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Antebellum Period Summary & Analysis


Much of antebellum culture can be understood as a response to the dynamic and rapidly changing social, political, and economic context of the nineteenth century. Long before the Civil War, Americans were building the industrial infrastructure, the competitive marketplace, the urban spaces, and the transportation system that they would expand further and come to rely upon in the latter half of the century. They were grappling with many changes: the rapid growth of cities in a world where most people still lived in areas of 2,500 people or less and knew all or most of their neighbors; the emergence of hourly wage work conducted in large factories regulated by clocks, whereas people had previously worked from home or in small shops and were apprenticed to a trade. Above all, they continued to wrestle with the contradiction at the heart of the era: the existence of chattel slavery in a country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The mass media in America emerged with the newspaper, which rapidly developed in the urban centers and became an influential source of information for a broad audience in a highly literate society. On stages across the North, whites in blackface (black makeup) performed farces and musical numbers designed to entertain and amuse their raucous audiences, but with a set of underlying and oftentimes conflicting messages about race, class, and stereotypes. When the country's transportation infrastructure rapidly expanded with new canals, roads, and railroads, Americans became more mobile, and those who traveled for new job opportunities or to strike it rich in the California gold country relied upon letter writing and the new technology of photography to keep in touch with their loved ones. Ongoing industrialization, primarily in the North, led to an increasing stratification of classes and a higher standard of living, especially for the middle class, who had fewer children on average than families from poorer backgrounds, and who began developing a culture centered around childcare and the home. These sometimes subtle but significant developments in communication, transportation, entertainment, economy, and family structure during the nineteenth century all affected every aspect of people's daily lives, from their work to their leisure time.

White men also crafted a political culture of avid partisanship and active participation in campaigning and voting. As citizens of a democratic republic, Americans had long harbored a suspicion and dislike of aristocracy, and their populist tendencies only increased with the birth of party politics and increased class stratification. A cultural appeal to anti-elitism took the form of blackface minstrelsy, which impersonated and ridiculed black people, but also gave whites a kind of release in the process. It was also embodied in plays that praised the "noble savage" who white settlers were in the process of combating and, they hoped, eliminating from existence. The noble savage was a sort of idealized, abstracted embodiment of all Indians, or at least the "best" ones in the eyes of whites. This figure was a romanticized element of nostalgia for the indigenous roots of the nation, which most whites implicitly assumed were forever lost to the unstoppable spread of "civilization." Yet the thousands of indigenous peoples across the nation were not so conveniently disposed of in the decades to come, and slavery was not going anywhere, either. Just as these forms of entertainment masked underlying problems in American life, so the vibrant political culture obscured a partisan loyalty and spectacle that undermined a truly independent and informed voting public, and the bourgeois emphasis on sincerity paradoxically revealed an increasingly prevalent issue of deception in an urbanizing and anonymous world.

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