Owning the Past and Present in Nineteenth-Century America

AHA Session 118
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Ontario Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

The mid-nineteenth century was a moment of profound change in the history of information exchange in America. The confluence of new technologies, new economic structures, and a disruptive, transformative war, compelled Americans to rethink their ideas about the nature of information and how it was communicated, preserved, and owned. This panel will bring together specialists in communications history, journalism studies, and cultural history in an effort to understand the emergence of a new information culture in mid to late nineteenth-century America.  In doing so it will examine new cultural practices of communication alongside public debates about the consequences of these practices for both contemporaries and future generations. Will Slauter will explore how the expansion of press associations led to a new conception of news as a form of private property. At the heart of conflicts among publishers was the question of what news actually was and how it might be legitimately appropriated. Yael Sternhell will trace the efforts in the Confederate States of America to preserve information and salvage it from destruction at the end of the Civil War. With both past and future looming large in their minds, white Southerners made a conscious effort to influence how their story would be told by subsequent generations. The preservation of information was a critical instrument in the hands of Confederates who were in the process of losing a war but determined not to lose ownership of its history. Richard John will reconstruct the roots and significance of postbellum debates over the relationship between government and the press and their lasting impact on questions of information management and corporate regulation. While all three papers are concerned with events that took place in the nineteenth century, the core issues they raise are as relevant today as they were at the time. As the Internet revolution continues to unfold, debates about the ownership of information have returned with a vengeance, encompassing governments, news corporations, and individuals around the world. Some of the court cases and arguments discussed in these papers are being used again today. The ways Americans in the nineteenth century dealt with a series of transformations in the nature, status, and significance of information may have much to teach us about the upheavals of our own day.

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