The Lingering Influence of Revolutionary Political Discourse From the Civil War and Reconstruction Era

By Bhadrajee S. Hewage
2021, Vol. 13 No. 01 | pg. 1/1


The Civil War was a seminal moment in the historical development in the United States. The American Revolution may have created the U.S. as a sovereign nation, but the Civil War helped to determine what kind of nation America would become. The Reconstruction era, from Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to Hayes's removal of federal troops from the South in 1877, further defined how exactly the U.S. would evolve into the nation that it is today. By examining the attitudes towards the extension of slavery in the pre-war U.S., the decisions taken by the Union and Confederate governments during the course of the war, and the stubbornness and determination demonstrated during the Reconstruction periods, this article explores how a clear pattern of revolution emerges in U.S. political discourse. The move away from a willingness to compromise and the adoption of binary positions created a political discourse of revolution that continues, arguably, to this day.

The U.S. Civil War is undoubtedly a central event in the formation of this country’s history. The American Revolution from 1776 to 1783 may have created the United States as a sovereign nation, but the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 helped to determine what kind of nation this country would become. The Reconstruction era, spanning the Emancipation of Proclamation of 1863 to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, further defined how exactly this nation would evolve into the country it is today. Whereas the Declaration of Independence defended the right of those in the Thirteen Colonies to revolt against British tyranny, both the Union and Confederate governments also justified their decision to take up arms to either protect or to destroy a social system based on landed aristocracy and predicated upon the exploitative labor system of racialized slavery. In this paper, I argue that this period of Civil War and Reconstruction, through its treatment of slavery and its aftermath, also constituted a genuine “revolution” in American life. A rebellion most notable in its changes to the U.S. political climate.

The Revolution of 1776 was novel in its transition away from a system of perceived imperial despotism to a model based on republican democracy. Yet, the antebellum, Civil War, and postbellum eras also highlighted political innovations in themselves. The period began with compromise and placation over the extension and retention of slavery in various parts of the United States during the middle of the nineteenth century. The phase ended, however, in a climate of entrenchment and intransigence when Federal Troops left the South in 1877. By examining the attitudes towards the extension of slavery in the pre-war United States, the decisions taken by the Union and Confederate governments during the course of the war, and the stubbornness and determination demonstrated during the reconstruction periods, I believe a clear pattern of revolution emerges in American political discourse. A move away from a willingness to compromise to the adoption of binary positions that continues, arguably, to this day.

Indeed, an analysis of the “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 shows the conciliatory approaches taken regarding the slavery question by those both in favor and against the institution. The agreement allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slaveholding state while the rest of the territory acquired in the “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803 lying north of the 36-degree 30-minute parallel would forever be slave-free. Republican Senator Charles Sumner also noted the irenic nature of the deal and claimed: “[n]othing is more certain in history than the fact, that Missouri could not have been admitted as a slave State, had not certain members from the free States been reconciled to the measure by the incorporation of this prohibition into the act of admission.”1 Even though Sumner claimed that in “the North it [the Compromise] was accepted as a defeat,”2 the decision was remarkable given that both sides appeared to concede that slavery henceforth would be confined only to areas where it presently existed.

Although Senator Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 showed the desire to transport slavery to land previously covered by the 1820 Compromise, the placatory intent of Douglas’s proposal was still evident. The Bill intended to leave the people of the Kansas territory “perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way.”3 With his proposal, Douglas wished to appease Southern leaders such as Missouri Senator David Rice Atchison who sought to block the organization of territories which banned slavery in order to maintain Southern dominance in the national political arena. According to historian Adam Goodheart, Douglas claimed that the U.S. Constitution clearly “enshrined the right of each state to be governed by its own people …. Each new territory should choose its policy on slavery by a fair majority vote – thus he promised, ‘burying Northern Abolitionism and Southern Disunionism in a common grave’.”4 This concept of each territory choosing its own policy would result in the creation of an unprecedented middle position on the slavery issue through the concept of “popular sovereignty.”

Defending his advocacy of the popular sovereignty doctrine during the senatorial race at Ottawa, Illinois in 1858, Douglas claimed that the Founding Fathers had decided on a settlement for North and South based on different institutions. Abraham Lincoln believed that popular sovereignty was wrong in its “prospective principle” by letting slavery into areas “where men can be found inclined to take it.” However, Douglas claimed: “[t]his doctrine of Mr. Lincoln, of uniformity among the institutions of different States, is a new doctrine, never dreamed of by Washington, Madison, or framers of the Government.”5 Douglas regarded Lincoln’s stance against expanding slavery constituted as a “new doctrine,” and Lincoln’s remarks during that Senate campaign did indeed mark a change in attitudes amongst some in abolitionist circles. Speaking at Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln asserted that the government would not be able to endure “permanently half slave and half free …. It will become all one thing or all the other.”6 Given the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, Lincoln knew that the policy of giving in to territories would no longer work. Given Chief Justice Taney’s decision, even if those in the territories determined that they did not want slavery, Congress or territorial legislatures could not legally exclude the institution. Lincoln wanted those in favor of free institutions to give up the middle ground and decide to be either for or against slavery’s expansion.

Even in a nation already compromised into functioning as a free North and slave-holding South, the bargain was just not holding up for some. For African Americans, the Dred Scott decision in the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 hammered home the message that there was nowhere in the U.S. where they could legally be protected from enslavement or re-enslavement. Historian Steven Hahn writes that during the antebellum period in the North, African American settlements were not necessarily indicative of “free black communities.” Instead they reflected “marronage” as “communities of fugitives from slavery lodged in a society in which slavery still lived.”7 Indeed, when poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper writes: “[a]ll that my yearning spirit craves, [i]s bury me not in a land of slaves”8, she alludes to the fact that even though the U.S. existed as a free North and slave South, this current understanding was untenable. Slavery didn’t just stain one part of the country; it permeated through the entire body of the nation.

The political moves away from compromise came at the initiative of the Southern states themselves. South Carolina justified its secession claiming “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery, has led to the disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.”9 Mississippi further claimed that attempted Northern subjugation “has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.”10 Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens himself emphasized his belief that the North had pushed itself against the South excessively in the pre-secession years and that the South could not give in any longer. As Stephens claimed: “[t]he surest way to secure peace, is to show your ability to maintain your rights.”11 The South had given up on the Union and its insistences that slavery could spread no further. As Lincoln had predicted, the Union could no longer remain half-free and half-slave. Thus, the Southern political class arrived at the extraordinary decision that secession from the Union was the only way it could hold onto its cherished labor system.

This realization that compromise over secession and slavery was no more a viable option was not just a Southern phenomenon. Having won the Presidency on a promise that he would not interfere with slavery where it had existed in the South, Lincoln eventually issued an Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. As historian Michael Johnson maintains: “[t]he Emancipation Proclamation signaled Lincoln’s conclusion that a war to save the Union could not be won without ending slavery in the Confederacy.” He adds: “[i]n addition to announcing a new war aim, the Emancipation Proclamation declared a new meaning for the Union.”12 Lincoln sincerely believed that tying the cause of African American emancipation to his aim to restore the Union was in the North’s best interest. Seeing the carnage on the Civil War battlefronts, Lincoln believed that he owed it to the dead that a compromised nation consisting of two bitterly opposed halves could no longer exist. Speaking at Gettysburg in August 1863, Lincoln remarked about the dead, “we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…a new birth of freedom.”13 A stunning change in the position of a President who idolized the “Great Compromiser” Senator Henry Clay and who had originally wished to restore the Union as it was.

The move away from compromised understandings also came to the attention of African Americans themselves. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass had lamented back in 1852 that Independence Day left enslaved blacks thinking “your [white American] celebration is a sham…your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”14 A situation that many white Americans then still tolerated and were unwilling to change. Yet, the realization that the Union government would emancipate African Americans and no longer undermine their status totally transformed the political meaning of the conflict. Douglass knew that there were still Southern sympathizers in the North. He recalled: “[a]ll their plans for the future have been projected with a view to a reconstruction of the American Government upon the basis of compromise between slaveholding and non-slaveholding States.” However, Douglass rejoiced that the Emancipation Proclamation did away “at a blow with [this] whole class of compromisers and corrupters.”15 No longer, Douglass believed, would African American liberty be the pawn of the white American political class.

In addition to African Americans, the progress of the war also underlined the brutality of the slavery regime in the South for many Northerners. The conflict underscored for them how America could never go back to its antebellum climate of political dealings. In his account of life in servitude on a Louisiana plantation, Solomon Northup wrote “[m]y object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.”16 In 1863, a decade after Northup’s gripping account, a Union regiment from New York made its way to Northup’s former plantation and expressed their horror at seeing slavery still alive and in action. Curator Olga Tsapina notes how “Union soldiers made a point to seek out tangible evidence of slavery’s inhumanity …. This sort of ‘war tourism’ served to remind the North that slavery was a real and powerful evil that might just survive the war.”17 Indeed, the discovery of the savagery of plantation life by Northern soldiers during the conflict served to remind those of the menace that could return with any political compromise.

Nevertheless, there were still those in the North who still wished to make a deal with the South to arrive at a negotiated peace. For these “Peace Democrats” or “Copperheads,” a settlement could be reached whereas the war could end without the necessity to emancipate the enslaved African American population. Those who espoused this ideology such as Clement Vallandigham and Alexander Long got behind former Union general George McClellan and hoped that a war-weary public would elect the Democratic candidate in the 1864 presidential election. But, as historian James McPherson highlights, many Northerners including serving Union soldiers believed that any kind of peace settlement rendered by the Democrats would be lacking and unsatisfactory. Union soldiers shared sentiments that a McClellan triumph would bring “inglorious peace and shame, the old truckling subserviency to Southern domination,” with the claim that “[w]e all want peace, but none any but an honorable one.”18 Lincoln’s resounding electoral victory demonstrated to Americans how there was no going back to the days of compromise and negotiation to achieve a divided settlement. The public seemed to have finally understood the revolutionary meaning of Lincoln’s famous prediction back at Springfield six years earlier. A house divided against itself now simply could not stand.

Even after the conclusion of the war in the Union’s favor, the reconstruction period also highlighted the political aversion to granting concessions. Liberated African Americans did not hesitate to use their new-found freedoms to improve their lives. Some former slaves took used their independence to sever their connections to previous masters and migrate to the North. As the story of liberated slave Jourdan Anderson underlines, these African Americans refused to return to their former plantations unless they received what was owed to them. Unwilling to receive any kind of a compromise as to what he believed his master owed him, Anderson wrote: “[i]f you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future.”19 No plea or desperation to save his master’s ailing plantation would make him budge. Historian Eric Foner also adds that “southern freedmen did not believe the end of slavery should mean a diminution of either the privileges or level of income they had enjoyed as slaves.”20 African Americans had a firm idea about what they thought they deserved and were loath to anything less.

Politicians also refused to give in when faced with challenges regarding reconstruction efforts. During presidential reconstruction by Andrew Johnson following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson pursued a reconstructionist policy that favored Democrat political sentiment. Johnson refused to consider the incorporation of African American suffrage in his reconstruction plan believing that it would lead to open racialized warfare between whites and blacks in the South. His intransigence could be seen in his response to a delegation of African American leaders in February 1866 where he vowed, “I do not want to adopt a policy that I believe will end in a contest between the races.” Johnson added “I am not willing, under any circumstance to adopt a policy which I believe will only result in the sacrifice of his [God’s] life and the shedding of his [God’s] blood.”21 Johnson clearly did not want to bend to anyone who suggested suffrage for the freed slaves. Yet Republicans also were not willing to concede to the President. Establishing a Joint Committee in December 1865 to investigate whether Johnson’s reconstructed state governments were eligible for Congressional representation, Republicans determined that Congress and not the President should ultimately decide the path for reconstruction policy.

Remarkably, even the final collapse of reconstruction in the 1870s demonstrates the give up rather than give in attitude which had come to dominate political life. In the 1872 Presidential Election, Horace Greeley ran against Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant under the conciliatory slogan “let us clasp hands across the bloody chasm.”22 Grant trounced Greeley, winning the popular vote by 11.8%. Republicans failed to uphold African American suffrage and prevent black disenfranchisement, but this also demonstrates just how far the Republicans went to preserve the former areas of state jurisdiction. Republicans seemed unable to compromise away their state-centeredness. Historian M. Les Benedict asserts that in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Republican party generally desired to limit the scope of constitutional amendments such as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments protecting African American voting rights so as not to impede state autonomy. He writes that historians might characterize the “Republicans’ final decision in 1877 to cease attempting to protect citizens’ rights in the South through national power more aptly as a consequence rather than a betrayal of their principles of 1865-1868 [based on the reluctance to fundamentally alter the federal system].”23 Republicans knew that without suffrage and political power that African Americans would become victimized by restored governments. Yet rather than give in to the concerns of African Americans and shift position, Republicans appeared in 1877 to prefer giving up on reconstruction altogether.

Indeed, the transition from compromise to intransigence from the antebellum to the postbellum eras of U.S. life marks a clear revolution in American political life. As historian Peyton McCrary writes of the era, “[i]n describing the Civil War as a revolution, the Republicans emphasized the irreconcilability of slavery and freedom; and the impossibility of compromise with the South.”24 What began with the willingness to tolerate agreements and proposals over states such as Missouri and territories such as Kansas and Nebraska ended in Civil War and division over how to reconstruct Southern states. For white Americans, nonetheless, attempts to heal wounds and to establish a collective reckoning of the entire period in the years post-Reconstruction have somewhat softened the discord. Ever since Greeley’s bold desire to “clasp hands across the bloody chasm,” reunions such as the “Blue and Gray Reunion” of 1913 and reenactments such as the 150th Anniversary Reenactment in 2013 have helped to involve those from North and South in sharing the remembrance of the period. For all the division of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, reconciliation thus appears to have won out.

Yet, the aversion to compromise still has not completely disappeared. Referencing the reluctance of Congress to intervene in the affairs of individual states, Benedict writes: “[e]ven today, it is only with the utmost reluctance that our national government will intervene to protect citizens’ rights within states.”25 Author Ta-Nehisi Coates also emphasizes that today, the legacy of remembering the antebellum, bellum, and postbellum era appears unable to be shared with African Americans. He relays “the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people – acted out by white people, on white people’s terms – in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props.” He adds: “[w]e are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative.”26 When faced with alternative narratives and resolute opposition, it thus appears that the eagerness to give up and double down rather than to give in and concede still has not fully escaped the narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.


Anderson, Jourdan. Jourdan Anderson to Col. P.H. Anderson. Letter. From Letters of Note.

Benedict, M. Les. “The Conservative Basis of Radical Reconstruction.” In Major Problems In the Civil War and Reconstruction: Documents and Essays, edited by Michael Perman, 343-354. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1991. 

Chase, Salmon P. Salmon P. Chase Papers: Speeches and Writings, -1868; Speeches; 1853, Apr. 9, debate in United States Senate. 1853. Manuscript/Mixed Material. 

Douglas, Stephen. “First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois.” Speech, Ottawa, IL, August 21, 1858.

National Park Service.

Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Speech, Rochester, NY, July 5, 1852. Teaching American History.

Foner, Eric. Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Hahn, Steven, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Johnson, Michael P. Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War: Selected Writings and Speeches. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Lincoln, Abraham. “A House Divided.” Speech, Springfield, IL, June 16, 1858. Abraham Lincoln Online,

—. “Gettysburg Address.” Speech, Gettysburg, PA, November 19, 1863. Abraham Lincoln Online.

McCrary, Peyton. “The Radicalism of the Northern Republicans.” In Major Problems In the Civil War and Reconstruction: Documents and Essays, edited by Michael Perman. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1991. 

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Mississippi. A Declaration of the Immediate causes which induce and justify the secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. Jackson, MS: Power and Cadwallader, Book and Job Printers, 1861. 

Nast, Thomas. “‘Let Us Clasp Hands over the Bloody Chasm’-Horace Greeley.” Illustration.

Harper’s Weekly, September 21, 1872. From Oklahoma State University Digital Collections 

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. New York, NY: Penguin, 2016.

—. “First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois.” Speech, Ottawa, IL, August 21, 1858. National Park Service.

South Carolina. Convention, and Sabin Americana. Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina From the Federal Union: And the Ordinance of Secession. Charleston: Evans & Cogswell, printers to the Convention, 1860. 

Stephens, Alexander. “Cornerstone Address.” Speech, Savannah, GA, March 21, 1861. Teaching American History.

Sumner, Charles. “The Crime Against Kansas.” Speech, Washington, D.C., May 19, 1856. National Humanities Center.

Tsapina, Olga. “Where Solomon Northup Was a Slave.” The Huntington (blog). March 3, 2014. 


1.) Salmon P. Chase, Salmon P. Chase Papers: Speeches and Writings, -1868; Speeches; 1853, Apr. 9, debate in United States Senate. 1853. Manuscript/Mixed Material.

2.) Charles Sumner, “The Crime Against Kansas” (speech, Washington, D.C., May 19, 1856). National Humanities Center.

3.) Ibid.

4.) Adam Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 39.

5.) Abraham Lincoln, “First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois” (speech, Ottawa, IL, August 21, 1858) National Park Service,; Stephen Douglas, “First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois” (speech, Ottawa, IL, August 21, 1858) National Park Service,

6.) Abraham Lincoln, “A House Divided” (speech, Springfield, IL, June 16, 1858) Abraham Lincoln Online, [Emphasis Original].

7.) Steven Hahn, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 24.

8.) “Bury Me in a Free Land,” Anti-Slavery Bugle, November 20, 1858.

9.) South Carolina. Convention, and Sabin Americana. Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina From the Federal Union: And the Ordinance of Secession. Charleston, SC: Evans & Cogswell, printers to the Convention, 1860.

10.) Mississippi. A Declaration of the Immediate causes which induce and justify the secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. Jackson, MS: Power and Cadwallader, Book and Job Printers, 1861.

11.) Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Address” (speech, Savannah, GA, March 21, 1861) Teaching American History.

12.) Michael P. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War: Selected Writings and Speeches (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001), 267.

13.) Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address” (speech, Gettysburg, PA, November 19, 1863) Abraham Lincoln Online.

14.) Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (speech, Rochester, NY, July 5, 1852) Teaching American History.

15.) “Emancipation Proclaimed,” Douglass’ Monthly, October 1862.

16.) Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016), 5.

17.) Olga Tsapina, “Where Solomon Northup Was a Slave,” The Huntington (blog), March 3, 2014.

18.) James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 803-804.

19.) Jourdan Anderson, Jourdan Anderson to Col. P.H. Anderson. Letter. From Letters of Note.

20.) Eric Foner, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 613.

21.) Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, 495.

22.) Thomas Nast, “‘Let Us Clasp Hands over the Bloody Chasm’-Horace Greeley.” Illustration. Harper’s Weekly, September 21, 1872. From Oklahoma State University Digital Collections

23.) M. Les Benedict, “The Conservative Basis of Radical Reconstruction,” in Major Problems In the Civil War and Reconstruction: Documents and Essays, ed. Michael Perman (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1991), 353.

24.) Peyton McCrary, “The Radicalism of the Northern Republicans,” in Major Problems In the Civil War and Reconstruction: Documents and Essays, ed. Michael Perman (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1991), 430.

25.) Benedict, “The Conservative Basis of Radical Reconstruction,” 353.

26.) “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” The Atlantic, December 8, 2011.

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