HAUMESSER: The Democratic Collapse (2022)

The Democratic Collapse: How Gender Politics Broke a Party and a Nation, 1856-1861 by Lauren N. Haumesser. University of North Carolina Press, 2022. Paper, ISBN: 978-1469671437. $27.95.

Lauren Haumesser’s excellent book is a welcome addition to antebellum political history and gender studies. She convincingly argues that Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and Republicans all shared gender ideals—the independent, self-reliant white man and the virtuous, often-subordinate white woman—as legitimate political priorities, but they increasingly diverged over how to present those ideals to the voting public and preserve them as the national family severed. Republicans despised slavery and presented free labor as the natural antidote to slavery’s poisonous influence over the national family. Free men, they urged, should never compromise their claims to masculine autonomy by surrendering to the avaricious demands of slaveholders. Frequently, Republicans criticized southern slaveholding men as lustful and violent, the antithesis of the restrained masculinity that they enshrined in their champion Abraham Lincoln. Honest laborers could not advance themselves in a slave society, they contended, and they often had to hire themselves out like common slaves, a masculine shame that Republican men resented. Western migrants would have to submit to Southern control if they entered the territories, some worried. Republican newspapers reprinted Southern newspapers that ridiculed working-class Northerners; these papers declared that greasy mechanics and dirty farmers had no place around Southern gentlemen. Many of these quotations were taken out of context, but they served to escalate Northern fears of the Southern slave aristocracy.

Gender was a fountainhead of political contention in the antebellum United States, Haumesser contends, turning slavery from a political and economic concept into an unbridgeable cultural division between North and South—and within the Democratic Party itself. Northern and Southern Democrats issued aggressive, gendered attacks on Republicans and, by the secession crisis, on each other, as well. In 1856, Republican presidential candidate John C. Fremont and his politically active wife, Jessie, made easy targets for Democrats who criticized them as gender radicals and abolitionists. The entire Republican Party, they alleged, was animated by advocates of free love, racial amalgamation, and women’s rights. Compromise with such radicals would be emasculating. If, as Haumesser astutely observes, “governing a family was a dress rehearsal for governing the country,” then Fremont could not be trusted to lead the country due to the problematic influence of his wife (20). Independent men were masters of their own fate, not lackeys to women and people of color, and Democrats championed the right of white men to determine their own domestic institutions as paramount to their identity. Popular sovereignty, the Democratic supporters of Stephen A. Douglas believed, was the embodiment of democracy’s greatest feature—the right of self-mastery for all white men without the interference of government power. Yet as Southern Democrats became increasingly radical about slavery and secession (especially in relation to the Kansas-Nebraska Act), Northern Democrats refused to compromise on popular sovereignty and came to view Southern radicals with the same critical eye as free labor Republicans.

In the years preceding 1860, Democrats united around the central theme of protecting the privileges of manhood, which included protecting slavery. Democrats depicted themselves as the valiant defenders of idealized, domestic femininity, especially in the wake of John Brown’s raid. A Republican presidential victory in 1860 would usher in further radical assaults, they feared. But when Northern Democrats clung to popular sovereignty during the divisive 1860 campaign season, Southern Democrats turned anti-Republican campaign rhetoric against Northern Democrats. All of Northern society, they contended, was corrupted by “ultraisms,” including Northern Democrats, whom Southerners could no longer trust to protect slavery and the patriarchal ideals of household dominance founded upon that institution. Southern Democrats believed that the victory of any Northern candidate not only threatened slavery but would presage the downfall of American civilization by enabling radicalism, abolition, and women’s rights.

Gendered rhetoric was an essential part of political self-conception for Democrats and Republicans, and scholars would be mistaken to ignore or discount it. Haumesser’s strongest contribution to the field is how adeptly she bridges the gap between the fundamentalist school (which sees the Civil War as inevitable) and the revisionist school (which believes that preventable political, not cultural, divisions led to the war) by explaining the cultural issues that made slavery such a politically divisive topic. Her book should be a standard volume of political and gender history that appears alongside classic books like David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, as well as newer monographs like Michael Pierson’s Free Hearts and Free Homes and Michael Woods’s Arguing Until Doomsday.


J. Matthew Ward is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Quincy University. He is at work on his first book, Garden of Ruins: Military Occupation and State Power in Civil War Louisiana.

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