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  • The Politics of Continuity and Change in the Long Civil War Era
  • Rachel A. Shelden (bio)

Now is the right time to reevaluate our broad approach to politics in the Civil War era, not because the political history of the mid-nineteenth century is stale or failing, but rather because political history of the period is thriving. In fact, Civil War–era political history of the last fifty years is among the most creative and methodologically sophisticated in the discipline; historians have effectively used the tools of social, cultural, economic, and legal history, as well as employed cross-disciplinary ideas from political science, sociology, and psychology to reimagine political participation, organization, and governance in this period. We now know more about politics from the local to the national level, we have effectively integrated Americans who were relegated to the margins by earlier political histories, and we better understand how politics did and did not define American life in the mid-nineteenth century. On the heels of so much innovation, historians can begin to think more broadly about the era as a whole; new scholarship has the opportunity to make important changes to the way we understand continuity and change across the long Civil War era, stretching from the Jacksonian period to the early Gilded Age. Writing chronologically broad political histories of the period will allow us to break free of older historiographical divides and will tell us more about the generations of Americans who experienced and participated in the politics of one of the most fraught eras in US history. [End Page 319]


The claim that political history is in a healthy state—both generally and in the Civil War era specifically—might surprise some readers. To some degree, scholars seem divided on the subject. On one side, some historians have lamented what they see as a falling interest in political history within the academy, even as public interest in political subject matter abounds. For example, a 2016 New York Times article by two prominent twentieth-century political historians, Frederik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, warned that not only have we stopped teaching American political history, we have also stopped hiring political historians, and fewer scholars are building "careers on studying the political process."1 These sentiments are not new. Sean Wilentz's 2005 Bancroft-winning The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, aimed at both popular and academic readers, proclaims that the book's subtitle "reaffirms the importance" of politics to the first half of American history, "once an all too prevalent assumption now in need of some rescue and repair."2 Even political historians speaking primarily to academic audiences in the 1980s and '90s worried that a disproportionate emphasis on cultural and social history had marginalized the field.3

Others are less pessimistic. For every concerned piece on the declining state of American political history, another group of scholars has pointed out the many ways this characterization is false. In just the last twenty years, in numerous edited collections, articles, and other state-of-the-field pieces, prominent political historians have described the state of American political history as "alive and well," "robust," "flourishing," "thriv[ing]," and even part of "an exciting intellectual rebirth." In these historians' calculation, far from being relegated to the margins of the profession, political history remains front and center. From their perspective, politics remains a healthy public obsession, and it has also retained its critical place in academic circles.4 [End Page 320]

What are we to make of this discrepancy between the handwringers and optimists? The problem seems to be in the definitions of exactly what political history is or is not. Both groups focus on the concept of governance. But, playing on public interests, Logevall and Osgood argue that political history is only a particular type of governance: "a specialization in elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics." Like many of the handwringers, these historians rue the dilution of political history beyond such "traditional" political subject matter and therefore see a growing disconnect between public interest in politics and academic work.5 Meanwhile, those who point to a healthy field typically dispute the usefulness of...


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pp. 319-341
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