Our historical understanding of antebellum America is heavily colored by our knowledge of the disaster that brought that era of American history to a close: the Civil War. But the people who lived through the antebellum period had no way of knowing that historians would later define their era by the war that ended it. ("Antebellum" is Latin for "pre-war.") Antebellum Americans did, however, understand and appreciate the seriousness of the increasing sectional conflict dividing the country between the slave-labor, agricultural South and the "free labor," industrializing North.
Antebellum culture in America reflected the growing sectional crisis, at times seeking to pave over sectional differences and at other times making light of them. Congressmen pushed through a "gag rule" so that the difficult subject of slavery would simply be made taboo in the chambers of government. Playwrights invented "vernacular characters" that represented the Yankee of the North and the Cavalier of the South; these exaggerated embodiments of regional stereotypes enabled audiences to chuckle at the idiosyncrasies of each group. Sometimes, however, the differences between North and South were less pronounced than the similarities; while only southerners enslaved black people, white Americans from both North and South overwhelmingly embraced anti-black racism. White people in the North rubbed burnt cork or coal on their faces to perform in "blackface," mimicking ludicrous stereotypes of African-Americans to entertain each other. This blackface minstrelsy was obviously deeply racist, but the popular form of entertainment was actually more complicated than that. The performances revealed how northerners were simultaneously fascinated by black people and derisive of them; onstage mocking of blacks provided relief for working-class whites' anxieties over their own social status as hourly wage laborers.
Other dimensions of the economic, technological, and social changes underway in Antebellum American society manifested themselves in the national culture in surprising ways. The innovations of the mass printing press made possible the first popular newspapers and advertisements (especially in the cities), and fueled an explosion of printed material—from women's sentimental novels to classic works of literature to inflammatory abolitionist tracts. The rapid communication made possible by the telegraph facilitated the advent of mass spectator sports, in which men in saloons hundreds of miles from a horse race or boxing match could receive rapid updates on the progress and outcome. The new practice of photography dazzled Americans everywhere; they sent one another their portraits through the mail, purchased pictures of celebrities, famous political leaders and even erotic nudes, and received photographic evidence of whipped and abused slaves (whether they wanted to see it or not). The patriotic rhetoric championed by Andrew Jackson's administration empowered the common white man to feel as though he was an important part of the political culture. Partisan political machines created by both parties organized huge torchlight parades, transforming political participation into a spectacle of democracy, motivating the highest voter turnouts in American history.
Americans dealt with the rapidly changing conditions of the Antebellum era by manifesting their hopes, their values, and their anxieties on the stage and through the culture that infused their daily actions and interactions.
Why Should I Care?
Dueling probably seems like a quaint stereotype or a Hollywood cliché, but there was a time when a man would be ridiculed for failing to answer a challenge to a duel. The culture of the nineteenth century—much more than today—deemed honor to be a matter of life and death. If you were from an affluent family or occupied a prominent public position, and you wanted to redeem your family name, your reputation, and the honor of your home against a public insult, you had to risk your life with swords or pistols. Death before dishonor—it was more than merely a slogan at the tattoo parlor. An American president once had to be restrained from physically beating a man who tried to pull his nose. Seriously. Clearly antebellum America was a different place from the country we know today; only by understanding its cultural life can we understand what daily experience was really like for people of the time.
At the same time, early manifestations of the America we know so well today were beginning to take shape throughout the period. Newspapers assumed, for the first time, the importance that they (hopefully) still maintain, and almost immediately they began to exploit the sensational and tawdry stories about sex, violence, and murder for which some are still known. Bustling cities grew very quickly, creating a new urban culture that was shocking to the rural majority of the antebellum American population. The growth of these anonymous metropolitan centers of vice and materialism (as most people perceived them) created a great deal of anxiety throughout the period. The large crowds amassing in America's cities craved entertainment and increasingly possessed disposable income from their wage labor; they bought magazines and books, went to the first mass sporting events to charge admission, bought liquor and reveled with prostitutes, and went to the theater. In many ways, these pastimes probably don't seem all that different from our own—but two centuries ago it was perfectly acceptable for a white audience to seek out amusement from white actors covered in black makeup, mocking black people onstage. Blackface minstrelsy seems as bizarre today as a president beating a man for pulling his nose.
If you want to understand antebellum American culture, from the familiar to the outlandish, read on.