Monday, March 16, 2020

Booknotes: Arguing until Doomsday

New Arrival:
Arguing Until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy by Michael E. Woods (UNC Press, 2020).

Well this is clearly something different, a dual political biography with the Little Giant as one subject and the contrasting figure isn't Lincoln! In Arguing Until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy historian Michael Woods see the two senators as representative poles of the widening rift within the Democratic Party that became a decisive break just before the 1860 election. "As leaders of the Democrats' northern and southern factions before the Civil War, their passionate conflict of words and ideas has been overshadowed by their opposition to Abraham Lincoln. But here, weaving together biography and political history, Michael E. Woods restores Davis and Douglas's fatefully entwined lives and careers to the center of the Civil War era."

Woods's title "Arguing Until Doomsday" refers to Georgia senator Alfred Iverson's exasperated quip upon being forced to listen to the pair's February 1859  three-hour debate over Kansas statehood that discussed "property rights, democracy, and the future of the American West" (pg. 1) and widened into another unresolvable intra-party quarrel over slavery. In weaving together "personal, partisan, and national" contexts of the rivalry, the author professes to have no interest in rehabilitating the historical reputation of Douglas. However, he does wish to foster a wider re-appreciation of the wide diversity of views present in the Democratic Party of the time, a political body still popularly dismissed as an unholy alliance between proslavery southerners and meek northern collaborators.

More from the description: "Operating on personal, partisan, and national levels, Woods traces the deep roots of Democrats' internal strife, with fault lines drawn around fundamental questions of property rights and majority rule. Neither belief in white supremacy nor expansionist zeal could reconcile Douglas and Davis's factions as their constituents formed their own lines in the proverbial soil of westward expansion. The first major reinterpretation of the Democratic Party's internal schism in more than a generation, Arguing until Doomsday shows how two leading antebellum politicians ultimately shattered their party and hastened the coming of the Civil War."


  1. This sounds very interesting and unique. Frequently, Davis-Lincoln and Lincoln-Douglas get paired in books. In reality, the Democratic split in 1860 lead to the election to Lincoln. I hope this fills a neglected void.

    1. Yes, it looks promising. The Douglas-Davis relationship isn't one that I'd thought about much before.


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