Every once in a blue moon I talk about American studies here. Seems like it's time for one of those posts now....
For a long time American studies scholars had a common format: pick a person or an object and follow how Americans interpreted her/him/it through time. So there was Merrill Peterson's The Jeffersonian Image in the American Mind (and later Lincoln in American Memory); John Ward's Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age; Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land. The list goes on and on. The idea was that if you held constant the object of inspection and then saw how people reacted to it, you'd learn a lot about the people doing the interpreting. Pretty cool format. And while it has a lot of limitations, it also has a lot of virtues. One of the limitations is that we need to get beyond how people interpret something. At some point we need to levitate the question of how people understand to how they act. How, for instance, does a particular constitutional outlook relate to how judges decide cases? This is mighty hard to get at, but at some point it seems to me that we as historians, particularly legal historians, need to get into the business of making assessments of how ideas correlate with (dare I say, even affect) how people act. Another limitation is that we lost sight of the original actors themselves -- in looking to have people thought about Jefferson and Lincoln, we lost the sense of who Jefferson and Lincoln were.
One of the great virtues of legal history is that we can bring precision to understanding the decision-making process. We can see how judges explain what they're doing. And while there's surely a lot buried beneath the surface--and in some cases, judges may not even know why they're doing something--we can still help bring precision to these questions. We can narrow the confidence intervals between underlying motives, economic, cultural, religious, political, and the framework through which the judges operate (like the world of precedent), to assess how we get to an outcome. Between the rigorous citation practices of jurists and legal scholars and the tradition of explanation among jurists, we can learn a lot by looking at legal opinions and treatises. I think we've only begun to mine the possibilities of computerized research in legal history. And I hope to talk about some of the virtues in a post on "fun with concordance software."
Right now, though, I want to return to that good old American studies font with this question, "how did antebellum politicians view the book"? In very different ways is the answer. The Democrats--at least judging from the pre-Civil War literary addresses at UNC--saw the book and the printing press as the vehicle of progress. It brought knowledge to every person, according to John Mason. In 1843, John Hill, a Democratic representative to Congress from North Carolina, praised books for elevating common people:
The fetters of ignorance were broken. Books were multiplied and became the inmates of the humble cottage as well as the lordly Palace. Prejudice, superstition and power were impotent longer to curb the unchained mind, and it sprung upward like the lark, to the very gates of Heaven, caroling its songs of joy and thankfulness.
The Whigs, however, were not so happy with the book. While they recognized that it did a lot of good, they also believed it brought a lot of harm along with it. Bartholomew Moore whom I spoke about in my last post warned the UNC students in 1846 that books were spreading the spirit of infidelity. The crime literature that David S. Reynolds so brilliantly discusses in Beneath the American Renaissance led readers, in Moore's mind, to focus on an unrealistic, sensational life. It led them from the path of proper behavior into licentiousness. Moore went so far as to liken reading that sensational literature to a drug:
This species of reading, quickly becoming a passion, creates a dreamy existence, from which the victim awakes with the same restless feelings, as does the confirmed eater of opium; both, alike, find life intolerable, without the poison, which first imparted, and now, at once, continues the disease and furnishes a momentary comfort.
Others went further than Moore. North Carolina physician (and Whig) James Dickson blamed the French Revolution on printing in his June 1843 address:
The French Revolution itself, the result, as least in the horrible atrocities which marked its progress, of the atheistic literature which immediately preceded and accompanied it, exercised a manifest and wide spread influence upon the intellect and literature of the age. How, indeed, could it be otherwise, with the world all in commotion around, the great deep of opinions broken up and in conflict, the struggle of the mind with mind, should partake of the vehemence and energy which characterized the physical conflicts of the period.
Pretty interesting, isn't it, how people can differ on how they think about a technology as basic as a book. For some it's leveling and that's good; for others, it's leveling, and that's only partly good -- maybe even partly bad. The attitudes towards the book correlate, I think, with a basic distinction between Whigs and Democrats: how did people think about the loss of social distinctions. Some Whigs were horrified by the thought of people reading the new sensational literature and by getting more ability to mobilize into their own hands. Democrats weren't so bothered by that.
There are, I'd imagine, some interesting parallels to how people view the internet today. Print at one point took down the traditional authority; now that traditional authority wielded by print is being challenged by the net.
The image is of a steam printing press, which seems to be from 1860.