Author Interview--Joshua A. Lynn (Preserving the White Man’s Republic) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Joshua A. Lynn to talk about his book, Preserving the White Man’s Republic: Jacksonian Democracy, Race, and the Transformation of American Conservatism, published by University of Virginia Press in April 2019 (released as a paperback in 2021).

Part 1

Related to the various ways to think of democracy, there is also popular sovereignty. How did this turn into a double-edged sword for Democrats? 

JAL: Popular sovereignty exemplified how Democrats used democracy to bolster white supremacy and how they argued that their racialized version of democracy could exert a conservative force in the 1850s. Popular sovereignty, they argued, would solve the sectional crisis by taking the question of slavery’s extension out of the federal government’s hands and placing it in the trustworthy hands of white men at the local level in places like Kansas. We all know how well that turned out!  

Problems, both theoretical and practical, abounded with popular sovereignty. Even though Abraham Lincoln gets the most attention, plenty of folks poked holes in Democrats’ doctrine. Critics pointed out how white men’s majoritarianism actually violated orderly constitutionalism, limited government, and protections for individual rights, especially the rights of racial minorities. Frederick Douglass, for instance, brilliantly exposed the theoretical inconsistencies of Stephen Douglas.  

Beyond the theoretical level, the actual implementation of popular sovereignty undermined Democrats’ promise that their doctrine was a conservative solution to the nation’s political crisis. To Democrats’ embarrassment, for example, Mormons in Utah Territory concluded that if white men could legalize slavery in Kansas under popular sovereignty, then they could legalize polygamy. And, of course, popular sovereignty led to a particularly debased and violent form of ruffian democracy in Kansas. As we discussed earlier, democracy is a slippery concept, and a variety of people across the political spectrum defended their actions in terms of “democracy” and “popular sovereignty.” Democrats somehow forgot just how messy, unreliable, and unconservative democracy can be.

I think you are raising an excellent, general point that people tend to forget--democracy is messy and unreliable, you do not always get the results you desire. I found in my own work that often when people did not get the results they wanted, they got angry and some even left the country or started rebellions. Why is it that we always cheer for democracy but when democracy does not bring the result we want, we get this anger? Is it our nature? 

JAL: Right now, we are all too aware of the preconditions necessary for substantive democracy and of democracy’s fragility when they are lacking. Democracy arguably requires some consensus. In particular, there has to be agreement that some questions cannot be left to the democratic process. Morally divisive issues and majoritarianism are often a combustible combination. Popular sovereignty, for example, worked until it didn’t. It functioned as a short-term compromise, at least among Democrats, so long as the question was never decided one way or the other. Once the status of slavery was put to the voters, only one side in this morally fraught debate could win. And this was a question over which neither side would consent to lose. Popular sovereignty failed when people had to vote on a question that touched on fundamental rights. Some of popular sovereignty’s antislavery critics eloquently concluded that real democracy required that such questions should not be decided at the ballot box.  

On the other end of the political spectrum were those who also wanted slavery cordoned off from democratic decision-making in order to protect it. Many slaveholders did not want slavery left to “the people,” but for very different reasons than those of Democrats’ antislavery critics. Limitations on democracy can have very different motivations.  

We also know that substantive democracy requires broad-based equality. The inequality of slaveholding society limited democracy but so did racial and socioeconomic inequality in the free states. There was an obvious impasse between Democrats’ version of democracy and racial inequality. There was also a disconnect between Democrats’ rhetoric of democratic equality and the socioeconomic inequality that existed among white men who were allegedly “equal.” By the 1850s Democrats were not doing all that much to address economic inequality among the white men whose equality they supposedly championed.  

Let's take a step back, you are making a really interesting case about the role of democracy, how does your work complicate the change from Whig-Democrat to Republican-Democrat Political System in the 1850s? 

JAL: During the 1850s partisan realignment, many claimed that the old issues dividing the parties had been superseded by debates over slavery. A standard refrain was that the “old issues were dead.” Many politicians argued that the questions of political economy that previously differentiated the parties, like banking and tariffs, had been resolved or eclipsed. I examine how Democrats eulogized the passing of elder statesmen and the second party system itself to encourage Whigs to give up their party and ally with Democrats as fellow conservatives against new “fanatical” parties like the Republicans and Know-Nothings. 

But this does not mean that the politics of the 1850s was entirely different from that of the second party system. There were important continuities. Of course, slavery and race had always been central issues in partisan politics. Democrats’ dedication to protecting slavery and their affirmation of white supremacy thus represented continuities. 1850s Democrats simply updated their party’s earlier ideas and approach to politics. The late antebellum Democratic Party was true to its Jacksonian roots. Jacksonians’ views of white men’s rights and egalitarianism took them in different directions in the 1850s. For some, Jacksonian ideas led them to become opponents of slavery or, at least, of the “Slave Power,” often because they believed slavery threatened white men’s rights. For other Jacksonians, however, their traditional ideas led them to stay in their old party and continue to defend slavery and racial hierarchy as essential to white men’s rights. My book is about this second group—the Jacksonians who remained in the Democratic Party. Their Jacksonian ideology led them to redefine the chief threat to the republic as antislavery fanaticism. They responded to antislavery similarly to how the earlier generation of Jacksonians had responded to the Money Power and the Bank of the United States—by rallying an intersectional coalition of white men to resist what they saw as a conspiracy against their democratic equality.

As we get to a close, I want to touch on one last aspect from your book in that you make the claim that modern conservatism owes much to the Democratic Party of this era, which is in contrast to some other recent works that draw lines to racist Southerners but largely avoid placing the origin with the Democratic Party and instead focus on the Republican Party--do you see your work as a reminder to historians to not forget about these Democratic origins? 

JAL: An important takeaway is that American conservatism has long been amenable to American democracy. Some conservatives in other times and places have been anti-democratic or have been skeptical of democracy and of popular politics to varying degrees. Examples include some American conservatives, like some Federalists, Whigs, and proslavery thinkers. But plenty of American conservatives have been right at home competing in a democratic political culture. American conservatism was innovative, maybe even exceptional, because of its adaptability to democratic politics.  

Democrats who called themselves “conservative” in the Civil War era illustrate this point. They were comfortable with democracy, as they defined it, and with popular, partisan politics. These Democrats were an early example of American politicians advancing conservative goals through the democratic process and by means of a populist political style. The populist appeal, like democracy itself, can be employed for progressive or conservative goals. Civil War-era Democrats pioneered a means of mobilizing supporters in pursuit of exclusionary goals. 

To end, do you have any new project in the works? 

JAL: I’m working on a project called, “The Black Douglass and the White Douglas: Embodying Race, Manhood, and Democracy in Civil War America.” I’m putting Frederick Douglass and Stephen Douglas in dialogue to explore competing conceptions of democracy in the mid-nineteenth century. These two figures and their supporters engaged each other and their ideas throughout the 1850s. They obviously defined democracy differently. Putting such diametrically opposed political actors in conversation can broaden how we think about the American political spectrum in this era. I’m curious how our narratives of nineteenth-century political history can change when we recognize that two such figures directly engaged one another and interacted in the same political spaces even though they never appear together historiographically.