THE POLITICAL SUPREME COURT
My current book project, under contract with UNC Press’s Ferris & Ferris imprint, explores the place of Supreme Court justices in the political world of the nineteenth-century. I explore the underlying political culture in which these justices operated and how they navigated political activities in public and private, from running for elective office to writing legislation, and backroom political negotiation to collaborating with partisan newspaper editors, clerks, and reporters. Far from examples of simple judicial corruption, these activities were, instead, a well-accepted part of the nineteenth-century political world. That world looked very different from ours in the twenty-first century, both because partisan politics operated differently in that era, and because judicial actors understood their roles in and relationship to electoral politics differently.
I previewed some of these themes in an article in the December 2022 issue of The Journal of Supreme Court History, entitled “Anatomy of a Presidential Campaign from the Supreme Court Bench: John McLean, Levi Woodbury, and the Election of 1848,” which won the Hughes-Gossett Award from the Supreme Court Historical Society. (Please contact me if you want a copy of the article and do not have institutional access.)
My research for this project has been graciously funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.
From UNC Press: Traditional portrayals of politicians in antebellum Washington, D.C., describe a violent and divisive society, full of angry debates and violent duels, a microcosm of the building animosity throughout the country. Yet, in Washington Brotherhood, Rachel Shelden paints a more nuanced portrait of Washington as a less fractious city with a vibrant social and cultural life. Politicians from different parties and sections of the country interacted in a variety of day-to-day activities outside traditional political spaces and came to know one another on a personal level. Shelden shows that this engagement by figures such as Stephen Douglas, John Crittenden, Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander Stephens had important consequences for how lawmakers dealt with the sectional disputes that bedeviled the country during the 1840s and 1850s–particularly disputes involving slavery in the territories.
Shelden uses primary documents–from housing records to personal diaries–to reveal the ways in which this political sociability influenced how laws were made in the antebellum era. Ultimately, this Washington “bubble” explains why so many of these men were unprepared for secession and war when the winter of 1860-61 arrived.
From UVA Press: This impressive collection joins the recent outpouring of exciting new work on American politics and political actors in the mid-nineteenth century. For several generations, much of the scholarship on the political history of the period from 1840 to 1877 has carried a theme of failure; after all, politicians in the antebellum years failed to prevent war, and those of the Civil War and Reconstruction failed to take advantage of opportunities to remake the nation. Moving beyond these older debates, the essays in this volume ask new questions about mid-nineteenth-century American politics and politicians.
In A Political Nation, the contributors address the dynamics of political parties and factions, illuminate the presence of consensus and conflict in American political life, and analyze elections, voters, and issues. In addition to examining the structures of the United States Congress, state and local governments, and other political organizations, this collection emphasizes political leaders—those who made policy, ran for office, influenced elections, and helped to shape American life from the early years of the Second Party System to the turbulent period of Reconstruction.
Other Recent Scholarly Contributions
This special issue focuses on the role of federalism in the Civil War era, primarily in the years before the war. Federalism—or the distribution of power among different governing bodies—defined how most nineteenth-century Americans understood their relationship to the government, both in theory and in practice. These men and women did not simply interact with the government and the law; rather, they were forced to navigate the complex relationships and overlapping authorities among the various governing bodies and regulations that made up the federal system.
From the Article: Now is the right time to reevaluate our broad approach to politics in the Civil War era, not because the political history of the mid-nineteenth century is stale or failing, but rather because political history of the period is thriving. In fact, Civil War–era political history of the last fifty years is among the most creative and methodologically sophisticated in the discipline; historians have effectively used the tools of social, cultural, economic, and legal history, as well as employed cross-disciplinary ideas from political science, sociology, and psychology to reimagine political participation, organization, and governance in this period. We now know more about politics from the local to the national level, we have effectively integrated Americans who were relegated to the margins by earlier political histories, and we better understand how politics did and did not define American life in the mid-nineteenth century.
On the heels of so much innovation, historians can begin to think more broadly about the era as a whole; new scholarship has the opportunity to make important changes to the way we understand continuity and change across the long Civil War era, stretching from the Jacksonian period to the early Gilded Age. Writing chronologically broad political histories of the period will allow us to break free of older historiographical divides and will tell us more about the generations of Americans who experienced and participated in the politics of one of the most fraught eras in US history.