Home / General / Book Review: Michael Todd Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis

Book Review: Michael Todd Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis



Michael Todd Landis has no tuck for the doughfaces, northern Democrats who worked to expand the slave power in pre-Civil War America. He blames them directly for the Civil War, sharply rejecting previous histoirans who have placed the blame for the war on abolitionists. In this book, Landis details a generation of utterly feckless, spineless, submissive northern Democratic politicians who fully served their southern masters, even though their own actions angered their constituents and decimated their party in northern states.

Landis chronicles northern Democrats from the Compromise of 1850 through the election of 1860, demonstrating how the aggressive Southern nationalists bent on turning the United States into a slave nation demanded increasing fealty from their northern allies they needed to hold power in the United States. Although the South had an unfair advantage because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, the growing northern population meant that to hold the House and win the presidency, the South had to have a successful Democratic Party in North. That became increasingly harder when to be a prominent Democrat meant to hold extremist positions and not compromise, even with other elements in the northern Democratic Party. The South had plenty of northern Democrats willing to play along, not only Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who would serve their interests in the White House, but senators, congressmen, and those who controlled state political machines.

After the Mexican War, which deeply angered northerners, the South could not run its own politicians for the presidency and expect to win. They needed northerners to do what they said. The first was Lewis Cass of Michigan, who effectively believed in nothing except his own political fortunes and southern rights. Cass took the Democratic nomination in 1848, defeating the young and ambitious Stephen Douglas and the powerful James Buchanan. Cass’s nomination led to northern Democratic splitters nominating Martin Van Buren under the Free Soil Party, helping to doom Cass and elect the Whig Zachary Taylor to the White House. Congress was a mess because of the war’s aftermath and the House could not pick a speaker. Landis credits Stephen Douglas much more than Henry Clay of solving these problems through the Compromise of 1850, but perhaps “credit” isn’t the right word. Rather, it was Douglas promoting his own pro-Southern agenda and unquenchable ambition by forcing though the Fugitive Slave Act. Landis states “Northern Democrats were clearly responsible for the Compromise of 1850” (32) because the critical Senate votes came from people like Douglas, Cass, Indiana’s Jesse Bright, who was actually kicked out of the Senate for treason in 1862, and other northern Democrats. This law infuriated northerners but Democratic politicians went ahead with it anyway, the first of many times in the next decade they would risk their own political careers to serve the South. Moreover, northern Democrats like James Buchanan took the lead in defending the law, urging for its instant implementation and punishing free soilers like David Wilmot by targeting their districts to send the first slave catchers.

In 1852, the Democrats hoped to nominate someone more capable than Cass, who still wanted the presidency. They didn’t get anyone more capable, but they did get someone who was more than willing to serve southern interests in New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce. Landis dismisses Pierce’s abilities entirely, noting, “His tenure in Congress was notable only for his public drunkenness and his eagerness to please the Southern leadership.” (60) Through the various machinations and infighting in the Democratic Party, Pierce rose into the nomination. During his four years, he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, gave plentiful cabinet positions to southern radicals (including Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War), recognized the pro-slavery adventurer William Walker as the rightful president of Nicaragua, pressed for the U.S. acquisition of Cuba, and supported the Gadsden Purchase, a naked land grab from Mexico specifically in order to build a transcontinental railroad that would serve southern interests.

Amazingly, this was not good enough for the South. Because Pierce gave some major patronage positions to more moderate Democrats and tried mollify different factions of the party, and because he respected Stephen A. Douglas’ popular sovereignty position in Kansas, for the southern leadership, he was not only a disappointment but a traitor. A real leader for them would indeed invade Cuba, would do whatever it took to make Kansas a slave state.

James Buchanan harbored no such reservations about moderate northern Democrats. Hating Stephen Douglas and fully believing in the southern cause, Buchanan did whatever the South wanted. He continued to support Latin American expansionism to the extent that Nicaragua and Costa Rica, fearful of American takeover, issues the Rivas Manifesto, denouncing Buchanan’s slavery expansionist politics. Buchanan even fired a commodore for trying to catch the privateers like David Walker still operating in Central America. He also called for more land from Mexico, saying in his Second Annual Message, “Abundant cause now undoubtedly exists for a resort to hostilities against the Government.” (173)

By 1857, the core issue for southern nationalists was ensuring that Kansas was admitted at a slave state. Dred Scott killed Douglas’ popular sovereignty arguments and the South would stop at nothing. Buchanan agreed. The famously undemocratic Lecompton Constitution, which pro-slavery forces created without allowing a vote among the anti-slavery majority, became Buchanan’s one number policy goal. Many northern Democrats in the House and Senate were reluctant to vote for it because they rightfully feared for their political careers. But Buchanan pushed it through by bribery and corruption. Simply buying votes, Buchanan and his allies managed to get it through Congress, only to see Kansas voters reject it, Democrats to get swept out of office in the North in 1858 by an outraged populace, and Congressional investigations into the bribery. Southern Democrats were depressed that their northern allies lost, but saw it as a symbol that the North was the enemy, not that their own policies were bankrupt. Instead, they moved closer to secession.

At the heart of all of these actions is that Calhounism had spread throughout the Democratic Party. These people by the 1850s simply had no respect for democracy as an institution. To be a nationally prominent Democrat in 1860 was to be a follower of Calhoun’s ideology. This helped destroy the party in the North and Landis follows key states and their political machines, including Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York, to demonstrate the slow decline of the party on the critical state level. Landis makes it clear that Lincoln did not win in 1860 because the Democratic Party divided between Douglas and Breckinridge. The North was so disgusted with the Slave Power by then that a Republican victory was almost inevitable. Landis argues that the split actually helped the anti-Lincoln forces by making Douglas and John Bell seem more moderate than they actually were. Douglas had basically been read out of the Democratic Party by 1860 because the South despised him as a traitor, so his being able to play off that allowed him to win some votes from Lincolln.

Landis also has a strong historiographical argument to make. He accuses previous historians of not only downplaying the role northern Democrats played in disunion, but also of being so enthralled by southern speechifying that they took their side. Specifically, he accuses David Potter, author of The Impending Crisis, long the standard overview of the 1850s, as being “hopelessly infatuated with Southern orators and seems bent on justifying secession and placing for the war on abolitionists.” This is as close as one can come to putting Potter as Dunning-curious. A harsh charge and I’d be curious what you all think of it, as it has been at least 15 years since I’ve read Potter and don’t quite remember the argument.

Northern Men with Southern Principles is a very good and infuriating book. If you ever had any respect for Pierce and Buchanan, you won’t anymore. These were absolutely awful leaders. It’s very much a political history and Landis doesn’t provide much of the social context in the states as to the details of the northern rejection of the Democrats in the 1850s, but that’s an exceedingly minor critique. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these issues.

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  • Brett

    I got to read this.

    If you ever had any respect for Pierce and Buchanan, you won’t anymore.

    I did not. Both are strong candidates for Top Five Worst Presidents in US History (alongside Johnson and Jackson). I just didn’t realize the depth of Pierce’s pandering.

    • Colin Day

      I take it Andrew, not Lyndon.

      • delazeur

        Both of the Johnsons were pretty bad, although at least LBJ had the decency to balance out his shit with a few good things.

        • JG

          Andrew and Lyndon shouldn’t even be in the same sentence.

      • Brett

        Yep, Andrew Johnson, the worst President in US History. LBJ will never be on that list because of his domestic reforms, although his terrible Vietnam policies mean he’ll never crack the Top Five Best Presidents.

    • EBT

      How can you fit Harding and Coolidge in to one spot.

      • Jay B

        While leaving out Hoover?

        We’ve had awful Presidents, come to think of it.

        • Woodrowfan

          I’ll put Harding and Coolidge in the worst spots before Hoover. Ok, not by a lot, but still…

          • Joe_JP

            John Dean surely overcompensated in his bio but Harding at least on race deserves a positive nod. And, probably other things.

            Not sure really how bad Hoover really was … yes, he couldn’t handle the situation he found himself in but overall how bad of a President was he? As compared to someone like Pierce?

            • Jay B

              “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury,” he explained in his 1930 State of the Union address.

              Fuck him. And fuck Pierce too.

              I’m serious. We have had AWFUL Presidents.

              • Joe_JP

                Hoover (including after he left the White House) was a good manager. But, yes, he was not set up to handle the Great Depression. Put some decent Presidents in emergency situations, they will fail. Putting him in the same breath as Pierce gives Pierce too much credit.

              • Ahuitzotl

                Sure, that was about as wide of the mark as you can get, but it was the common wisdom of the time amongst most economists of the time. And his decision was at least an honest attempt to do the right thing for all americans, neither sectarian nor vicious, immoral or underhanded.

                I wouldn’t call Hoover a good president, but certainly nothing like the worst 5 or 10.

  • Thirtyish

    Nice to see that that particular metaphor has been around for awhile.

    • Brett

      They just don’t make nasty metaphors for the opposition like they used to.

  • WabacMachinist

    I can’t see Potter letting Northern Democrats off the hook at all. Pierce and Buchanan both come in for heavy criticism, Pierce for backing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Buchanan for supporting the Lecompton Constitution. Douglas fares somewhat better, though he’s portrayed as both politically and morally myopic.
    I’d be interested to read what Landis has to say about intramural Democratic squabbling in the early and mid-1840s, which according to Joel Silbey is when the sectional battle lines were drawn in earnest. One key but often overlooked development was the Southerners’ victory in 1844 over the two-thirds rule for nominating Presidential candidates.That rule, which stayed in effect until 1936, effectively gave the South a veto over the presidential nomination. That was why Southern Democrats no longer needed to nominate one of their own.

  • Perazzi-man

    Here in the South , even educated people cite the lies about the Wahr , not really being about slavery. 150 yrs of brainwashing–works.

    It’s our present excuse for treating blacks so damn badly.

    • jam

      It doesn’t tend to work for me, but I enjoy directly citing the articles of secession filed by Confederate states as well as the CSA constitution and, of course, materials like the Cornerstone Speech.

      • medrawt

        I’ve found it effective the one or two times I cited the articles of secession online, but in a context where I wasn’t arguing with a fierce partisan, but rather someone who’d been given the milquetoast “states rights” thing in high school and hadn’t thought about it since then but assume it couldn’t be so “simplistic” as to only be about slavery. And then you sic the South Carolina docs on them and they say “well, shit, yeah. The only states rights mentioned are the ones pertaining to slavery.”

        • MAJeff

          “well, shit, yeah. The only states rights mentioned are the ones pertaining to slavery.”

          That’s just it. It’s always “States’ rights to what?” States’ rights, by itself, is a meaningless phrase. It was about maintaining and expanding chattel slavery.

        • Sly

          Plus its impossible to maintain the State’s Rights argument once you’ve been introduced to the full implications of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

          • cpinva

            ooopsie! sorry, didn’t read far enough down.

    • CP

      Here in the South , even educated people cite the lies about the Wahr , not really being about slavery.

      And even in the South, expressing that view doesn’t automatically mark you a loony.

      • cpinva

        “And even in the South, expressing that view doesn’t automatically mark you a loony.”

        as a child in the 60’s, being educated mostly in the south, it marked you as a “normal” person.

        • CP

          Sorry, I meant to write “even in the North.”

  • sleepyirv

    A political party becoming completely servient to placate its extremist base, even though it ensures national discord and likely go against its long-term self-interest…

    Why does this sound so familiar?

    • searunner

      See, both sides do it.

  • Merkwürdigliebe

    This is pretty tangential, really, but since I assume some people here are not aware and might be interested – there is a whole course on the Civil War as taught by prof. David Blight available on YT.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Doubleplus good. And Eric Foner’s Columbia course lecures as well.

      • Mike Furlan

        Thanks, I’ll listen to them next.

        • Mike Furlan

          I’m listen to them now. Very good.

    • BigHank53

      I will also recommend the Blight lectures. They do not require more than a high school graduate’s background. Also, while the reading materials would add a lot, his lectures are perfectly comprehensible without them.

    • Yeah, I refer a lot of people to Blight’s course. Don’t know if it does any good, though. His first one about the 1850s is particularly devastating to the “slavery was just a minor cause, if that” silliness.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Just finished part one of Sid Blumenthal’s new Lincoln bio. Lots of down-in-the-weeds political history in the 1830’s and 40’s, and how it happened. The importance of media — partisan newspapers then — never seems to diminish.

    Lord does he hate himself some Calhoun — the mark of a wise man

    • The Lorax

      I was thinking about grabbing it on Audible. Do you recommend it?

      • Davis X. Machina

        I liked it, but I’m not sure how much my recommendation is.

        I’m a completely undiscriminating audiobook pushover. Everything except maybe Gilbert Godfried reading Proust, and that’s only a maybe, I’d give four stars to and listen to twice.

  • CP

    By the sound of it, this book confirms my suspicions (and those of many others) that the pre-Civil-War Democratic Party is definitely the best historical model for what the contemporary Republican Party has turned into.

    • LosGatosCA

      Somebody here has posted on occasion that the Republicans have become the party of Calhoun

      • so-in-so

        Strong in the same part of the country, too.

    • JMV Pyro

      It reminds me of this article. The party is different, but the notion that any change to the natural order must be fought using all available means is the same.

  • Bronze

    On the subject of Kansas, I would like to mention that I have seen guys in Topeka and Desoto wearing and flying the confederate flag like it’s no big deal. I know I’m not in touch with the same culture as nearly the entire state since I’ve only ever lived in Johnson County or Lawrence, but the flags just don’t make any sense to me. People in Lawrence seem to like John Brown quite a bit though.

    • Bill Murray

      well quite a few slavers from Missouri settled the Northeast, especially Leavenworth and Atchison, but Topeka and, I would expect, De Soto were anti-slavery back in the day. Of course that likely has little to do with today

      • delazeur

        I think there are a lot of people in the North (I’ve spend my whole life in MT/ID/WA/OR) who don’t have any family connection to the Confederacy but who fly and wear the battle flag primarily as a symbol of their own rebellion against authority. Obviously it’s always white men who do this, so I’m not saying there aren’t any racial overtones, but I do think the relationship white northerners have with the flag is more complicated than simply a racist dog whistle.

        • Mike Furlan

          Which is to say that “the terrorists have won.” You are afraid to confront them on their obvious racism, and are making excuses for them.

        • JG

          oh for sure…

          • galanx

            I used to see them in Western Canada, and by an amazing coincidence they were always worn by racists.

        • CP

          I think the Confederate flag followed the same basic path as the Ku Klux Klan. Originally, it stood for regional and separatist tendencies specific to the South. In the twentieth century, it was rebooted as something nationwide and patriotic.

          The common link between the original and the resurrected versions, of course, is white nationalism.

  • Bootsie

    This is as close as one can come to putting Potter as Dunning-curious. A harsh charge and I’d be curious what you all think of it, as it has been at least 15 years since I’ve read Potter and don’t quite remember the argument.

    The closest I remember Potter reaching anything near the Dunning School is when he points out that for a number of white abolitionists, abolition was not done out of the kindness of their hearts but out of concern for white workers.

  • rwelty

    sounds interesting, i will have to read it. but it doesn’t strike me as radical, it’s rather consistent with what Foner has been teaching at Columbia for some time (i took his online civil war course a couple of years ago.)

  • Buckeye623

    States’ rights were NEVER in question.

    The problem was that Southern states wanted the federal .gov to force Northern states to do what the Southern states wanted. The issue was that Northern states were not searching for and returning the slaves who entered the land of the Northern states.. And despite the “states’ rights” reasoning that the Northern states used to avoid following the law, the Southern states stomped their feet.

    The North was using a “Jury Nullification” technique.. Slavery [however terrible] was the national law.

    • delazeur

      Well, the Missouri Compromise created the threat that eventually (despite the 3/5 clause) slave states would be outnumbered in congress, with the possibility of slavery being outlawed.

  • Bill Murray

    Landis makes it clear that Lincoln did not win in 1860 because the Democratic Party divided between Douglas and Breckinridge.

    Yeah, Lincoln would have lost at most 11 electoral college votes (California (4), Oregon (3) and 4 in New Jersey) even if all the non-Republican parties had coalesced behind one candidate, so still would have won 169-134 despite only ~40% of the popular vote. Lincoln got the majority of the vote in 15 states including 6 of the 10 largest states and under 25% in 15 states, including no votes in 10 states. Lincoln’s top 3 states (NY, OH, PA) had as many Electoral College votes as the top 8 states going for other candidates.

  • rdennist

    The Democrats didn’t see the Republicans or democracy in general as legitimate? Lincoln didn’t win the vote because there was a true candidate? Why does this keep happening to the right? Weird right? Wonder if there’s something about the ideology that’s the problem. No wait, that’s not it. It’s Hitlery ratfucking the Republicans, what was I thinking?

  • YosemiteSemite

    A note on the writing: I’m puzzled by your use of the phrase “no tuck for”. The Google Ngram Viewer gives exactly 0 (zero) instances of that ngram in its extensive database, for dates between 1800 and 2000. (https://books.google.com/ngrams) Perhaps you meant “no truck with” something, meaning not wanting to have anything to do with something. Or perhaps you had some other meaning in mind.

  • bender

    The phrase was new to me. I construed it as meaning “no appetite for”, because “tuck’ is British slang for a snack and I think I’ve heard Australians using “tucker” to mean food in general.

    • Vance Maverick

      All us nitpickers are nothing but drive-by tuckers on this blog.

  • JG

    The William Walker fiasco was definitely one of the strangest episodes in American history.

  • Sagehouse

    Northern Men with Southern Principles Loyalties is a very good and infuriating book.” Just sayin’.

  • CJColucci

    Are there any decent biographies of any of the largely useless crop of Presidents between Jackson and Lincoln that anyone can recommend?

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