Distinguished Lecturers
Rachel A. Shelden

Rachel A. Shelden

Rachel Shelden is Associate Professor of History and Director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University. She is a scholar of nineteenth-century American politics, culture, and constitutionalism, with a particular interest in how personal relationships affect political and constitutional problems. She is the author of Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (2013), which examines the social relationships of federal politicians in Washington in the tumultuous years before the American Civil War. Shelden is also the co-editor of A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History (2012), and has written about the history of American federalism and partisanship during the first 100 years of the nation. She is currently working on a book about the evolution of the Supreme Court’s relationship to American politics in the nineteenth century, with a particular focus on the partisan political activities of the justices of that era. Her current book project has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, the George Washington Library at Mount Vernon, and the Virginia Historical Society.

OAH Lectures by Rachel A. Shelden

In the 1840s and 1850s, congressmen who came to Washington, DC formed intimate relationships with one another in boardinghouses, hotels, gambling dens, and bars. These relationships helped shape how politicians responded to the increasingly tense atmosphere around the country as the fight over slavery intensified. While congressmen fanned the flames of sectional discord through what was known as buncombe speechmaking --the art of making speeches only for their constituents -- they simultaneously found themselves unprepared for the severity of the conflict that would come in the winter of 1860-61.

In June 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech, famous for declaring that he believed the country could not last "half slave and half free." In this same speech, Lincoln offered a theory that four men had conspired to perpetuate slavery throughout the United States: Lincoln's senate rival Stephen Douglas, former president Franklin Pierce, President James Buchanan, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney. Lincoln's charge has been dismissed as exaggeration and political theater, but his view that members of all three branches of government could conspire was not unfounded. Lincoln may have gotten some of the details wrong, but in the context of antebellum politics, it was entirely possible that presidents, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices would be in regular contact about issues that affected the nation -- particularly slavery.

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