Digital history teaching project: a fourth puzzle piece

To incorporate pertinent visual images into my Lincoln-Douglas debates teaching project, I plan to use some political cartoons produced in the politically fraught years surrounding 1858. The images have been digitized by the Library of Congress and are publicly accessible.

The guiding theme among the images is ubiquity of racial tropes that circulated in late antebellum American politics. Images that today would trigger a public outcry, media investigations, demands for apologies by aggrieved groups, and perhaps a congressional investigation circulated largely without protest at the time, reflecting a much more homogeneous and smaller, white male electorate, and, within those confines, a more open public sphere. The contentiousness of slavery grew during the early republic and moved from the periphery to the center of American politics. Cartoonists responded by portraying “slavery” as a dark-skinned individual, with features accentuating poverty or ridiculousness (half clothed and barefooted, mindlessly smiling or, if a woman, clad in a tattered gown). Slave cartoon figures were represented to intrude into white men’s spaces, suddenly wielding strange manipulative power, and could be embarrassingly attractive to antislavery politicians, especially if represented as a female. Politicians who opposed antislavery reform, meanwhile, courted white working-class men, many of them immigrants. Like slaves, immigrants were savaged by cartoonists, who typically portrayed them as ragged clothed brutes, with exaggerated, or shrunken, facial features.

To emphasize to students the highly racialized political culture of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the racialized criticism that both Douglas and Lincoln faced concerning their views of whether slavery should be allowed to expand westward, and cartoonists’ exaggeration of Lincoln’s support for black equality, I have in mind two cartoons. The first, “Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler,” dates from 1856. This cartoon is complicated. It is a criticism of Douglas, who is portrayed forcing a black man into the mouth of a white “freesoiler,” or antislavery settler in the West. Many freesoilers would soon become supporters of the antislavery Republican Party. The cartoon criticizes Douglas’s tolerance of slavery’s expansion, but is hardly abolitionist, as reflected in the demeaning portrayal of the black man. It reflects many northern men’s racial antipathy to black Americans moving west.  

The second, “Political Quadrille. Music by Dred Scott,” dates from 1860. This cartoon is a criticism of both Lincoln and Douglas as dancers to a tune played by Dred Scott, a former slave whose suit for freedom had been rejected by the Supreme Court in 1857 (students would have read the course textbook background on this case). Despite Scott’s losing the case, the cartoon portrays him as wielding political influence, which might present an opportunity for discussion about covert black political agency. Lincoln is shown dancing with a black woman, an allusion to his opposition to slavery and perhaps specifically to his statement during the Ottawa debate, meant to dissipate fears that he believed in social equality, that he hardly wished to take a black woman as his wife. Meanwhile Douglas is shown dancing with a ragged Irishman, reflecting his appeal to working class voters fearful of economic upheaval if slavery should be ended.

To use these images, I think it could work best to present the 1856 cartoon between the class’s interpretation of the course textbook’s information on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, including interpretation of a Lincoln quotation dismissing the idea of white and black Americans’ social equality, and the beginning of the Voyant exercises that I have tentatively developed. In this way, the 1856 cartoon, reflecting anti-black attitudes among antislavery northerners, provides an initial context for understanding Lincoln’s support for black legal but not social equality.

I could then use the 1860 cartoon as a wrap-up to the exercise, after students have, hopefully, concluded from the Voyant exercises that Lincoln’s racism was milder than Douglas’s (based on Voyant Links analysis of the term “race*” and Contexts analysis of the term “nigger*”); and that the two men actually didn’t debate the issue of slavery in areas of Illinois where there were not large numbers of immigrants (based on Voyant Trends analysis of usage of “slave*” and on 1860 US Census data for towns and counties where debates occurred). The 1860 cartoon, therefore, ridiculing Lincoln’s courtship of antislavery voters, and ridiculing Douglas’s courtship of immigrant voters, could be shown to suggest Lincoln’s and Republicans’ strategy to emphasize slavery’s threat to opportunities for immigrants, which overcame Douglas’s and Democrats’ strategy to emphasize the risk of social equality and race intermingling should slavery be outlawed.

The two cartoons, in effect, can enhance students’ understanding of popular, disturbing racial attitudes in which the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place, which relates to the goal of teaching students the historical skill of contextualization. As Kelly Schrum encourages in her essay on digital story-telling, students may be made to feel uncomfortable in learning about a political climate much more open in its racist ideology than our present age, although, especially in the images’ portrayal of race-mixing as scandalous, they resonate with modern conflicts over social diversity. Perhaps in this way they will not become “paralyzed” in encountering antebellum political culture, or simply write it off as uniformly racist. The conclusions I draw about each, indicated above, could be elicited from students through discussion questions.

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