I was pleased to spend some time recently with a new book by historian Michael E. Woods, associate professor of history at Marshall University. Dr. Woods is the author of Arguing Until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy, a new release from the University of North Carolina Press (click here for more info). Dr. Woods was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about the book.
1) I have to admit, even just the premise of this book delighted me. We usually see Douglas juxtaposed against Lincoln because of their debates, or Davis juxtaposed against Lincoln because of their presidencies, but to see Douglas and Davis juxtaposed against each other promises something really fresh. Can you explain how you struck upon that idea?
Thank you for your kind comments about the book—and for the opportunity to discuss it with you! The idea for the book sprang from two different sources, both of which I encountered while researching my first book [Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge UP, 2014)]. One was Douglas’s vast correspondence, housed at the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center. The large number of letters Douglas received from admiring northern Democrats and Republicans in the late 1850s intrigued me. The other was the text of Davis and Douglas’s May 1860 senatorial debates, recorded in the Congressional Globe.
Originally, I considered writing an article about that senatorial showdown and its relationship to the fragmentation of the Democratic Party on the eve of the 1860 presidential election. But I quickly realized that there was much more to say than could be encapsulated in a single article. To understand the depth of personal antipathy and ideological conflict reflected in that debate, I realized, I would have to go far back before 1860. Ultimately, I traced that division back to their early lives and the formative period of their political careers, in the 1830s and 1840s. Given that both men are usually paired with Lincoln, and yet are fascinating (and well-documented) figures in their own right, I decided that their story could sustain a book.
2) Davis and Douglas were both highly respected national figures in antebellum America. But we don’t tend to think of them today the way we tend to think of similar figures—say, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun (of a slightly earlier era). Are we in some ways misremembering Davis and Douglas?
This is an interesting question, in part because the contrast between the ‘Great Triumvirate’ of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, and the generation that followed them (rising to prominence in the 1850s), can itself be traced back to the 1850s. By 1852, Clay, Webster, and Calhoun were all dead and there was a widespread sense that the political torch had been passed to a new generation—the generation of Davis and Douglas, as well as many other memorable Civil War-era figures like Lincoln, William H. Seward, and William Lowndes Yancey—and people had mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand, some believed that the newer generation was not up to the exalted standards of their predecessors; it is in this critical view that we see the kernel of the idea, later embraced by post-WWI scholars, that a ‘Blundering Generation’ had led the country into an avoidable civil war. On the other hand, some welcomed the emergence of this new generation, believing that younger leaders would stop haggling over dead issues and would provide fresh ideas and energetic leadership. Douglas’s appeal to voters who identified with the ‘Young America’ movement reflects the influence of the latter view. We may have inherited this uncertainty about the shift from one political generation to another.
We also see similar complexity in Davis and Douglas’s antebellum reputations. In their own time, both were, as you have said, highly respected—but only by their supporters. Douglas’s critics saw him variously as a catspaw of the South, a closet antislavery activist, a self-serving demagogue, and a rank opportunist. Davis’s diverse critics saw him as a scheming secessionist, an ideologue who would destroy his party for personal gain, and even a weakling who was too eager to compromise with northerners. So, both were polarizing figures, to say the least. But their contemporaries did understand how important they both were, whether they liked them or not.
With these two points in mind, let me turn more directly to your question about how we remember Davis and Douglas today. I do think we’ve forgotten how prominent both men were in the 10-15 years before the Civil War. Davis’s wartime role as Confederate president usually eclipses his antebellum career (except perhaps for his military exploits in the US-Mexican War), and so one of my goals is to revisit that earlier phase of his political career, in which he was a key spokesman for his section and a powerful party leader. The 1840s and 1850s were not simply a prelude to Davis’s better-known service as Confederate president. We tend to remember Douglas’s importance a bit more clearly, but, as you have pointed out, usually in relation to Lincoln. Another of my goals for Arguing until Doomsday is to revisit Douglas’s career through the lens of another important rivalry, one that pitted him against a rival in the same party but a different section of the country.
3) We’re currently living in an age of hyper-partisanship. As you point out in the book, though, party was not the predominant force at play in the politics of the era. Can you help us better understand the way political parties worked in antebellum America as opposed to today? (I realize that’s a big question!)
I wouldn’t want to downplay the importance of parties in antebellum politics. What I would say is that party loyalties were not static and the parties themselves were not monolithic. The parties were tremendously powerful, but they didn’t march in lockstep. One of my main goals in the book is to explore intra-party conflict, using Davis and Douglas to understand two of the most important factions within their Democratic Party. The fact that these factions fought so hard to control the party’s future is, itself, evidence of how important parties were, since neither group was willing to abandon the party; but the fact that the battle raged within the party’s ranks reflects how fractious they were.
Antebellum parties thrived on patronage, which is something we don’t think about as much today. People who were deeply involved in campaigns—giving speeches, writing editorials, marching in parades, and so forth—expected to be compensated for their efforts and this usually meant some form of public patronage, whether that be government contracts, public-sector jobs, or some other favor that a victorious candidate could bestow. We might see this as a rather shady arrangement, but it was how things worked in the antebellum era and if you read the letters of prominent figures like Davis and Douglas, you’ll see very frank demands for postmasterships, printing contracts, and other goodies. This had an interesting effect on the relationship between voters and parties: on the one hand, it made for zealous supporters (since they had a direct economic stake in party success), but it also in turn fueled intraparty conflict, since rival factions often battled over the spoils of victory.
4) Your book is “the first major reinterpretation of the Democratic Party’s internal schism in more than a generation.” What are some of the old interpretations your book puts to rest?
My book is inspired by, but also critical of, Roy F. Nichols’s The Disruption of American Democracy, which was published in 1948. Nichols’s work is deeply researched, engagingly written, and richly detailed, and gives us a fantastic account of the five years before Democratic Party ruptured in 1860, a split that was a key milestone on the road to secession and war. But Nichols’s analysis tends to isolate the final antebellum split from older and deeper divisions that had plagued the Democratic Party since the 1830s; my goal is to situate the final rupture within a wider context.
I’m also engaging with several generations of research that has sought to pin down the antebellum Democratic Party as fundamentally supporting one constituency. That is to say, we’ve seen lots of works define the Democracy as fundamentally proslavery and southern-oriented; others see it as the champion of western agrarianism; others as essentially a northern pro-labor party.
There is plenty of source material to support all three of these interpretations—but that’s simply because there were plenty of antebellum Democrats who wanted the party to be each of these things. I want to study the Democratic Party as a coalition—one that eventually collapsed under the weight of sectional struggles over slavery—and I thought a dual-biographical approach would be a good way to do this, because Davis and Douglas had such different backgrounds and different visions for what exactly the party should be.
5) Was there any way these two men could not have been political enemies?
Not unless one of them gave up trying to win political office in his home state! One of my major arguments is that both Davis and Douglas were under tremendous pressure back home and that we can’t understand their activities on the national stage without exploring the shifting political contexts in their respective home states. Both came under an interesting crossfire back home: Douglas was assailed in Illinois both for being proslavery and, interestingly, not proslavery enough. Simultaneously, Davis was attacked back in Mississippi at various times for being a secessionist and for being lax in the defense of slavery. In order to navigate home-state politics and remain politically viable, they had to take increasingly opposing stances on the national stage. And since the political and economic interests of their constituencies were not in harmony, this brought them into escalating conflict.
6) You say that “ignoring their bitter feud [Douglas and Davis] risks distorting our view of antebellum politics and overlooking important cracks in the wall standing between slavery’s opponents and a new birth of freedom.” What’s at stake for us today if we hold on to that distorted view?
I think the more we appreciate the complexities of past politics, the better we can understand the nuances and complexities of modern-day politics. As you mentioned, we live in a hyper-partisan age, but modern parties are not monolithic, either, and this can create opportunities as well as challenges for anyone, regardless of their worldview or party identity. My book traces how antebellum Democrats sought to manage internal conflicts and also traces how their opponents sought to capitalize on those same conflicts. These may offer readers food for thought about contemporary political affairs.
And here are a few short-answer questions:
What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?
I spent a lot of time with Douglas and Davis’s massive collections of correspondence, and these were fascinating. But for being entertaining—and illuminating—my single favorite source was a pamphlet called Chronicles of the Fire-Eaters of the Tribe of Mississippi, published in Mississippi in 1853. Written by someone identified only as “Seriah the Scribe,” the pamphlet is a 60-page critique of Davis and his wing of the Democratic Party (particularly their course during the crisis and Compromise of 1850), written as if it were an Old Testament story. The prose is intentionally amusing, of course, but it also shows just how sharply Davis and his allies were criticized by their foes, including within Mississippi.
Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?
My research gave me much more appreciation for the importance of the contacts who provided national figures like Davis and Douglas with local political intelligence. Senators and other leaders didn’t have the benefit of public opinion polls or other scientific measurements of public opinion, so they relied on regular correspondents, scattered throughout the country, for updates on how national issues and events were interpreted on the local level. Samuel Ashton, one of Douglas’s Chicago correspondents, is a good example. He provided important updates on Chicagoans’ reactions to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and, not coincidentally, Douglas pulled out all the stops in an effort to reward him with a patronage position in the Army. Ultimately, Douglas failed to secure the position or Ashton, but his exertions led to an interesting tussle with Davis, who was secretary of war at the time. There’s a lot more work to be done on these networks of correspondents who kept prominent political leaders informed about how national events were filtering into local politics and popular opinion.
What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?
I enjoyed writing the vignettes that introduce each chapter, especially the one about Douglas being compared to Ajax at the opening of Chapter 2, and the story of the Charles family that opens Chapter 3. These are meant to recast weighty political issues in more personal, more human, terms.
What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?
I had spent very little time in Chicago before researching this book, but my work in the Douglas Papers meant that I spent a total of seven weeks in the Windy City, which was also Douglas’s home for the last fourteen years of his life—and is where he is buried. I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the city.
What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?
When will the book be available in paperback?
More seriously, I’d love to be asked about the role of Lincoln (and his Republican Party more generally) in the book. Although I want to focus on Davis and Douglas, who often linger in Lincoln’s shadow, Lincoln himself is an important figure in my narrative because of the pressure he put on Douglas to respond to home-state criticism. Fire-eaters like Albert Gallatin Brown played a comparable role in Davis’s career, forcing him to respond to criticisms back in Mississippi.