The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics by Christopher Childers (review)
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Keywords

Slavery, Territorial expansion, Manifest Destiny, Popular sovereignty, Northwest Ordinance, Missouri Compromise

The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics. By Christopher Childers. (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2012. Pp. 334. Cloth, $39.95.)

Christopher Childers has written the first monograph tracing the evolution of the concept of popular sovereignty from the establishment of the Southwest Territory in 1790 through the start of the Civil War. Most analyses of territorial expansion date the origins of popular sovereignty to the 1840s. But this latest offering from the University of Kansas Press series American Political Thought makes a compelling case that the idea as employed in the 1840s was the product of decades of debate and constitutional interpretation. The author argues that territorial expansion was a southern ideal as early as the 1780s, and that because territorial self-government, prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, always resulted in the expansion of slave territory, both northerners and southerners understood the idea as explicitly proslavery.

With the northern appropriation of the concept in the 1840s, however, a crucial schism emerged over the point at which a territory became imbued with sovereignty. Northerners like Lewis Cass and Stephen A. Douglas declared that settlers, acting through their territorial legislature, could decide on the status of slavery when they wished, while southerners maintained that the status of slavery could only be determined upon the drafting of a state constitution. Doughfaces embraced popular sovereignty in the hopes of appeasing the South, but the resulting crisis, Childers argues, "destroyed the bisectional Democratic Party, removed the South from the political mainstream of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian era, and fostered the growth of a virulently radical form of southern politics designed to uphold states' rights" (4). The author asserts that this crisis over popular sovereignty, rather than any of the other divisions [End Page 594] of the era, became the key wedge dividing North and South. Sectionalism and the issue of "Southern rights" exploded over popular sovereignty before a drop of blood was shed in Kansas.

Both the methodology and sources employed here—by and large public utterances of nationally prominent politicians and newspaper editors—are extremely traditional. This is not to say that the analysis is outdated. Although heavily influenced by David M. Potter's The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York, 1961), Childers is fully conversant in the relevant recent secondary literature, particularly works by Michael Morrison, Matthew Mason, and John Craig Hammond. Indeed The Failure of Popular Sovereignty offers a novel interpretation of the role of slavery in territorial expansion. Popular sovereignty, the author argues, became the South's true manifest destiny.

The great strength of this work is its narrative. The author links discrete moments together in a manner that highlights the continuity of a particular strain of political thought. The first chapter of the work, which traces the idea and practice of popular sovereignty in the early American territories, is perhaps the most illuminating. Childers convincingly shows that southerners never respected the Northwest Ordinance's ban on slavery, but instead assumed that the states created in the territory would ultimately determine the status of slavery within their boundaries. Clearly many of the settlers in Illinois and Indiana did not consider the Northwest Ordinance's ban on slavery as final, and the author does a wonderful job placing the continued presence of slaves in Illinois and Indiana in the larger context of popular sovereignty. Nor were questions of self-government resolved at later points: They arose every time the United States added territory to the nation. In this context the Missouri Compromise emerges as a far less dramatic moment than traditional narratives suggest. Northerners equated "self government" with the de facto establishment of slavery in 1820, in part because events in Illinois and Indiana over the previous decades supported that interpretation.

This is ultimately an examination of high-level political ideology more than politics in practice, and it's quite possible that Childers's conclusions are at least in part attributable to an overattention to the views of "ultras" like John C. Calhoun. One would like to know how settlers themselves viewed the meaning of...