- Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis by Michael Todd Landis
In Northern Men with Southern Loyalties, Michael Todd Landis provides a bracing account of the Democratic Party in the 1850s. As its title suggests, the book’s specific focus is upon northern Democrats, a group portrayed as fundamentally deferential to the elite southerners who dominated their party. “Not all doughfaces were Democrats, but most Northern Democrats were doughfaces, either explicitly championing slavery and Southern power, or implicitly aiding the South through votes and party participation,” explains Landis (4). The loyalty of these men was cemented by a highly effective party machine that rewarded compliance with patronage and punished dissidence. By placing doughfaces, rather than abolitionists, Free Soilers, or fire-eaters, at the center of its analysis, this book provides fresh insight on the sectional strife that presaged the American Civil War.
Landis takes a chronological approach to his subject, starting with the crises of 1850 surrounding the expansion of slavery into the lands ceded by Mexico and ending with Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860. The chapters in between cover the key political moments of the 1850s—the 1852 presidential election, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bleeding Kansas” and “Bleeding Sumner,” the 1856 presidential election, the furor surrounding the Lecompton Constitution, and the ultimate crumbling of the northern wing of the Democratic Party. Although these are all flashpoints on the national political stage, the more localized dynamics of the party also play a central role in the book. In fact, the local and national are often seam-lessly linked. Intraparty feuds in key Democrat states such as Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania, for example, are explored in depth, and Landis is highly adept at feeding in the views of (often disgruntled) local constituents.
As the 1850s unfold, Landis’s narrative becomes calamitous for the Democrats. The uncompromising southern party bosses repeatedly insisted that their northern counterparts take an unequivocal proslavery stance. Because of the shifting political climate above the Mason-Dixon Line during this period, however, such an unyielding approach was tantamount to political suicide for many northern Democrats. As sectional rifts worsened during the 1850s, the taint of the “Slave Power” became deeply damaging to the electoral viability of doughfaces. The Lecompton controversy, insightfully analyzed in chapter 7, was the fulcrum of this process, with endorsement of the controversial Kansas constitution serving as a marker of party loyalty even though it was hugely unpopular in the free states. Ironically, though, the Democrat Party needed its northern wing more than ever during this period in order to secure vital votes and seats. As the author states regarding the 1856 nomination of James Buchanan as the party’s presidential candidate, “Southern Democrats were not foolish [End Page 85] enough to think that a Southerner could win the presidency now that the North was effectively antislavery” (142). Increasingly, then, we get a picture of a party sundering itself as northern Democrats willfully ignore their constituents’ wishes to ensure that they continued to receive favor from their party’s southern masters, who steadfastly refused to surrender any ground on the issue of slavery.
It is with regards to these southern masters that I thought the book could have offered a little more. At times, the South comes across as an entirely unified monolith. Yet, as is later demonstrated, Stephen Douglas, a heretic in the eyes of party bosses by 1860, still managed to forge some southern alliances in his presidential campaign because some believed popular sovereignty, in practice, would be beneficial to slave interests. We are told that “Southerners valued slavery more than the Union,” which would prove to be the case (243). But, as the actual process of secession in the upper and lower South would underscore, there was not a consensus in the region as to most effective way to safeguard slavery, despite an almost universal dedication to the institution. It would be churlish, of course, to criticize...