For my print project, I chose to pursue a study of state rights throughout 19th century American history. As I mentioned in my project proposal, the inspiration for this project came from my curiosity as to how a political philosophy, with roots over 200 years old, has managed to remain politically relevant up to the present day.
Before I even began collecting data and doing research, I established several guiding questions to help me throughout the creation of my project. These questions included: “Who advocated state rights? “Under what circumstances might these people have advocated state rights? “How did Americans’ understanding and relationship with state rights evolved overtime?” I also had to choose digital analytical tools that I thought had the best “fit” for my project goals, and in the end, I decided upon Google Ngram and the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” search database. The former allowed me to help visualize trends between different key terms across time, while the later helped me find and accumulate primary source material in a quick and convenient manner.
To pursue this study, one of the considerations I made was to I restrict the timeframe being studied to 1800-1860. I had several reasons for doing so. One reason was that Google Ngram does not allow you to search years prior to 1800, so this marked a starting point for me. I chose 1860 as an end date because its before the Civil War and Reconstruction, which is when federal action increases drastically. I also broke up this 1800-1860 period into three parts, since Google Ngram’s line graphs will appear smoother if a longer time frame is chosen.
As I went about my research, I would utilize the search criteria for Google Ngram to help me locate periods of time when the term “State Rights” was utilized more frequently in literature, and relate it to positive and negative terms, in order to determine whether Americans understanding of the concept was constant, or rather, caused by political controversy. Once a flashpoint was identified, I would then use Chronicling America to analyze primary sources, and to determine differences between how Northerners and Southerners discussed state rights, if at all.
Because Ngram does not distinguish between regions, only frequency of the terms, using Chronicling America’s “search by state” function allowed me to search by Northern/Southern states, giving me a rough estimate as to whether one section of the US was talking about it more than the other. Additionally, Chronicling America has a feature where terms that you enter into the “advanced search” are highlighted on the page when you open up a document, which made reading the sources very convenient.