As I began to conduct my research this week, one of my primary objectives was to find a way to begin to narrow the focus of my research topic. My overarching topic is in looking at the politics of the 1850s, with the state of New Hampshire serving as a case study of sorts to compare local and state political results and reactions to those on the national scale. Yet, this still seems to be a very broad scope through which to conduct research. My answer to this issue came about through the secondary source Fanatics & Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War by Lorman Ratner and Dwight Teeter Jr. This book, which examines the rise of mass media through the newspaper in the years before the Civil War, pointed me to the idea of considering how the politics of the 1850s were covered in this growing media—and how such coverage, in turn, both reflected and shaped the diverging political perspectives of North and South.
The secondary source material that I posted this week came from the introduction of this book. In this introduction, the authors underscore the ways in which the mass media—in the form of the newspaper—developed in the years leading up to the Civil War and came to dominate public perspectives of current events. Not only did these newspapers provide individuals with access to what was happening across the nation, but the language used to report these events came to increasingly reflect the growing sectional attitudes. As the authors point out, newspaper reporters and editors were able to have significant sway over public discourse through the wording that they used as well as the subject matter that they chose to include. Thus, this secondary source emphasizes how critical it is to consider the role of the media when studying prewar politics.
What I find to be particularly interesting about the newspaper media is that not only does the reporting provide important insights into the changing politics of the time, but the newspapers themselves—and their rise to dominance during this period—serve as examples of the other important ways in which the nation was changing. The secondary source highlights changes in both technology and transportation, as well as in patterns of population growth and urbanization, as contributing to the rise of the newspaper. Keeping all of this in mind certainly points to the intricate ways in which the nation was evolving and changing. As I continue my research in the coming weeks, I am interested to not only read more about the relationship between the media and prewar politics, but also to look for some primary source examples of this coverage in the newspapers.