The American Party Battle: Election Campaign Pamphlets, 1828-1876

By Watson, Harry L. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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The American Party Battle: Election Campaign Pamphlets, 1828-1876


Watson, Harry L., The Journal of Southern History


The American Party Battle: Election Campaign Pamphlets, 1828-1876. Volume 1, 1828-1856. Volume 2, 1854-1876. Edited and with an introduction by Joel H. Silbey. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. xxvi, 284. Paper, $16.95, ISBN 0-674-02645-4; cloth, $39.95, ISBN 0-674-02642-X; Pp. xxvi, 272. Paper, $16.95, ISBN 0-674-02646-2; cloth, $39.95, ISBN 0-674-02643-8.)

Half a century ago, "claptrap" was the most popular academic word for American political rhetoric of the Jacksonian era. Scholars agreed that, beneath blasts of scorching invective Whigs and Democrats traded on the stump, they shared the trimming values of spoilsmen and men on the make who used empty insults for theatrical effect and electoral success for personal advancement. In the specific context of southern history Charles S. Sydnor summed up the prevailing views in the following often-quoted sentence: "party conflict south of the Potomac, from nullification to the late 1840s, had the hollow sound of a stage duel with tin swords" (The Development of Southern Sectionalism, 1819-1848 [Baton Rouge, 1948], p. 316). Contemporary specialists--trained by intellectual and cultural historians to take rhetoric seriously even, or especially, when it seems at its most hackneyed--are likely to read party rhetoric differently. Scholars of nineteenth-century politics now point to antebellum cliches to demonstrate the survival of classical republicanism in a supposedly liberal world and to tease out clashing world views from seemingly mundane party squabbles over tariffs, banks, and canals. Historians who concern themselves with the thoughts and passions of nineteenth-century white men see deep-rooted and abiding conflict where scholars once saw nothing but drab consensus. Joel H. Silbey has done an excellent job of collecting raw materials to document a sophisticated understanding of both consensus and conflict.

Political history, ironically, was riding high when scholars dismissed partisan rhetoric as meaningless. Books, articles, and dissertations poured forth on the most obscure party hacks, and graduate students followed the cut-and-thrust of debates between Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the consensus school as if the outcome really mattered. Today, just as specialists have decided that something was really at stake between the Democrats and the Whigs, the interest in politics has ebbed in American culture: politicians and the historians who study politicians both struggle to find an audience. Without actually saying so Silbey makes the case in this sampler of partisan rhetoric that the civic discourse of nineteenth-century culture, and the white male voters who upheld it, deserve our sustained attention.

The two volumes in The American Party Battle: Election Campaign Pamphlets, 1828-1876 share a common introduction. Each volume collects partisan campaign pamphlets arranged chronologically to cover the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras. Silbey combed the archives to obtain representative samples of political argumentation by Jacksonians, Anti-Masons, Democrats, Whigs, Free-Soilers, Know Nothings, National Republicans, secessionists, and Republicans. The coverage is thorough, with a couple of minor exceptions. North and South are well represented, for example, but only a single selection (from Illinois) comes from the West.

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