Balcerski on Woods, 'Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy'

Michael E. Woods. Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 352 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-5641-0.

Reviewed by Thomas Balcerski (Eastern Connecticut State University)
Published on H-South (December, 2020)
Commissioned by Bennett Parten (Yale University)

Printable Version:

In our present moment of partisan strife, we are made ever more aware of fissures not just between, but within, political parties. Indeed, conflict among members of the same party has been at the heart of antebellum political historiography. The idea of pairing two prominent Democrats—in this case Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi—in a biographical fashion promises to illuminate how personal differences impacted a party and a nation. With Arguing until Doomsday, Michael Woods has written a book that is at once a scholarly contribution to antebellum history and a timely reminder of how shaky partisanship really is.

From the outset, Woods argues for his biographical approach as a central methodological concern and hints at an important payoff made by his book: “Only when contrasted with Davis can we understand why Douglas aroused so much loathing among southern Democrats. Only through a cross-sectional rivalry can we comprehend why some southerners called for secession, whether Lincoln or Douglas was elected in 1860. Only with a cotton state politico in the picture can we explain why Lincoln and Douglas joined forces against Davis’s southern republic” (p. 5). Both “less and more than a traditional biography” (p. 6), Arguing until Doomsday reveals “three interlocking stories: personal, partisan, and national” (p. 7). In these three aims, the author is largely successful.

The scholarly stakes of the volume are deeply entrenched, for the disintegration of the Democratic Party (also known as the Democracy) has long fascinated historians. Woods casts his lot with the “body of scholarship on the Civil War-era Democratic Party ... that stresses internal diversity and disagreement, foregrounds northern Democrats who were neither embryonic Republicans nor proslavery ‘doughfaces,’ and explores both what held Democrats together and what them apart” (p. 8). In the detailed footnotes, Woods cites numerous works, most notably Roy Nichols’s Disruption of the American Democracy (1948). Later, Woods returns to Nichols’s argument to explain in greater detail how these several long-term forces “evolved over many years” (p. 45). Accordingly, Woods’s emphasis on “property rights and majoritarianism” (p. 9) restores agency to Douglas and Davis as individual actors and adds to a burgeoning subfield of scholarship on the Civil War era.

A biographical approach requires the writer to begin at the beginning and proceed chronically. Woods honors this method by starting with a look at the West, the region of the country where each man settled as an adult. Yet Davis’s Mississippi and Douglas’s Illinois “inhabited very different Wests” (p. 15). Woods finds moments of Davis’s emerging antipathy toward popular sovereignty, when as a young lieutenant in the US Army he was tasked with evicting squatters on government land in Iowa. By contrast, Douglas “followed the pioneer spirit wherever it led, from spread-eagle expansionism to avid real estate speculation” (p. 30). At the same time, Woods contends, Illinois, for all its longitudinal vastness, better represented a “microcosm of the North than of the nation” (p. 40). In his politics, Douglas was quickly becoming “the ideal type of an Illinois Jacksonian” (p. 41).

Woods is particularly perspicacious in his conceptualization of the Democratic Party during its Jacksonian phase. A “coalition of factions, cliques, and local machines,” the Democracy was a “party in motion, as a shifting and perennially uneasy alliance among partisans striving to win elections back home while maintaining national power” (p. 45). Woods traces the contours of the Democratic Party’s early history and notes the influence of John C. Calhoun. Davis, he avers, was less Calhoun’s political heir than a “fellow traveler” (p. 98) in the Democracy. Likewise, the career of Martin Van Buren demonstrates “structural and contextual” (p. 53) challenges to its long-term viability. Jacksonians both, of the two Douglas naturally showed a special concern for knitting together the Old Northwest. Davis and Douglas first clashed over the issue of territorial expansion as members of the House of Representatives during the 1840s. The conflict pitted “Douglas’s majoritarian instincts” against “Davis’s dedication to slaveholders’ property rights” (p. 74). In many ways, they would continue to fight this battle for the next fifteen years.

The War with Mexico eventually brought both men to the US Senate. On a personal level, Douglas had shifted his attention toward Chicago real estate, while Davis prospered at Davis Bend in Mississippi. The two men found common ground for a change in their rejection of the “common-property doctrine” (p. 89) espoused by the free soil movement. Indeed, their rejection of abolitionism was a core tenet of their Democratic creed. At the same time, disagreements over the democratic character of popular sovereignty curtailed the possibilities for unity; even as Douglas defended the practice, Davis assailed it as submitting to “King Numbers” (p. 91). Their lack of a “common philosophy” (p. 96) also limited their political power and by 1850 had begun to threaten to tear the party apart.

Woods hammers home this point about arguments over majoritarian politics and makes an important corrective in the process. Following the Compromise of 1850, the “central story of late antebellum politics was not southern resistance to federal overreach but northern reactions to minority rule” (p. 112), he argues. Cries of the “Slave Power” became ever more forceful during these years. Other political consequences followed: Douglas inspired the “Young America” movement, while Davis took a turn serving as secretary of war in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce. Suitable attention is given to the infamous “camel episode” (p. 122), in which Davis fantastically authorized the purchase of these pack animals for use by the US Army. Likewise, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise, once more found Douglas and Davis rowing in the same direction, even as they may not have recognized just where they were going.

The events of the Buchanan administration proved critically divisive for Davis and Douglas. These years once again revealed the contrast between Douglas’s majoritarian commitments and Davis’s anti-majoritarian leanings. The same old issues of decades prior resurfaced, too: while “partisanship dominated Kansas debates … sectional alignments were forming on internal improvements” (p. 145), Woods notes. As had been the case before, a shared belief in white supremacy was a point of unity in the partisanship of Davis and Douglas, but it “provided no single template for lawmaking” (p. 155). Similarly, the partisan divisions, always mutable during these years, shifted like sand blowing in the wind as the Democratic Party splintered. Douglas’s resistance to the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution illustrates the point. Once more, Douglas and Davis emerged as “champions of hostile sectional factions” (p. 166).

Back home, Douglas participated in the famous series of debates with Abraham Lincoln that propelled both men to presidential nominations in 1860. In that critical year, Douglas came to realize, the Democracy could “stand for white men’s democracy or white masters’ property, but not both” (p. 178). Incredibly, Douglas and Davis could still unite on the principle of territorial expansion into the Caribbean basin, a potent reminder that imperialism coalesces nationalism. Yet the issue of a federal slave code to govern western territories proved an immovable thorn in the Democracy’s side. Here, their disagreement was so noteworthy that Alfred Iverson complained that they could “go on … arguing against each other from this until doomsday” (p. 183), providing Woods with his title. Once more, each man battled the other for control of the party. Southern Democrats followed a “rule or ruin” attitude, while the northern Douglasites retorted with “rule or Republican” (p. 195). And they kept arguing with other, well into the congressional session of 1860.

Many must have felt doomsday really was approaching during the election of 1860. Douglas ran for president on his usual platform of popular sovereignty as panacea, but he turned to a fiercely pro-Union stance in the face of southern intransigence. Soon enough, he began to campaign less for president and more for the preservation of the Union itself. Doomsday had truly arrived, for the Democracy had lost the one quality that had appealed to voters for a generation: “national unity” (p. 209). Following the election of Lincoln, Douglas abandoned his commitment to decentralized government, in what Woods describes as a “panicky effort at statesmanship” (p. 218). Like so many others, he supported a proposed Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to protect slavery in every part of the United States. Always a cheerleader for his beloved Northwest, Douglas offered intimate counsel to Lincoln until his untimely death in 1861.

Davis, by contrast, discovered that the same fissures within the national Democratic Party had carried forward into the Confederacy over which he presided. His new nation “could not evade the conflicts over property and democracy that he had hoped to transcend” (p. 213), Wood observes. Before becoming president of the Confederate States of America, Davis looked to avoid earlier mistakes of getting ahead of his constituency and counseled a “cooperationist” approach to secession. He quickly changed his tune, though, once the popular will of Mississippi became known. Yet Davis maintained his penchant for anti-majoritarianism, a stance made all the more troubling by the destructive events of the Civil War. “After fifteen years of conflict with Stephen Douglas over public power and private property, “majority rule and slaveholders’ prerogatives,” Woods concludes, “Davis hoped that a republic unshackled from free states could achieve a more perfect unity” (p. 226). Of course, he could not do so. The “tension between property and democracy” (p. 227) has never fully resolved, revealing ultimately the many facets of political coalitions.

This is a beautifully written book that moves effortlessly across the sweep of the nineteenth century. Woods is at home with his material, having exhaustively explored the primary sources and the major biographies pertaining to each man. The genius of the book is, it must be said, its biographical approach, narrow enough to keep a reader interested and deep enough not to lose the forest for the trees. Arguing until Doomsday offers a creative template and a path forward for political history itself. Historians should take note.

Citation: Thomas Balcerski. Review of Woods, Michael E., Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy. H-South, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020.

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