Study Guide

Antebellum Period

Antebellum Period Introduction

It's Not All Black and White

Our historical understanding of antebellum America is heavily colored by the war that brought that era of American history to a close. If you need some catching up, "antebellum" is Latin for "pre-war." The Civil War was...

(a) a disaster.
(b) a resolution.
(c) ...it's complicated.

If we look past the Latin definition of "antebellum," this American era was marked by the booming plantation and slavery-based economy in the South. And the subsequent destruction of that economy once the war was over and Reconstruction was under way. 

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. They 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 representations of regional stereotypes enabled audiences to chuckle at the, uh, "idiosyncrasies" of each group.

Your basic textbook may tell you that the North was home to the good antislavery guys. But sometimes, the North and South had more in common than Northerners would be willing to admit.

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.

Racist? Heck, yes.

But the popular form of entertainment was 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.

Makes video games as an outlet look not so bad, after all...

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

At the same time that racial tensions were brewing, economic, technological, and social changes in antebellum American society lent a hand in speeding 'em up. 

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...dun dun dun, inflammatory abolitionist manifestos.

Rapid communication made possible by the telegraph facilitated the advent of mass spectator sports. Today, we obsessively check the Lakers' game from Buffalo Wild Wings. Back then, men in saloons hundreds of miles from a horse race or boxing match could receive rapid updates on the progress and outcome.

On top of live stats, photography was a newfangled technology: the selfie of the antebellum period meant sending a self-portrait through the mail. People purchased pictures of their favorite celebrities, famous political leaders, and even erotic nudes. Photography also made possible the evidence of whipped and abused slaves, which folks could receive whether they wanted to or not.

With a nudge by improved communication, Andrew Jackson's administration was championed by patriotic rhetoric. On one hand, the common white man felt empowered to voice his political opinions. Political machines churned out parties, organized huge torchlight parades, and transformed political participation and democracy into a spectacle. And we had the highest voter turnouts in American history. 

On the other hand, Americans dealt with the rapidly changing conditions of the antebellum era by manifesting their hopes, their values, and their anxieties through their culture. And that included the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What is Antebellum Period About and Why Should I Care?

Death Before Dishonor: More Than A Slogan at a Tattoo Parlor

Dueling.

It probably seems like a quaint stereotype or a Hollywood cliché, but there was a time when a man was not a man if he failed 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 were on the public stage, 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.

Yikes.

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. But being the professionals we are here at Shmoop, we'll say that only by understanding its culture can we understand what daily experience was really like for people of the time.

Good answer, right?

They Did What Back Then?

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 gained more bustlers, 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 many 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. Magazines, books, liquor, prostitutes, the theater, mass sporting events that charged admission: they bought it all.

In many ways, these pastimes 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.

Antebellum Period Resources

Books

Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & Its History (1986)
A sprawling work that goes back to antiquity and forward to the 1980s in order to unearth the origins, dynamics, and multiple incarnations of fame. Valuable sections on P.T. Barnum, Matthew Brady's photographic studio, and antebellum celebrity.

Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992)
Examines the spread of conspicuous consumption to the growing middle class during the antebellum period, as mass production industries multiplied the number and variety of luxury goods on the market and higher standards of living enabled more families to acquire those goods, despite potential conflicts with their religious and egalitarian sensibilities.

Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (1982)
Halttunen makes a persuasive argument that middle-class Victorian culture in America developed around and in response to the specter of the Confidence Man and the Painted Woman; the trickster who was not to be trusted in an age of increasingly anonymous urban centers, and the harlot who posed as the girl-next-door.

Neil Harris, Humbug; the Art of P. T. Barnum (1973)
An excellent biography of a complicated man and the culture he both shaped and symbolized.

David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (1998)
The shared experience of reading texts in public spaces, a single headline or billboard being read by hundreds or thousands of spectators, most of whom did not know one another but who shared access to the same information, was a new chapter in the annals of the public sphere. America's exceptionally high literacy rates ensured the widespread impact and resonance of everything from journalism to sign-making to advertising industries. Henkin artfully traces the cultural implications and complications of this phenomenon as it developed most strikingly in the country's largest metropolis.

Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom (1977)
An acclaimed work that captures the richness and multifaceted sophistication of Black culture, even when Black Americans were imprisoned by the shackles of slavery.

Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988)
Charts the course by which the works of Shakespeare went from a popular theatrical production, familiar to Americans of almost every walk of life, to a highly regulated and exclusive entertainment-form for quiet and orderly bourgeois audiences. Between the early and late nineteenth century, a demarcation appeared along class lines in American culture, from artwork to classical music to the aforementioned theatrical productions.

Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery; the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (1961)
Litwack's first book attests to the level and extent of anti-Black discrimination and segregation that existed in the American North.

Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993)
Lott explores the paradoxical but enormously popular practice of blackface minstrelsy from a multitude of perspectives. This commercial entertainment, devised and performed by the white working class for the white working class, appropriated and manipulated Black expressions, language, gesture, and appearance in what amounted to a conflicted gesture of admiration and contempt.

Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (1974)
A thorough examination of the fraught subject of minstrelsy.

Music

Various Artists, Monarchs of Minstrelsy: Historic Recordings by the Stars of the Minstrel Stage (2006)
Check out a rich sampling of rare recordings by some of the nineteenth-century stars of the blackface minstrelsy scene.

Dean Shostak, Davy Crockett's Fiddle (2002)
Musician Dean Shostak performs American classical compositions from the antebellum era using a fiddle that actually belonged to the nineteenth-century frontiersman Davy Crockett.

Soundtrack, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1998)
Listen to one stage adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling 1852 abolitionist novel.

Various Artists, Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads (1998)
The Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture presents this collection of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax during their travels through the American South in the 1930s. It's a treasure of early American music history that hints at the sounds that may have been heard on the antebellum plantations. It's a must-listen for any fan of jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, or soul.

Images

Stage Stars of the Age
Edwin Forrest in the title role of Metamora by John Augustus Stone. Engraving by T. Johnson after a photograph by Mathew Brady, circa 1859

The Birth of a Stereotype
Lithograph advertising "Mr. T. Rice as Jim Crow," circa 1830s.

Blackface Minstrelsy
Detail from sheet music cover of "Sich a Getting Up Stairs," featuring Thomas D. Rice.

Mocking Upward Aspirations
The "Zip Coon" blackface minstrelsy character.

Nightlife in Antebellum New York
A Five Points district oyster cellar, from George Foster's New York by Gas-light (1850).

A Map to the Mind
The cover of the American Phrenological Journal, March 1848.

Movies & TV

Nightmares from the Mind of Poe (2006)
Nightmares offers a uniquely biographical perspective on American author Edgar Allan Poe's most well-known thrillers, including "The Tale-Tale Heart," "The Premature Burial," and "The Raven." Revisit these classics with some new insight into Poe's deepest fears and his darkest memories.

P.T. Barnum (1999)
This Emmy-nominated film delves into the spectacular rags-to-riches tale of P. T. Barnum, the famous showman who in the nineteenth century created "The Greatest Show on Earth," which was performed most recently with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey until its shutdown in mid-2017.

Moby Dick (1956)
Although several adaptations of Herman Melville's most famous novel have been produced since the 1926 silent film The Sea Beast, this version written by Ray Bradbury, directed by John Huston, and starring Gregory Peck remains the best.

Davy Crockett, King of Wild Frontier (1955)
Considered by some to be the first true television miniseries, Davy Crockett became one of Walt Disney's most successful productions (and lucrative merchandising exploits). Coupled with the opening of Frontierland in the Disneyland theme park and the mass production of coonskin caps, this TV program turned the antebellum-era American frontiersman into a 1950s pop phenomenon. Watch out for the annoyingly catchy theme song.

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)
Early African-American actor James B. Lowe stars as Uncle Tom in this, one of the most famous screen adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 abolitionist novel. Seven decades after the book's publication, Stowe's tale about the injustices of slavery takes on new meanings.

Websites

Stowe's Creation, Mutated Through the Decades
A fantastic multi-media archive from the University of Virginia, relating to Uncle Tom's Cabin and its place in American culture across several decades. Includes a wealth of visual and textual primary sources, including African-American and Southern-white responses to the novel.

The Greatest Showman's Showplace
A wonderful exploration of P.T. Barnum's "Lost Museum," with primary source documents.

Barnum's Birthplace
The Barnum Museum in P.T.'s birthplace, Bridgeport Connecticut.

"Blacking Up"
PBS's American Experience site on blackface minstrelsy.

Race and Stereotypes
Ethnic Notions (1986) is a fantastic documentary on the Black image in the white mind; it includes depictions of African Americans under slavery and long thereafter, with an extremely valuable analysis of blackface minstrelsy.

Historical Documents

Reviewing the Minstrels
This page from the digitized Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper archive reviews the performance of the United States Ethiopian Minstrels on May 12th, 1848. Zoom in on that left column.

Reading the Mind
This piece of ephemera from April 1854 expounds on the "science" of phrenology in rhyming verse, and reflects many of the beliefs and assumptions of the period.

Photography for the People
This Boston photographer advertised its services and prices to the public, probably in the early 1850s.