In the thirty years leading into Civil War, orators delivered hundreds of addresses to college literary societies throughout the United States. Those addresses, which were frequently given by lawyers, legally-trained politicians, and judges, condensed the orators’ ideas about law, history, economy, technology, and education together into a short compass. They provide an important and overlooked set of data for understanding how antebellum intellectuals saw law in relation to moral, technological, and economic progress.
“The Republics of Liberty and Letters” focuses on thirty‑four addresses given at the University of North Carolina from 1827 to 1860 to see how the orators dealt with ideas of Union, law, and constitutionalism, along with the ubiquitous but vague trope of “progress.” The addresses reveal strong support for the Union, often framed in terms of support for the Constitution, and emphasize the positive role that speech has in shaping politics. They are more moderate in approach towards the era’s conflict over slavery and Union than addresses at neighboring schools. However, Whig and Democratic orators divided over their visions of the place of the educated, the importance of the rule of law, and the dangers posed by increasing democracy. The addresses, thus, reveal important points of convergence as well as division.
“The Republics of Liberty and Letters” is primarily about the content of political and legal ideas at the University of North Carolina from the 1830s through the 1850s. It focuses attention on the important ideas in circulation on this campus. Yet, it has implications for cataloging constitutional ideas and then tracing how they relate to constitutional culture. It invites further work on ideas in literary addresses at other schools, along with work on addresses given by lawyers, politicians, and judges in other venues—like legislatures and courts. Those popular constitutional ideas can then be put together with “formal” constitutional law (law in the courts) and with legislative action, and in that way enrich our understanding of the sources and contours of constitutional history.