The collapse of the American political system in the 1850s has been studied in detail by generations of historians. Debates over blundering generations and irrepressible conflicts have driven much of the literature, although there have been significant variations in methodological approach. Traditional political historians emphasize the actions of politicians whose policies, patronage decisions, and partisan activities, however rational they may have been, led to the implosion of the Union. Meanwhile, social historians have addressed the deeper cultural, economic, and ideological foundations of northern and southern society that pulled the sections apart. Although the preponderance of scholarship in recent years has been the social-historical approach, Michael Todd Landis’s Northern Men with Southern Loyalties proves that much valuable scholarship remains in the more traditional world of political history.
Landis dissects one of the last great pieces of the antebellum political puzzle yet to be fully examined: the so-called doughfaces in the northern Democratic Party of the 1850s, whose actions lent cover to southern slavery apologists. And he does so masterfully, with one of the most impressively researched and lucidly written works of nineteenth-century political history in years. Mining manuscript sources from prominent and obscure politicos alike, Landis has crafted a highly readable and sharply argued narrative of the northern [End Page 248] Democratic Party in the years before the Civil War.
The argument is fairly straightforward, even if the motivations and machinations of the doughfaces were tangled in contradiction. Thanks to the two-thirds rule for party nominations, southerners exercised a minority rule over the national Democratic Party. And as the rival Whigs collapsed in the early 1850s, the Democracy emerged as the only party that could lay claim to national status. But in order for leaders of the southern Slave Power to implement its agenda they needed the reliable support from northern Democrats to carry majorities in Congress and the Electoral College. Year after year, southerners demanded increased protection and expansion of the slave system—in the Mexican cession, Cuba, Kansas, Central America, and, with the Fugitive Slave Act, in the North—all through the vehicle of a Democratic-controlled federal government. Immigrants pouring into northern cities and voting reliably Democratic gave the North the numbers to compose a national electoral majority, especially in New York and Pennsylvania. But southerners would dominate the agenda of the party right up to, and through, 1860.
So what were the motivations of these northern doughfaces? Why did they stick to the Democratic Party and not join the growing chorus of antislavery Free Soilers and Republicans? Here is where Landis’s analysis is richest. He finds multiple explanations for doughface behavior—militant racism, personal loyalty to the party, economic and social ties to the South, patronage favors, factional loyalties—but concludes that their support for the Slave Power was sincere and conscious. Northern Democrats willfully defended the southern Democratic agenda, even when their own constituents resented them for it. In fact, many of them came to despise the very principle of majority rule—exemplified in the Lecompton fiasco—as they viewed their loyalty to “national” positions (read: proslavery) as evidence of patriotism.
This book should garner the interest of all historians of nineteenth-century America and of Kentucky. Indeed, the consequences for Kentucky were profound, especially as Indiana’s Senator Jesse Bright [End Page 249] helped launch the national career of John C. Breckinridge. There is certainly more to learn about how people in places like Indiana or Illinois reacted when their own politicians betrayed them for national, partisan interest. But Landis has done a splendid job in the meantime of showing how political factions within one section of one party exacerbated the sectional crisis and pushed the nation toward civil war.
AARON ASTOR is an associate professor of history at Maryville College. He is the author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (2012) and The Civil War along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau (2015). He is...