Doughfaces, Slave Power, Sectionalism, Democrats, Free Soil
In the last two decades, historians such as Leonard Richards, Nicole Etcheson, Matthew Mason, and the late Don Fehrenbacher have explored the roles of ‘‘doughfaces’’ and ‘‘the Slave Power’’ in antebellum American politics. They have documented the remarkable public dominance of the Old South’s planter elite nationwide and the importance of northern sympathizers in its creation, reminding us that slavery became a national institution affecting every aspect of American life. Michael Todd Landis’s new book contributes to this literature by revealing the partisan maneuvering through which northern Democratic politicians of the 1850s promoted southern hegemony in Washington. In a detailed [End Page 511] and highly readable account, he offers the most complete picture now available of how northern Democrats used party customs and procedures to maintain southern sway in the face of mounting northern unrest.
Landis structures his indictment chronologically, starting with the 1850 compromise debates and ending with the presidential election of 1860. He recounts that decade’s familiar events—Kansas–Nebraska, Lecompton, and so on—with an eye on northern Democrats’ responsiveness to southern demands. He wisely pays attention to state-level politics as well, giving us glimpses of Senator Jesse Bright’s Indiana political machine and New York Democrat William L. Marcy’s chronic factional frustrations. He clearly shows how northern Democrats acted as accomplices of the southern ‘‘Slave Power,’’ backing its bid for control of the party and the federal government. Northern Democrats became ‘‘doughfaces’’ who advanced the South’s slavery-expansion agenda in their quest to hold power within the organization. In the process, he argues, they actually formulated a doctrine of minority rule (reminiscent of John C. Calhoun’s ‘‘concurrent majority’’ theory) that justified ignoring their own free-state constituents and voting with the ‘‘[s]outhern bosses’’ (24) instead.
Landis combines admirable archival digging with a brisk narrative style to take us deeper behind the scenes of party intrigue and negotiation than any previous analysis. He covers the careers of key northern Democratic leaders, from Lewis Cass to James Buchanan and many lesser lights, and demonstrates how conciliation of southern proslavery ideologues became a central means of gaining nominations and appointments. Landis’s contribution is not in the realm of partisan ideology and political thought (he belittles ‘‘rhetoric’’ repeatedly), but in the workmanlike back-room operations of the party apparatus (à la the classic studies on this subject by Roy F. Nichols).
There is nothing factually amiss in Landis’s exposé; it is a witheringly accurate and thorough depiction. But there are problems galore when it comes to framing, context, and interpretation. First, by implying that his is the only story to be told about antebellum northern Democrats, he distorts the nature of the party by essentializing it. From Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to Jean Baker to Sean Wilentz, scholars have told many worthwhile stories about northern Democrats: their localist constitutionalism, which cannot be reduced entirely to race or slavery; their liberal views on European immigration, non-Protestant religion, and old-world republicanism; and their courageous stands on banks, monopolies, and trade [End Page 512] unions. Landis rejects these features of the organization as mere ‘‘rhetoric’’ (3, 225); all that is real, to him, is southern appeasement.
Landis’s misleading categorical statements, such as ‘‘Southern power and slavery expansion were the fundamental principles of the antebellum Democracy’’ (3), convey the impression, again, that there are no other valid narratives about the northern Democrats, that the interpretations of Schlesinger and Jonathan Earle, Robert Johannsen and Charles Sellers, have no value. It is this constant dismissiveness that twists the character of the Democratic Party and ends up caricaturing a diverse and complicated institution. For one example of an alternative view of northern Democrats, readers might profitably turn, instead, to Martin Quitt’s recent biography of Stephen A. Douglas (nowhere mentioned in Landis’s book), which takes seriously Douglas’s commitment to preserving the Union by resisting extremes in both sections: Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy...