The Jacksonian and Antebellum Eras: Documents Decoded. By John R. Vile, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2016. 279 pages. Acid free $81 (ISBN 978-1-4408-4981-7). E-book available (978-1-4408-4982-4), call for pricing.

Many, though not all, of the public domain speeches, letters, and resolutions contained in this work are available on the World Wide Web, often with contextual information and commentary. Why, then, do we need a collection of primary sources such as this?

Vile says that his purpose throughout the Documents Decoded series is to “combine edited primary documents with commentary and annotations that are suitable for high school and college students and for citizens who want to get a better perspective of various issues and historical periods” (ix). Perspective is the key word here, and Vile succeeds in providing this through the scope of the work. He has gathered here a sufficient variety of sources and perspectives to provide a reader with a sense of the complexity and the important voices in major political and social issues in the United States from 1829 to 1861. His commentary and annotations do succeed in clarifying the sometimes quaint nineteenth-century language, in making the implicit explicit, and in providing useful context.

The work is divided into three major sections: “The Jacksonian Years,” covering 1829 to 1836; “Years of Expansion, Nascent Reform, and Manifest Destiny,” covering 1837 to 1849; and “Prelude to Irrepressible Conflict,” covering 1850 to 1861. The sections contain seventeen, fourteen, and twenty-one primary documents, respectively. Some examples of writers included in this work are Daniel Webster, John Ross, Martin Van Buren, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, John C. Calhoun, and Sojourner Truth. In addition to speeches and essays by persons such as these, Vile includes some official documents such as the Texas Declaration of Independence, the court opinion in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The voices in the volume provide necessary diversity, including women and minorities, key figures, varying geographical perspectives, and opposing views.

Each entry includes a one-paragraph introduction that sets the context. Vile’s commentary appears as marginal notes that help clarify the documents’ context and language. Each note corresponds to a passage of text that is highlighted in gray. This highlighting is, however, unnecessary and annoying, making the text more difficult to see.

The work contains a helpful chronology of events in the years covered by the volume, a useful bibliography of suggested readings, and a thorough index. The hardcover volume is attractive but not pretentious, in keeping with most ABC-CLIO publications.

When compared to a free internet collection of primary sources, such as American Rhetoric’s Online Speech Bank https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speechbank.htm and other internet resources, Vile’s work provides a useful focus on a well-defined period in American history, the perspective that comes with careful curation and intentional balance, and consequently a much more complete view of the Jacksonian and antebellum eras than a researcher could easily obtain by searching online. His work does indeed belong on the reference shelves of public, high school, and university libraries.—Steven R. Edscorn, Executive Director of Libraries, Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, Oklahoma


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