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Interpreting Popular Sovereignty: A Historiographical Essay

From: Civil War History
Volume 57, Number 1, March 2011
pp. 48-70 | 10.1353/cwh.2011.0009

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Historians have long recognized the significance of popular sovereignty as one of the primary compromise solutions to the debate over slavery in the territories. In numerous works on antebellum politics and the crisis of the Union, scholars have addressed the issue by weaving its history into the larger narrative of political fragmentation that characterized the late 1840s and 1850s—the road to disunion, in the words of one historian. In the minds of moderate Democrats from the North and South, according to the traditional narrative, allowing the settlers in the territories to determine the status of slavery for themselves would restore sectional harmony. Popular sovereignty was merely the great principle of self-government, a hallmark of the American Revolution itself, and wholly within the spirit of democracy that Americans had embraced since the days of Andrew Jackson. Beautifully simple in theory and thoroughly American in its essence, popular sovereignty foundered when settlers in Kansas Territory attempted to put it into practice. Fraud and deceit made a mockery of the principle, while the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford transformed popular sovereignty into a proslavery doctrine, all of which led its northern Democratic proponents to discredit their own handiwork.

The scholars who have studied popular sovereignty have centered their analysis on three critical issues. First, they have sought to explain the origins of the doctrine. While students of the sectional controversy have generally agreed that popular sovereignty emerged in the late 1840s, few have explored any antecedents to the doctrine as articulated in the aftermath of the Wilmot Proviso. Second, scholars have sought to understand what popular sovereignty actually meant. Pragmatic politicians looking for a way to neutralize the Wilmot Proviso imbued popular sovereignty with an ambiguity that papered over deep internal discord within the political system. By declining to define when a territory could legislate on the slavery issue, politicians hoped to make the solution palatable to northerners and southerners alike and avoid offending their respective—and differing—positions on the issue of territorial sovereignty. Third, scholars have chronicled how popular sovereignty worked when put into practice, especially after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The latter two issues have received the lion's share of attention from students of the Civil War era.

Unfortunately, historians have approached the study of popular sovereignty with a narrow field of view, focusing almost solely on the period between 1847 and 1860, when northern Democrats supposedly created the doctrine and used it as a tool to create consensus over the slavery question. Over fifty years ago, Roy F. Nichols challenged scholars to reexamine the Kansas-Nebraska Act, positing that they "had failed to trace adequately the connections between antecedent situations and accomplished fact, the process of becoming." Today's historians need to discover the process of becoming through which popular sovereignty developed. The prevailing interpretation suffers from two weaknesses. First, most scholars have ignored evidence that shows the idea of popular sovereignty as an ever-present issue in debates over slavery in the territories during the eighty years prior to the Civil War. In almost every debate from the creation of the Northwest Territory forward, politicians grappled with whether the power to prohibit slavery rested with Congress or the people residing in the territories. Second, most historians have viewed popular sovereignty solely as a political contrivance designed to circumvent the slavery issue. According to the standard narrative, the principle had immense political appeal because of its ambiguity; few if any of its proponents defined how it would operate and when a territory could legislate on slavery. The prevailing interpretation correctly identifies the political value of popular sovereignty, but in its bias against the doctrine and its narrow scope, it omits a critical dimension of the debate that evolved during the nineteenth century, which explains how the expansion of slavery played a key role in American politics long before the 1850s.

Popular sovereignty became linked to the larger debate over states' rights versus nationalism that intensified during the antebellum era. Different interpretations of the nature of the Union prevailed between the sections; northerners believed that the people themselves had created the Constitution, while southerners insisted that the...



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