The Hypocritical and Shameful History of the Democratic Party Before the Civil War

tags: Civil War, Democratic Party

Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University, is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis.

Hoosier William Kennedy was apoplectic in July 1854. “We may expect no better of such as Douglas and Pettit and all the Northern Doughfaces that Followed in their wake,” Kennedy wrote furiously to his congressman. “They have made themselves far beneath Judas he got thirty pieces of silver for betraying his lord and master but they have betrayed him in his ministry.” Clearly, Kennedy felt deceived. But what could have made him so angry? The answer is plain: His Congressional representatives disregarded the desires of their constituents when they voted in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Many Northern Democrats were stunned when their congressmen supported a bill that violated Northern free soil sentiment by permitting the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

Kennedy understood in the summer of 1854 what most Northern Democrats would not realize until the winter of 1857 – that a significant portion of Northern Democratic office-holders held anti-democratic principles; that they favored minority rule over the majority will, and had no qualms about ignoring their own constituents in order to implement such policies and further their own careers. These few Democrats, unfortunately, held the balance of power both within the party and in the federal government, casting the crucial Northern votes for pro-slavery candidates and legislation, causing, in the end, the fragmentation of their party and the near destruction of the Union. Kennedy and Northern Democrats would find the 1850s a troubling time as their Congressmen seemed to be serving Southern slaveowners rather than Northern free men. Southern minority domination was what they sought, but civil war was what they wrought.1

Democracy, and its kin concept of egalitarianism, was at the heart of the political and social rhetoric of the antebellum Democratic Party. In fact, the party was commonly known as simply “the Democracy,” primarily by its adherents. Democratic Party icons Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson employed this rhetoric with astonishing success, claiming that the party was the sole defender of individual liberties and the laboring masses against the evils of special privilege and concentrated wealth, while they, themselves, were wealthy, powerful, and privileged. The rhetoric masked a deeper, darker agenda that was, ironically, largely contradictory to the party’s professed principles. From its inception under Jefferson in the 1790s, the Democratic Party was controlled by Southern slave-owners, and aggressively pursued a pro-Southern, pro-slavery program, often at the expense of its own Northern wing. Nevertheless, the rhetoric was potent enough to hold the loyalty of a generation of Northerners, even as many of them recognized the uneven nature of the coalition. The banner may have read freedom, equality, and democracy, but the reality was an organization dedicated to slavery, concentrated wealth in the form of land and slaves, and anti-democratic, minority rule.

Southern power and slavery expansion were the fundamental principles of the antebellum Democracy. The party structure, itself, was designed to protect and further these objectives and was a glaring example of minority, anti-democratic rule. From the beginning, Southerners used parliamentary procedure to preserve control of the party apparatus, despite the North’s fast increasing population. In the 1810s and 1820s, they employed the secret caucus, then, after widespread backlash against that practice, the “two-thirds rule,” which required the consent of two-thirds of convention delegates to achieve passage of resolutions, platforms, and nominations. The two-thirds rule successfully prevented any Northerner who did not endorse slavery from gaining the presidential nomination, as well as prevent any anti-slavery notions from sneaking into resolutions. (Indeed, it was enough to thwart former President Martin Van Buren’s bid for the nomination in 1844, despite the fact that a majority of the convention supported him. The Southern-controlled meeting instead turned to the slave-owning expansionist James Polk of Tennessee.) While a two-thirds rule might seem to ensure the will of the majority, it was, in practice, a form of minority domination. Southerners, though a numeric minority, could, with the aid of a few willing Northerners, dictate policy and candidates.

Surprisingly, by the 1850s Democrats no longer bothered to hide their anti-democratic values, especially Northern Democrats who were well-aware that their actions violated the will of their constituents. Their votes on pro-slavery legislation were clear enough, but in the halls of Congress, in partisan presses, and in personal correspondence, they bragged about their disregard for the populace. Furthermore, they weaved warped arguments about the dangers of majority rule and the necessity for unfettered elected officials. When former Democratic Senator Daniel Dickinson of New York was asked in 1853 why he had repeatedly turned a deaf ear to both his constituents and the New York state legislature, he struck a cavalier attitude: “I should best discharge my duty to the constitution and the Union by disregarding such instructions altogether; and although they were often afterwards repeated, and popular indignities threatened, I disregarded them accordingly.”2

In both word and deed, Democrats advocated for anti-democratic minority rule. The most potent example is the Lecompton Constitution of Kansas. Created by a small minority of pro-slavery militants in the summer of 1857, the Lecompton Constitution was designed to force slavery on the free-state majority of that territory. In the fall of that year, the document was sent to Congress for approval. If Congress accepted it, majority rule would be discarded and minority, pro-slavery rule would be enthroned against the will of the people. By employing parliamentary tricks, presidential influence, and outright bribery, Democrats were able to push the bill through Congress (though the people of Kansas rejected it regardless).

In addition to their votes, Democrats gave voice to a virulent strain of anti-democratic, minority rule theory that has heretofore been ignored by scholars. Though Southern Democrats had been vocal about their fear of the majority for generations, such words were shocking from the mouths of Northern Democrats. The first, and most prominent argument in favor of minority rule was that the crisis in Kansas had created a national calamity that needed to be brought to a swift end. A conclusion to the crisis, Northern Democrats asserted, could only be achieved through a speedy acceptance of the flawed Lecompton Constitution, regardless of the will of the territorial majority.

A second argument reasoned that it made no difference whatsoever that Lecompton violated the will of the majority, only that the process of its creation appeared to be legal. Others fashioned an alternative view of history in order to rationalize forcing Lecompton onto Kansas, emphasizing the dangers of the mob and claiming that the federal government had been designed by the Founding Fathers to prevent majority rule.

Still others justified their actions in the service of the Slave Power by claiming that Congressmen, once elected, were free to follow their own judgment, regardless of the wishes of their constituents. And finally, a fifth rationale maintained that the public could not always be trusted to vote on legislation and constitutions, and therefore the sentiments of majorities – either in Kansas or the nation as a whole – were sometimes irrelevant. These themes, though distinct, often operated simultaneously in the reasoning of Northern Democrats as they struggled to defend their service to the South.

From President Buchanan’s message on the first day of the first session of the Thirty-Fifth Congress, to closing remarks and final votes on Lecompton in April 1858, determined Democrats labored to convince their colleagues and the nation that pro-slavery, minority rule in Kansas was both desirable and necessary. The first argument, that of expediency, was the most common. Following Buchanan’s lead, Democrats asserted that “Bleeding Kansas” and the crisis over slavery in the territories could only be brought to a conclusion through a speedy, unceremonious acceptance of Lecompton. It mattered not, they argued, that Lecompton was unrepresentative, fraudulent, and enormously unpopular. Rather, it was the only bill before Congress that would bring the territory into the Union immediately; Lecompton and Kansas were just waiting for admission, and all Congress had to do was vote “aye.”

Like the plea for expediency, the second rationale – the veneer of legality (provided by administration recognition) was enough to accept Lecompton, despite its many flaws – appeared in the arguments of several Democrats. President Buchanan’s message to Congress on December 8, 1857 provides an example of this line of thought. Downplaying election frauds in Kansas, Buchanan declared that since the elections that produced the constitutional conventional in Lecompton appeared legal, the results must be binding, regardless of the will of the majority. The free-state majority that boycotted the elections, he reasoned, had been given every opportunity to exercise their voting rights and chose not to do so, thus forfeiting its right to oppose the outcome. “A large portion of the citizens of Kansas,” he explained, “did not think proper to register their names and to vote at the election for delegates; but an opportunity to do this having been fairly afforded, their refusal to avail themselves of their right could in no manner affect the legality of the convention.” Or, as Senator Graham Fitch of Indiana later stated, “That many, and perhaps a majority of the citizens of Kansas did not vote either at the election of representatives to the Territorial Legislature, or delegates to the convention, may be true. Where is your remedy? You cannot compel men to vote. They can only be permitted and invited to do so.” This rationale stunned Northern voters who saw clearly that the Kansas free-state majority had boycotted the elections because of widespread electoral fraud and violence.3

The third argument against majority will – that majorities are dangerous – can be seen in Senator Fitch’s comments in late December. The Hoosier senator argued that citizens should not have control over their own constitutions, and that popular approval of constitutions was undesirable. “The recognition of popular sovereignty by the repeal of the Missouri line,” he claimed, “consisted in the fact that it placed the question of slavery where all others previously were. It did not provide, nor did it contemplate, nor did its supporters imagine, nor did its author intimate, that it contemplated the submission of every bank proposition, every internal improvement project, every school system, every election qualification in a new constitution, to the people, before the people by and for whom it was formed should be admitted to the Union.” Fitch then launched an attack on majority rule in general. “Our Government is one of checks and balances; and some of its checks apply even to the people themselves. Among the objects of our government, one is to protect the legal rights of the minority against an illegal assumption or a denial of those rights by a majority . . . If a majority resolve itself into a mob, and will neither vote nor observe law or order, the minority who are law-abiding, who form and obey government, cannot be deprived of the benefits and protection of that government by such majority. Is mobocracy to be substituted for democracy?” By equating majority rule with “mobocracy,” Fitch dismissed any opposition to Lecompton as catering to the ignorant masses and violating the intent of the Founding Fathers.4

In addition to Fitch’s surprising attack on majority rule, still another argument was raised in defense of the Slave Power. Senator Jesse Bright, also from Indiana, took the floor in March 1858. His lecture on republican government presents a fourth theme in the fight for Lecompton and minority rule. He argued that congressmen, once elected, were no longer bound to follow the wishes of their constituents. Their election, he maintained, constituted a moral and political blank check, regardless of the manner of election. “Nothing . . . can be clearer to my mind than the proposition that the act of delegates legally elected, and acting within the scope of the powers conferred upon them, is the act of the people themselves. According to the genius and theory of American constitutions, it is entirely immaterial by what majority such delegates are elected, or what number of voters appeared at the polls.” It did not matter, reasoned Bright, if the election was fraudulent or unrepresentative, only that it occurred; the will of the majority was irrelevant.5

Bright’s lecture led him to a fifth argument in favor of ignoring the will of the majority – that the American people could not be trusted to make decisions. The practice of submitting constitutions to a popular vote, or subjecting legislation to the majority will, he asserted, was destructive to American government. “So strong . . . is my conviction of the viciousness of the principle of submitting to a direct vote of the people the propriety of the enactment or rejection of laws, that for one I am prepared to extend the same objection to the submission of entire constitutions to the same tribunal.” The people, either the majority in Kansas or the nation as a whole, should have no voice in government, except at elections, and then only as long as the will of the people did not run counter to the interests of the Slave Power. Though Bright explained it best, many other Democrats used this rationale to defend their own actions in the service of slavery. These five arguments in favor of minority rule rationalized their disregard for their constituents and their support for a highly unpopular and blatantly undemocratic policy in Kansas.6

It is clear, then, that the antebellum Democratic Party was democratic in name only. By practicing minority rule within the party, trying to force slavery on an unwilling populace, denying people the right to vote, and arguing that majority rule was dangerous and disagreeable, Democrats’ violated their own professed principles.

1 James Shields to Charles Lanphier, Oct 25, 1854, Charles Lanphier Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; William Kennedy to John G. Davis, July 1, 1854, John G. Davis Papers, Indiana Historical Society.

2 Daniel Dickinson to Henry E. Orr, Sept 13, 1853 in Daniel S. Dickinson, Speeches, Correspondence, Etc., of the Late Daniel S. Dickinson, of New York. Ed by John R. Dickinson (New York: G.P. Putnam & Son, 1867), 476-481.

3 CG, 35C-1S, 4-5, 138; Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 1-5.

4 CG, 35C-1S, 137-138.

5 Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 163-166.

6 Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 163-166.

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