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

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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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