Author Interview--Michael E. Woods (Arguing until Doomsday) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature the second part of our interview with 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.

Part 1

PJK: As you point out Douglas was very supportive of Lincoln’s actions after Ft. Sumter. Had he lived longer (he was only 48 when he died in 1861), do you think he would have supported Lincoln’s actions as the war grew from a conciliatory to a hard war, or do you think he would have tried to build a Democratic Party that served as a kind of loyal opposition, especially after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation?

MEW: I have had a number of fascinating conversations with fellow historians on this topic. Counterfactuals are inherently slippery, of course, but it’s worth pondering. Almost every historian of the wartime northern Democratic Party has noted that the loss of Douglas’s leadership at the outset of the conflict was important and may have unleashed some of the intraparty strife that divided Democrats into two or three camps for much of the war. Beyond that, it is anyone’s guess.
Douglas would not have been a Peace Democrat. He was far too eager to crush the rebellion (he told Lincoln to call for many more than 75,000 volunteers in the initial response to the bombardment of Fort Sumter), which he saw as an attack on the United States and its government, and he was outraged that anyone would secede over the result of a legitimate election, especially because he viewed Lincoln’s victory as the fruit of a secessionist plot (against himself!) to break up the Democratic Party. Given the depth of his personal, political, and ideological pique, I think he would have gone along with many harsh wartime measures.
Emancipation, however, would have been a tougher pill to swallow. Douglas carefully pledged to support a war waged on constitutional grounds, a promise that can be read as code for crushing secession, but not warring against slavery. The question is: would Douglas have accepted the argument that emancipation was necessary to win the war? Wars are transformative—they can lead people to do things they never thought they would do. But Douglas did avow, just weeks before he died, that he would “never sanction nor acquiesce in any warfare whatever upon the constitutional rights or domestic institutions” of the South. That, of course, meant slavery. He undoubtedly had strategic reasons for saying this—he was trying to rally northern skeptics to join the war effort—but it is also very much in line with his whole career. So, he had a long way to go on emancipation. Other people made that journey, but it is difficult to envision Douglas doing it.
As it happened, Douglas’s image was co-opted by northern Democrats of all sorts, from the most zealous of War Democrats to the most vehement of Copperheads. They all recognized the symbolic power of claiming his mantle. And his erstwhile allies—fellow northern Democrats who had opposed the Lecompton Constitution and refused to back down at the Charleston Convention in 1860—followed a variety of different paths. George E. Pugh of Ohio wound up as legal counsel for Clement Vallandigham, the notorious Copperhead. Charles E. Stuart of Michigan, in contrast, organized and equipped his own regiment for service in the war. John Hickman of Pennsylvania became a Republican. People are unpredictable.

NE: There have been many new terms suggested for the Compromise of 1850, such as appeasement or ceasefire. You do seem to support neither compromise nor appeasement, based on what you see with Davis and Douglas, what would be a more appropriate term for the political solution found in 1850?

MEW: The debate over what to call this package of legislation is as old as the legislation itself. Supporters, of course, heralded it as a compromise because they wanted it to be a final settlement of the sectional conflict and therefore had a compelling reason to describe it as balanced and moderate. Opponents in both the North and the South, in contrast, deemed it a disgraceful capitulation to the other side. Calling it a truce or a ceasefire does risk projecting our hindsight back onto 1850: we know that conflict would erupt again, very soon, and ultimately provoke secession and war. But the pattern of voting in 1850 itself cautions us against seeing it as a genuine compromise in which both sides freely give up something to get something else. Very few legislators voted for every one of the bills. Instead, distinct voting blocs supported the more proslavery components (like the Fugitive Slave Act) and the more antislavery components (such as the admission of California as a free state) of the package. 
If we are going to use the term “appeasement,” we need to be very precise about who was appeased and who wasn’t. Clearly the entire “South” was not appeased, for the region was not politically monolithic. There was vehement opposition to the 1850 legislation in the South, especially in the cotton states, and white southerners were sharply divided over whether the legislation was a reasonable compromise (as its supporters claimed) or a shameful surrender to antislavery opinion (as its detractors argued). Authors of regional political histories, such as William W. Freehling and William J. Cooper, Jr., and of state-level political studies, have shown that this remained an intensely divisive issue through 1851. It disrupted the normal Whig and Democratic parties (and nearly wrecked Davis’s political career), and while supporters of the legislation prevailed, critics remained a vocal and very large minority. Those critics would, in turn, make further demands for slavery’s protection, ultimately pressing for a federal slave code that would shield slavery in every U.S. territory. Within the South, then, defenders of the 1850 legislation hoped that it would remain the final word on the subject, while critics ratcheted up their demands for federal proslavery legislation, with secession remaining an option if these efforts failed. Whatever term we choose to use, we have to account for the range of opinion that characterized voters and politicians in both sections.

NE: Especially with the Civil War, it is dangerous looking at the 1850s with the hindsight of the Civil War in mind. How did you avoid letting hindsight influence your reading of Davis and Douglas? How does their work illustrate that the Civil War was not inevitable?

MEW: I’ve tried to highlight the unintended consequences that influenced both of their careers. Douglas, for instance, grew impatient when sectional squabbling prevented Congress from taking up the legislation that really interested him: measures that would promote western development by organizing new territories, constructing a Pacific railroad, and granting homesteads to farmers. Yet his efforts to quell sectionalism only inflamed these debates, which further stymied his western legislative agenda. Of course the classic example of this was the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), but there were other similar cases throughout his career. Davis, meanwhile, hoped to use the Democratic Party to maintain southern power over the federal government and thus make secession unnecessary; yet these efforts ultimately splintered the party (the main topic of my book), hastened the ascent of the Republican Party, and triggered secession. The repeated disjuncture between what these fellows thought they were doing and what actually happened reminds us that what we know as history was for them an unknowable future.
That said, both of them—like many of their contemporaries—routinely warned that disunion and war were possible. Douglas shouted himself hoarse denouncing extremists in both sections for threatening national stability, while Davis accurately predicted that a division of the Democratic Party would ultimately promote a dissolution of the Union. Historians like Elizabeth Varon and Jason Phillips have shown that Americans imagined disunion and war long before 1861, and that although they could not know precisely how things would play out, it wasn’t the case that the Civil War caught everyone by surprise. Some welcomed the prospect of secession and war, while others shuddered to think of it.

There are also ways that we can use our hindsight to great advantage. When I saw collisions between Davis and Douglas in the 1840s that looked very similar to the collisions they would have in the 1850s—similar in the sense that they kept quarreling over the same issues, including slavery’s status in the territories and the propriety of spending federal money on harbor improvements in Chicago—I was struck by the continuity. They disagreed more vigorously, on more issues, over a longer period of time, than I had previously recognized. So, my knowledge of what they would argue about in, say, 1858 helped me to recognize the importance of their early debates in 1845 and 1846. The later conflict did not appear out of nowhere, and both Davis and Douglas went into those late antebellum debates with very clear memories of their previous confrontations. Indeed, Davis kept writing about his clashes with Douglas almost until the day he died in 1889. Historians can’t pretend not to know how the story played out; we just have to be careful how we use our hindsight.

NE: Reading your book, there were some modern issues of the powerful 1% and hypocritical politician talk simmering through. However, what struck me, was how much southerners worked to win elections and hold power with the goal to prevent majority rule, that seems such a paradox, but not to them, why? What can we learn for today’s issue from the Southern anti-majoritarian 1%?

MEW: We need to remember the strong class dimension present in the politics of slavery. We are used to thinking in terms of sections or regions, but if you look carefully at Davis and Douglas’s debates over the territories, they were really talking the prerogatives of the slaveholding class. The key issue was whether a local majority of voters, within any given territory, could or could not prohibit slavery there. Douglas thought they could; the majority should rule. Davis thought they couldn’t because this would infringe on the property rights of a slaveholder who wanted to move there with people who were legally owned as property. So we can read this is as a debate over whether slaveholders, as a very powerful class, had the right to bring slavery with them against the wishes of a local majority. Importantly, Davis usually used very different language: he spoke of the rights of “the South”—sectional rights—as being at stake. Of course, “the South” did not own any enslaved people; individual slaveholders did. Yet his move was rhetorically very powerful because a majority of the southern electorate did not own slaves and might not care much whether a rich man could bring an enslaved person to Kansas or New Mexico. Put in regional terms, however, the proslavery territorial position gained a kind of popular appeal that it otherwise might have lacked. Douglas rejected the idea that “the South” (or ‘”the North,” for that matter) had any sectional right to do anything in the territories. There are no sections or regions in the Constitution, he pointed out, and if the voters in Kansas Territory banned slavery, the ban would apply to any free person who might move there, regardless of where they came from. Interestingly, though, it wasn’t Douglas and the northern Democrats who most overtly called out the class dimension here—it was the Republicans who used the language of aristocracy, oligarchy, and the “Slave Power” to critique the power that slaveholders like Davis wielded over federal policy. Not coincidentally, it was the Republicans who welcomed Hinton Helper’s class-based attack on slaveholders’ dominance of southern politics. As I pointed out in a 2012 article, we need more research on this aspect of antislavery politics because it can help explain its mass appeal, even to a notoriously racist northern electorate.
 One thing that stood out to me in my archival research was how this class-based critique did gain traction among northern Democrats by the late 1850s. I uncovered fascinating letters to Douglas written by northern Democrats who used the language of the “slave power” or the “aristocracy” to criticize southern efforts to control their party and push Douglas out of the way. To me, that is a clear sign of sectional polarization breaking down the party ties that had held the Democratic Party together for several decades.
 As far as Davis and majority rule, he simply did not believe that some issues—and the validity of slaveholders’ property rights in the territories was one big one—should be subjected to majority rule. We still live with very clear limits on what majorities can and cannot do, of course, and defining the proper parameters of majority rule, including its relationship to property rights of all sorts, has long been, and remains, a major source of contention in American politics. What made this issue so explosive in the antebellum period was that the property in question were people, and the property owners were extremely powerful and concentrated in one region of the country.

NE: You have published three books and nine articles since you got your Ph.D. in 2012 and you are about to start working on the Andrew Jackson papers, so what are you going to do next, i.e. when are you going to take that long overdue vacation?

MEW: A vacation sounds good after a few months cooped up at home. But I’m deep into the research for a book on the northern proslavery propagandist and scientific racist John H. Van Evrie. Born in Canada and educated in Rochester, NY, Van Evrie practiced medicine and served as a surgeon in the U.S.-Mexican War before moving to Washington and then New York City to write, edit, and publish a series of proslavery pamphlets, books, newspapers, and periodicals in a career that lasted from 1853 to 1879. Among other things, he popularized the term ‘white supremacy,’ which was initially a kind of advertising slogan for his newspaper and then the title of a book he published in 1868. I see Van Evrie as representing the dark underbelly of the communications revolution: he capitalized on all the technological and institutional developments that we normally celebrate for quickening the flow of information (the rotary printing press, the telegraph, cheap postage, and so forth) but he did so in order to make a business out of popularizing virulent racist ideas. I see him as a conduit between popular audiences and academic writers who spun racist theories in books that were not widely read; thus, his importance is less as an original thinker and more as a disseminator of ideas to a wide readership that spanned the continent.