Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy

Univ. of North Carolina. Apr. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781469656397. $34.95. HIST
Abraham Lincoln once famously observed, about divisions over slavery that were threatening the Union, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” According to historian Woods, so it was for the Democratic Party by the 1850s. In a major rereading of letters, speeches, and political propaganda of the time, Woods argues that the Democratic Party was fundamentally, and in the end fatally, wracked by different conceptions of the federal government’s duty to provide special protections for slaveholders’ human “property”—and the necessity of majority rule regarding settlers’ rights concerning the protections and legality (if any) of slavery. These differences stood at the center of the personal and political distrust between Jefferson Davis and Stephen Douglas, with each beholden to local and sectional needs while seeking to control a national party. Woods places the personal and political dynamics of the time in historical context, showing that Douglas was a more complicated figure than records have shown.
VERDICT This work speaks to the internal tensions within party organizations, the blinding force of ambition, and the ways distrust of democratic processes and institutions can destroy democracy itself. In that, it is a book for our time.

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