In the 1850s the structure of national politics collapsed. Under the pressure of an increasingly abstract debate over the extension of slavery, the Whig party splintered, sectional allegiances came to prevail over partisan ties, virtual warfare raged in the Kansas territory, and the South threatened secession. Strength of numbers enabled the North to elect a sectional, minority president, and after the failure of statesmanship, the Civil War ensued. The northern victory in the Civil War confirmed the status of the Union and transformed the Constitution from a compact among sovereign states to a fundamental national charter with priority over state constitutions. Though the radical nature of this transformation was obscured by the reactionary drift of Reconstruction politics after 1868, the Civil War era must be seen as marking a basic shift in the conception of national polity.
The legacy of the war era for political discourse is more ambiguous. On the one hand, a civil liberties coalition was formed out of the ideological thrust of the antislavery movement, culminating in the landmark passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments by a radical Republican Congress. Never before had the argument for individual liberty under the law been expressed so forcefully and inclusively in the arenas of U.S. government. On the other hand, the period was marked by frequent invasions of the right to free expression in practice. In Kansas in the 1850s, newspapers were treated as weapons of war, and came under literal bombardment in the sack of Lawrence. During the war itself, newspapers were targeted for violent attack with unprecedented regularity; extralegal violence worked hand in glove with government policy North and South-- justified by military expediency--to punish opposition politics, especially at election time. And in the Reconstruction South, African-American and Republican newspapers were frequent victims of vigilante and terrorist activity. Liberty under the law was not secured by the Civil War.
At the same time, mainstream newspapers were undergoing a crucial transformation. Industrialization began to turn metropolitan newspapers into large and