Category: Blog

Interpreting Slavery Through Video Games: The Story of Freedom!

Interpreting Slavery Through Video Games: The Story of Freedom!

As a child of the 1990s, some of my earliest memories revolve around playing PC video games. Whether connecting to the dial-up modem to play a racing game with my grandfather or walking with my classmates to the school computer lab, video games sparked my curiosity and provided countless hours of entertainment. Today, as the world faces the uncertainties of a terrible global pandemic and the realities of stay home orders and quarantines, I have passed some of my free time playing classic video games from my childhood on MyAbandonware, a website with more than 15,000 games available for free download.[1] (I am not the only person thinking this way; a disclaimer on the website currently says “we are under [a] heavy load of retrogamers wanting to travel back to those old and safe times.”)

I did not grow up with an interest in the Civil War era, nor did I play Civil War video games. But I am now learning about and playing some of the classics from the 1990s: Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee: Civil War General, and Grant, Lee, Sherman: Civil War Generals 2, just to name a few. Like other military video games then and now, these titles combine decision-making, strategy, narrative, and compelling graphics to draw gamers into these imaginary worlds. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg in particular became an award-winning hit with more than 200,000 copies sold after its 1997 release.[2]

One thing sticks out to me about these Civil War video games, however. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these games did little to provide a larger context for the causes, context, and consequences of the war. Gamers could play as either the Confederacy or United States militaries and had to develop tactics and strategies for defeating the enemy, but what these militaries were fighting about was left unanswered. I then wondered if anyone had ever thought about creating a video game about slavery. To my surprise I discovered that the answer was “yes,” after reading about Kamau Sebabu Kambui in a recent, brilliant feature in the New Yorker by the journalist Julian Lucas.

This screenshot from Freedom! shows the introductory screen in which players learn more about their character’s attributes and shortcomings. Courtesy of the author.

Kamau Kambui was an esoteric black nationalist in Minnesota who became a leader in developing experiential-learning activities about slavery. According to Lucas, Kambui created a living history program called the “Underground Railroad Reenactment” in 1987, one of the first of its kind and a precursor to contemporary living history programs about slavery like “Follow the North Star” at Conner Prairie. He was also approached by Disney at one point to serve as a consultant for a ride (which was never completed) that would have recreated the experience of a fugitive slave running for freedom. “You can read in a book what [slavery] feels like. You can see it on a video. But tonight you have the opportunity to feel the Underground Railroad,” Kambui would say at the beginning of his Underground Railroad programs.[3]

Kambui’s interest in experiential learning also led him to a major role in creating Freedom!, the first computer game about slavery in the United States. Released in 1992, Freedom! was created by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), the same software company that created The Oregon Trail. Kambui served as an advisor to the five white programmers who developed the game’s feel and aesthetic. According to Lucas, Kambui stressed the importance of nature (swamps, prairies, and forests are prominent in the game) and was adamant that the enslaved characters in the game use period dialect and have “a distinctly ‘African’ look.”[4]

This screenshot shows a typical scene from Freedom! Note that the lettering on the sign appears unreadable because the enslaved character is illiterate. Courtesy of the author.

Freedom! starts in the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware in 1830. The gamer plays the role of an enslaved African American boy or girl (player’s choice) trying to run away to freedom. Players must converse with other enslaved laborers, navigate any potential warning signs (such as slave catchers with dogs, hostile free whites, and wrong directions) and maintain adequate levels of nourishment, stamina, food, and health during their journey. The developers also included a disclaimer at the beginning of the game, stating that Freedom! intended to teach students how to collect and interpret data, determine directions from observation, and predict relationships between possible friends and adversaries. In choosing to run away, the player must determine whether or not to seek advice from family members before leaving, “ask the master for a pass,” or to simply go it alone without help. In each simulation, the chosen enslaved person has different talents and challenges. For example, when I played the game the first time, my character was able to swim but unable to read or write. In the end, the game was very difficult and each time I played the simulation I was unable to get to freedom. Each time I faced the struggle of finding enough food and was eventually captured by slave patrollers with dogs.

Freedom! was distributed to one third of all public-school districts around the United States in the fall of 1992. It did not take long for controversy and legal troubles to emerge around the game. In Arizona, parents of an eleven-year-old African American student filed a lawsuit against the Tempe School District alleging that their son was “humiliated by classmates while playing the game . . . and that his civil rights were violated.” The mother, Sonia Campbell-Vinson, argued that her son “was hurt that people were making fun of the characters in the game. It was very condescending to [my son] as a black. He woke up crying at night. He was upset that he was being thought of as a slave.”[5]

Meanwhile, a parents’ group in Merrillville, Indiana, spoke with Kambui, MECC, and a representative of the NAACP in January 1993. The parents noted that the game was offered in the school’s computer lab, but that no curriculum accompanied it. Since the game was played during students’ free time, those who struggled “were not receiving healthy feedback or positive reinforcement” from teachers. A spokesperson for the group, Paulette Davis, argued that Freedom! trivialized and “Nintendoized” slavery. She asserted that “African American history doesn’t begin with slavery, but in the kingdoms of Africa,” a larger fault within the entire historical curricula of the school district. Following this meeting and facing mounting legal costs, MECC instructed all schools to return or destroy their copies of the game.[6] Kambui later passed away in 1998 from cancer.

The use of period dialect and stereotypical portrayals of enslaved African Americans throughout Freedom! generated much controversy from parents whose children played the game in school. Courtesy of the author.

The quick rise and fall of Freedom! can be attributed to numerous factors. For one, the game required additional historical context and curriculum materials that many teachers were unable or unwilling to utilize. The history of slavery did not have a central place in history education in many districts around the country during the 1990s. Equally important, while the game reinforced enslaved people’s agency by demonstrating their own role in ending slavery in the United States, some black children at majority white schools clearly felt isolated and stereotyped by their white peers. It appears that all too often students who were not black saw the game as a joke rather than a serious history lesson.

Freedom! nevertheless raises some interesting questions about the role of video games and experiential learning in teaching students about the history of slavery. How can this history be told in way that is meaningful, accurate, and respectful? Is Kambui’s vision of a history that is not just read but felt even possible? Are there certain historical topics that simply can’t be taught through experience? Can video games about war go beyond military tactics to also incorporate political decision making? What role can historians—from K-12 teachers to public and academic historians—play in using video games and visual mediums as educational tools?

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.



[1] “Home Page,” My Abandonware, 2020, accessed May 1, 2020,

[2] Colin Campbell, “What’s Up with Sid Meier’s Antietam?,, August 30, 1999, accessed April 30, 2020,

[3] Julian Lucas, “Can Slavery Reenactments Set Us Free?,” New Yorker, February 10, 2020, accessed May 1, 2020,

[4] Lucas, “Can Slavery Reenactments Set Us Free?”; see also Joe Juba, “A Pioneer Story: How MECC Blazed New Trails,” Game Informer, April 7, 2017, accessed April 30, 2020,

[5] “School’s Computer Game on Slavery Prompts Suit,” New York Times, August 28, 1995.

[6] Paul C. Schuytema, “What Cost Freedom,” Compute! Magazine, September 1993.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at

Tracing Black Mothers’ Love: Reconstruction-Era Reunification and DH Possibilities

Tracing Black Mothers’ Love: Reconstruction-Era Reunification and DH Possibilities

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of digital humanities (DH) projects and accessible digital tools for those locked out of traditional archival repositories.  The recent and expanding democratization of archival materials, moreover, has introduced new possibilities for researching African American reunification efforts as an embodied application of Civil War memory. Both the Lost Friends and Last Seen DH projects, for instance, showcase the advertisements placed by African Americans seeking to reunite with families separated by slavery and the Civil War and amplified the conclusions of Heather A. Williams’s Help Me to Find My People (2012).[1] When combined with other digital collections and non-digital scholarship, these projects have expanded the possibilities for scholars and descendants to answer old, as well as new, questions. For instance, how do race, gender, class, and place influence black mothers’ use of memory in their efforts to reunite with loved ones taken during wartime campaigns at the Pennsylvania-Maryland border?

During an October 1862 slaving raid, several African American men were taken from Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and eventually returned after white community leaders secured their release. “Negroes Driven South by the Rebel Officers,” Harper’s Weekly, November 8, 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

DH projects can reveal one Franklin County, Pennsylvania mother’s deployment of Civil War memory in her reunification efforts. Using resources commonly associated with newly emancipated southern African Americans, Priscilla Marshall made claims of citizenship by seeking justice for the wartime enslavement of her children in Virginia. In effect, Marshall’s application of Civil War memory transcended physical boundaries, gender expectations, and notions of belonging. Digital tools illuminate her efforts.

Following Confederate defeat, black Pennsylvanians attempted to reunite with their family members enslaved during several Confederate Army raids. Some turned to state officials for assistance but to no avail. A state commission would only accept claims for property either damaged or lost (i.e. livestock, crops, business expenses, and household goods).[2] Excluded from state resources, black Pennsylvanian women relied on federal resources for southern freedpeople, the black press, and postwar communal networks. In so doing, they directly applied Civil War memory in their struggle for reunification and rebuffed state officials’ demands to forget the civilian trauma endured. Some women placed the newspaper advertisements now contained in the Last Seen and Lost Friends DH projects. They firmly understood that their efforts might be “rarely fulfilled but the possibility kept them hoping, and intermittent stories of success kept them encouraged.”[3] Yet, hope, memory of loved ones, and the possibility of reunification served as the greatest motivator for their efforts.

Instead of placing advertisements, Priscilla Marshall used the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in Virginia (the Freedmen’s Bureau). The Pennsylvanian mother, like countless southern black women,  “chose to use the apparatus of the Union Army and the strategy of claiming national inclusion to maneuver for a better life and to construct a civic existence.”[4] The Freedmen’s Bureau courts, local agent offices, and even state headquarters served as a venue for justice and restitution where the Pennsylvania Claims Office could not.

Marshall found success. Actively remembering their wartime enslavement, she appealed for her three children–Rosa, Sallie, and Jack–taken during the Gettysburg Campaign.[5] Initially encountering unsympathetic Freedmen’s Bureau agents, Marshall fiercely resisted. She escalated her claim to General Orlando Brown, head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia. She also secured and presented witness statements to General Brown in April 1866.[6] As a result, she reconnected with two of her three children who had been enslaved in the Shenandoah Valley. Her digitally accessible letters also reveal how much the mother fought with the agency for reunification. According to two March 1866 letters, Marshall refused to accept any transportation assistance from the federal agency.  Instead, she secured her own travel arrangements for her children with a black woman whom she trusted.  She also expressed hope that her children could assist in locating Rosa. While failing in this effort, the 1870 federal census revealed that her restored family remained intact. Throughout her struggles, the Pennsylvanian mother redefined postwar citizenship according to her gendered notions of freedom and successfully applied Civil War memory in the reunification of her family. Her success continued to encourage other black Pennsylvanian mothers to not give up hope. Previously outside of the collective consciousness, the combination of older and new DH tools has made visible the archival traces of one mother’s love and application of Civil War memory for scholars, educators, and descendant communities alike.[7]

Priscilla Marshall’s reunification efforts, therefore, demonstrates the promise of DH projects and accessible digital tools for asking new questions and creating new insights on the post-emancipation experience. While not perfect, interesting and potentially exciting opportunities for deepening our understanding race, gender, and Civil War memory abound. Whose experience might be rediscovered when DH projects are actively used during and beyond this current crisis? Beyond their teaching utility, how might DH projects influence future Civil War era scholarship?


[1] Williams Research Center, Lost Friends: Advertisements from the Southwestern Christian Advocate, The Historic New Orleans Collection,; Villanova University, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, 2017,; Heather A. Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012).
[2] While Priscilla Marshall did not file a claim, other Franklin County residents did. Successful applicants received restitution for real property only. None of the few claims of personhood received restitution. For all claims, see Damage Claim Applications for Cumberland and Franklin Counties, 1871-1879, Records of the Department of the Auditor General, RG-2, roll 6161, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
[3] “Information wanted of Rose Jackson,” The Christian Recorder, August 14, 1869, Last Seen, accessed April 26, 2020,; Williams, 168.
[4] Sharon Romeo, Gender and the Jubilee: Black Freedom and the Reconstruction of Citizenship in Civil War Missouri (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 3.
[5] “Albert Ordway to Orlando Brown, February 1, 1866,” Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, accessed April 26, 2020, and “Priscilla Marshall to Orlando Brown, April 4, 1866,” Valley of the Shadow, accessed April 26, 2020, Her son’s name is inconsistently noted as Jack in some records and Zack in other records. Despite this inconsistency, his parentage, age, enslavement, and postwar return is accurately documented.
[6] “Priscilla Marshall to Orlando Brown, April 4, 1866.”
[7] “Priscilla Marshall to H. S. Merrill, March 18, 1866” and “Ann Gibbons to H. S. Merrill, March 18, 1866,” Registers of Letters Received, vol. 1, Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872, FamilySearch,; “Marshall, Priscilla,” in Ninth Census of the United States, 1870, Population Schedules,; Romeo, 81-84.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

Author Interview: Evelyn Atkinson

Author Interview: Evelyn Atkinson

Today we share an interview with Evelyn Atkinson, who published an article in our special issue on the Fourteenth Amendment in March 2020, titled “Slaves, Coolies, and Shareholders: Corporations Claim the Fourteenth Amendment.” Evelyn is a doctoral fellow at the American Bar Foundation and Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Chicago. She received her J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School and her B.A. in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. Evelyn’s work focuses on the history of corporate personhood in the nineteenth century, particularly the relationship between popular claims for corporate accountability and the development of the legal doctrine of corporate constitutional personhood. Her scholarly publications have appeared in Law & Social Inquiry, Law and History Review, Yale Journal of Law & Humanities, and Harvard Journal of Law & Gender. She is the recipient of the Fishel-Calhoun Article Prize from the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as well as the Law & Social Inquiry Graduate Student Paper Competition Prize, for her article, “Creating the Reasonable Child: Risk, Responsibility, and the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine.”

Thank you so much, Evelyn, for participating in this exciting special issue and for speaking with us about your research. How did you initially come across this court case that forms the centerpiece of your article?

I discovered the case, In re Tiburcio Parrott, really as part of an educated guess. I noticed that in corporate constitutional rights cases of this time there seemed to be a number of references to cases involving Chinese litigants, and I got curious. So I traced the citations back and discovered that they all seemed to be rooted in this particular case. And I wondered how could this be, that the court is making this very explicit comparison between Chinese laborers and wealthy corporations. I had read a bit about Chinese labor on the West Coast in this period and wondered if there wasn’t some sort of connection in the public mind that helped the court draw this analogy. So I started down this rabbit hole and sure enough, I uncovered the In re Tiburcio Parrott case.

Since many of our readers are not legal historians, before we go much further, can you quickly explain what the “In re” in In re Tiburcio Parrott means? What kind of court case was this?

In this instance, “In re” designates a habeas corpus case.  Habeas corpus is a constitutional right that allows prisoners to challenge their imprisonment in front of a judicial tribunal. Importantly, the writ was used to protect African Americans during Reconstruction with the Judiciary Act of 1867, which gave federal courts the power to hear habeas cases from people who had been detained under state law.  So there’s an incongruity here in the Parrott case – a right that very recently had been expanded in order to protect freed people from discriminatory state laws is now being used by the director of a wealthy corporation.

Thank you! That explanation is helpful. As you dug into your research, what questions guided your investigation, and what do you ultimately argue in the article?

The question that I’m most interested in involves the relationship between public discourse and the law. I ask how the way conflicts are framed in popular culture, such as via newspapers and cartoons, as well as in political forums like state legislative debates and constitutional convention records, plays into the way the lawyers present their arguments in court and the way the judges ultimately write their opinions. This connection between Chinese immigrants and corporations started out as a hunch, and as I researched I found more and more evidence that indeed, the popular and political conversations around Chinese immigrants and corporations were in fact deeply intertwined. The Parrott case turned out to be the one where they came together explicitly.

My central argument is that cases involving the 14th Amendment claims of Chinese laborers and corporations, like Parrott, were instrumental in establishing the expansive interpretation of the equal protection clause that the Supreme Court endorsed in the late nineteenth century. So in sum, the equal protection clause jurisprudence that provided the gateway for twentieth century constitutional protections of African-Americans, women, LGBT persons, etc. was based on this initial litigation involving Chinese immigrants and corporations. There is an irony here, obviously, that corporate persons obtained robust equal protection rights before freed people. And yet, I would even go so far as to argue that the corporate litigation involving equal protection is ultimately what made robust civil rights protections in the twentieth century possible (though that’s a subject for a future article!).

One of the themes that stood out to me is the tension in American society and jurisprudence between free labor and unfree labor, and how those terms had meanings that were grounded in a local context. In the West, for instance, the reference point was not so much the enslavement of African Americans as it was systems like Mexican peonage or coolie labor. What were the implications of the Parrott case for other groups who continued to experience labor exploitation?

This is a really important and complicated question.  In 1870s-1880s California, popular and political discourse presents Chinese “coolies” as essentially slaves.  The putatively unfree labor of Chinese workers drags down the wages of free white men, the Workingmen claim, which threatens to reduce them to slaves and undermine an American democratic system built on the idea of individual freedom.  Yet in the Parrott case, the federal court doesn’t examine the realities of Chinese labor but holds that Chinese laborers have the constitutional right to contract their labor as they see fit and that state law can’t impinge on that right.  The court also ignores the economic power of the large corporations over actual working conditions, and holds that corporations have the same right to use their property – here, to contract for labor to maximize the value of their property – as individual persons.  This is very similar reasoning to what you see later in the Progressive Era in cases involving minimum wage and maximum hour regulation, that even people who in reality are subject to oppressive working conditions outside their control are deemed to be “free” laborers capable of contracting on an equal footing with their employers regardless of discrepancies in economic power.  So there’s a stark dichotomy between “free” and “unfree” labor in law that ignores the gradations of labor freedom and the realities of inequality in a capitalist labor economy.

On pp. 55 and 56, you frame this story as part of the “Greater Reconstruction.” I think that’s really important. Can you explain how this story about 1880s California helps Civil War historians broaden our understanding of this period? And our understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment more specifically?

It’s striking how rarely historical scholarship on Reconstruction and its aftermath includes the role of corporations – particularly the connections between corporate rights and key questions involving race, personhood, and citizenship in this period. The corporate and Chinese 14th Amendment cases in 1880s California highlight these connections.  As I show, the 14th Amendment opened the door to robust corporate claims of constitutional rights, which in turn influenced how the Amendment was applied to racial and other minorities. The conference that Scott Heerman and Michael Bernath put together on “The Many Fourteenth Amendments” – out of which this special volume of the journal emerged – gave me the chance to argue for the importance of including corporations in the history of the Greater Reconstruction.  I think they were convinced and I hope your readers will be as well.

Thank you again, Evelyn, for participating in this interview! Your work is an excellent example of how Civil War historians can—and should—consider stories that are outside the period between 1861 and 1865. We hope readers will read your entire article.

Thank you! I am glad for the journal’s interest in my work and look forward to many future conversations.

Readers, we hope you’ve enjoyed this interview, and if you have questions for Evelyn, please drop her a line in the comments below! You can access her article by subscribing to the journal or visiting Project Muse.

Welcoming P. Gabrielle Foreman to the Muster Team

Welcoming P. Gabrielle Foreman to the Muster Team

We are pleased to announce the addition of a new correspondent to our Muster team, P. Gabrielle Foreman. Gabrielle recently moved to Penn State from the University of Delaware where she was the founding faculty director of the award-winning Colored Conventions Project. At Penn State, she’ll launch and direct the Center for Black Digital Research. That Center, also called #DigBlk, will house the Colored Conventions Project as well as Douglass Day and the new Black Women’s Organizing Archive. Gabrielle is a poet’s daughter turned literary historian. She is finishing a monograph called The Art of DisMemory: Historicizing Slavery in Poetry, Print and Material Culture as well as an edited collection called Praise Songs for Dave the Potter: Art and Poetry for David Drake about the enslaved master poet and potter whose work appears in museums across North America. The volume The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, the first collection on this early Civil Rights movement that spanned seven decades, is forthcoming with UNC Press. For Muster, she’ll be writing about digital and distributed archive building, nineteenth-century Black organizing, Black memory and the arts, and Black history’s continued hold on the present. Gabrielle holds an endowed chair in Liberal Arts and is Professor of English, African American Studies and History as well as affiliate faculty at the Penn State University Library. She’ll be the Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American Antiquarian Society in 2021-2022.

Defending Residents Abroad: The Almost Abduction of Martin Koszta in Smyrna

Defending Residents Abroad: The Almost Abduction of Martin Koszta in Smyrna

Since 1950, the United States has maintained the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, headquartered today in Naples, to protect U.S. interests. The fleet has been instrumental in recent struggles against ISIS. However, the U.S. presence in the Mediterranean is as old as the country. Thomas Jefferson had dispatched ships to the region to deal with the Barbary Pirate state of Tripoli in 1801. When Europe’s great power framework briefly disintegrated during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the United States seemed poised to take advantage of this European distraction and make the country’s presence felt in the region, defending its citizens abroad.

We often think today of the United States’s role and involvement in the world as a modern phenomenon, as its aircraft carrier groups plow the world’s oceans to project the country’s imperial ambitions. However, the United States was not as isolationist in the nineteenth century as popular myth wants us to think. What almost transpired in the port of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in 1853, when a U.S. warship attacked the warship of another country in violation of international law, may sound familiar to Civil War era historians. In October 1864, the commander of the Wachusett attacked and captured the C.S.S. Florida in Brazil’s neutral port of Salvador, Bahia province.[1] We tend to treat the Bahia incident as unusual, but the events in Smyrna illustrate the continuity of a belligerent U.S. gunboat diplomacy to protect U.S. interests and citizens/residents abroad.

Furthermore, the current administration has done little to protect U.S. nationals overseas. There is the recent reluctance to defend U.S. citizens and permanent residents abroad and to bring assassins to justice, such as in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. permanent resident. The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought many news stories regarding the failure of the State Department to repatriate U.S. citizens stranded abroad. However, it might be worth remembering the lengths to which the United States went to defend and protect citizens and residents abroad in the 1850s. History can illustrate the normal and abnormal of our modern situation.

Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), c. 1860-1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On June 21, 1853, Martin Koszta, having recently returned from a trip to Constantinople, was attacked and abducted from Cristo’s café in Smyrna by a group of armed ruffians hired by the Austrian consul general, Peter Ritter von Weckbecker. They threw Koszta into a boat waiting at the quay and rowed to the Austrian brig E. K. Hussar. Koszta was in a peculiar situation, since only two years earlier, a similar incident had ended with the “bullet-ridden body” of an abducted Hungarian appearing in an alley in Trieste.[2] Abductions were a scheme the Austrians had developed shortly after the Hungarian uprising (1848-1849).

During the uprising, Koszta had joined the Hungarian nationalists and served in the Hungarian army. After the revolution’s defeat, Koszta went into exile in the United States. He made his declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen in July 1852. For about a year, he worked various jobs around New York. Then, before obtaining a passport and citizenship, he went on this fateful trip to the Ottoman Empire.[3]

When he heard of Koszta’s abduction, Edward S. Offley, the U.S. consul in Smyrna, faced a dilemma. He knew that Weckbecker had orchestrated the abduction, but Offley had no U.S. naval support to demand Koszta’s release.[4] Nevertheless, he had to find a way to protect the Hungarian from Austrian repressions.

Watercolor of the sloop U.S.S. St. Louis by Gunner Moses Lane. Painted between 1852 and 1855. Courtesy of the Hissem-Montague Family Genealogy Page.

Luckily, the next day, the U.S.S. St. Louis under the command of Duncan N. Ingraham arrived in Smyrna. Only a few days earlier, the St. Louis had assisted U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire George P. Marsh in Athens, protecting the interests of a U.S. missionary.[5] Once the ship put into port, Offley came on board and informed Ingraham of the recent developments.[6] The consul and the naval officer went to Captain August von Schwarz of the Hussar to interrogate Koszta. They were uncertain if his documents stating his intention to become a citizen of the United States were sufficient for them to demand his release from the Austrians.[7] They decided to await instructions from Constantinople.

The U.S. chargé d’affaires John P. Brown, and Austrian minister Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Bruck in Constantinople, had to negotiate the delicate citizenship question involved with Austria claiming that Koszta had “never ceased to be a subject.”[8]

Ever since the creation of the United States, the country had to protect its naturalized citizens abroad against European assumptions that a person never ceased to be a subject. These legal problems underlay the impressment issue that eventually contributed to the War of 1812. By the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. representatives often had to protect citizens against unfulfilled military service demands in their home states. These legal questions of citizenship remained contentious and required much work of U.S. representatives.

However, Brown quickly realized that the Austrian minister stalled to remove Koszta on the next Lloyd steamer to Trieste. As a precaution, Ingraham moved the St. Louis between the Hussar and the Lloyd steamer, loading his cannons in a blatant violation of Ottoman neutrality.[9] Ingraham issued an ultimatum to Schwarz to hand over Koszta, or the St. Louis would open fire and forcefully remove the Hungarian. To avoid such an outcome, Offley and Weckbecker came to a last-minute agreement placing Koszta in French custody until the legations in Constantinople could sort out the legal question of Koszta’s citizenship.[10]

Photograph of George Perkins Marsh of Vermont. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Desiring a quick settlement, on August 4, 1853, Marsh, who had recently returned from Athens, suggested to the Austrian minister that the consuls should put Koszta on the next vessel departing for the United States. If Koszta left the ship in any European port and terminated his passage, he would forfeit the protection of the United States and Austria could do with him as she desired.[11] The Austrian legation submitted the offer to Vienna for consideration, and on September 14, Marsh reported their approval.[12] After a brief delay, Koszta was on a ship to the United States.[13]

In the 1850s, trigger-happy naval commanders and diligent diplomatic representatives stood ready to defend U.S. citizens and their rights abroad. Where usually the defense of citizen rights involved lengthy diplomatic exchanges and elaborate legal arguments of the difference between subject and citizen, rarely did naval commanders bring the United States to the brink of war with another European country. Considering his origin, Koszta was lucky that the U.S.S. St. Louis prevented his abduction and murder by the Austrian authorities. Unfortunately, more recently, Jamal Khashoggi was not so lucky, nor are thousands of U.S. citizens stranded abroad. In times of great aberration, it is worth remembering that there was a time where the United States was willing to take on a great power to protect the life and liberty of its people abroad.


[1] Craig L. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 102-103.

[2] Griffith to Brown, June 24, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Andor Klay, Daring Diplomacy: The Case of the First American Ultimatum (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957), 20-36.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Klay, Daring Diplomacy, 40-44.

[5] Angelo Repousis, “‘The Devil’s Apostle’: Jonas King’s Trial against the Greek Hierarchy in 1852 and the Pressure to Extend U.S. Protection for American Missionaries Overseas,” Diplomatic History 33 (November 2009): 807-37.

[6] Griffith to Brown, June 24, 1853, and Ingraham to Dobbin, June 24, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA. While John Griffith writes in his report that he informed Ingraham of the developments, Ingraham relates that he arrived on June 23 and not June 22 as the consul implies, and that he sent for the consul to get accurate information. These inconsistencies do not distract from the main narrative, which is similar.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bruck to Brown June 27, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[9] March to Webster, August 21, 1852, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[10] Offley to Brown, June 30, 1853, Offley and Weckbecker to Pichon, July 2, 1843, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[11] Marsh to Marcy, August 4, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[12] Marsh to Marcy, September 14, 1853, Ibid.

[13] Marsh to Marcy, October 20, 1853, Ibid.

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War, was published by LSU Press in 2019. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

John Sherman’s Struggle to Preserve Democracy: How 1860 Connects to 2020

John Sherman’s Struggle to Preserve Democracy: How 1860 Connects to 2020

This is not the first time in American history when democratic governance appeared to be under assault. In the years before the Civil War, just as today, minority rule was the norm. White Southerners dominated the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party dominated the federal government. In this way, what Republicans derisively dubbed the “Slave Power”—a small minority of aristocratic slaveholders—managed to maintain its grip in a country that increasingly viewed slavery as an obstacle to national progress. But in 1860, a juncture point was reached. Republicans appeared ready to break the Democratic stranglehold. And that is what brought John Sherman to Philadelphia.

Photograph of John Sherman, c. 1855-1865, from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A high-profile member of the U.S. House from Ohio, Sherman arrived at Philadelphia’s National Hall on Wednesday evening, September 12, 1860. He was escorted to the stage by uniformed “Republican Invincibles” who marched in “military order” and held aloft “four silken banners” as the band played “Hail Columbia.” A huge throng “rapturously” greeted the visitor and responded to his speech with “almost deafening” shouts and applause. It was “a reception we have seldom seen accorded to any politician,” reported the Philadelphia Press.[1]

Sherman’s rock-star status resulted in part from an epic two-month brawl the previous winter when Republicans attempted to make him Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.[2] That contest, he recalled, unfolded amid “wild confusion” as desperate Southerners tried to block him. He finally gave way to a different Republican, who eked out just enough support to prevail. But it had been a close call. “You know very well,” Sherman reminded the crowd, “that nothing but the extreme moderation, prudent forbearance, and good temper of the Republican party, saved the country from scenes that not only would have been disgraceful, but would have endangered the existence of the Government itself.” If potential disunionists could obstruct the selection of “an officer infinitely inferior in dignity and importance to the President,” it was imperative that a decisive popular vote determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.[3]

American voters faced three actual choices, Sherman insisted. Only the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, could win an electoral college majority “by the direct vote of the people.” None of Lincoln’s three rivals—Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, or Constitutional Unionist John Bell—had any comparable hope. If Lincoln failed to secure an electoral college majority, the next president either would be selected by the U.S. House, through “trade and barter” to cobble together “an unnatural combination of hostile elements,” or, more likely, by the Democratic-dominated U.S. Senate, which would perpetuate the disgraced Buchanan administration and keep the South in power. Rule-or-ruin Southerners who had threatened to “break up the Union” if they did not get their own way, Sherman warned, would dictate the Senate outcome.[4]

It was widely assumed that Pennsylvania held the key to the election. Two years before, Republicans there had adopted the “People’s Party” label and rode the protective tariff issue to victory.[5] If they could duplicate this success, their electoral college majority would be within reach. But were they to fall short, a paralyzing deadlock would result, removed from the will of the people. A ballot for Lincoln offered the “one line of safety,” Sherman insisted, for voters who cared about democratic governance.

This humorous cartoon of Lincoln the Railsplitter appeared in Vanity Fair, September 1, 1860. The author thanks Jack Furniss for providing a copy.

Was there any danger that Southerners might follow through on their disunion threats if Lincoln were elected? Sherman thought not. He surmised that Southern malcontents were bluffing. Four years of a Republican administration would convince them that “all we wish is to preserve our own rights,” not to disturb theirs. Republicans, like the Founding Fathers, would exclude slavery from the free states and the territories, but they would not interfere with it in states where it already existed. A Republican president’s fair dealing would expose as baseless the scare-mongering that had been “disseminated through the Southern States.” Sherman’s older brother, William Tecumseh Sherman, remained an obscure schoolmaster as of 1860.[6]

Our situation today offers parallels to 1860. Then as now, an entrenched but shrinking minority exercises vast power. Today’s Republican party, writes Ezra Klein, founder of the Vox website, “has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters,” many of whom harbor “apocalyptic” fears about losing the next election. Like John Sherman, Klein thinks more democracy is the antidote to our current impasse. He finds the fears of today’s Republicans as farfetched as the fears of Southern Democrats in 1860. But he knows that today’s two parties have become so unlike that they tend to see the worst in each other. Democrats have become “more diverse, urban, young and secular.” They and Republicans no longer share the same sources of information and their ideological outlooks have become starkly juxtaposed.[7]

As matters now stand, Klein concludes, the Republican Party “sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future.” It likely will “use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.” It may continue to win the presidency “despite rarely winning the popular vote” and may continue to control the Senate and sometimes the House “despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats.” Brass-knuckled Republican dominance of the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court will “buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering, pro-corporate campaign finance laws, strict voter identification requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance.” What looms, according to Klein, is “a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system.”[8]

Something similar came to a head in 1860. Voters in the free states pushed back against the South’s disproportionate power. Republican gains terrified white Southern Democrats, whose closed system of information depicted the “Black Republican” Lincoln as John Brown in disguise and saw his victory as a deadly menace. But Republicans scoffed at the panic in the South. They wanted to win an election and drive the Democrats from office, not trigger a war. They hoped white Southerners eventually would decide that free labor was more productive than slave labor, but they had no abolition blueprint and no inclination to seek revolutionary change. They refused to take seriously Southern threats “to break up the Union rather than accept a Republican president.”[9]

We must hope that today’s American political system isn’t comparably brittle. Nobody wants the violent sequel that followed the 1860 election. Today’s Democrats, Klein suggests, should keep following the blueprint that served them well in 2018. By appealing to voters who remain in the middle, Democrats will increase their chances of winning and may also deflate the sky-is-falling hysteria that afflicts so many of our fellow citizens. The struggles to preserve democracy—and to restore “dignity and decency” to the White House, in Amy Klobuchar’s words—appear certain to make the now unfolding presidential contest one of the most hard-fought and fateful in our history.


[1] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860.

[2] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1846-1861, completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 385-91; Roy Franklin Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 271-76.

[3] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860.

[4] The one-state, one-vote system specified by the Constitution portended a House stalemate. The Senate then would probably have made Oregon Senator Joseph Lane the acting president. Lane, a Buchanan administration stalwart, was the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket fielded by Southern Democrats. See Potter, Impending Crisis, 436-38.

[5] U.S. railroad construction had boomed during the mid-1850s, creating heavy demand for Pennsylvania’s iron and anthracite coal. But a sharp economic reversal started in late 1857 and fell with particular severity on Pennsylvania, leaving many workingmen destitute. House Republicans voted as a solid bloc in 1860 to raise tariff rates on imported iron, but their bill was stifled by free-trade Senate Democrats. “Honest Abe,” promised one of Sherman’s House colleagues, would “relight the fires of your furnaces and revive the music of your forges.” Philadelphia Press, September 10, 1860. The speaker was Ohio’s Thomas Corwin.

[6] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860; John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 123-39.

[7] Ezra Klein, “Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, but Republicans Don’t,” New York Times Sunday Review, January 26, 2020,

[8] Klein’s influential essay, quoted here, summarizes his book: Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020).

[9] The definitive study of the Republican Party’s beginnings is William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). The interpretation here of Republican intentions reflects Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978), 216-17, and Michael F. Holt, The Election of 1860: “A Campaign Fraught with Consequences” (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017), 162.

Daniel W. Crofts

Dan Crofts has long studied the North-South sectional crisis that led to the Civil War. His 2016 book, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (UNC), was awarded the University of Virginia’s Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History. His recent essay, “Ending Slavery and Limiting Democracy: Sidney George Fisher and the American Civil War” in the January 2020 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, previews his work-in-progress on Pennsylvania politics during the Civil War era.

Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate

Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate

In his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, the philosopher Avishai Margalit argues that “we should be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.”[1] The essence of popular government rests on the idea that compromise is not only necessary, but that it is a positive function in promoting the interests of the public good. Margalit warns, however, that political compromises can easily lead to immoral and violent outcomes. He defines a “rotten political compromise” as one that helps “establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation . . . that does not treat humans as humans.”[2] This provocative definition might compel students of nineteenth-century U.S. history to consider numerous instances of political compromise when slaveholders’ interests were perpetuated in the interest of national harmony.

One such moment that I have been studying more lately is the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As we approach the 200th anniversary of this crucial legislation, I have taken an interest in studying figures who refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s existence in the new state of Missouri. In particular, I have been fascinated by the responses of a small number of Missourians who unsuccessfully fought to ban slavery in the state.

A Map of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Missouri Compromise story is well-known to nineteenth-century historians. A bill on Missouri statehood was first brought up for debate in Congress on December 18, 1818. Fearing the rapid spread of slavery into new western territories, Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed a plan to gradually end slavery in Missouri. Any black Missourians born after statehood would be free and the remaining enslaved population in the state would be gradually emancipated over time. Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois proposed a further amendment to ban slavery north and west of Missouri in other territories that were part of the Louisiana Purchase, a precursor to the final legislation that Congress would eventually pass.[3]

These proposals caused such a furor among proslavery politicians—not least Missouri’s own proslavery leaders—that the Missouri statehood bill failed to pass before Congress adjourned in March 1819. John Scott, Missouri’s non-voting representative in Congress, complained that his prospective state was entitled to the “rights, privileges, and immunities enjoyed the other states.” Dismissing earlier Congressional legislation banning slavery in the Northwest Territory, Scott argued that as long as a republican form of government for white men was established in Missouri, Congress could not interfere any further. If Congress could ban slavery in Missouri, it could also establish “what religion the people should subscribe . . . and to provide for the excommunication of all those who [do] not subscribe.” Slavery had existed in Missouri territory for one hundred years at that point and should be allowed to exist moving forward, according to Scott.[4]

A minority of white Missourians opposed slavery and refused to compromise on the issue, however. Through the spring and summer of 1819, a vigorous debate about slavery in Missouri occurred in the pages of the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, the first newspaper to be published west of the Mississippi River. Published by Joseph Charless, an anti-slavery Irish immigrant who Meriwether Lewis had urged to settle in St. Louis, the Missouri Gazette published a series of antislavery letters by an anonymous writer that went by the name “A Farmer of St. Charles County.”[5]

“A Farmer of St. Charles County” began his correspondence with the newspaper on April 7th. He complained that territorial laws often referred to the “inhabitants” being given the same rights as U.S. citizens, but that only white men truly enjoyed those rights. Taken literally, “the word ‘inhabitants’ would comprehend every individual of the human race, whatever might be his color” could claim the right of citizenship. The farmer then complained that the slave state simultaneously complained about their “species of property which they have found troublesome and dangerous to keep at home.” Why would Missouri choose to indulge in such a danger any further? Slaveholders, according to the St. Charles farmer, became greedy, lazy, and prone to vices like “gambling, drinking, and dueling.” Only the spirit of the Declaration of Independence could correct slavery’s wrongs.[6]

Joseph Charless, antislavery editor of the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The farmer continued his letters by arguing that restricting slavery’s growth could eventually lead to its eventual demise. Restriction would “reduce the price of slaves in the slave states, and make their owners more willing to emancipate” and perhaps colonize them to Africa. Slavery was the “foulest blot on our national character” and created an unfair economic advantage for slaveholders. Finally, the farmer correctly predicted that “Virginia and Kentucky will grow an abundance of negroes. [The excess] must be sold or emancipated, for it would not do to let them remain in those states. Therefore they want a market for them in Missouri. They know that slavery is a curse, and they want us to have a share in that curse, and to pay them well for it besides.”[7] Another anonymous farmer, inspired by the St. Charles farmer’s letters, wrote to the Missouri Gazette wondering what proslavery thinkers would say if Congress passed a law requiring that “the people of Missouri should never make any laws prohibiting or restricting slavery,” even if it was against the interests of Missourians. Would such laws respect states’ rights and the spirit of popular government?[8]

Another significant moment occurred in St. Ferdinand, St. Louis County, in June. Antislavery residents there passed a series of resolutions arguing against slavery in Missouri. “Slavery is contrary to the term freedom, and is also contrary to the laws of nature” and “one of the greatest evils we have to regret at this present day in the United States,” they argued. Slavery’s continued growth would “eventually end in an entailed hereditary misery on our future prosperity, and bring upon us their just censure, as well as the judgment of a just, but angry God.”[9]

These antislavery appeals in the Missouri Gazette failed to greatly change public opinion. Several people wrote to Charless accusing the St. Charles farmer of not actually being a farmer or a St. Charles resident, since no one in that town could so oppose the right to own enslaved laborers. Leading territorial politicians such as Alexander McNair and Thomas Hart Benton held public meetings against any compromises with antislavery politicians. Both made the self-serving argument that expanding slavery to Missouri was preferred by enslaved blacks, because the future state’s lands were not suitable for cotton growth. Slaves would be treated better and welcome the chance to work on a small-scale farm rather than a giant plantation further south. When McNair and Benton were elected as delegates to a state constitutional convention in 1820, they helped author a clause that would have banned free black settlement in the state, although Speaker of the House Henry Clay later asked that Missouri not enforce this clause before Congress accepted the new constitution.[10]

Article II, Section 26 of the Missouri Constitution, which banned free black settlement in Missouri. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

In the end, Clay engineered a compromise that gave a little to both sides of the divide. Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state while Maine would come in as a free state, setting the precedent of balancing free and slave territories when adding new states to the Union. Territory north of the 36˚30′ parallel would be free of slavery (excluding Missouri) while territory south would be allowed to establish it. While both sides at the time found room to criticize the Missouri Compromise, the legislation became sacrosanct in the minds of antislavery thinkers like Abraham Lincoln thirty years later. Criticizing the law’s repeal by Congress in 1854, Lincoln argued that the Compromise protected the “sacred right of self-government” and that its repeal guaranteed the “sacred right of taking slaves to Nebraska” and other western territories.[11] Replacing the Missouri Compromise with the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” soon ushered the creation of the Republican Party and eventually the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 worth it, or was it a “rotten compromise” that compromised the nation’s values? In the minds of antislavery Missourians, it was not the “Missouri Compromise,” but “Missouri Compromised.”


[1] Avishai Margalit, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 5.

[2] Margalit, 2.

[3] See Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood, 1804-1821 (Jefferson City: The Hugh Stephens Printing Co., 1916).

[4] “Remarks of Mr. Scott, of Missouri,” Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 12, 1819.

[5] “Joseph Charless (1772-1834),” The State Historical Society of Missouri, 2020, accessed February 29, 2020,

[6] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 7, 1819.

[7] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 19, 1819.

[8] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 21, 1819; “A Farmer of St. Louis County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, June 9, 1819.

[9] “For the Missouri Gazette,” Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, June 23, 1819.

[10] “Sydney,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 14, 1819; “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 19, 1819; Shoemaker, Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood, 84-88; “The Second Missouri Compromise,” Last Best Hope of Earth, March 28, 2016, accessed March 1, 2020,; Junius P. Rodriguez, The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia (New York: ABC-CLIO, 2002), 229.

[11] “Speech on the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, October 16, 1854,” Teaching American History, 2020, accessed March 1, 2020,

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at

A War for Settler Colonialism

A War for Settler Colonialism

Today on Muster we share the first post from our recent addition to the correspondent team, Paul Barba. Paul is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University who studies slaving violence in the Texas borderlands. He will be writing on the Civil War in the West. Welcome, Paul!

In a brief 2017 Civil War Times article on the West during the Civil War, esteemed Civil War historian Gary W. Gallagher argued that “the Trans-Mississippi Theater, which included noteworthy military and political action primarily in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, lagged far behind the Western and Eastern theaters in significance.” This insignificance, he noted, was most evident when it came to wartime decisions regarding resource allocation, as “neither the United States nor the Confederacy made it [the Trans-Mississippian Theater] a priority.” The net result, he claimed, was that “events on the margins of the theater, such as Henry Hopkins Sibley’s quixotic foray into New Mexico in 1862, scarcely rise to the level of inconsequential.” As Professor Gallagher would have you believe, for the Civil War enthusiast there’s nothing worth seeing “out west.”[1]

Professor Gallagher’s views of this period are, like those of so many other Civil War historians, Anglo-centric. Although Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis may not have fixated on the outcomes of “quixotic forays” into New Mexico the way they obsessed over military victories in the Chesapeake or even along the Mississippi, the violence that reverberated back and forth across the West during the 1860s (and after) was no less profound – or consequential – for the Indigenous peoples of North America. Interpretive scope matters. If we isolate the Civil War as strictly a moment of disjuncture, a completely unique and extraordinary event, we fail to appreciate how the North-South affair simply escalated forces already in motion. A focus on the West, where Indigenous, Black, and Hispanic people contended with White American visionaries’ plots for their nation’s future, requires scholars to think capaciously about the Civil War’s significance. From this perspective, events out west were not simply “noteworthy”; they were emblematic.

Indigenous studies scholars have argued that the history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism, “whereby an imperial power seizes Native territory, eliminates the original people by force, and resettles the land with a foreign, invading population.” Settler colonialism, Nick Estes has argued, “calls for the annihilation of Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human kin”; it is a historical structure that demands Indigenous destruction, resource extraction, and settler colonial dominion.[2] The history of the Civil War does not exist outside of this longer history of U.S. colonialism. If we appreciate the Civil War as more than an “event” – but instead a pronounced moment of acute violence within a broader chain of structural violence – “the West” no longer appears marginal or “inconsequential.”[3] Rather, the West emerges as an equally important arena in the fight for settler colonialism’s future. We might, therefore, rethink the Civil War as the violent contest over visions of the implementation of conquest.

U.S. presidential election propaganda, 1856. The cartoon was an indictment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It also trafficked in anti-Indigenous stereotypes. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As generations of scholars have noted, the future of the West was at the heart of the sectional crisis. Rightfully, scholars have spotlighted the political, cultural, moral, and economic salience of slavery in explaining the sectional wedge that formed within White America during the mid-nineteenth century. Anti-Blackness – whether it be of the xenophobic variety of “Free Labor” advocates, who worked tirelessly to forge an all-White western utopia, or of the exploitative variety of slaveholders and their proxies, who wanted to extend their regime of violence and terror against enslaved people westward – drove mid-century White visions of the West. The political controversies of Texas and Mexican cession, the founding of California, and the Kansas crisis all exposed how diverging White assumptions about the West’s future fomented sectionalism in the United States. Of course, any frank (White) assessment of the West presumed the eventual – if not inevitable – conquest or displacement of Native peoples, as westward settler expansion (by slaveholders, Free Soilers, and others) necessitated the “emptying” or “freeing” of Native lands. And this is to say nothing of the “stars” of the Civil War who, like Robert E. Lee, earned their stripes in the violent gauntlets of the West.

Recent scholarship on the West during the Civil War (i.e., when westerners supposedly were not “made a priority”) has brought into stark relief the stakes of the Civil War’s reverberating violence. In Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands (2017), Andrew Masich has detailed the convergence of western and eastern, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Anglo, “martial credos” – a convergence that ultimately gave way to a distinctly Anglo penchant for “wars of extermination.” Megan Kate Nelson has situated the military concerns of Unionists and Confederates, who viewed the West as a thoroughfare for commerce, a key domain for resource extraction, and recruiting grounds for soldiers, within the broader context of Indigenous campaigns to defend their homelands. The political ramifications of the Civil War were especially important. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out, “In the midst of war, Lincoln did not forget his free-soiler settler constituency that had raised him to the presidency.” (The Homestead Act of 1862 is perhaps the greatest example of how White easterners, at the expense of Indigenous people, grafted onto the West the fate of their nation during the war.) And then there were the obvious episodes of U.S.-led genocide, with Colonel John Chivington’s 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people being the most notorious.[4] Although few authors have sought to emphasize explicitly the Civil War’s role in escalating settler colonial development, their studies make it abundantly clear that the Civil War did not represent a pause in the ongoing process of Indigenous genocide and dispossession in North America. Instead, it was, like virtually every other U.S. war prior, a jolt of energy for the next phase of anti-Indigenous devastation.[5]

War Bonnet, Standing in the Water, Lean Bear, Yellow Wolf, and others, at the White House Conservatory, March 27, 1863. Yellow Wolfe would be among those massacred by Colonel Chivington and his followers at Sand Creek in November 1864. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Studies that carry the narrative into the post-Civil War period only further highlight the historical connections between the western sphere and the North-South, Atlantic seaboard heartland.[6] Black liberation fighters during the war forced the emancipationist hands of White Northern politicians, but even the momentous Thirteenth Amendment would not remain solely an eastern-facing mechanism for abolition and social transformation. In the West, where various forms of bondage had thrived, legally and extra-legally, under multiple regimes of power for centuries, the fight for emancipation would appear no less contested or uncertain than it was in the East.[7] As William S. Kiser has demonstrated in Borderlands of Slavery (2017), the persistence of slavery in places like New Mexico frustrated White American reformers, who in response “effectively expanded the scope of the Thirteenth Amendment.”[8] Thus even federal government policy was not unilateral; rather, it emerged in dialogue with events and conversations originating in western contexts. Just as important, however, was the reality that expanded federal powers – whether through emancipationist policies or a beefed-up military apparatus – also expanded the capacity and speed of U.S. colonialism.[9]

If anything, scholarship on the West will continue to usher in the next wave of groundbreaking scholarship on the Civil War. Because “the West” has been, since the earliest days of European colonialism, a nebulous construct (part natural, part geographical, part political, and part imaginary), those who study it tend to be methodologically flexible. We search for connections that transcend conventional periodizations and geographical parameters and look beyond Anglo-centric narratives that assume all “meaningful” histories originate from White population centers.[10] Clearly, the Civil War need not be understood solely as a contest among easterners; its sinews and legacies extended far and wide. Indigenous voices, above all, are testament to that fact.


[1] Gary W. Gallagher, “Out West,” HistoryNet, August 2017, Megan Kate Nelson, Adam Arenson, and Andrew R. Graybill also have criticized Gallagher for his dismissive remarks about the West during the Civil War. See Megan Kate Nelson, “Why the Civil War West Mattered (and Still Does),” Historista, June 29, 2017,; Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 8-9.

[2] Nick Estes, Our History if the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019), 16, 89-90; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 20), 2; Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387-93. Also see the posts of my fellow Muster correspondent, Dr. Michelle Cassidy,

[3] Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, eds., On Violence: A Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 14.

[4] Andrew Masich, Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861-1867 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), 13-17; Megan Kate Nelson, The Three Cornered-War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (New York: Scribner, 2020), xiii-xx; Dunbar-Ortiz, 140; Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[5] For settler colonialism during previous U.S. wars, see Jeffrey Ostler, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[6] Todd W. Wahlstrom’s The Southern Exodus to Mexico: Migration across the Borderlands after the American Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015) has illuminated the West’s importance as a gateway to Confederate visions of post-war survival and resurgence.

[7] Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016); Kristen Epps, Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

[8] William S. Kiser, Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 15-16, 155-69.

[9] On the devastating, if complicated, ramifications of the Five Nations’ mixed participation in the Civil War, see, for instance, Christopher B. Bean, “Who Defines a Nation?: Reconstruction in Indian Territory,” in The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory, ed. Bradley R. Clampitt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 110-26; Fay A. Yarbrough, “‘Dis Land Which Jines Dat of Ole Master’s’: The Meaning of Citizenship for the Choctaw Freedpeople,” in Civil War Wests, 224-36.

[10] Methodological flexibility, I believe, is the hallmark of Borderlands literature. For a conceptual overview, see especially Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (September 2011): 338-61. For a discussion of the methodological flexibility of Western scholars more broadly, see Stacey L. Smith, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, 6, no. 4 (December 2016): 566-91.

Paul Barba

Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the Journal of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos.

When Art and History Collide: Surrender, Civil War Memory, and Public Engagement

When Art and History Collide: Surrender, Civil War Memory, and Public Engagement

Sonya Clark’s exhibit at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Courtesy of Jonathan VanDyke.

From late March to August 2019, the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia showcased the innovative work of Sonya Y. Clark. Known for “Unraveling,” an art piece consisting of a deconstructed Confederate battle flag, the Amherst College professor’s recent works have explored race, symbols and Confederacy, and the nation’s struggle with its legacy of slavery. In the “The Monumental Cloth, the Flag We Should Know” exhibit, Clark reintroduced contemporary museum attendees to another symbol of the Confederacy. The massive truce flag constructed from a humble, waffle-weaved tea cloth measuring 15 feet by 30 feet, and dyed with tea and other natural dyes, forced viewers to contend with one poignant question on the concluding panel: “What if this was the symbol that endured?”[1]

This is a great question that can reframe our understanding of the war’s legacy and illustrate the intersection between academic scholarship and public art. Scholars of Civil War memory have challenged us to reconsider many aspects of the Civil War and its legacy.  For instance, David Silkenat’s Raising the White Flag adds to the conversation.[2] He explores the role of surrender in the Civil War and how its legacy has contributed to the contentious ways Americans have to come to understand this flag and the act of surrender. As a defining feature of the Civil War, he reminds readers how the “American Civil War began with a surrender and ended with a series of surrenders.”[3] By the war’s conclusion, he contends that popular understandings had evolved and challenged “southerners and northerners alike” in how to “best remember and commemorate surrenders.”[4] This struggle has subsequently “demonstrated the difficulties Americans have had in making sense of surrender.”[5]

As “the prototype of the honorable surrender,” Robert Anderson and his surrender at Fort Sumter revealed a shared understanding of acceptable terms of surrender and the marks of cowardice and excessive violence as unacceptable behavior by Federal and Confederate forces.[6] The surrenders of Forts Henry and Donelson, however, shifted attitudes among the common soldiers, military leadership, and civilians in their respective homefronts, according to Silkenat. For the Confederacy, surrender became increasingly viewed as a referendum on the national project. For the United States, it became viewed as the only true pathway toward peace. As argued by Silkenat and others, these nuanced understandings have been lost in the contemporary public debates over the Confederate monuments, in a post-Charleston Massacre and Charlottesville 2017 climate.[7]

How does one engage in these conversations where the works of historians does not always reach general audiences? Or, when public historical projects such as the 1619 Project try to, how do non-academics, especially persons of color, attempt to participate when scholars openly challenge the creators’ authority for intervening in public debates?[8] [Image 2] Here, Clark’s public art offers another pathway for reconciling the lingering Civil War era legacy in the present. At the end of the Monumental Cloth exhibit, a table displayed works by James Baldwin, David Brion Davis, Andrew Delbanco, Carol Anderson and others and encouraged further contemplation, perusal, and conversation. In other words, engagement meant to continue after the viewing in the attendee’s respective homes and communities.

New audiences became aware of this rich scholarship as well as the role of race in shaping contemporary understandings. During the Civil War, race contributed to the uneven application and utter disregard of military understandings of surrender for African American soldiers. By comparing Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, Silkenat reveals the shifting understandings and its limits with racial violence.  For Forrest, his brutal use of surrender and refusal to accept black soldiers as legitimate combatants resulted in not only the Fort Pillow massacre but also African American soldiers’ preference of fighting until death instead of surrendering at Brice’s Crossroads and other later engagements. By 1864, such racial animosity contributed to a “nadir of surrender’s acceptability” by both warring sides.[9] The legacy of this nadir has not diminished.

Smaller flag of surrender, also from the Sonya Clark exhibit. Courtesy of Carlos Avendaño.

In a war filled with surrenders, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House has eclipsed all other surrenders. Silkenat and other scholars have shown that generous terms of surrender neither appease all participants nor served as an ultimate truce. Early Confederate soldiers who rejected the Appomattox Court House surrender were amongst the first to engage in terrorism and a perilous peace during Reconstruction.[10] Appomattox Court House initiated a series of surrenders concluding with the final domestic surrender of Stand Watie in Oklahoma and James Iredell Waddell’s international surrender of the CSS Shenandoah in Liverpool, England.[11] Yet, the power of the April 9, 1865, surrender contributed to the erasure of post-Appomattox Court House surrenders, the whitewashing of the diverse participants’ racial backgrounds, and even captured Clark’s imagination.

Since the Civil War’s end, Americans have struggled to remember and commemorate Civil War surrender sites.  While African Americans celebrated “Surrender Day” as early as 1866, African American commemorative traditions have remained outside of the national popular consciousness.[12] Lost Cause and Reconciliationist traditions encouraged selective remembrance, from Julian Carr’s dedication speech for the Silent Sam unveiling at UNC-Chapel Hill, to the transformation of Bennett Place and Appomattox Court House into tourist attractions. As a result, the Civil War memory wars and understanding of surrender continues into the present.

Ultimately, scholars like Silkenat reach a similar conclusion as Clark on the role of Confederate flag of surrender and its complicated legacy for present generations. “Yet if we are able to learn anything from the Civil War generation,” he concludes that “we might come to see surrender not as a sign of weakness but as a hallmark of humanity.”[13] It is fitting that museum administrators agreed. On July 13, 2019, the internationally renowned artist and the historian shared a Philadelphia stage and connected museum goers, academics, and non-academics in a productive conversation about the role of surrender, the Confederate flag of truce, the Civil War and memory.[14] Maybe this will be a model for future collaborations between artists and historians as the questions from the Civil War and its legacy remain pertinent in the current political moment. Artistic expression, scholarly insights and engaged diverse publics might be the only pathway forward.



[1] Sarah Cascone, “‘This Flag Brought Our Nation Back Together’: Artist Sonya Clark Explains Why She Is Recreating the Little-Known Flag That Ended the Civil War,” Artnet News, April 1, 2019,

[2] David Silkenat, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[3] Silkenat, 2.

[4] Silkenat, 3-4.

[5] Silkenat, 4.

[6] Silkenat, 41; See Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[7] See Catherine Clinton, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Karen L. Cox, Gary W. Gallagher, and Nell Irvin Painter, Confederate Statues and Memorialization (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019).

[8] Jake Silverstein, “We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project,” New York Times Magazine, Updated January 4, 2020,

[9] Silkenat, 168.

[10] See Caroline E. Janney, “Free to Go Where We Liked: The Army of Northern Virginia After Appomattox,” Journal of Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019): 4-28, and Carole Emberton, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] Silkenat, 267.

[12] Silkenat, 278; See Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New York: The New Press, 2018).

[13] Silkenat, 297.

[14] Olivia Errico, “Raising the White Flag: Sonya Clark and Dr. David Silkenat in Conversation,” Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, Rutgers University-Camden, June 6, 2019,

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

How to Build a Winning Coalition: What Today’s Democrats Can Learn from Pennsylvania’s Republicans in 1860

How to Build a Winning Coalition: What Today’s Democrats Can Learn from Pennsylvania’s Republicans in 1860

American politics during the late antebellum era was divisive and deeply polarized, just like the present. A few key battleground states, most prominently Pennsylvania, decided the outcome of national elections. To win the Keystone State in 1860, Republican Party managers employed keen coalition-building skills. They adapted readily to changing circumstances. Hard experience taught them that a campaign aimed only at the party’s base would fall short. Republicans also passed over their most visible leaders and instead chose a lesser-known presidential candidate. Democrats in 2020 would do well to heed the techniques Republicans employed in 1860.

Photograph of Morton McMichael. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nobody understood these imperatives better than Morton McMichael, editor of the Philadelphia North American, the largest Republican newspaper in the nation’s second largest city. He labored mightily to break the Democratic hold on Pennsylvania. The immense bound volumes of his North American, which remain available for scrutiny at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, offer a how-to window for achieving partisan success.[1]

Pennsylvania Republicans ran a campaign in 1856 that was memorable, passionate—and disappointing. Supporters of its presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, lambasted the Democratic Party’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the ham-handed efforts of the Pierce administration to open Kansas Territory to slaveholders. They focused on the “single issue”—that Democrats had become accomplices of the Slave Power. But opponents of the Democrats were divided, especially in Philadelphia, a booming manufacturing city where many native stock residents disdained immigrants and where antagonistic groups of immigrants—notably, its Catholic and Protestant Irish—clashed with each other. Republicans tried to ally with the many nativist Know Nothings who had created the American Party, but a full coalition proved elusive. Thumping margins in the city carried Democrats to statewide victory in 1856 and Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan to the presidency.[2]

A severe economic downturn that began in September 1857 triggered major political repercussions in the Keystone State. U.S. railroad construction had boomed during the 1850s, creating heavy demand for Pennsylvania-manufactured rails, locomotives, and rolling stock. But when demand suddenly slumped, many Pennsylvania workmen lost their jobs. With a heavier commitment to manufacturing and mining than any other state, Pennsylvania already favored a protective tariff. That sentiment intensified amid the economic misery. Protectionists argued that a tariff on cheap British iron was the key to restoring prosperity; it would revive moribund iron manufacturing and anthracite coal mining.

Enthusiasm for tariff protection reframed Pennsylvania politics. Nativists proved receptive to complaints that free trade depressed American wages and enabled “foreign labor” to compete unfairly with “American labor.” Protectionists, pushing an economic nationalist agenda, insisted the home market would provide prosperity for all if not undercut by imports. So likewise, protectionists blamed Southern Democrats for blocking new tariff legislation in Congress and clinging selfishly to free trade ideologies. Even more galling, the Slave Power appeared to celebrate the misery of free Northern workers and crow that slave labor was superior to free labor. As historian James Huston explained, the tariff issue “subsumed much of the nativist argument” and provided a more tangible focus for anti-Southern resentments.[3]

The North American pushed the protectionist message and rebranded Republicans as the “People’s Party.” An overflow audience of 5,000 launched the new endeavor at Philadelphia’s National Hall on June 14, 1858. Speakers led by editor McMichael blasted the just-adjourned Congress for failing to alleviate the distressed iron industry and its many unemployed workmen. People’s Party founders proposed to “expel mere sectionalism” and to focus instead on “the happiness and prosperity of the people.” They downplayed overt nativist appeals. In October the new party triumphantly carried Philadelphia by over 6,000 votes, posted large gains in coal-mining counties, and rolled up a decisive statewide margin of over 25,000. In so doing, it all but obliterated the state’s Democratic representation in Congress.[4]

New York Senator William H. Seward, the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, spoke out for the tariff. He returned from a trip to Europe dazzled by the sprawling manufacturing cities in England and Scotland, where he saw “railroads crossing each other in all directions, bringing in coal and iron ore to the forges, whose fires, blazing from hundreds of chimneys, makes the night as brilliant as the day.” The United States should encourage its own manufactures, Seward contended, rather than remain dependent on foreign suppliers.[5]

But Seward would not lead his party in 1860. McMichael and his political allies, worried by Seward’s somewhat undeserved reputation as an antislavery radical, helped Abraham Lincoln wrest the Republican nomination away from the New York senator. Seward also was hurt by the suspicion that his welcoming stance toward immigrants and Roman Catholics made him unacceptable to former Know Nothings. People’s Party managers judged that he could not maximize their potential vote; today’s Democrats may need to make similarly hardheaded calculations in the weeks and months to come.[6]

Prominent Pennsylvanians advised Lincoln that his campaign in the state needed to focus on tariff protection. Alexander McClure, who chaired the People’s State Central Committee, explained that outside speakers coming to Pennsylvania should be “thoroughly familiar” with the tariff, which had “not been nearly so prominent in your struggles in Illinois as it has been here.” It would be the vital “overshadowing question” in parts of the state where “the Conservative element predominates.”[7]

Early twentieth century promotional sign for the Philadelphia North American. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

James E. Harvey, Washington correspondent for the North American and McMichael’s right-hand man, frequently wrote to Lincoln. Harvey rejoiced that Republicans would not be “burthened by Mr. Seward” and predicted that victory was within reach so long as the campaign was “conducted judiciously.” Eastern Pennsylvania had a significant “American [Party] element,” but with Lincoln as the candidate “the decent Americans are with us” and the North American would help keep them there. The “People’s” label, Harvey noted, was a device to attract Americans and disaffected Democrats; he cautioned Lincoln against creating a separate Republican organization that would duplicate the People’s campaign.[8]

From June through early November, People’s promoters created a continual spectacle in Philadelphia. A “Grand Mass Meeting” on June 25 filled Penn Square at Broad and Market Streets, where City Hall now stands. Speaker after speaker insisted that only the Lincoln ticket would secure tariff protection. As evening skies darkened, torch-bearing “Wide Awakes” paraded in shiny black oilcloth regalia and the crowd enjoyed a display of colorful fireworks. Comparable events continued during the summer and fall. On October 1, the “Grandest Political Torchlight Procession Ever Witnessed” coursed through the city’s streets. As Election Day neared, the North American castigated a flurry of “monstrous falsehoods”—that Lincoln would ignite slave insurrections and that Republican Wide Awakes were mobilizing to invade the South. It reassured its readers that Lincoln was “A CONSERVATIVE.”[9]

Lincoln won absolute majorities both in Philadelphia and statewide; he thereby assured his national plurality. The results were a mirror image of the outcome four years before. Then, a united Democratic Party had bested its fractured opposition in the city, state, and nation. In 1860, Pennsylvania Republicans managed to duplicate that same feat, aided by a poisonous Democratic split. But Lincoln’s victory in the Keystone State promised no crusade against slavery. As historian Russell Weigley concluded, the results in Pennsylvania showed that the South had “nothing to fear.” The People’s campaign deprived “southern fire eaters” of any “justification for secession.”[10]

The Republican Party’s rise to power between 1854 and 1860 contains lessons that remain pertinent. As I write, Democrats face an incumbent whom they regard as corrupt and dangerous. He clings to power even though his supporters constitute a minority of the national electorate. The level of partisan acrimony is intense. The People’s Party in Pennsylvania demonstrated the advantages of building a big tent. It assembled a heterogeneous hodgepodge—former Whigs, disaffected Democrats, iron manufacturing and anthracite coal mining interests that clamored for tariff protection, those tired of being bullied by the South and the Slave Power, those worried about immigration, and those repelled by the Buchanan administration’s corruption. At stake ultimately, the North American insisted, was “the great principle of self-government”—“the right of the majority to govern.”[11]

In 1860 Republicans also decided fatefully to look beyond the cluster of familiar names and find a less celebrated candidate with potentially wider appeal. This winnowing process offers Democrats today a worthy model. They must find a candidate who can do two things: win an electoral college majority, and persuade the losers of the 2020 election to accept the outcome. The latter, we must remember, eluded their illustrious predecessor in 1860.


[1] For background and context, see Robert L. Bloom, “Morton McMichael’s North American,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 77 (1953), 164-80; Arthur M. Lee, “Henry C. Carey and the Republican Tariff,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 81 (1957), 280-302.

[2] James E. Harvey to Henry C. Carey, December 7, 1856, Edward Carey Gardiner Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 394-448 passim.

[3] Philadelphia North American, October 7, 1858; James L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 137, 146-47, 155-56, 231.

[4] Philadelphia North American, June 16, 1858 (special supplement); “Independent,” June 17, 1858, in Philadelphia North American, June 18, 1858.

[5] Cong. Globe, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. (1860), 3020-21; William L. Langer, Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 27, 32; Anne Kelly Knowles, Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800-1868 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 151-82.

[6] Michael F. Holt, The Election of 1860: “A Campaign Fraught with Consequences” (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017); 88-89, 113-14; Jack Furniss, “Devolved Democracy: Federalism and the Party Politics of the Late Antebellum North,” Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 4 (December 2019), 546-68, esp. 553, 559.

[7] Alexander McClure to Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1860, Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.

[8] James E. Harvey to Abraham Lincoln, May 21, June 5, June 13, and June 25, 1860, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress. See Daniel W. Crofts, “James E. Harvey and the Secession Crisis,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 103 (April 1979): 177-95.

[9] Philadelphia North American, May 28, 30, June 5, 22, 27, September 13, October 4, 6, 27, 30, and November 1 and 2, 1860.

[10] Russell F. Weigley, “The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865,” in Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, ed. Russel F. Weigley (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 392, 414.

[11] Philadelphia North American, May 28, June 8, and June 28, 1860.

Daniel W. Crofts

Dan Crofts has long studied the North-South sectional crisis that led to the Civil War. His 2016 book, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (UNC), was awarded the University of Virginia’s Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History. His recent essay, “Ending Slavery and Limiting Democracy: Sidney George Fisher and the American Civil War” in the January 2020 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, previews his work-in-progress on Pennsylvania politics during the Civil War era.