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Jun 11, 2020
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The Disruption of American Democracy. By Roy Franklin Nichols. New York: Macmillan, 1948. Hardcover, 612 pages.

This book came out in 1948. Americans had by then come to agree that the recent Second World War had been necessary, despite the sacrifices, in order to resist great evil. Professor Roy Franklin Nichols could have viewed the Civil War (on the part of the North) through a similar “frame,” but he did not. Instead, like many Americans during the optimism of the immediate postwar period, Nichols looked to a future, perhaps under the supervision of the United Nations, in which international disputes could be resolved through negotiation, requiring “skill in counteracting divisive attitudes” (p. ix). Looking back at the Civil War, Nichols saw a failure of statesmanship – statesmanship which ought to have kept the country together. An ideal way of working out North/South tensions, Nichols suggests, would have been through the leadership of a strong, united, noncorrupt Democratic party, not divided sectionally and willing to apply statesmanship to keep North and South together.

Nichols meticulously documents how such a Democratic Party turned out to be quite different from the Democratic Party as it actually existed in the period 1857-1861. Nichols chronicles how the “Democracy” – then the Democrats’ term for themselves – was divided, weak and corrupt, exacerbating rather than alleviating sectional tensions, leading the country toward rather than away from war.

Throughout the period covered by the book, the Democratic President was James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, a consummate “doughface” (slavery-appeasing Northerner) whose associates were mainly Southern extremists. Buchanan’s administration opened with the Dred Scott decision, which said Congress could not ban slavery in the territories, and that Southern settlers could come to the territories while bringing with them their powers of mastery over their slaves. Buchanan, who had corresponded with the Justices on how they would rule, thought the decision supported the Southern view that not only Congress, but territorial legislatures as well, would have to allow slavery in the territories. Buchanan’s foe, the emerging Northern leader Stephen Douglas (D-IL), thought territorial legislatures had the de facto power to decide the status of slavery in their domains, regardless of Dred Scott. This stance would help Douglas keep his political position in the North while alienating many (not all) potential Southern supporters, as well as Buchanan.

Connected to this was the debate over the status of the territory of Kansas, which the Buchanan administration wanted to turn into a slave state even though most white Kansans were antislavery. Douglas said this would violate key democratic (large and small d) principles: white settlers, should decide the slavery issue, which would make Kansas a free state. Douglas’ “popular sovereignty” formula of white settlers deciding on the status of slavery in their communities had provoked an antislavery reaction in 1854, leading to the creation of the Republican Party. But if Douglas’s popular sovereignty was poison in 1854, many in 1857-58 thought it was the remedy. Some Republicans envisioned an alliance with Douglas (Lincoln had to work hard in 1858 to show fellow Republicans that Douglas was the same slippery proslavery politician he’d always been).

The scheme to get Kansas admitted as a slave state failed, but only by prolonging Kansas’ territorial condition as punishment for opposing slavery. The political warfare between Douglas, on the one hand, and Buchanan and key Southern leaders on the other continued. Instead of presenting a common front to the Republicans, Democrats were hopelessly divided, seeming sometimes to hate each other more than they hated the other party.

The divided Democrats lost the 1860 election to the rising Republicans, thanks to Northern votes, and the Civil War soon came (Douglas trying in vain to avert it by compromise before his death at the very beginning of the conflict).

How did the Democrats, and hence (according to Nichols) the country, fall apart like this? Nichols doesn’t look to slavery as such for explanation – he thinks the moral debate over slavery was part of the problem. Instead of benefiting from disinterested statesmanship, the country was torn apart by exaggerated emotions about slavery and regionalist self-assertion. These emotions were magnified by the frequency of elections – every year had federal and/or state elections. The constant tougher-than-thou posturing which this unrelenting election schedule facilitated, in which defenders of their respective sections promoted themselves as their regions’ best defenders, whipped up public passions and closed off possibilities of compromise.

Another significant eroder of possible Democratic statesmanship, Nichols writes, was corruption. Buchanan took the then-common American tendency to reward loyal editors with government printing contracts – and dialed up this tendency to 11. Buchanan offered inflated compensation to the editor of his official journal – and brought in a contractor (a Republican!) to do the actual government printing work in exchange for splitting the ill-gotten profits and using those profits as a political slush fund. To get the votes for the proslavery position in Kansas, the administration offered jobs to Congressmen and their associates, and sometimes outright cash bribes. A House committee under Republican Congresssman John Covode exposed much of this corruption and distributed the resulting report widely.

Nichols chronicles other instances of corruption by lobbyists for large companies thirsting for federal contracts. Though not necessarily successful at the time, these lobbyists – male and female – nevertheless poisoned the political atmosphere.

Wallowing in such a moral sewer, how could Democratic politicians have risen above local allegiances and paid attention to the national interest? And how were they to compete with Republicans, who could throw their tainted practices in their faces?

Or was Nichols looking at the whole thing through the wrong frame? Historians today are far more likely to look at slavery itself, not the emotions White politicians and voters felt about slavery, as a cause of the war. Supporters of slavery would rather tear up the country and fight a war than acknowledge that there was anything wrong with holding Black people as property. From this standpoint, Unionists were fighting a war of self-defense against the promoters of an evil institution – and among Unionists, those who wanted to promptly free the enslaved were the most realistic and consistent concerning the nature of the struggle.

The post Dusty Bookshelf: <i>The Disruption of American Democracy</i> by Roy Franklin Nichols appeared first on Emerging Civil War.

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