Deceptive Democracy: Northern Democrats and the Illusion of Principle

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:50 PM
Room 305 (Hynes Convention Center)
Michael Todd Landis , George Washington University
“Deceptive Democracy: Northern Democrats and the Illusion of Principle” is an in-depth exploration of an heretofore unexamined strain of anti-democratic, minority rule theory advocated by leading Northern Democrats on the eve of the American Civil War.  Throughout the 1850s, many Northern Democratic office-holders supported an aggressive pro-slavery policy that proved disastrous to both their party and the nation.  Known as “doughfaces,” these pro-slavery Northerners used their votes in Congress and party conventions, as well as patronage and policies as presidents, to permit Southern control of the Democratic Party and the federal government.  To justify their pro-slavery actions, which increasingly found them at odds with their free-state constituents, doughfaces fashioned a remarkable theory of minority rule.  This multi-faceted theory, which has yet to be studied by scholars, centered on the argument that democracy was dangerous, and that politicians, once elected, were free to follow their own dictates regardless of the will of the voters.

Although doughfaced Democrats raised their voices in defense of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and numerous other pro-slavery policies and candidates, the most lucid and poignant anti-democratic arguments came with the dramatic debates over the Lecompton Constitution of Kansas in 1857-58.  Led by President James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, pro-slavery Northern Democrats attempted to foist the highly unpopular, unrepresentative document on unwilling Kansans and outraged Northern voters.  “Deceptive Democracy” will examine Northern anti-democratic theory throughout the 1850s, but will focus particularly on the critical Lecompton debates, which led directly to the fragmentation of the Democratic Party and disunion. 

These anti-democratic arguments are key to understanding the causes of the Civil War, as well as the nature of Northern racism and nationalism.  They also reveal, in a dramatic way, the reach of slavery into Northern culture and politics.