts to convert ordinary white Americans to their particular cause, activists on all sides of this critical question sought to put forth images of black slaves that would resonate with the general public. In this way, popular notions of African Americans often directly influenced the way that these authors and artists crafted their texts. Yet fiction, music, and visual prints created by abolitionists and their opponents could also alter or intensify commonly accepted views of black men and women. By analyzing these cultural sources, along with public response to these individual texts, this project seeks to shed light on the role that popular culture played in shaping the attitudes of ordinary Americans on slavery and race as the Civil War approached.

Because representations of violence either by or against African Americans occupied a prominent place in many antebellum and Civil War texts dealing with slavery, this dissertation centers largely on the role that violence played in abolitionist and proslavery propaganda during this period. My findings suggest that the way a source portrayed violence involving African Americans often played a critical role in determining the degree of popularity it would enjoy with the American public. The evolution of the figures of the black rebel and the black martyr within antebellum popular culture, therefore, provides a particularly useful framework through which to explore the changing strategies of proslavery and antislavery advocates between 1831 and 1865.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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