As we mark the 150th anniversary of secession, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the factors that led to the Union’s collapse. One site offers a wonderful opportunity to do this: “The Secession Era Editorials Project,” hosted by Furman University. The creation of Furman professor T. Lloyd Benson, this site provides excerpted and full editorials from newspapers across the nation that focus on the four key issues of the 1850s: the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the caning of Charles Sumner, the Dred Scott U.S. Supreme Court decision and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. There is also a link here to Benson’s larger site, the “Nineteenth Century Documents Project.”
Benson rightly argues that “few Americans were more involved with the coming of the Civil War than the newspaper editors.” Entrenched in the party politics of the day, without the slightest pretense toward unbiased journalism, editors hotly debated the events that defined the 1850s. Through their words, visitors can see the decade unfold with the same mystery, fear and excitement that Americans experienced at the time.
The site is organized around those four subjects, each with its own page, or visitors can search the entire collection by keyword. Not every state and town is represented, to be sure, but I know of no other site that offers such a wonderful sampling of contemporary editorials representing the diversity of views that shaped the debates.
Admittedly, there are flaws. The designers promise a page with a “short introduction to the partisan press” and another explaining 19th-century political concepts and rhetoric. Both contain only a single sentence. But compensating for those weaknesses is a wealth of examples of exactly how Charlestonians responded to John Brown’s Raid or Preston Brooks’ caning of Senator Sumner right after those events, as well as several weeks later. Viewers can compare this with what other citizens—rural and urban, Whig, Democrat or Republican—were reading to see how the debates evolved as information filtered across the nation. The result is a site that I have used for nearly a decade to engage students in this definitive era. I have found few others that explain so powerfully the complex issues that led Americans to blows in 1861, and I strongly recommend it to Civil War Times readers.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.