Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we feature Michael E. Woods to talk about his new book Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy, which came out in April 2020 with the University of North Carolina Press. This was a joint interview conducted by Patrick J. Kelly and Niels Eichhorn.
Michael Woods is Associate Professor of History and the Director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has published Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016). He has also published articles in the Journal of American History, Journal of Social History, Civil War History, Journal of the Civil War Era, Journal of American Studies, Slavery & Abolition, and West Virginia History.
NE: Michael, to start could you tell us about the origin of the book. How did you come to write a limited dual-biography?
MEW: The project grew out of my interest in the fierce Senate debate between Davis and Douglas that raged in the spring of 1860, just as their Democratic Party was ripping itself apart over the choice of a presidential candidate and platform. Initially, I planned to write an article, but I quickly realized that there was a larger, deeper history to Davis and Douglas’s confrontation, and that it could support a book. Of course, this pairing is also interesting because both Davis and Douglas have often been compared and contrasted with Abraham Lincoln. There is excellent Lincoln-Davis and Lincoln-Douglas scholarship, but exploring the third, less familiar, side of the triangle offers a unique perspective on a rivalry that raged across sectional lines but within a single party. The last book-length study to focus on the rupture of the Democratic Party was Roy F. Nichols’s The Disruption of American Democracy, which came out in 1948. Since then, we have learned a tremendous amount about antebellum slavery, expansion, race, and politics, so it seemed worth revisiting the topic, and a Davis-Douglas biography provided a vehicle for doing so.
NE: There have been a number of recent dual biographies, Enrico Dal Lago’s comparison of Garrison and Mazzini, Tom Balcerski's work placing Buchanan and W. R. King into conversation. What do you see as the benefit of dual biography?
MEW: Biography is thriving in academic history, and I think this is a good thing. When done well—when authors attend to broader context and avoid hagiography—biography can reveal nuances that remain obscure in analyses of larger groups of people. We can see how particular events or historical moments looked from one person’s vantage point, and how individual choice and wider context combine to make history happen. Dual biography can further clarify how context influences individual lives, by allowing us to compare how two people from similar backgrounds responded to issues, or, as in the case of my book, how diverging contexts shaped otherwise rather similar people. Davis and Douglas had remarkably parallel lives: both moved west into the Mississippi River Valley, embraced Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party, and championed territorial expansion, among other things. But they still became bitter antagonists who clashed on both a personal and an ideological level. Here is where context really mattered: antebellum Illinois was a very different place from antebellum Mississippi, and they grew more dissimilar over time. By rooting both of my subjects in their respective local contexts, I’ve tried to tease out the formative influences on their political thinking and to understand how persistent pressures from back home influenced their battles on the national stage. This contrast between them would not appear as clearly in a traditional biography of one man or the other.
PJK: The central interpretative thread of your book revolves around two different world views. The first is Douglas’s core belief in the absolute sovereignty of democratic (white male) majorities to decide on the question of slavery in the territories – what we commonly call popular sovereignty and pro-slavery Southerners contemptuously called squatter sovereignty. This trust in the will of the majority stands in opposition to Davis’s strict adherence to the necessity of an activist government to protect what slavery in the territories, even if this protection violated the will of the majority. Throughout the book I’m struck in the book by the contempt slaveholders felt for majority rule. My question is what did your research for this book teach you about the commitment of Southern slaveholders, who were soon to create an independent nation, to very idea of democracy itself?
MEW: Davis and other proslavery politicians are interesting because they were both wary of democratic politics and deeply involved in it. Davis was a relentless campaigner: he hustled for votes as tirelessly as Douglas did, and he could resort to stump-speech demagoguery when needed. But he was also staunchly opposed to giving ‘the people’ any power over the property rights of slaveholders. To some degree, this position resembled that taken by other propertied classes throughout history. Elites usually do not relish leaving any aspect of their property rights up to a vote, and antebellum proslavery politicians had a long tradition to draw on. One thread of that tradition led back to the Federalists, who shared his anxieties about how the masses might use the ballot to plunder the wealthy. The tie between proslavery and Federalist thought was explored by historian Larry Tise years ago, but most historians since then have focused on the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian influences on antebellum proslavery politics.
What made the proslavery position distinctive was the uniqueness of the property in question. Enslaved people’s legal status resembled that of other forms of property, but they had the unique ability to resist their oppressors and, in doing so, threaten not just property rights but the entire slavery-based social hierarchy. Resistance was pervasive and the stakes were enormous. Thus, it took far more effort, by the government and by the free community in general, to maintain a slaveholder’s property rights than, say, those of someone who owned land or livestock. Davis and other proslavery politicians were quite candid about this, insisting that slaveholders must receive extra public support, beyond that required by possessors of other forms of property. Historians have given considerable attention to the ‘master-slave’ relationship, but it took the support of the wider free community to maintain slavery. Thus, the expansion of slavery meant, among other things, the extension of the burden of upholding slavery onto territorial communities. What Davis’s position amounted to, then, was a demand for the right to foist the burden of protecting slavery on the free community, regardless of the will of the majority. Douglas objected to that. Davis would make slavery special, set it apart from other types of property and shield it from majority infringement, while requiring that same majority to participate in the defense of slaveholders’ power and prerogatives. Douglas countered by asking why slavery should be an exception. If local majorities can regulate other types of property, then why not empower them regulate the institution of slavery? (Lincoln and the free-soil tradition would, in turn, have empowered a national majority to prohibit slavery’s expansion—this was another type of majoritarian threat to Davis’s position.)
This is all to say that Davis was deeply suspicious of majoritarian assaults on slaveholders’ property rights, but also keenly aware that slaveholders had to court the support of free majorities, lest they shirk their duties in protecting slavery. That gave him and his allies a very complex relationship to American democracy: enfranchised white majorities were a potential threat but also an indispensable ally. Probably no historian has explored this tension more deftly than William W. Freehling in his two-volume The Road to Disunion. I see Davis as striving to make majority rule safe for slavery, by curtailing the powers of majorities to attack slavery, while obligating them to uphold it.
There are always limits to what is and is not subject to majority rule. Most historians favor some of these limits, such as Lincoln’s rejection of Douglas’s belief that the status of African Americans ought to be left up to a local vote throughout the country. Some basic human rights, Lincoln suggested, should not be contingent on election returns. I mention this not to defend Davis or to equate his position with Lincoln’s, of course, but to point out that the proper scope of majority rule has always been contested in American politics.
PJK: When you pair Douglas against Davis the doctrine of popular sovereignty comes across as far less a stalking horse for slavery than when you compare him to Lincoln. One of the contemporary sources you quote goes so far as to claim that the issue of popular sovereignty vs. the property rights claimed by slaveholders was, William Seward aside, the real “irresistible conflict.” In your view, was the conflict over popular sovereignty (Douglas) versus the property rights of slaveholders (Davis) a sectional issue divisive enough to initiate the Civil War? Does their debate alter, if at all, our understanding of Civil War causation? Finally, a counterfactual: would the course of secession we saw after Lincoln’s election occur in roughly the same fashion had Douglas somehow been elected in 1860?
MEW: These are fantastic questions and I hope my answer isn’t simply a cop-out. I would emphasize, though, that none of these debates—between Douglas’s popular sovereignty and Davis’s common-property doctrines, between slavery expansionists and free soilers, between proslavery propagandists and abolitionists—developed in isolation. One of my book’s main themes is that both Davis and Douglas were constantly watching over their shoulders, especially regarding political conflicts within their home states, and struggling to balance the demands of their constituents with the stability of their Democratic Party. The federal system required this: they were national leaders elected by state constituencies. Davis had to prove that his party was sound on defending slaveholders’ property rights, both within Mississippi and in the territories. Douglas had to prove that the party could promote his vision for territorial expansion and economic development and that it would deliver on his promises to a nonslaveholding constituency. Both came under massive pressure from critics back home: it was pressure from antislavery activists that pushed Douglas to make so many promises about popular sovereignty producing free states, while it was pressure from fire-eaters that compelled Davis to show that a national party could reliably safeguard slavery. Because of this, I’m reluctant to compartmentalize any single dimension of antebellum political conflict. None of the debates make complete sense without reference to the others. We can’t really understand Lincoln and Douglas’s famous rivalry, for instance, without understanding Douglas’s escalating conflicts with southerners in his own party. So, although the question about whether the Davis-Douglas conflict was enough to trigger the Civil War is an intriguing one, I must say that if it had existed in isolation, then the Davis-Douglas struggle would have been profoundly different. I’m not sure the question can be answered satisfactorily.
What I will say is that Davis and many of his allies professed to see very little practical difference between popular sovereignty and an outright federal ban on slavery’s expansion (the position called for in the Wilmot Proviso and by the Free Soil and Republican parties). One reason for this was that Douglas and other supporters of popular sovereignty openly predicted that free territory would expand under popular sovereignty; in 1850, Douglas proclaimed, on the Senate floor, that popular sovereignty would yield seventeen new free states west of the Mississippi River. That did not sound good to Davis. And so Davis was willing to splinter the Democratic Party to prevent the triumph of popular sovereignty, just as he was willing to secede in the aftermath of the triumph of free soil in 1860. But, crucially, he didn’t see this as two separate battles; he saw it as one battle against an enemy that wore multiple guises.
As far as a counterfactual Douglas victory in the 1860 presidential election, I do not think secession would have followed the same course. There were threats to secede if Douglas won, and I think these are revealing and should not be ignored. But several things would have been different between this scenario and what actually happened. First, Douglas had a southern constituency. It was small, but it was larger and more regionally widespread than Lincoln’s miniscule following in the Border States. Because of this, Douglas would have had defenders, even in the Deep South, who would have argued not only against seceding, but also that he would be a decent president. Second, the threat of Douglas’s appointment power would not have been as frightening as Lincoln’s appeared to be. There was an existing Democratic Party structure in the South, so the scramble for patronage would have been more akin to the standard factional squabbles than to the seeding of an almost entirely alien Republican Party in the South, which is what Lincoln’s victory seemed to portend. Third, there was far less rhetoric warning of slave insurrections in the event of a Douglas victory. There was some effort to tar him with the brush of Harper’s Ferry, but nothing close to what was being said about a Republican triumph. Finally, there were far fewer southern politicians who had sworn to secede if Douglas prevailed, so they would have had more room to maneuver without losing face. Put this all together, and I think the anti-secessionists—who represented a powerful and vocal element of southern politics even after Lincoln won—would have headed off any budding secession movement.
PJK: In reading this book I’m stuck by the importance of arguments over infrastructure (Douglas in favor and Davis generally opposed) in the growing sectionalism between North and South. Have historians missed the importance of infrastructure debates as a casual factor in the antebellum sectional divide?
MEW: I think we’ve underestimated its importance because we have seen it as largely a partisan rather than sectional issue. The Republicans are justly famous for the remarkable economic development program they initiated during the Civil War, a program that included massive aid to infrastructure, as well as homestead legislation, support for higher education, and so forth. (Incidentally, Douglas supported earlier versions of the Homestead Act and the Land-Grant Colleges Act.) Yet the northwestern Democrats were, by and large, eager promoters of infrastructure as well, and this was a serious source of intraparty conflict. Now, let’s be realistic: people didn’t kill each other at Antietam and Gettysburg because of different views over harbor improvements or the route of the Pacific railroad. But it was an additional source of aggravation, especially within the Democratic Party, in a couple of important ways. First, it weakened the northern Democrats because they couldn’t deliver what constituents wanted. Douglas’s massive incoming correspondence (which is a vital source for anyone seeking to understand the northern Democrats in the 1840s and 1850s) is full of warnings that if he couldn’t bring home federal infrastructure investment, it would cost him support and voters would notice that it was southerners in his party who were the obstacle. Second, it gave the Republicans another means to appeal to northern voters who might not have cared much about enslaved people but certainly worried about their own economic well-being. The emerging Republican economic program, especially in the crucial years between 1856 and 1860, shared much in common with what Douglas and other northern Democrats already wanted: river and harbor improvements, a pacific railroad, and homestead legislation. The Republicans went one step further and wove concerns over infrastructure into their critique of the ‘slave power’: they argued that southern opposition to infrastructure investment was part of an effort to cripple and impoverish the north, and after the Panic of 1857 this was a powerful way to appeal to northern economic frustration. Interestingly, the Free Soil Party had done something similar in 1848: their main issue was, of course, preventing slavery’s expansion, but they also went on record in favor of river and harbor improvements and homestead legislation.