SHEAR 2013: Jacksonian Democrats and the South

For the fourth year in a row, I’m going to attempt to blog some of the panels that I attend. (You can find my previous attempts at blogging SHEAR panels by searching “SHEAR [year]” in the search box to the right.) As always, please forgive any errors as I write on the fly.

Illness prevented Harry Watson from chairing the session, so Stephen Maizlish (University of Texas at Arlington), who also commented, took over that responsibility.

The first paper was presented by Christopher Childers (Crowder College). His paper title, “Thomas Ritchie’s Southern Constitutionalism in the Jacksonian Era,” suggested that he would focus on Thomas Ritchie, but he spoke more generally about southern states’ rights and the Missouri Compromise, with occasional references to Ritchie. According to Childers, Ritchie denounced the Compromise because weakened states’ rights.  and argued that slavery had to become purely local. The question of the application of states’ rights to territories caused a division between southerners who thought the Compromise didn’t threaten states’ rights and those who saw it as a threat. Ritchie and like-minded southerners wanted to create new political party. Ritchie and Co. wanted to unite sections to protect southern rights, while other southerners, such as John C. Calhoun, saw an insular South as the only protection.

Next in line was LSU graduate Adam Pratt, a visiting professor at the University of Scranton, who presented his paper,  “Georgia’s Gubernatorial Election of 1831 and the Politics of Whiteness.” He argued that Georgia’s political leaders sought to define whiteness in borderlands controlled by Cherokee in order to establish white male democracy. The Georgia Guard established by Governor George Gilmer attacked miners (landless whites) occupying Cherokee land, which harmed Gilmer’s reelection chances. Gilmer’s supporters blamed the miners for being unruly and inciting the Cherokee. The state’s Union party and its gubernatorial candidate Wilson Lumpkin opposed Gilmer. The distribution of land was one of the primary issues in the election. Gilmer’s platform promised to alleviate taxes, provide public ed., and support internal improvements, incl. the building of a railroad. All of this would be accomplished via public ownership of gold mines. Gilmer argued that limiting individual access to gold would protect the white citizens’ moral fiber. The Lumpkin campaign used the language of class conflict to argue that Gilmer’s plan threatened egalitarianism. Lumpkin promised a land lottery that made him the champion of the “white man’s chance.” In other words, Gilmer was trying to limit the white man’s chances to make something of himself by restricting access to Cherokee gold. Lumpkin won the election; 60% in counties bordering Cherokee land voted for him. Pratt concluded with the contention that the election showed that the promises of Jacksonian democracy were contested.

Michael Morrison of Purdue University (and well-known as the former co-editor of JER) spoke on his longtime area of expertise: Texas annexation. He argued that annexation was the apogee of Jacksonian politics and the beginning of the demise of two-party system. John Tyler and supporters argued that annexation was the fulfillment of Jacksonian politics.

Reeve Huston of Duke University offered the first comments on the three papers. He identified the commonality that all of the papers focused on political ideas as political tools.

For Childers, Huston asked a question that I was wondering: Why frame the paper around Ritchie when other individuals were mentioned just as much? Huston suggested that popular sovereignty had as much to do with political power between states as it did between states and national government. He also noted the growing importance of popular sovereignty rhetoric during the Era of Good Feelings.

For Pratt, Huston asked how the state-level arguments in Georgia fit with larger definitions of political economy nationally? He argued that the election was more than about whiteness, incl. economic development and land policy, which could push the historiography of whiteness in different directions. Pratt needs to add more specificity about what whiteness meant to the Gilmer (States’ Rights) party. Huston concluded that the historical literature on land policy needed to be reexamined (to which Dan Feller took offense in a very funny and light-hearted moment).

Huston asked Morrison to what extent Tyler and Co. united Democrats behind annexation. He suggested looking not just at the annexation votes but also at things such as patronage and party discipline in the coming years to see the success of a united Democratic party.

Maizlish then offered his comments. He asked Pratt whether it was race or class and respectability at stake in the election. Using Morrison’s paper as a starting point, he argued that historians emphasize turning points too much and need to talk more about processes and the many points of transition that occur with something like the Civil War.

The audience then asked questions and offered comments. Andy Burstein observed that Ritchie was a clearinghouse of political news, essentially serving as the southern version of Matthew Carey. He also noted that the only Ritchie biography was published by Charles Ambler in 1913. (That’s a dissertation waiting for someone.) Childers agreed that Ritchie was politically malleable.

Sam Watson asked about the people’s response to popular sovereignty rhetoric. Childers and Pratt agreed that this was a good question, with Pratt noting that anxiety about mixed-race children influenced whiteness rhetoric.

Dan Feller suggested to Pratt that the election was not really about whiteness, which was used to frame election, but about class. He also noted that the Georgia state platforms mirrored and foretold the national party platforms. He asked if these two sides were leftovers from previous decades of GA politics. If so, then that affected them, because parties have to fight about something. The land policy might have been that something.

Kenneth Owen asked Childers about the influence of Missouri on the Illinois slavery debate. Childers responded that Illinois was the test case of the Northwest Ordinance once part of the territory became a state. Illinois statehood was a long process and skirted the law with indentured servitude, which was essentially slavery.

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