Rachel Shelden

  • Fellowship year:2010-2011
  • University: University of Virginia
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: United States
  • Dissertation Title: Washington Brotherhood: Friendship, Politics, and the Coming of the Civil War
  • Rachel Sheldon’s dissertation examines the influence of community life in Washington, D.C. on the course of American political events leading up to the Civil War. She argues that Washington was an incubator of unionism in the mid-nineteenth century in two ways.

    First, while hostility between Northerners and Southerners did grow throughout the nation in the years before the Civil War, the experience of living in Washington fundamentally altered the way that federal politicians understood their fellow countrymen. Mixing at boarding houses, churches, parties and balls, temperance clubs, and even gambling dens, most federal politicians were exposed to colleagues from states across the Union.  Overall, they interacted in the vibrant social community of Washington. The friendships that these congressmen, cabinet members, and other office holders made while living in the nation’s capital gave them a unique view of the Union.

    Second, Washington convinced many politicians of their invincibility in solving sectional conflicts. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, congressmen and other politicians argued that newspapers had exaggerated the extent of tension in Congress and in Washington; really there was a sense of common purpose in the capital city. These men had proof: throughout the 1840s and 1850s, amid lively social and political life of Washington D.C., politicians had been able to create some form of sectional compromise.  Ultimately, federal politicians failed to prevent war because of this misplaced faith in their ability to create compromise.