Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Embracing the Entirety; Close and Distant Reading of The Congressional Globe

Guest Blogger

For the Symposium on Kurt Lash, The Reconstruction Amendments: The Essential Documents (University of Chicago Press, 2021)(2 vols.).

Lea VanderVelde

Kurt Lash’s new two volume collection is long overdue, but perhaps it arrives too late.  It is now possible to consider the Reconstruction debates in their entirety. 

Accessing the Reconstruction debates has always been problematic.  The Congressional Globe, as the series was then called, was set in type that was hand-carved and hand-set. This artisanal method meant that even the same word did not image identically each time. This doesn’t matter to the human eye, but it does to digitization.  The page layout is also problematic. The oversized pages are set in three narrow columns and an extremely tiny font. Given this format, a magnifying glass is useful, and on-line versions do not to improve much on the 3-column format. The narrow columns create frequent word breaks  making searching difficult.  From the 43rd Congress on, a government printing office published the records and changed the page layout. These later volumes are much easier to digitize, see, for example, Gentzkow, et al. (2018) who have digitized the U.S. Congress speeches from 1873 to 2017,[1] but by 1873 much of the heady period of constitutional reform had ended.

For decades lawyers, legal scholars and historians have depended upon Alfred Avins 1967 volume and index to navigate through the debates.[2] Avins improved upon the Globe’s own index which was very ineffective.  But so much of civil rights has been re-imagined since 1967, that Avins’ work has lost its usefulness.

Professor Lash’s collection is one approach to the problem.  It begins with antebellum constitution and a collection of texts that are indisputably important to understanding the Amendments.  These texts, like the Northwest Territorial Ordinance of 1789, and the Federalist papers, are already available on line at sites like Avalon. Nonetheless, it is convenient to have a hard copy on one’s bookshelf.  This reader also found the segments on ratification particularly worthwhile.  It is difficult to track what is happening in the states during ratification.  Yet, here, as in any selection, the basic issue is what to prioritize and what to omit.  Lash supplements official statements with newspaper articles, a selection that favors The New York Times, which is also readily available on-line. One wonders how representative these selections are.  I can say with some confidence after reading several decades of The Missouri Republican, that that St.Louis-based newspaper, which was the paper most widely read west of the Mississippi, rarely if ever reprinted articles from The New York Times.

But the Reconstruction debates are the holy grail of that period of constitutional amendment. And it is that discourse to which I wish to devote most careful attention.  The Globe is the remarkable transcription of an extended discourse over twelve successive years of constitutional and legal change.  As historians recognize, the long American nineteenth century can be split in two by the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Afterwards, everything was different. In its day-by-day accounts, pausing only for recesses, The Congressional Globe identifies markers of that transition.

I am not sure that it is even possible to agree upon a selection from this discourse which can be considered sufficient for understanding the constitutional amendments. In my seminar on Reconstruction and the Constitution, I emphasize that there are many versions of Reconstruction, and though different, each has its place. The Radical Republicans had their version. Frederick Douglas, Senator Hiram Revels, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and Harriet Tubman, would each give different accounts of Reconstruction based upon their lived experience.  Chinese laborers in the west, who could not become citizens, and Native Americans were also impacted differently by the amendments and would have had different perceptions of which surrounding speeches were most illuminating.  Moving beyond contemporaries, the brilliant scholar W.E.B. Dubois has written his version of Reconstruction, as have generations since him.  Suffice it to say, with no uniform understanding of Reconstruction, we cannot expect agreement on the essential documents necessary for interpreting the constitutional amendments that period produced.

Returning to Lash’s collection, the organization considers each amendment separately and further divides its history into phases: drafting, debate, and ratification.  The technique of chronological ordering within each amendment’s progress tends to artifically divide the discourse.  The topics of equality and suffrage, for example, central to the later amendments, were discussed well before the Congress finished with the 13th Amendment. Congressional reformers envisioned ideas and gave speeches upon key topics long before the words had formed into sentences for amendment.  By dividing the amendments as separate enactments rather than conceptualizing them as a whole, Professor Lash has created his version of Reconstruction.

Moreover, the collection’s selections of congressional speeches seem based upon whether that amendment itself was on the table that day.  Yet, that focus misses important colloquys that give meaning to the amendments’ objectives. Consider, for example, the colloquy between Senators Charles Sumner and Reverdy Johnson, the advocate for the Dred Scott decision, on April 19, 1864, an exchange that enlightened the meaning of the term, “involuntary servitude.” Consider also, the colloquy between Senators Edgar Cowan and Henry Wilson on January 22, 1866, after enactment of the 13th but providing contrasting views of its significance. Neither of these exchanges find their way into this collection.  Yet, these pointed exchanges are enlightening because they sharpen the issue. 

Some of the speeches in the Globe are patently objectionable to modern audiences, yet omitting them alters our ability to percieve all that was said. The collection includes women suffragists’ writings but not Congressmen Noelle’s speech on the subject of women’s suffrage?  Perhaps it is because however single-mindedly  white women pushed their cause, Noelle’s speech is downright racist.  Yet, as a voting member of congress, he commanded the floor to hold forth on his views. 

A further point is that it matters that there was a much larger context of other governance policies before the Congress.  The Constitution was not amended in a vacuum.  One cannot lose sight of the myriad other reform objectives that these ambitious congresses enacted.[3] There was so much on these lawmakers’ minds and under discussion often on the same days that they discussed constitutional amendment.  Were the members of Reconstruction Congress only thinking about the constitution’s amendment when amendment was directly the subject of discussion.  That seems entirely unlikely. It is more probable that their thinking about constitutional matters evolved and continued to be influenced while engaged in a collective discourse on completely different matters of public welfare, the republic they felt charged with the mission of bringing about. The Congressmen discussed the consequences of secession and republican forms of government, and they enacted major new government programs, such as the Freedmen’s Bureau, Internal Revenue, a bankruptcy bill, veterans’ pensions, the Homestead Act, and subsidies for railroads. All contributed to their larger vision of good governance and what the republic should become in keeping with their mission to amend the Constitution.   

The Globe as Transcript of a Multi-vocal Discourse.

In my research I have abandoned the practice of selection in favor of embracing the corpus as a whole. I have abandoned the idea that one can delimit what is a legally essential in this discourse.  Over the past 5 years, I have produced a coded digitization of a decade of Congressional debates, the 38th through 42nd Congresses, the RAOS dataset. I began this project (Reconstruction Amendment Optical Scanning) more than 20 years ago, but gave it up because optical scanning was insufficiently reliable to scan The Globe. Now the technology is improved.

To a most remarkable degree the Reconstruction debates are preserved transcripts that are more sustained and more complete than any transcript of any contemporaneous discourse of the time.  Congress undertook the practice of transcribing the words spoken on the floor of each house well before stenography was used in American courts. By the 1860s, these transcriptions involved several  stenographers (noteably the Murphy brothers) taking down each word as it was said and then comparing the accounts before being published by a professional printer.  There was a feedback mechanism.  Members of Congress received a print copy the next day at breakfast, they made corrections, and quoted portions of the transcript in succeeding debates.  The transcription is complete, down to outbursts from the galleries.  And its accuracy was maintained.  As Mr. Eldridge stated, the record “cannot be changed on the authority of anybody. The language must stand as it was written down.”  These published accounts were then widely disseminated throughout the land to libraries.

With digitization, one can engage in both close and distant readings of this extraordinary discourse.  This method was originated by Stanford Professor Franco Moretti. Moretti brought a full toolbox of methods to digital analysis.  For those interested, I explore several of these tools in my new book, “Analyzing Textual Information: From Words to Meanings through Numbers,” with Johannes Ledolter (Sage 2021).  These methods include networks, topic modelling, and clustering.  In the words of Wolfgang Alschner, distant reading “allows us to see patterns and trends that only become visible through aggregation.” As importantly, this kind of text analysis allows us to reveal latent themes and narratives in the discourse that have not been identified before, to see how those themes are connected to each other, and how they change over time.   Close reading then is the movement from the bird’s-eye overview to zooming into a specific moment in the discourse.

Combining Distant reading with Close Readings

With digitization alone, one can make new discoveries.  One can locate phrases, count and measure frequencies, assess proportionality, establish the first introduction of a term, and establish  absences.  Repetition signifies emphasis and importance. Absence is more difficult to assess. For example, the term, “racist” or “racism” never appears in congressional discourse, notwithstanding the theme’s importance.  (That sequence of letters only occurs in the word, “ostracism.”) There are other “isms” utilized with some frequency.   “Despotism” is in abundance.  The term, “white supremacy” occurs only once.  Thus, one must find substitute terminology for the concept of racism within the Congress’ own nomenclature.  It turns out that the term “prejudice” is at least one marker for discussion of the topic of racism. There are others, and in all likelihood those others can be found in the vicinity of the word, “prejudice.”

An advantage of text analysis, like distant reading, is that it is specifically designed to meet the needs of multi-vocal texts like the Reconstruction Congress discourse. The Congressional debates are quintessentially characterized as polyphony, the simultaneous presence of competing voices and perspectives. “The aim, at a high level of abstraction, is to extract, structure, and analyze quantitative information from streams of words, as embodied textually” in the discourse. A closer examination of the terms in each topic produces yet a more nuanced taxonomy.   

Consider the taxonomy of rights.  Within the discourse there are discussions of constitutional, fundamental, international, natural and civil rights. Consider their relative frequencies.  Notice that all of these right descriptors end with the letter “l.” There are 3401 hits with the letter “l rights.” Leading the numbers is civil rights at 922, (even after the dedicated term, “Civil Rights Act” was stricken from the count.)  Next is “political rights” at 738 hits; “equal rights” (510); constitutional rights (342); human rights (298 hits); natural rights (138 hits); “all rights” (137);“personal rights (109); “individual rights” (68); “legal rights” (64); “fundamental rights” (47);   and “municipal rights” (9).  “Property rights” comes in at 17 hits.  Some of these proportions simply reinforce what is already known, but others are surprising.  The existence of a category called, “municipal rights” derived from municipalities but accorded to individuals is itself unusual. The fact that “human rights” outnumbers both “natural rights,” a term found in classic jurisprudence, and “fundamental rights” combined suggests its importance at that early date.[4]  These are not just numbers; repetition suggests importance.  Each of these citations gives us an entry to the way in which congressmen contemplated the basic idea of rights.

Digitization also permits close readings.  Consider, a little known example, an anecdote. When the Senate debated whether to give sculptor Vinnie (Lavinia) Ream a contract to create Lincoln’s statue the discussion revealed the gentlemen’s views about women’s competence to ever do anything well.  There were many reasons to be skeptical about giving the 19 year old genius, who had never before made a full scale marble statue, the expensive contract. But the debate devolved instead to her gender as a categorical reason for suspecting her competence. The Congressmen seriously consider that in all of history women have lacked the competence of men.  They concede that there was Sappho, who wrote well, at least erotically, but not as well as Homer. These candid opinions of women’s competency as a class cannot be ignored in understanding the subsequent decision by these gentlemen to deny women as a class the right to vote in the 15th Amendment.  

            I hope to make the RAOS database product available to researchers at some future date, but in the mean time I encourage others to create their own databases.  Cleaning and coding the texts of The Congressional Globe is its own exercise in attentive close and distant reading.

            The speeches contained in The Congressional Globe those years are the earliest, single most sustained discourse ever recorded in American history (and quite probably in world history.)  They contain the debates concerning amending the Constitution, and debates about designs to bring about a completely different national order by enacting laws to effectuate that vision.  These debates demonstrate the “before” and at least the aspirational “after.”  The full discourse cannot be ignored in deciding the essential interpretive bases for the Reconstruction Amendments.

Lea VanderVelde is Josephine Witte Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law. You can reach her by e-mail at

[1] Getzkow, Shapiro, & Taddy, Congressional record for the 43rd-114th Congresses: Parsed speeches and phrase counts. (2018)

[2] The Reconstruction Amendments' Debate: The Legislative History and Contemporary Debates in Congress on the 13th, 14, and 15th Amendments, Alfred Avins, ed. (1967).

[3] See e.g., appendix, Lea VanderVelde, Henry Wilson: Cobbler of the Frayed Constitution, Strategist of the 13th Amendment, 15 Georgetown J. of Law & Public Policy 173 (2017) (providing the long list of statutory reforms advanced by Senator Wilson.)

[4] It should be noted that some of these rights are coupled in usage, and their couplings were not disaggregated.

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