Florida Founder William P. DuVal: Frontier Bon Vivant by James M. Denham (review)
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Florida Founder William P. DuVal: Frontier Bon Vivant. James M. Denham. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 456. $49.95 cloth; $48.99 ebook)

In this well-written, clearly argued, and revelatory biography, James M. Denham details the life of the antebellum politician William P. DuVal, a significant but largely forgotten figure. DuVal’s life is a reflection and extension of the transformation of politics and political culture in the South from the early republic to the sectionalism of the 1850s. The trajectory of his career somewhat parallels that of his friend and sometimes mentor John C. Calhoun. An ardent nationalist who fought in the War of 1812, by the late 1840s DuVal (like Calhoun) came to conclude that the nation was divided into two irreconcilable sections. Giving voice to his brother William’s convictions, John DuVal maintained in 1846 that “the nation is now divided into two great sectional parties: the manufacturers of the North—whigs and democrats; who have united to fatten on the Planters of the South—whigs and democrats” (pp. 326–27).

Denham not only recovers DuVal from historical obscurity, but he effectively uses his life as a vehicle to explore and reveal the political and social issues that defined and shaped antebellum life. The son of a wealthy Virginia family, DuVal migrated to frontier Kentucky in 1800. There he read and later practiced law, established himself as a well-regarded public figure, and started and raised a family. In part owing to his friendship with Calhoun, DuVal was appointed the first territorial governor of Florida. Denham’s detailed narrative of DuVal’s experiences reveals the vicissitudes of life in frontier America. His attitude toward Native Americans was ambivalent: concerned [End Page 489] about the deplorable conditions of the tribes in Florida, he was instrumental in securing the Treaty of Moultrie Creek by which the Indians “essentially surrendered nearly twenty-four million acres for fewer than six” that pent them up on reservations with scant physical resources and which led to lives of miserable poverty (p. 64). DuVal’s position on slavery was similarly contradictory. Although he could be solicitous in his personal relationships with certain black families, “as governor of the Florida Territory and as a politician, DuVal was convinced that slavery was essential to economic progress” (p. 152).

Denham’s fascinating narrative seems to reveal that the only consistency in DuVal’s public career was his inconsistency. As governor and a good Jacksonian politician, he was an opponent of chartered territorial banks and the Bank of the United States. As an attorney he later came to support and defend the interests of Florida’s banks and railroad corporations. A fervent nationalist in the 1820s, by the 1850s DuVal stalwartly defended the South’s peculiar institution, opposed the Wilmot Proviso and the restriction of slavery, and was “clearly among the ranks of extreme states’-rights Southerners” (p. 315). Yet DuVal remained consistent in his commitment to the Principles of ’98 and his conviction that slavery was the basis of the South’s social and economic well being.

Denham deftly weaves together local and national events. Territorial politics are a case in point. Early in DuVal’s career, Florida politics turned on individual personalities and alliances. However, by the Jackson presidency, national issues—the Eaton affair, Calhoun’s alienation from the president, the Bank War, and nullification—came to shape Florida’s politics. Denham’s biography reveals both the fluidity and transformation of antebellum political culture within and without Florida. DuVal’s long career as a politician and his need to react and adapt to shifting national and local politics make this an extremely valuable biography. In Denham’s deft handling, DuVal’s life becomes a lens through which the reader views territorial politics, white-Indian relations, attitudes toward both slavery and the manner in which the “peculiar institution” was viewed as central to the [End Page 490] southern way of life, and the transition of a national political system to one defined by sectional animosity and intransigence. This is that rare scholarly work where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.


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