Early Career Interview: Dr. Lauren Haumesser and The Democratic Collapse

John Legg's picture

Hello H-CivWar subscribers, 

Today we’re back with another installment of our interview series with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, or early career historians. Dr. Lauren Haumesser joins us to chat about her manuscript, The Democratic Collapse: How Gender Politics Broke a Party and a Nation. Haumesser works outside of academia as a Research Associate at the American Association of University Women.

JL: Welcome, Dr. Haumesser! Before we get started, I wanted to ask if you could briefly describe your dissertation and manuscript project, and how it developed from graduate school into your book manuscript?

LH: Thanks, John! Glad to be here. 

My manuscript grew out of my dissertation, which examined the conservative gender tactics and culture of the Democratic Party in the 1850s. Initially, the Democratic Party deployed gendered language to unite its northern and southern members, who disagreed over slavery’s extension. During the 1856 presidential campaign, Democrats delegitimized Republicans as supporters of abolition, woman’s rights, free love, and race mixing, and pitched themselves as the party of men’s mastery. James Buchanan of course won that election, but the Democrats had planted the seeds of their own destruction. In 1860, northern and southern Democrats nominated separate candidates who lobbed gendered insults at Republican Abraham Lincoln and also at each other. And after Lincoln’s election, secessionists seized on the same rhetoric about mastery, independence, and protecting white womanhood to mobilize support for secession.

White women were active participants in this kind of politicking. Indeed, that’s how I became interested in this project: my M.Phil thesis was on Democratic women’s partisanship in the antebellum era. I’m interested in returning to that story in a fuller way in a second book project drawing out the long history of conservative women’s activism in the United States.

JL: This sounds like a fascinating project. What sort of sources (and where were they archived) helped you in researching Democratic gender politics?

LH: I rely heavily on partisan newspapers and politicians’ speeches, as well as private letters and diaries. I was interested in seeing whether Democrats really believed what they were saying-- whether they used the same gendered language in private as they did in public. For northern Democrats, castigating Republicans was more of a crass political tactic; once southern states start to secede, northern Democrats backpedal pretty quickly. But you can see in southern Democrats’ private writings that they really come to believe in this line about Republican gender/abolitionist radicalism. So being able to compare public and private sources was really helpful.

Of course, this all required a lot of travel. So many newspapers are digitized now. But for letters and diaries, I spent about ten months on the road going everywhere from the South Caroliniana Library at USC to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. A few months at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California were particularly productive (and blissful-- that weather!). I was really fortunate to receive ample fellowship support from all of these archives.

JL: How did Republicans respond to these pressures over gender by Democrats? 

LH: Republicans flatly denied the Democrats’ wild charges. Yes, many woman’s rights activists, free love groups, and abolitionists supported the Republican Party, but the majority of the Republican Party did not support woman’s rights, free love, and abolition.

But as Michael Pierson has shown in his excellent book Free Hearts, Free Homes, the Republican Party--at least in 1856--had its own distinct gender ideology. Pierson argues that Republicans identified as the party of female morality and male restraint, opposed to the patriarchal abuses of chattel slavery in the South.

In short, both parties used gender as a really useful shorthand for communicating their positions on slavery.

JL: That’s intriguing stuff, and makes me wonder how that perspective might change when examining others, like Native Americans, during the time period -- especially regarding captivity narratives that reinforced this idea of female morality and innocence. Back to your research, how did these dynamics work out as the fractured nation arrived at the Civil War? 

LH: That’s a great question.

Northern and southern Democrats reacted to Lincoln’s election in really different ways. Northern Democrats spent much of the secession winter trying to walk back five years of campaign rhetoric labeling Republicans as dangerous radicals, hoping to convince southern moderates to stay in the Union. But those years of railing against supposed Republican radicalism had caught up with southern Democrats, who were now convinced that northerners wanted to destroy slave society. Throughout the winter, secessionists argued that the federal government would impose radical social programs--including abolition, woman’s rights, and free love--that would undermine white men’s place in society and diminish their power over their households. And warning that northern rule would lead to slave insurrection, they pleaded with moderates in the Border and Upper South to protect their white wives and children by joining the Confederacy. That argument became much more convincing after Lincoln’s call for troops.

My book leaves off in the late spring of 1861, but I do motion toward the war years in my conclusion. The gender tactics of the preceding five years guided northern and southern Democrats’ perception of their enemy and their prosecution of the war. In the Union, northern Democrats still shared a vision of white manhood with their southern counterparts, and therefore hesitated to prosecute a hard war against men whom they saw as their equals. In the South, these gender tactics had the opposite effect. Southern Democrats extended their critique of a fanaitcal northern society into the war years, laying the groundwork for a long, cruel war.

Best of luck on your research and thanks for joining us at H-CivWar! 

LH: Thank you, John! It's been a pleasure. 

Stay turned for more graduate, postdoc, and earIy career interviews soon! If you're interested in participating, reach out to John Legg <jlegg5@gmu.edu> for consideration. 


Quite interesting, those issues pointed out from the 1850s and 60s, when South sectionalism spurring succession and the Civil War development in the South, were it appears, are some of those same issues raised in recent history and events; only this time, spurred by the Republican Party in the South and its apologists elsewhere.

This development raises a question; am wondering if the author noticed or even delved in a question, whether the shift of Republican politics southward resulted in capture of the Republican Party by Southern sectionalism and interests of long standing. Due to these same issues making more, a sectional mindset and culture than any Partyism loyalty.
It can be noted also, Partyism by Democrats in the South began shifting around the 1960s and afterwards, with Republican Party success in elections, towards abandonment of the Democrat party as Southern States turned towards Republican Party politics. In effect, the original spurs to Republican Party politics, based upon the Civil War and afterwards, became cast out by Southern 20th Century, post 1960s shift.
Wyatt Reader MA
Whittier College
California Community Colleges/private
Instructor Political Science/Govt.