Networks of Disunion: Politics, Print Culture, and the Coming of the Civil War

Pierce, Katherine Anna, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia
Gallagher, Gary, Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Department of History, University of Virginia

The fracture of the American political nation in 1861 cannot be separated from the development of print culture in the antebellum era. A revolution in methods of communication between 1800 and 1860 aided political mobilization and wove the nation together while it simultaneously made it more fragile. Portrayals of antebellum history as either a narrative of northern or southern exceptionalism obscure the reality of a nation integrated by networks of print. These networks, and the editors and politicians who used them, created a climate of intense political competition that increased the likelihood of disunion.

Neither politicians nor editors of the religious and secular press imagined how the rapid democratization and circulation of grievances would affect the political system. Americans, regardless of location, used the press not only as a source of information, but to connect to political, cultural, and economic events in their immediate vicinity and in distant communities. Bonded labor and the language of Jackson's producers' republic were quite compatible with steam presses, express rail deliveries, advertising, and increased commercial activity.

It was, ironically, the degree of integration of the sections that heightened tension and competition over America's future. Antebellum white southerners democratically pursued the preservation of their slave society while a majority of northerners had reached their limits of accommodation with the slave system's power and expansion. Far from serving solely as an agent of modernity, liberty, and democracy, the press exposed the fragility of loyalties to the national political system as white Americans, North and South, exercised a conscious choice to pursue a national vision grounded in either slavery or free labor.

Southern power and influence in the minds of prewar contemporaries cannot be appreciated by assessment of the devastated and economically shattered postwar South. Confederate apologists and those shocked by the postwar changes in American society explained defeat through revised memories of a weaker, isolated, antebellum South at odds with the tangible and historical reality of southern power felt by most Americans prior to the war. This dissertation examines how that power was expressed and reacted to through the medium of print.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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