The South and the Politics of Slavery: 1828-1856. By William J. Cooper, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978. 401 pp.

In his work, The South and the Politics of Slavery, William Cooper, Jr. argues that from the 1830s to the 1850s, issues of slavery dominated the political realm of both Southern Democrats and Southern Whigs.  According to Cooper, Southern politics constituted a, ‘politics of slavery.’  Cooper defines the term, ‘politics of slavery’ as the world created by the interaction of the institution of slavery, Southern parties and politicians, the Southern political structure, and the values of Southern white society in antebellum Southern politics (xi).  Cooper regards national social, economic, and financial questions as relatively unimportant in relation to the politics of the Jacksonian South (xii).  Although the specific issues changed over time, the slavery issue remained central to antebellum Southern politics. 

Cooper believes the development of slavery as a symbol of the South’s most cherished values and predominant Southern political issue began with President Andrew Jackson.  Between 1825 and1828, Southerners built the Jacksonian, or Democratic, party in the South (7).  Because of their prominent place in the creation of the party, Cooper maintains that the Southerners held every reason to think of the Democratic party as a vehicle to carry them to their goals (9).  The Southern Democratic party possessed a foundation based upon states’ rights, strict construction of the Constitution, limited federal government, and the guardianship of slavery.  Yet, the Nullification Crisis and Jackson’s second move against the Bank of the U.S. led to opposition against the Southern Democratic party on grounds that Jackson violated states’ rights and exploited federal and presidential power.  Jackson’s nomination of Martin Van Buren as the Democratic Presidential Nominee in 1835 and the rise of the abolition movement furthered the momentum of opposition (53).  In response to this increasing disillusionment with the Jacksonian party, a new political party, the Southern Whigs, developed.  Established on similar principles as the Jacksonian party, the Southern Whig party claimed itself a defender of states’ rights and denounced foremost national power.   

The issue of slavery brought simultaneously a weapon of political victory and political destruction (69).  According to Cooper, to prosper in the South, a political party needed to present itself as a champion of Southern honor and protector of Southern interests, especially slavery (370).  Because both claimed to speak for the South, Southern Democrats and Whigs competed to best each other in the politics of slavery (xi).  The political rhetoric found in Southern newspapers and manuscripts of Southern politicians demonstrates the consistent significance of issues related to slavery.  Southern Democrats and Whigs searched for candidates and platforms that would best associate their party with pro-South sentiment.  Additionally, the Southern parties tried to damage the other’s image and credibility in the South by linking the enemies’ candidate to the North, abolitionism, or anti-slavery thought and action.  The first Presidential election between the Democrats and Whigs in 1836 and the Log Cabin Campaign of 1840 between Whig candidates William Henry Harrison and John Tyler and Democrat nominee Van Buren illustrate the force of the politics of slavery in the South (96). 

Cooper links the defense of the South and slavery with personal honor (73).  Failure to uphold the Southern position became a sign of dishonor.  A loss of control over slavery jeopardized Southern freedom and independence by leading to dependency and subordination (371).

Southerners of the Democrat and Whig parties demanded that their Northern counterparts allow them to determine and lead the way on the slavery issue.  Cooper states that the Northern part of any national party had to occupy Southern grounds or at least, not anti-Southern grounds (372).  The protection of slavery guaranteed Southern control over it’s own destiny.  Southerners viewed any restrictive policy on slavery or the exclusion of slavery from territorial expansion as the first step toward permanent political inferiority and the abolition of slavery (65).  The controversy over the territory gained from the Mexican Cession demonstrated slavery’s importance to the South and national politics.

Nevertheless, by the end of 1854, the Southern Whigs disintegrated as an organizational force and disappeared from the Southern political scene (359).  A unified Democratic party comprised of Southern Rights, Union, and Democratic members dominated Southern politics.  Cooper contributes the demise of the Whigs to the stiffening anti-Southern stance of Northern Whiggery (360).  Southern Democrats commented that the Southern Whig party became the political vehicle of Northerners bent on degrading the South and destroying its institutions. 

In a relatively easy-to-read work, Cooper provides substantial evidence for the influence of the politics of slavery upon Southern politics and the development of national parties.  Cooper presents a good background examination of the Southern political system, in particular, the presidential elections from Jackson onward. 

Joi-lee Beachler


The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1828-1856. By William J. Cooper, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979. pp. xv, 401. IBSN 0807103853. TCU  Classification F 213 C69.

William J. Cooper, holder of a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and a history professor at LSU, studied antebellum politics in the eleven Confederate states relying largely on southern newspapers and the manuscripts of Southern politicians. Cooper ignored social and economic forces which, he claimed, had little impact on the creation of a distinctively southern political environment.  Most of the discussion focused on the relationship of slavery to presidential elections between 1836 and 1852. In those contests the South enjoyed notable influence in both the Democratic and Whig parties, which they used to demand adoption of their views on slavery-related questions.

Thesis:  In The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1826-1856 Cooper argued that slavery remained the fulcrum and dominant theme of southern politics from the late 1820s to secession, that both the Whigs and Democrats competed to be seen as the champion of the defense of slavery.  Prior to the 1850s parties remained national because northerners acquiesced on slavery, the disintegration of that arrangement doomed the southern Whig party.

 In the 1820s the democratization movement reached the South, spreading suffrage and widening the number of elective offices in most states and creating a modern political system.  Jacksonian democracy united the South with loyalty to a self-protecting ideology stressing loyalty to section, to social system, and to nation.  The new political organization that challenged the Jacksonian party after 1832, the Whigs, was driven in the South by the nullification crisis, the withdrawal of federal deposits, and Jackson’s choice of Van Buren as heir, resulting in a contest for southern votes fought on the ideas of strict constructionism and states’ rights, therefore, the roots of southern Whiggery did not lay in opposition to Jackson’s stand on the Bank.

 The initial Whig position exploited Democratic support for the Force Bill, questioning their commitment to slavery when even the suggestion of disloyalty brought vehement reprisals.  Reeling from the assault, Democrats responded by increasing the tone and intensity of their defense, although many southern Democrats resented Calhoun’s politics of confrontation.  That process generated the rhetoric and the strategy that drove southern politics for the life of the second party system.  Southern Whiggery made impressive gains in the election of 1840 because Whigs did not have to carry the weight of Van Buren.

 The “Great Aberration” in southern politics referred to the fundamental ideological transition in the 1840s when Whigs backed Henry Clay, a stance driven by economics rather than slavery.  Going into the 1844 election Clay’s economic platform seemed to offer clear political advantages over the Democratic brand of old Jeffersonism.  The triumph of John Tyler, the most influential man in southern politics between Jackson and the demise of the second party system, shattered that idea.  Historians have failed to appreciate the consequences of Tyler’s determination to remain president, or at least continue his ideology.  Tyler’s efforts brought about the political death of Van Buren and the new Clay Whigs in the South, altering the conception of a Van-Clay contest in 1844.  Tyler knew that to overcome Van Buren’s strength in most parts of the South required an issue of wide appeal and deep passion, which he found in slavery.  Cooper stated that the “evidence strongly suggests” that Calhoun and Tyler cooperated in a masterful plan that defeated Van Buren.(p. 181)  Their use of the slavery issue changed the direction of southern Democracy and ensured that the Democratic candidate would run on their platform.(p. 181)  The critical element for that plan was Tyler’s senescent drive to annex Texas, giving Tyler and the Democrats national standing as the champion of expansion and economic opportunity and southern appeal as the guardians of slavery.  Texas galvanized southern Democrats, giving them a president and a renewed sense of their power, but smashed the southern Whigs and destroyed the politics of economics.

 From 1844 onward the philosophy of both parties never wavered, each concentrating on convincing southerners that they were the stronger slavery supporter.  In the 1848 election the strength of that claim for Democrats lay in their platform but the Whigs relied on Zachary Taylor.  His election renewed Whig confidence but his support for admission of California as a free state shattered the party.

 The furor over the Compromise of 1850 dominated southern politics, temporarily splitting Democrats and resurrecting Whigs, who saw the plan as an honorable solution while portraying Democrats as radicals when radicalism was still sporadic.  Democrats quickly reunited for the election of 1852 and support of a candidate and a platform favoring the Compromise eliminated accusations of radicalism at the same time that the nomination of Scott signaled the southern lost of Whig party control.  Six months after the Kansas Nebraska Act, which reiterated the fact of northern control, southern Whiggery was finished.  For a brief period the Know-Nothing Party filled that void but it was only a short-lived replacement.

Harold Rich

The South and the Politics of Slavery:  1828-1856.  By William J. Cooper, Jr.  (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1978), Pp. 401.

William Cooper originally intended to write a history of the democratic party, but ended his project by turning his attention to the question of the role of slavery in southern politics.  His thesis is simple.  From the time of Andrew Jackson until the Civil War, all southern politics centered around the issue of slavery and which party could be viewed as its greatest protector.

Cooper argues that the South persisted in seeing political parties not as instruments for dealing with issues like economics, foreign affairs, and ethnic disputes, but as purely defensive mechanisms.  Southerners participated in national parties in order to protect what they thought were their rights and their honor.  As time progressed, they came to identify slavery more and more with their honor, until the two became almost synonymous.  Therefore, it would not be long until a party must defend slavery explicitly in order to be considered by the vast majority of southerners.

Cooper focuses the bulk of his attentions on the time of the second party system.  During Jackson's presidency, southerners had no reason to worry that their "rights" may not be defended.  Jackson was the ultimate man of the South, and many would follow him simply because he was Andrew Jackson.  A few initial protest movements tried to rise up against this Jacksonian behemoth, but they lacked a divisive issue.  Without one, they could not hope to defeat him.

As such, the fledgling Whig party seized on slavery in order to defeat Jackson's hand picked successor, Martin Van Buren.  It proved to be more than divisive enough to send them hurtling onto the political scene with a vengeance.  Though Van Buren won the election, the Whigs continued to use the issue to whip southern democrats into their camp by convincing them that Van Buren had allied with the fledgling abolitionist movement.  As a result, William Henry Harrison, portrayed to the public as the quintessential southern man, defeated the incumbent.  Unfortunately for the Whigs, who hoped to use him as a puppet, Harrison died only a month into office, placing John Tyler into the presidency.

Though Cooper dismisses Tyler as "the Great Aberration," he still shows that slavery remained an important issue during his tenure.  Tyler tried to turn the focus onto fresher topics, most notably the annexation of Texas, Cooper's main theme is clearly visible throughout the discussion.  The Wilmont Provisio and the southern clamor for annexation both had roots reaching deep into sectional issues that in turn found their wellspring in slavery.

The democrats learned quickly from their losses, effectively using the same tactics against the Whigs that had worked so well against them.  Eventually, southern politics degenerated into a simple question of deciding which party could better defend slavery.  The peculiar institution not only continued to be the dominating issue in sectional politics, it grew in intensity as time passed.  By the 1850's, southern politicians could talk of little else.  This in turn insured that slavery would come to be the definitive issue of the 1850s, as the southerners made certain that their northern counterparts never heard the end of it.  The Fire eaters eventually seized upon this thread, and the country followed it all the way into the Civil War.

A few friendly criticisms might be offered on this excellent work. Cooper outlines his study in such a way that he tends to preclude contrary evidence.  For instance, he defines the "south" as only those eleven states that eventually seceded from the Union.  By excluding border states traditionally included by the term, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, he excludes from consideration areas in which his generalizations may not be true.  Also, his definition of "the politics of slavery" is quite broad.  According to Cooper, it is "the world created by the interaction of the four major forces in antebellum southern politics:  the institution of slavery, southern parties and politicians, the southern political structure, and the values of southern white society" (xi.).  If all he needs to do is demonstrate the presence of any one of these items in ncertain instances in order to prove the centrality of the politics of slavery, of course he will find it everywhere.

These small quibbles aside, this is an excellent book that bring massive amounts of documentary evidence to the table.  It is certainly worth the time it takes to read it.
Texas Christian University
Brian C. Melton