If you can find a microfilm reader or are fortunate enough to have an original newspaper available, find a Southern newspaper printed during 1860. You will read more than your fill about slavery, the usual context being political.
For example, you've undoubtedly read news articles printed this summer that have nothing to do with the Gulf oil spill. Based on those alone, would it be accurate to say that there really wasn't much too it, that nobody really cared or was bothered about it?
Here are a two key paragraphs from an essay by Edward Ayers on the causes of the Civil War. Wish everyone would take an hour to read it. People might not actually change their minds, but the tone and focus of our discussions on causes of the war would be different.
Ayers believes that, like most issues, the causes of the war were linked in a way that overlaid one issue with another. Americans usually prefer to pick one and ignore the others, which is never right.
Ayers finds two kinds of contingency working here: the chain of surface, discrete events -- John Brown's raid, the divided Democratic convention of 1860 -- that lead to the explosion in 1861, and what he terms a deeper contingency involving the basic social and cultural structure of the dividing nation. ''By the time people made up their minds to fight," he writes, ''slavery itself had become obscured. Southern white men did not fight for slavery; they fought for a new nation built on slavery. White Northerners did not fight to end slavery; they fought to defend the integrity of their nation. Yet slavery, as Abraham Lincoln later put it, 'somehow' drove everything."
The political system that had evolved over the first 70 years of the United States could not handle the challenge posed by slavery in the new context of modernity in the 1850s. It is that context on which I focus. The remarkably rapid spread of telegraphs and railroads changed the very medium through which politics worked. When people throughout the nation heard what people everywhere else were saying, and finding out in a matter of days and in a highly partisan manner, the enduring problem of slavery suddenly became a problem that could not be contained by the fractured and weak political parties of the time, parties that had become weakened in part because of the new media. In this context, Uncle Tom's Cabin and John Brown's Raid became media events that divided Americans as never before.
The novel that Ayers mentions, coupled with 'Bleeding Kansas', Harpers Ferry and the attack on U.S. Senator Charles Sumner were huge in shaping public opinion during the years immediately before the war. Correct me if I'm wrong, but up until recently, I don't recall discussions on this board that mention any of them. For an understanding of the Southern mind during the election campaign, the drought and fears brought about by John Brown's attack are both important and immediate concerns. It's also important to understand the heated Southern debate over Senator Douglas, the leading candidate or the Democratic nomination in 1860.
I haven't made a study on the subject, and my study of antebellum newspapers has focused largely on those printed in Alabama. About eighty-five were published regularly in Alabama during 1860. The unprecedented public interest in newspapers in the years leading up to the war should say something. The miles of railroad track in use in Alabama quadrupled from 1850 to 1860, the number of newspapers in circulation growing by the same leaps and bounds.
During the months leading up to the election of 1860, slavery as a subject of political debate far outranks any other topic on the front page. The articles I have in mind are about public meetings in which county leaders nominated delegates to state conventions. At least one article was written about resolutions passed and speeches made in each Alabama county meeting. You can read different versions of the same meeting in different newspapers. Then there are articles about delegates named to the national convention in Charleston, the walk-out in Charleston over Douglas and his position on states rights and slavery, and more delegates nominated for the convention in Baltimore. Remove slavery from the debate, and all the wind is out of the sails.
Remove slavery from the campaign of 1860, and there is no split in the Democratic or Whig Party, and the Republican Party doesn't exist except as a small faction in the North.
Might things have been different.