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Antebellum Period Terms


From the Latin ante bellum: ante, before + bellum, war. Referring to the period before the American Civil War.

Taking place before wartime. FYI: This word especially is used to describe the time right before the American Civil War.


Makeup, initially burnt cork or coal, applied to the faces and limbs of white performers, such as antebellum-era minstrel actor Thomas "Daddy" Rice, to give them an exaggeratedly black appearance—far blacker than any African American.

Makeup, initially burnt cork or coal, applied to the faces and limbs of white performers to give them an exaggeratedly black appearance—far blacker than any African-American; this became abundantly clear when African Americans themselves started performing in the 1840s and were forced to "black up" with the makeup in order to conform to the expectations of minstrelsy.

Bourgeoisie, Bourgeois

The middle class. The adjectival form is bourgeois, as in the sentence "Melville enjoyed mocking bourgeois culture in his novels."


Originally, a Cavalier was a person who supported the absolutist Catholic, King Charles I, in his power struggles with the English Parliament during the seventeenth century (especially during the English civil war of the 1640s). Yet in antebellum America, this term gained a new cultural significance as a reference to a sort of archetypal (or stereotypical) southern gentleman. The term was associated with religiosity and conservatism, but to southern elites whose ancestors migrated from England, it also evoked chivalry and noble ancestry. The southern Cavalier was the counterpart to the northern Yankee. Where the Yankee was said to be pragmatic, hard working, and thrifty, the Cavalier was supposed to be dashing, well-mannered, and aristocratic. These stock characters were often paraded out for theater parodies or satirical cartoons, much to the enjoyment of audiences North and South.

Code Duello

An elaborate set of 26 rules for dueling and the code of honor by which elite gentlemen were expected to conduct themselves. The code was established in England in 1777 and followed in America, primarily among elites, although with some variations from its European antecedent. The code quickly became unpopular in the northern U.S. after a few infamous contests proved fatal, most notably when Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804. Thereafter the code became the object of widespread scorn and legal sanction in many northern states, but in the South it remained a part of life for the honor-obsessed culture of the plantation aristocracy. South Carolina Governor John Lyde Wilson adapted the code duello in an Americanized version that appeared in 1838. It was also practiced, if more sporadically, in the West. California Senator David Broderick actually died in an 1859 duel with David Terry, the former Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, after the two men had argued over the growing slavery controversy in America (Terry was for it, Broderick against it). Though Terry's reputation suffered from the incident, he was eventually acquitted of murder.


The extremely popular form of stage entertainment in which whites performed in blackface and caricatured black people for predominantly white audiences in the antebellum era (the genre actually lasted well into the early twentieth century). It usually involved a song-and-dance act and was first performed solo by T.D. Rice (1828); the first group performance was by the Virginia Minstrels in 1843.

Nativism, Nativist, Nativists

Opposition to immigration on the grounds that an influx of foreigners will marginalize the English language, undermine American culture, destabilize American politics, and weaken the economic status of American workers.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment most prevalent during the decades leading up to the Civil War, when large numbers of Irish and German immigrants poured into the U.S.

A xenophobic policy (or ideology) which stresses the interests of a country's native inhabitants over those of immigrants. Many (though not all) white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of nineteenth-century America became embodiments of this philosophy, to varying degrees. Those most concerned about foreign immigration joined nativist political parties. The most prominent of these parties was the American Party (a.k.a. the Native American Party, a.k.a. the Know Nothings), which began in 1843 and called for a 25-year residency qualification for citizenship and sought to elect only native-born Americans to political office. The Know Nothings enjoyed political victories on state and local levels, notably in Massachusetts and Delaware in 1854 (the pinnacle-year of their success). But the slavery issue eclipsed the nativists in importance and public attention, and ultimately divided their membership along sectional lines.

Opposition to immigration based on fears that an influx of foreigners will marginalize the English language, undermine American culture, destabilize American politics, and weaken the economic status of American workers.

Sex Trade

A term synonymous with the prostitution business. In antebellum cities like New York, prostitutes interacted freely with men across the cityspace, a fact which only heightened widespread concerns about their trade. The painted lady's freedom of mobility probably also deepened the distinction between the public woman (or "painted lady," a.k.a. prostitute) and the private lady who ruled over the home and wouldn't be caught dead at the theater (before the mid-1850s) or walking around town unchaperoned.

Spectator Sports

They have been around since the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Aztecs, and Mayans, but the modern spectator sports industry did not really take shape until the nineteenth century. Until then, cultural and social isolation made spectator sports difficult if not impossible; transportation and communication channels were rudimentary at best, and most Americans lived in rural areas. So a large number of people could not simultaneously follow the same boxing match or baseball game. This began to change, if slowly, during the antebellum period, even though most Americans continued to live in rural areas until the 1920s. The new telegraph made it possible for boxing fans to follow the detailed round-by-round results of the Hyer-Sullivan match on 7 February 1849. The contest between Tom Hyer and Irish-born James "Yankee" Sullivan was titillating to audiences for a number of reasons: partly because Americans were developing a taste for such sporting spectacles amidst the increasingly entertainment-and-spectacle-driven culture of the Industrial Revolution, partly because the fight echoed contemporary politics on nativism and immigration (Hyer was a favorite with the nativist "Know Nothings," Sullivan was the beloved representative of the Democrats and their many Irish immigrant voters), and lastly because prizefighting was still illegal in the United Sates. So the match was fought on the deserted Poole's Island in the Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Maryland. It only lasted fifteen minutes, and Hyer defeated his considerably smaller opponent. Thus an American institution, the mass spectator sport, began. Prize-fighting, baseball, and then football would all eventually enter the pantheon of American popular culture.

Victorians, Victorian

Usually refers to members of the upper-and-middle-class in America and Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria, which lasted throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. A Victorian (the word can be employed as a noun and an adjective) is usually marked by his or her stern morality and extreme concern for propriety, good manners, and a respectable outward appearance, which most of them presumed was an indication of inner righteousness.

Yankee, Yankees

A noun that gained currency in the 1700s in reference to someone from New England (or, in a more general sense, from the North). It has also referred to a native inhabitant of the United States. It was originally a derisive name but soldiers turned it into a term of national pride during the American Revolution ("Yankee Doodle," anyone?).

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