The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement

The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement

The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement

The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement

Synopsis

Slavery remains one of the United States' most troubling failings and its complexities have shaped American ideas about race, economics, politics, and the press since the first days of settlement. Brian Gabrial's The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859 examines those intersections at times when the nation and the institution of slavery were most stressed, namely when slavesrevolted or conspired to revolt. Such events frightened white, slave-owning society to its core and forced public discussions about slavery at times when supporters of the peculiar institution preferred them to be silent. Gabrial closely reads the mainstream press during the antebellum years, identifying shifts in public opinion about slavery and changes in popular constructions of slaves and other black Americans, a group voiceless and nearly invisible in the nation's major newspapers. He reveals how political intransigence rooted in racism and economics set the country on a perilous trajectory toward rebellion and self-destruction.
This volume examines news accounts of five major slave rebellions or conspiracies: Gabriel Prosser's 1800 Virginia slave conspiracy; the 1811 Louisiana slave revolt; Denmark Vesey's 1822 slave conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina; Nat Turner's 1831 Southampton County, Virginia, slave revolt; and John Brown's 1859 Harper's Ferry raid. Gabrial situates these stories within a historical and contextual framework that juxtaposes the transformation of the press into a powerful mass media with the growing politicaldivide over slavery, illustrating how two American cultures, both asserting claims to founding America, devolved into enemies over slavery.
What the nineteenth century press reveals in this book are discourses--ways of thinking and expression--that have retained resonance in contemporary race relations and American politics. They connect to ideas about the press and technology, changing journalistic practice, and, importantly, the destruction wrought by the dysfunction of the nation's political parties.

Excerpt

“Human nature is rarely ever so base as not to love liberty.” The historian Joseph Cephas Carroll made that observation about all who fight for freedom. Yet from the moment they landed on American soil, black Americans were not seen as worthy or even capable of having such emotions, and those who did possess them were considered dangerous and threatening to white society. “The negro, once roused to bloodshed, and in possession of arms, is as uncontrollable and irrational as a wild beast.” That quote appeared in America’s then-largest-circulation newspaper a month after John Brown’s 1859 raid sent southern slave owners into spasms of fright and rage. While likely offending today’s contemporary readers, the words would have hardly disturbed the sensibilities of most nineteenth-century white newspaper subscribers, who thought such language acceptable, even logical. Yet to reach that degree of acceptance, powerful forces had been working for several centuries to influence European and American thought about black people, creating discourses about race and slavery that normalized their subjugation. In America, as news papers became the preeminent nineteenth-century form of mass communication, reaching previously unsurpassed audiences, their crucial role in disseminating these discourses, which were inseparable, cannot be underestimated, especially in the U.S. antebellum years. This book examines the press’s role in informing Americans about slavery and race during those years and the constituted media discourses about them. More specifically the book approaches this examination at points of major crises and disruptions in the slave system, namely when slaves rebelled or conspired to do so, and takes as objects of study news accounts of two slave revolts, two conspiracies, and one raid. All of these events pushed slavery and race discussions into the public sphere, even at times when powerful forces tried to keep them silent.

The historian Helen G. MacDonald once observed, “The press of a country, at one time guides and directs public opinion, at another merely acts as the reflector and registers.” In either instance an extensive look at what is contained in past newspapers can help later generations understand the society and culture that created them, helping make sense of then commonly held beliefs . . .

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