Virginia Civil War 150
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"America on the Eve of the Civil War"
University of Richmond
April 29, 2009

2009 Signature Conference Slideshow

A Two-Volume DVD Set of the complete conference proceedings, including question and answer sessions and opening and closing comments.

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America on the Eve of the Civil War
Edited by Edward L. Ayers and Carolyn R. Martin
160 pages, 5 1/2 x 9
4 b&w photographs


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America on the Eve of the Civil War

The first in a series of annual Signature Conferences sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission was held on Wednesday, April 29. Dr. Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond, Virginia Civil War 150brought together many of the finest Civil War historians in the country for an unscripted, open dialogue about the United States in 1859. What was happening two years before the firing of the first shots in the nation's deadliest conflict? What did people know and what were they thinking?

"America on the Eve of the Civil War" presents a fresh perspective on enduring issues. Conducted in an interactive format like news shows, renowned historians discuss events of 1859 and their effect, limiting themselves only to what would have been known at that time. The four sessions include:

Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859

Moderator: Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond
Panelists: Christy S. Coleman, American Civil War Center
Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
Walter Johnson, Harvard University
Joan Waugh, University of California Los Angeles

The United States is completing the most exhaustive census in its history and striking patterns are emerging. All parts of the country are booming, with rapid growth in the Northeast, South, and West. Are the regions becoming more integrated, though, or divergent? Will politics calm in the midst of this growth or continue to be stirred up? Will religion and reform flourish or be smothered by prosperity?

The Future of Virginia and the South

Moderator: Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond
Panelists: Charles B. Dew, Williams College
Robert C. Kenzer, University of Richmond
Gregg D. Kimball, Library of Virginia
Lauranett L. Lee, Virginia Historical Society

The year of 1859 saw the slave-based economy of the South at an all-time peak. Slaves have never been worth more, cotton has never been worth more, and the slave-based economy of the upper South has never been more diversified or valuable. Will these trends continue?

Making Sense of John Brown's Raid

Moderator: Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond
Panelists: David W. Blight, Yale University
David S. Reynolds, City University of New York
Manisha Sinha, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Clarence E. Walker, University of California Davis

The most electrifying event of 1859 was John Brown's raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry. Virginia's execution of Brown seems to have galvanized the North, but many white Northerners, including the Republicans, refuse to endorse Brown or his tactics. The long-term effects of the raid are unclear.

Predictions for the Election of 1860

Moderator: Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond
Panelists: Jean H. Baker, Goucher College
Daniel W. Crofts, College of New Jersey
Nelson D. Lankford, Virginia Historical Society
Elizabeth R. Varon, Temple University

Taking stock of the potential candidates in each of the two major parties, panelists will determine who has the best chance of winning the nomination and the general election. There is turmoil among the Democrats, the new Republican Party shows considerable strength, and strong Southern-rights advocates are calling for radical change, so predicting a winner may be difficult.


This program is sponsored in part by the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, The History Channel, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the generous support of our donors, including the Civil War 150 Council.



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