The Nineteenth Century in Print: Books is comprised of books and periodicals published in the United States primarily during the second half of the nineteenth century. The materials selected provide a social history of the century, illuminating the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, women's suffrage, and science and technology. The collection also includes volumes of American poetry.
These online presentations provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
Related Collections and Exhibits
- African American Perspectives, 1818-1920
- American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920
- America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotypes, 1839-1864
- California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives, 1849-1900
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1873
- Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865
- Inventing Entertainment: The Edison Companies
- Music for the Nation, 1870-1885
- Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets
- Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910
- Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1847-1860s
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
The essays, speeches, accounts of court rulings, correspondence, guide books, and other items collected in The Nineteenth Century in Print provide insight into debates over legislation that foreshadowed the Civil War, including the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Other materials in the collection chronicle debates surrounding coeducation, women's suffrage, immigration laws, and Reconstruction.
Compromise of 1850: The Fugitive Slave Act
A series of bills, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850, attempted to maintain the balance of power between free and slave states after additional U.S. territories were acquired at the end of the Mexican-American War. A search on the phrase, Compromise of 1850, produces Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster’s March 7, 1850 Speech supporting the legislation “for the preservation of the Union . . . [and] the restoration. . . [of] harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all,” (page 6).
The Compromise of 1850 also included the Fugitive Slave Act, however, which threatened to increase the growing rift between free and slave states. In the 1850 census, slaveholders reported approximately 1,000 runaway slaves as “lost property.” The Fugitive Slave Act was created to assist the recovery of this "property." The Act increased the number of federal officers on duty, denied slaves the right to a jury trial, and made it possible to prosecute anyone assisting a fugitive slave, with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
During the Proceedings of the United States Senate, Northern senators suggested amendments to the law that would provide fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial and require a “writ of habeas corpus,” that is, a court order, to enforce an arrest. Senator Davis of Massachusetts argued that the writ of habeas corpus was important to prevent slave states from falsely imprisoning free black citizens. Massachusetts, Davis explained, provides blacks with “the rights of citizens . . . and [as such], they . . . may claim the privileges and immunities of citizens of South Carolina, or in any other State that belongs to the Union,” (page 5). South Carolina Senator A.P. Butler responded that in his home state, “A free man of color . . . does possess many civil rights . . . except what may be called the complete right, of citizenship. And this right the legislation of no other State can give him in the State of South Carolina,” (page 6).
- What do you think it means to have “many civil rights” but not “the complete right of citizenship”? What might these "many civil rights" have been? What is meant by "the complete right of citizenship"? How does it relate to the right to a jury trial and the requirement of a "writ of habeas corpus"?
- What would the implications be upon the Fugitive Slave Act if a free man of color was recognized as a citizen in a free state?
- How do you think that two Congressmen of the same government could have had such different concepts of African-American citizenship and of state legislation?
- How does the Senators' dispute reflect the sectional disagreements of the Civil War? What sectional philosophies and priorities does each Senator's argument reflect?
- What does the senators' discussion suggest about the balance of power between the states and the federal government at that time?
Both proposed amendments to the Fugitive Slave Act were ultimately rejected, but the debate in Congress foreshadowed the national conflict over the Act. A search on the phrase, fugitive slave law, yields abolitionist sermons such as “The Higher Law” (1850) and “The Fugitive Slave Bill; or, God’s Laws Paramount to the Laws of Men” (1851), calling on the public to “disobey and repudiate this Bill,” (page 15).
As people searching for fugitive slaves traveled north, some abolitionists resorted to violence to undermine the Fugitive Slave Act. The Boston Slave Riot (1854) describes the storming of a courthouse to free runaway slave Anthony Burns. After order was restored and Burns remained in custody, abolitionists collected “$1200 - the amount specified by the owner as the price of the man” and bought Burns’s freedom (page 19).
- How did passing the Fugitive Slave Act, without its proposed amendments, settle the dispute over the meaning of Afrcian-American citizenship and the power of state legislation?
- Why do you think that slaveholders sold their recovered slaves to abolitionists? What does this exchange suggest about a slaveholder’s interest in his “lost property” and a black person’s “civil rights”?
- How do you think that abolitionists reconciled defying slavery for treating people as property and paying “the price of the man” to ensure a fugitive slave’s freedom?
- Does such a purchase undermine one’s objection to slavery? Could it even amount to a participation in and reinforcement of the institution? Do you think that this was an effective way to combat the slave trade?
- Do you think that there is a difference between opposing the Fugitive Slave Law and opposing slavery itself?
- Do you think that the Compromise of 1850 was effective in minimizing
the sectional disputes within the Union? Why or why not?
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
Settlement of the Kansas and Nebraska territories was important to establishing a transcontinental railroad and promoting western development. Slave states, however, opposed the admission of free territories while free states objected to the establishment of slavery in these areas. Senator Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 attempted to appease both sides of the debate by allowing the people living in the areas to decide the slavery issue at the polls.
A search on the terms, Kansas and Nebraska, yields evidence of the race that ensued between abolitionist and proslavery forces to populate the territories when the bill became law in May 1854.
The emigrant guide, Kanzas and Nebraska (1854), notes that it was created to promote “the great enterprise of settling Kanzas at once . . . to open a nobler field for effort than any public undertaking which has called upon our energies for many years,” (page iv).
The arrival of armed bands from the neighboring slave state of Missouri countered the arrival of abolitionist recruits and quickly divided the territory into two clear factions. In the first election in Kansas in March 1855, popular sovereignty was stifled by voting irregularities when residents from Missouri voted illegally, helping to produce twice as many votes as there were registered voters. The Border Ruffian Code in Kansas (1856) provides an example of the laws “notoriously forced upon the people of that Territory, at the hands of invading ruffians from Missouri, using the persuasive arguments of the Bowie-Knife and Revolver,” (page 1).
Between 1855 and 1857, the territory produced three constitutional drafts (one barring slavery and two supporting it) that were ultimately rejected by voters. In 1859, a fourth constitution barring slavery was finally ratified and Kansas was admitted as the thirty-fourth state in the Union two years later (but only after Southern states had seceded).
- Why do you think that abolitionist and proslavery forces were so invested in the issue of slavery in the territories?
- Do you think that it was a wise idea to use popular sovereignty as a way to determine whether a territory should permit or abolish slavery?
- What do you think that these groups considered to be at stake in the Kansas and Nebraska territories?
- How did the situation in Kansas and Nebraska reflect larger, national
The Dred Scott Case
In 1850, Dred Scott sued for his freedom upon his return to the slave state of Missouri. Scott argued that since he and his family had lived freely in Illinois and in the Wisconsin territory for a few years, they were no longer slaves. A St. Louis court ruled in his favor but the ruling was overturned two years later and the case finally reached the United States Supreme Court in 1857.
A search on the phrase, Dred Scott, produces The Case of Dred Scott in the United States Supreme Court, in which the Supreme Court ruled against Scott. Chief Justice Taney’s majority decision explained that blacks “are not . . . included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides,” (page 7). Taney later noted that since Scott was not a citizen of Missouri, he was “not entitled as such to sue in its courts” (page 22).
In addition to addressing the question of citizenship, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Congress to distinguish between slaves and other types of personal property. Therefore, the Court concluded that the ban on slavery in U.S. territories via the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was “void; and that neither Dred Scott himself, nor any of his family, were made free by being carried into this territory, even if they had been carried there by the owner, with the intention of becoming a permanent resident,” (page 38).
- How do you think abolitionist and proslavery forces reacted to the ruling that blacks could not claim “the rights and privileges” of U.S. citizenship? What did this ruling mean for free blacks living in the North?
- How does Chief Justice Taney’s ruling compare with South Carolina Senator A.P. Butler’s claim in Proceedings of the United States Senate: “A free man of color . . . [in South Carolina] may and does possess many civil rights . . . In fact, he has all the rights, except what may be called the complete right, of citizenship.”
- What is the significance of the fact that Taney included an interpretation of the founding fathers’ intent in his decision? What does this add to his ruling? What does it add to the national debate going on at the time? Do you agree with his interpretation? Why or why not? Does it matter what the founding fathers’ original intent was? Why or why not?
- How would you expect the Court’s ruling to have influenced the debate over slavery and popular sovereignty in territories such as Kansas and Nebraska?
- Why do you think that the Dred Scott decision is considered a landmark case for the Supreme Court?
- How do you think that this decision might have influenced the balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government?
The American or “Know-Nothing” Party
The influx of immigrants in the wake of Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s sparked the nativist political movement of the American Party. Also known as the “Know-Nothing Party” for its staunch denial of participating in anti-immigrant activities and secret societies, the party sought to limit immigration and require that all elected officials be native-born Americans.
A search on the phrase, American Party, yields books such as L.W. Granger’s Wide-Awake! Romanism: Its Aims and Tendencies (1854). Granger’s treatise, subtitled “Sentiments of a Know-Nothing,” warns that the Roman-Catholic church and its followers have infiltrated the United States political system:
If, when our venerable ancestors . . . deemed all FOREIGN INFLUENCE conspiracy against the United States--then the more enlightened . . . people at the present day, should cause every ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP AND PRIEST in this country who come among us to usurp the powers of the General Government . . . [to] hang between heaven and earth--a warning to their cohorts yet to come!
Thomas Thorpe’s A Voice to America (1855), on the other hand, criticized the naturalization processes that allowed European immigrants to become U.S. citizens. Instead of accepting five years residency and other minimal standards to naturalize an immigrant, Thorpe called for “tangible proof . . . that [immigrants] are capable of intelligent attachment of our institutions . . . [and] that they can speak and read reasonably well, the language in which was originally written the Constitution of the United States,” (page 280).
A search on the term, immigration, yields Samuel Busey’s likeminded book, Immigration, Its Evils and Consequences (1856). Busey does not declare an allegiance to the American Party but he attempts to use the 1850 census “to substantiate any one of the evils enumerated as flowing from immigration” (page 3). In his analysis, Busey asserts that foreigners are more susceptible to drunkenness, disease, “pauperism,” and criminal activity: “One out of every 154 foreigners is a criminal, and but one in every 1,619 Americans. The proportion of native and foreign crime, then, is as 1 to 10—one Americans to ten foreigners,” (page 117).
- Do you think that Granger, Thorpe, and Busey’s claims are accurate assessments of immigrants?
- What techniques and information did nativists use to support their claims against immigrants?
- What factors do you think contributed to the temporary success of the American Party?
- Do you think that certain types of immigrants are currently targeted
by nativist organizations? If so, who is targeted and what claims
The physical, political, and economic landscape of the southern states was decimated in the wake of the Civil War. A search on the term, Reconstruction, yields books chronicling some of the struggles of the South. Books such as The South Since the War (1866) tour the decimated cities and describe the “very wholesome fear of the government, and a very wholesome respect for the power of the North” among “subdued [and] conquered Rebels,” (page 49).
Readmission into the Union required states to demonstrate their allegiance to the federal government. The proceedings of the constitutional conventions of Louisiana (1864), Mississippi (1865), and Tennessee (1870), are available for review along with correspondence from Georgia Governor Rufus Bullock to his Republican colleagues in the United States Congress.
Bullock became the first Republican governor of Georgia in 1868 but after a tumultuous three years in office, he abruptly resigned from the post. A May 21, 1870 letter describes the “threats of personal violence and assassination . . .[and] the most villainous slanders that rebel ingenuity could invent” that marred his first two years in office (page 7). Bullock later asked that the Union accept Georgia's new constitution for the sake of the Georgia General Assembly:
There is no ‘amnesty’ with rebels for men in Georgia who have dared to be Republicans and to sustain measures which enfranchised the black man . . . Under this action by Congress we will . . . [secure] the privileges of free education and of a free ballot to all citizens. Deny this to us . . . [and] the lives and the property of the men who have been destroyed for daring to uphold your measures . . . will be with yourselves and not with us.
- Which elements of the South do you think that it was most important to rebuild?
- What types of concerns were raised during the state constitutional conventions?
- Why do you think that southerners often harbored an animosity towards the federal government?
- Why do you think that Governor Bullock was the target of death threats and slander? Why do you think that the governor endured such treatment for a few years?
- Why would it have been important to ensure a free ballot to all citizens?
Whitelaw Reid’s After the War (1866) describes similar political problems as well as the need to reinvent the area’s agricultural system. For example, the improvised system by which black tenant farmers and sharecroppers worked the land of white owners often amounted to another form of slavery:
Negroes were hired at nominal monthly wages, ‘with board;’ and whatever debts they incurred . . . were to be subsequently ‘worked out’ at the same rates. The result was . . . certain to be that the masters would encourage the Negroes to run in debt; and . . . would hold them forever by a constantly strengthening chain.
- Why do you think that free blacks endured the tenant farming and sharecropping systems?
- How do you think that the South fared under Reconstruction policies?
- Do you think that white and black southerners had different perceptions
of the federal government? Why or why not?
Susan B. Anthony and the 1872 Presidential Election
After the Civil War, changes to the Constitution provided the right for African-American men to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment established, “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens” while the Fifteenth Amendment explained that a citizen’s right to vote could not be denied “by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Leaders of the women’s movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were disappointed by the amendments because of their failure to address the issue of women’s suffrage.
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony and thirteen other women registered and voted in the presidential election. An Account of the Proceedings on the Trial of Susan B. Anthony… describes how Anthony and the three election officials who “knowingly and wilfully receiv[ing] the votes of persons not entitled to vote” were subsequently arrested and prosecuted (page v).
Susan B. Anthony’s attorney explained that before the election, he advised “she was as lawful a voter as I am, or as any other man is,” (page 13). His opinion was based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s recognition of “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” as citizens.
The judge, however, ruled that Susan B. Anthony did not have the right to vote and “that the decision of the Court had disposed of all there was in the case,” compelling the jury to enter a guilty verdict (page 71). After the verdict was announced with a fine of $100 and court costs, Anthony entered into a heated exchange with the judge:
[I]n your ordered verdict of guilty . . . [m]y natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights are all alike ignored . . . . Your denial of my citizen's right to vote, is the denial of my right of consent as one of the governed, the denial of my right of representation . . . the denial of my right to a trial by a jury of my peers . . . the denial of my sacred rights to life, liberty, property . . .
Anthony later announced that she would never pay the fine. She never appealed the verdict and the court never sought its money. Review the proceedings with the following questions in mind.
- Do you think that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments exclude women from being “citizens of the United States”? Why or why not?
- Do you think that Susan B. Anthony and the thirteen other women broke the law when they registered to vote and voted?
- Why do you think that Susan B. Anthony was the only woman prosecuted?
- Do you think that the judge was right in convicting Anthony rather than letting the jury deliberate the case?
- Do you agree with Anthony that the judge’s denial of her “citizen's right to vote” was a denial of her “right of representation . . . right to a trial by a jury of my peers . . . [and] sacred rights to life, liberty, property”?
- Do you think that Anthony should have paid the $100 fine? Why do you think that the court never pursued the fine?
- Why do you think that Anthony never appealed the case? Do you think that she should have? Why or why not?
- How would you have decided the case? Why?
- What are the similarities and differences between this case and
the Dred Scott case?
The classroom was one of many battlegrounds in the struggle for equal rights, as leaders of the women’s movement called for increased educational opportunities. Thomas Higginson’s speech “Woman and Her Wishes” (1853) notes that schools taught girls with the assumption that they would marry and raise children. The author counters that boys are just as likely to become fathers but that they are educated in the values of “professional and public duty. And if this accumulation of motives so often fails to act upon the boy, how can we expect that one alone will be sufficient for his sister?”(page 6).
A search on the term, coeducation, reveals a growing interest in coeducation at the university level in the decade following the Civil War. The Report Submitted to the Trustees of Cornell University . . . on [the] Proposal to Endow a College for Women (1872) surveyed various coeducational colleges and noted that their value arose “mainly from the fact that they have broken away from the traditions of the boarding and ‘finishing’ schools, and have provided thorough, substantial courses of instruction more like those aimed at in our best colleges,” (page 26).
Support for coeducation was echoed in guides such as An Address Upon the Co-Education of the Sexes (1873) and American Education, Its Principles and Elements (1877) which declared, “[N]othing in revelation, nature, or reason . . . can absolve society from its moral obligation to give the mothers of its children the highest and best education which it is expected those children of either sex will ever attain” (page 297).
- Why do you think that the question of coeducation was often framed in terms of a woman’s role as a mother?
- What do you think that universities considering the possibility of coeducation were interested in learning from established programs?
- How do you think that increased enrollment and the creation of new facilities influenced the question of coeducation?
- Do you think that students are more successful in gendered or
coeducational institutions? Why?
The materials found in The Nineteenth Century in Print provide opportunities to chronicle the political and geographical development of the United States. They also allow for discussions on the use of violence to bring about social change and an examination of the regional tensions that preceded the Civil War. Books and reports pertaining to Native Americans can be analyzed to discern contemporary attitudes towards Native Americans as well as the concept of race. Additional materials support the research of nineteenth-century social history.
Chronological Thinking Skills: Westward Expansion
The United States grew dramatically during the second half of the nineteenth century and searches on the terms, expedition and survey, yield accounts from various parties that explored the country’s western territories. Reports such as the Expedition Down the Zuni and Colorado Rivers (1853) and the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey (1857) document these explorations with maps, illustrations, and detailed descriptions.
These materials can be used to create a series of maps charting the progression of westward expansion. For example, one might create a map chronicling events from 1845 to 1855 that depicts events occurring across the nation such as the acquisition of Southwest territories in the wake of the Mexican-American War (1848), the admission of the state of California to the Union (1850), exploration of the Colorado territory (1852), and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854).
By creating such maps, one may gain additional insight into the factors influencing political debates such as slavery in the territories (e.g., Compromise of 1850), the treatment of Native Americans, and the industrial growth of the nation. For example, territorial expansion and exploration played an integral role in planning the transcontinental railroad authorized by Congress in 1862. A search on the phrase, war dept., produces 12 volumes of Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, chronicling the massive effort to link eastern cities with new areas on the Pacific coast. Create a map that depicts the relationship between expansion and exploration and the development of railroads.
Popular sovereignty gave way to mob rule in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 as both proslavery and abolitionist emigrants raced to settle the area. The assaults and armed conflicts surrounding the debates on slavery and statehood in Kansas manifest a growing rift in the Union in the decade prior to the Civil War.
Geary and Kansas (1857) chronicles the history of Kansas and describes a number of the conflicts: “Party spirit increased daily in violence . . . and hordes of desperadoes rushed into the country to take advantage of its disturbed condition . . . Brutal and shocking crimes were of daily occurrence, and a state of affairs existed too disgusting and deplorable for language properly to describe,” (page 70).
The conflict in Kansas also spilled into the halls of the United States Senate in 1856. In a speech on the subject of slavery in the territory entitled, “The Kansas Question,” Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner took issue with proslavery senators from South Carolina and Illinois “who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs,” (page 5).
Sumner repeatedly insulted Senator A.P. Butler of South Carolina in his speech, describing him as someone who “touches nothing which he does not disfigure—with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact” (page 29). Two days later, Butler’s cousin, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, clubbed Senator Sumner over the head with a cane in the Senate chambers and injured him so severley that Sumner did not return to the Senate for two and a half years.
Senator Butler was not in the Senate when Sumner was attacked, but he defended his cousin’s actions in his “Speech . . . on the Bill to Enable the People of Kansas Territory to Form a Constitution.” Butler described Sumner’s divisive attacks on proponents of slavery, quoted some of the more personal insults featured in “The Kansas Question,” and announced:
It is impossible for self-respect to allow me to sit here and listen quietly to such a speech. If there were separate confederacies to-morrow . . . [Sumner] would then put his section in a position to make war . . . I hope the day is fast coming when the fires of that limited sectionaliam will burn out, or will be reduced to the ashes of disappointment and disgrace.
- What are the similarities and differences between the causes of violence among the general populace in Kansas and among the Congressmen in the Senate?
- What do these incidents of violence in Kansas and in Congress suggest about the state of the Union approximately five years before the start of the Civil War?
- What do these incidents suggest about possible causes of the war?
- Why do you think that both territorial settlers and Senators were so passionate about the issue of slavery in Kansas?
- Do you think that Preston Brooks was justified in attacking Senator Sumner?
- Do you agree with Butler’s defense that Sumner’s personal attacks against proslavery senators amounted to putting “his section in a position to make war”?
- Do you think that Sumner's insults or Brooks's attack was more inflamatory?
- Do you think that the senators were more interested in promoting
Union solidarity or sectional differences?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Native American Policies
In March 1865, a Congressional committee examining the Condition of the Indian Tribes reported that the Native American population was decreasing rapidly due to disease, intemperance, wars, white emigration, and “the irrepressible conflict between a superior and an inferior race when brought in presence of each other,” (page 3). The report explained that conflicts among tribes and between Native Americans and white settlers were “becoming a war of extermination,” (page 5).
A search on the term, Indian, produces books written by military officers disturbed by the incessant conflicts of the Indian wars. Colonel R.B. Marcy’s Thirty Years of Army Life on the Border (1866) explains, “Those dingy noblemen of nature . . . have been despoiled, supplanted, and robbed of their just and legitimate heritage by the avaricious and rapid encroachments of the white man,” (page 66). Meanwhile, General George Custer explains in My Life on the Plains (1874), “that of all classes of our population the army and the people living on the frontier entertain the greatest dread of an Indian war, and are willing to make the greatest sacrifices to avoid its horrors,” (page 20).
That same year, former U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis Walker articulated his opinion of the Indian War in The Indian Question. He explained that Indians who experienced “the military power of the whites” became “the most commonplace person imaginable, of very simple nature, limited aspirations, and enormous appetites,” (page 16). Walker criticized the federal government for subsidizing Native Americans and declared that there was not any “national dignity involved in the treatment of savages by a civilized power . . . . With wild men, as with wild beasts, the question whether to fight, coax, or run, is a question merely of what is easiest or safest in the situation given,” (page 34).
- What does the language of these documents suggest about the authors’ assumptions and opinions about Native Americans? What attitudes do the authors have towards Native Americans? Are they sympathetic, hostile, ambivalent, patronizing, reverential?
- What do the authors' assumptions, opinions, and attitudes suggest about their concepts of race and culture?
- How do the authors' assumptions and attitudes differ? How might the assumptions and attitudes of each author reflect his relationship to Native Americans or the purpose of his document?
- How do the authors’ attitudes towards and assumptions about Native Americans relate to their opinions about conflicts with Native Americans?
- How might the attitudes and assumptions of each author have contributed to the development of conflicts with Native Americans?
- How does the history of the treatment of Native Americans reflect the assortment of attitudes and opinions expressed in these documents?
- Is there a way that the near extermination of Native Americans
could have been avoided? If so, how, given the opinions and attitudes
expressed in these nineteenth-century documents?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: John Brown and Violence and Social Change
John Brown was a radical abolitionist who had once worked as a stationmaster in the Underground Railroad and farmed alongside freed slaves in the Adirondack Mountains. In October 1855, Brown joined his sons in Kansas as part of the abolitionist emigrants looking to influence the pending vote on slavery in the territory.
After learning that proslavery forces from Missouri rampaged through Lawrence, Kansas, and that Senator Charles Sumner was seriously assaulted on the Senate floor, Brown led an assault on five people at a proslavery settlement near Pottawatamie Creek. Geary and Kansas(1857) explains that Brown’s victims “ were there assembled to assassinate and burn the houses of certain free-state men . . . These five men were seized and disarmed . . . [and] shot in cold blood,” (page 87).
Brown soon established a reputation as a guerilla fighter and as an advocate for recruiting weapons and money in support of abolitionist efforts. In October 1859, Brown led eighteen men in seizing a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to enable a slave revolt. The threat of the rebellion ended when United States Marines recaptured the fort and killed ten of Brown’s men. Brown and five survivors were subsequently tried and executed for murder, treason, and insurrection.
A search on John Brown provides documents relating to the U.S. Senate investigation of the raid. The Report [of] the Select Committee . . . Appointed to Inquire into the Late Invasion . . . at Harper’s Ferry noted that while Brown was in Kansas, “he was extensively connected with many of the lawless military expeditions . . . [and] . . . that, before leaving the Territory . . . his purpose was . . .to keep the public mind inflamed on the subject of slavery in the country . . . as might enable him to bring about servile insurrection in the slave States,” (page 2).
The report also notes that while evidence did not suggest that Brown was supported by a specific abolitionist group, “money was freely contributed by those styling themselves friends of this man Brown, and friends alike of what they styled ‘the cause of freedom,’ . . . without inquiry as to the way in which the money would be used by him to advance such pretended cause,” (page 8).
- Do you think that it was right for John Brown to have led the assault near Pottawatamie Creek in the interest of either protecting abolitionists or subduing proslavery forces?
- Do you think that Brown’s raid at Harper's Ferry to procure weapons for a slave revolt was justified?
- Do you think that a slave rebellion is a justifiable or effective way to combat slavery?
- What are the intended and actual consequences of each of these three attacks?
- Why do you think that John Brown was charged with treason for his attack at Harper's Ferry?
- Do you think that Brown targeted the government in his attack on the federal arsenal? Might he have associated the fort with proslavery forces? Why or why not?
- What are the dangers of participating in violent attacks when a state of war has not been declared?
- What is the purpose of declaring a state of war? How might such a declaration protect the efforts made in war time? How might such a declaration minimize the violence of war?
- At what point does a nation or individual decide that it is necessary to resort to violence to further a cause?
- In what situations might it be acceptable or even necessary to oppose someting with illegal violence?
- Had you been an abolitionist in John Brown's time, might you have
supported him? Why or why not?
Historical Research Capabilities: Social History
This collection contains a wide variety of resources with which to investigate the social history of the nineteenth century. A search on the term, temperance, yields cautionary tales such as Ruined by Rum (1877) as well as guides such as The Bases of the Temperance Reform (1873) and the Text-book of Temperance (1869). The latter book was designed “for the use of young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty, as a means of teaching them the great facts and principles which lay beneath the Temperance Reformation,” (page 3).
A search on the term, phrenology, shifts the focus from temperance to temperament. Guides such as The Scientific Basis of Education, Demonstrated by an Analysis of the Temperaments and of Phrenological Facts… (1868) and The Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology (1889) explained how the study of the shape of a person’s skull was thought to reveal certain character traits.
The shape of one’s skull, however, did not predetermine some social skills. A search on the term, etiquette, yields a number of books guaranteeing that almost every necessary social grace could be learned from the likes of The American Gentleman’s Guide to Politeness and Fashion (1860) and The Bazar Book of Decorum (1873).
- Who is the intended audience of these sets of books?
- What do you think that these various guides reveal about the interests and ideas of people living during the nineteenth century?
- Do you think that contemporary society has any similar types of interests or ideas? If so, how do these guides compare to contemporary discussions?
- How do you think that our cultural interests might appear to people
living in the next century?
Arts & Humanities
The Nineteenth Century in Print offers a variety of primary sources with which to practice language arts skills. Autobiographies by Frederick Douglass and General George A. Custer provide the opportunity to study personal narratives. Nineteenth-century biographies of women can be examined to understand the choices that authors make and how literature can contribute to social and political causes such as the equal rights movement. Civil War poetry and territorial guides are also available and can be used to study the use of tone, imagery, and persuasive writing techniques. Finally, the historical events represented in this collection can provide the basis for creative writing activities.
Autobiography: Frederick Douglass
Personal narratives of American historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and General George A. Custer provide insight into narrative techniques and the power of autobiography. Later expanded as The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), My Bondage and My Freedom (1857), is an affecting personal narrative in which the author presents a world that would seem strange and foreign to many of his readers:
Like other slaves, I cannot tell how old I am. This destitution was among my earliest troubles. I learned when I grew up, that my master . . . allowed no questions to be put to him, by which a slave might learn his age. Such questions are deemed evidence of impatience, and even of impudent curiosity. From certain events, however, the dates of which I have since learned, I suppose myself to have been born about the year 1817.
- How would you describe Douglass’s tone in My Bondage and My Freedom?
- What are the relationships between the narrator, other slaves, and the master?
- How does Douglass establish these relationships in his narrative?
- How would the effect of the passage above differ if it were written from a third-person perspective?
In the introduction to Douglass’s autobiography, Dr. James M’Cune Smith celebrates the book as “a noble vindication of the highest aims of the American anti-slavery movement. The real object of that movement is . . . to bestow upon the negro the exercise of all those rights, from the possession of which he has been so long debarred,” (page xvii).
- In what ways does Douglass's narrative contribute to what Smith called the “vindication” of the abolitionist movement?
- How does Douglass’s authorship of his life story and his use of a personal
tone contribute to this effect?
Autobiography: Colonel George A. Custer
While Frederick Douglass’s narrative provides insight into his growing role as an abolitionist, Colonel George Custer’s narrative offers an examination of the conflicts in the U.S. territories that led to his demise. Two years before Colonel George Custer and his troops died at the Battle of Little Big Horn, he wrote My Life on the Plains (1874), which describes a solitary and thankless life:
How many military men have reaped laurels from their Indian campaigns? . . . That is indeed . . . a difficult task. For let him act as he may in conducting or assisting in a campaign against the Indians, . . . [and] he can feel assured of this fact, that one-half of his fellow-citizens at home will revile him for his zeal and pronounce his success . . . a massacre of poor, defenceless, harmless Indians; while the other half . . . will cry "Down with him . . .”
- How do you think that soldiers would have felt as they entered into Indian campaigns?
- Why do you think that Custer uses a third-person narration to convey these feelings?
- How does Custer's account compare to other historical interpretations of the colonel's efforts in the territories?
- Do you think that Custer was trying to evoke sympathy for the lives of soldiers in the territories? If so, do you think that he was successful?
- What other goals and motivations might Custer have had in writing his autobiography?
- Compare the narratives of Custer and Douglass: What is the difference between the narrators’ situations? Who are the authors' intended audiences? What do the writing styles suggest about the authors?
- What is the purpose of a personal narrative?
- What elements of autobiography do you think appeal to a reader?
Biographies of Women in the Nineteenth Century
The women’s equal rights movement captured the interest of many nineteenth-century writers. Browse the Subject Index for the term, Women--Biography, for anthologies such as Eminent Women of the Age (1868), and Woman on the American Frontier (1877) that describe the lives of remarkable women such as Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Collections such as Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice (1866) and Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience (1867) focus on female volunteers such as Clara Barton and Dorothea L. Dix, who recruited and appointed Union nurses and “tarried in Washington to finish many an uncompleted task, for some time after her office had been abolished,” (page 108). Other biographies emphasize women's selflessness as caretakers, mothers, and wives, while collections such as Noble Deeds of American Women (1869) feature biographical sketches of prominent women such as the “Mother of Washington” and “Wife of John Adams.”
- Why do you think that the women featured in these works were chosen as biographical subjects? What do they have in common? How are they different?
- Who do you think is the intended audience of each of these works?
- What goals do you think that the authors of these works might have had in writing these biographies and compiling these anthologies?
- How do these biographical studies illuminate the values held by the authors of these works?
- How do you think that these works relate to the struggle for equal rights for women?
- How many of these women would you include in a contemporary anthology of women throughout U.S. history? How would you decide upon the number of women to include?
- Which women from contemporary history would you include? Why?
Civil War Poetry
A search on the term, poetry, yields works promoting different political agendas in the era of slavery. The Anti-Slavery Poems of John Pierpont (1843) promotes the abolitionist effort while the anthology, Personal and Political Ballads (1864), commemorates Union heroics in works such as the “Ballad of Fort Sumter”:
In sight the Star’s flag woos the breeze,
At once death-threatening notes
Come pealing o’er the swelling seas
From blazing cannon throats!
Henry Brownell’s War-lyrics and Other Poems (1866), on the other hand, takes a Southern perspective in chronicling events leading up to the Civil War, such as the 1860 Republican nomination of Abraham Lincoln in the derisive “Honest Abe”:
“Honest Abe!” What strange vexation
Thrills an office-armchaired party!
What impatience and disgust
That the people should put trust
In a name so true and hearty!
What indignant lamentation
For the unchosed—surely fitter
Growl they) than a rough rail-splitter—
Most unheard of nomination!
- What types of images appear in these poems?
- How are these images reinforced by the poet’s stylistic choices?
- How do these images relate to the main idea of the poem?
- Do you think that these poems are objective? Why or why not?
- Who do you think is the intended audience for these different books?
- How do you think that different audiences might react to these works? Why do you think that these writers chose to express themselves through poetry rather than an essay or some other writing style?
- How do you think that political positions are represented in these poems?
- Do you think that contemporary poets express political positions in their works? If so, how do contemporary poems differ from these nineteenth-century works?
- What is the effect of describing a historical event through poetry?
- Imitate the style of these works by composing a poem that discusses a historical
event or a controversial position.
State and Territorial Guides
A search on the term, emigrant, produces territorial guides such as Western Portraiture (1852), and The Western Tourist and Emigrant’s Guide. . . (1855). These guides describe the growth throughout the Midwest in the mid-nineteenth century: “Cities have sprung up in the wilderness . . . and the arts are extending their healthful and invigorating influence throughout the country. Blessed with a soil unsurpassed in fertility . . . and possessing . . . all the influences that can render a country prosperous and a people happy,” (page 3).
The Civil War decimated many cities. During Reconstruction, many eastern states sponsored guidebooks to encourage immigration and investment. Books such as The West Virginia Hand-Book and Immigrant’s Guide (1870) and Virginia: A Geographical and Political Summary (1876), as well as advertisements, were distributed to potential settlers throughout the United States and Europe.
Western territories later offered their own official promotions of the benefits of western settlement. For example, Official Information, Colorado (1872) announced that its potential mineral wealth was available to anyone who was an established U. S. citizen or intended to apply for citizenship (page 18). Minnesota: Its Advantages to Settlers (1868) boasted that it was created to ensure that people “know of Minnesota, before they incur the fearful risk of plunging themselves and families into the fever-ridden districts of other States,” (page b).
- What do you think were the most advantageous aspects of territories and states that could most appeal to potential emigrants and investors?
- What is the tone of these guides? Is it consistent, or does it change with the intent of the guide, the time of its creation, and the place it promotes?
- How do you think that the promotional techniques of these guides influenced prospective emigrants reading these guides?
- What is the purpose of contemporary state guides? Is it the same purpose as these guides of the past?
- How do contemporary guides compare in content and tone with those of the nineteenth century?
- What do you think are the most appealing qualities of your own state?
- Create a guide promoting investment and emigration.
The resources represented in the Special Presentation, "A Sampler of Collection Themes," provide an opportunity to research a political or social event and to write either a personal journal or short story describing how it might have felt to experience one of these events. Topics might include the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, conflicts in Kansas and the territories, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, or the secession of the South from the perspective of an abolitionist, a slaveholder, or a runaway slave. The following questions may provide a starting point for developing your narrative.
- What was your life like before the event occurred?
- How did you respond to the event?
- How did your family and neighbors respond?
- Do you think that the event altered your life?
- If so, do you think that the impact was beneficial or harmful? Why?