- Reframing the Antebellum Democratic MainstreamTransatlantic Diplomacy and the Career of Pierre Soulé
Pierre Soulé, the French-born senator from Louisiana (1847, 1849–53) and U.S. minister to the Court of Madrid (1853–55), has commonly been portrayed in the historiography as a radical southern politician from the particular political and social backdrop of antebellum New Orleans.1 As such, this neglected figure may appear a strange choice of individual through whom to reassess the national Democratic electoral coalition in the antebellum period, especially given his absence from the national stage following his role in the infamous Ostend Manifesto of 1854. However, Soulé, the émigré Frenchman, was in truth far from a peripheral extremist. He proved to be an extremely adept and popular political operator within New Orleans, Louisiana, the South, and the national Democratic party, as his rise and influence in city, state, and national politics makes clear. Indeed, this article argues that in his expansionism, his advocacy for sectional southern interests (primarily slavery), his support for Continental European liberals and republicans throughout the 1840s and 1850s, and above all his intensely assertive American nationalism—undergirded by the concepts of both “martial” and “national” manhood—Soulé accurately represents antebellum expansionist thought and Democratic political culture. [End Page 212]
Soulé’s biography will be reexamined here as a case study to illuminate wider tensions and developing strands within the national Democratic coalition during the antebellum period. William M. Freehling and others have previously explained many of these strains as a southern domination of the party.2 Our interpretation stands in opposition to the conclusions of many earlier historical treatments, which contend that Soulé’s appeal was uniquely southern. Instead, this article asserts that his southern views were a variation of the nationwide agenda typical of the Young America movement and other influential expansionist Democratic groupings. He reflected party dualisms, which reverberated in proslavery, the Mexican-American War, the Compromise of 1850, and assertively republican stances. Further, in this, he was merely the leading edge of a wider cross-regional Democratic expansionist push of which establishment figures such as Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, and 1860 Democratic presidential nominee Stephen A. Douglas were also part.
In making these contentions, this article builds on much recent scholarship focused on American nationalism in the antebellum South. Prime amongst these are works such as Robert Bonner’s Mastering America (2009), which explores a variant of American nationalism as articulated by proslavery southerners with strong emphasis on race, religion, and a growing sense of “historical mission” during the early-to-mid nineteenth century. That said, Paul Quigley’s excellent Shifting Grounds (2012), which argues that southerners applied existing European models of ethnic and romantic nationalism within the Age of Nationalism to the United States, contradicts Bonner’s insistence on viewing southern Democrats’ declarations of loyalty to nation as distinct from those of European liberals and republicans.3 Quigley also stresses the fractured nature of American nationalism long before the Civil War, noting that whereas later Confederate nationhood was a reaction to secession rather than its cause, distinct “national” (Americanism) and southern [End Page 213] strains of nationalist sentiment coexisted for many years in the South prior to the confrontation of 1860. After secession, southerners—including adopted ones—were forced to negotiate their conflicting loyalties to state, section, and nation.4
While Peter S. Onuf casts Americans as “precocious nationalists” rather than following earlier European developments, his chapter “Antebellum Southerners and the National Idea” falls broadly in line with Quigley’s findings on the intensity and complexities of southern nationalist sentiment.5 Utilizing de Tocqueville’s writings to inform his analysis, Onuf does much to prove his contention that Americans (both North and South) were mature nationalists rather than aping earlier European developments. He also stresses the natural economic, political, and societal dynamism of the South, particularly in the antebellum Southwest (primarily the Mississippi River Valley).6 This aligns with Walter Johnson’s recent monograph River of Dark Dreams (2013) and evokes the confident, capitalist, and intensely modern South captured in Johnson’s writing. It also explores how such modernism and political self-confidence informed...