Matthew Axtell, History

American Steamboat Gothic

Mon, 11/15/2010
4:30 PM, Library Lounge, Bendheim Center for Finance
Event Category: 
Graduate Students

*Note – schedule change*

LEGS, or "Law-Engaged Graduate Students," meets during the academic year to discuss a work in progress by one of our Graduate Associates. Academic papers, dissertation proposals, and dissertation chapters have been presented at these meetings, to an audience of fellow graduate students. 

In the LEGS seminar on 15 November, Matthew Axtell will present ""American Steamboat Gothic."

The paper can be dowloaded here (password required).

Matthew writes:  "This paper is a history of the Ohio River’s changing legal geography in the thirty years before the U.S. Civil War.  It attempts to embed its analysis within the hydrologic environment that antebellum river law attempted to define and govern.  In general, the paper describes how residents of the Ohio River Valley made laws to govern cross-boundary uncertainties in the antebellum Ohio River zone, and how these rules were implemented, used, and revised through a series of social interactions within and across the river itself.  The piece begins in the 1830s, when public laws promoted the river as an East-West free trade zone a for a nationalized steamboat economy.  The heart of the piece describes a middle period between about 1834 and 1851, where regularized mobility along the river placed stresses on older, locally-based jurisdictional lines of power.  By the 1840s, the river became a tense North-South “floating borderland” that eventually fell under slaveholder control.  The paper ends on the eve of secession and Civil War, with federal courts first defending the river’s status as a territorial extension of America’s Southern states and then sanctioning technological modifications that caused the river to vanish from everyday political view.  In telling this story, I hope to demonstrate that for people struggling with the river’s legal status during the mid-1800s, the river was both an object of legal contest - subject to competing theories of anthropocentric manipulation – and the floating arena of this contest, at times interacting with the contestants’ every move.  As some historians and geographers have noted, political control can be achieved through the control of water, and the river welcomed attempts at state-building during the antebellum period.  But at the same time, the continued ability of people, objects, and social problems to flow across political boundaries along the river’s current undermined many of the new administrative arrangements the river inspired.  If controlling the Ohio symbolized political power over other people, this power  - like the flow of water itself - was capricious and in constant motion, prompting countless social innovations but defying unitary administration."