Washington Brotherhood: A Talk with Rachel Shelden

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Image courtesy of the University of Oklahoma.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Rachel Shelden, Assistant Professor of American History at the University of Oklahoma.  Dr. Shelden specializes in the long nineteenth century. Her research and teaching interests include slavery and abolition, the Civil War, the U.S. South, and political and constitutional history. She is the author of Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, & the Coming of the Civil War (UNC Press, 2013), which received honorable mention for the Wiley-Silver Prize for the best first book on the American Civil War. Dr. Shelden is also co-editor, with Gary Gallagher, of A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History (University of Virginia Press, 2012). Her current project explores how judicial ethics influenced Supreme Court decisions and federal governance in the nineteenth century, particularly in cases of race, gender, and class.

CWI: What role did social politics play in antebellum political life in Washington, D.C.?

SHELDEN: The social life of congressmen and other members of the federal government was critically tied to politicking in antebellum Washington, D.C. Politicians who came to the capital city were expected to participate in the vibrant social life of Washington, attending parties, balls, and dinners, calling on (paying respects to) neighbors and other political actors, and generally engaging with the most prominent city residents. These politicians also typically lived with men from across the political and geographical spectrum, making bi-partisan and cross-sectional social life a critical part of the daily experience in Washington. Partially as a result of these social experiences and partially because of the difficult nature of hammering out policy in the public spaces of the Capitol, congressional business often happened in social settings rather than official political ones.

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Engraving depicting President Franklin Pierce departing the popular Willard Hotel during his inauguration in March, 1853. The Willard Hotel was the site of the unsuccessful Peace Conference in 1861. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

CWI:  How did social life in Washington change on the eve of the Civil War and secession, and what were the ramifications of those changes?  How did secession itself change social politics in the nation’s capital?

SHELDEN: In fact, federal politicians’ social lives in Washington changed very little on the eve of Civil War and secession! Although sectional vitriol ramped up in the months leading up to Abraham Lincoln’s election and the secession of seven Deep South states, Washington continued to be a place of cross-sectional interaction and cooperation. Politicians continued to meet each other at parties, balls, religious services, organizational meetings, and other activities in the capital city during this time. And, many Washington residents (including financiers like William Corcoran and the city’s many diplomats) tried to organize even more cross-sectional social interaction as a way to facilitate compromise and/or conciliation. This interaction actually created a false sense of security (and great surprise when secession came) among many of the representatives in Congress.

CWI:  How might a study of the intersection between social life and politics better inform contemporary understandings of the potential challenges, opportunities, and inner workings of the American political process?

SHELDEN: In many ways antebellum Washington cannot be compared with today; the antebellum political center was a different world in which men left their wives and families to spend several months in the city legislating with no staffs, no offices, and a series of social expectations that look rather bizarre to us in the twenty-first century. Still, the men of the nineteenth century faced similar challenges in weighing their constituents’ concerns (and appealing to those concerns) and those of the entire nation. The cross-sectional and bi-partisan social niceties of antebellum Washington often gave politicians the necessary tools to work out legislation for the benefit of the nation more generally, something that seems like it has been harder to come by in recent years in the nation’s capital. But, the insular nature of antebellum Washington also could insulate lawmakers from the very real needs and worries of their constituents, creating a bubble that resembled an “inside the beltway” mentality before today’s Washington beltway was even constructed.

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Balloon view of Washington, D.C., July, 1861, in Harpers Weekly. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

If you are interested in hearing more from Rachel Shelden and other distinguished historians, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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