Graham A. Peck. Making an Antislavery Nation: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Battle over Freedom. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 280 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04136-5.
Reviewed by Kellen Heniford (Columbia University)
Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2020)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Graham A. Peck’s Making an Antislavery Nation: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Battle over Freedom seeks to explain the rise of the Republican Party and “antislavery nationalism” in Illinois and, by extension, in the United States as a whole. Republicans came to power, Peck argues, because by the late 1850s a sense of explicitly antislavery national identity had arisen in the North. His book begins in 1818, with Illinois’s ascension to statehood, and concludes in 1860, with the ascension of one of the state’s native sons, Abraham Lincoln, to the presidency. His focus on Illinois makes for more than just convenient bookending, as the state becomes a proxy for the nation writ large. In Peck’s words, “Illinois reproduced the nation’s problems with slavery in miniature” (p. 17).
Peck sees his work as intervening in the scholarship on American antislavery politics in five significant ways. First, he rightly notes that antislavery politics predated not only the two-party system but also the Constitution that birthed that system. Second, he argues that antebellum Northern Democrats played a larger role in the making of disunion than has generally been acknowledged, and, third, that the Northern Democrats’ embrace of proslavery policy and politics accelerated that trajectory toward disunion. His fourth point, which he acknowledges echoes James Oakes’s work, is that the large-scale adoption of antislavery politics in the North was made possible by the prior adoption of antislavery nationalism. Finally, Peck says, “the rise of antislavery politics reflected a fundamental conflict between freedom and slavery in America,” although this last point seems less an intervention than a sides-taking in a long-running historiographical debate (p. 11). As a cursory glance at these arguments suggests, Peck’s primary focus is the antebellum period.
Still, he begins the first chapter in 1818 with Illinois’s statehood, tracing state politics and debates about land, settlement, and labor, and concluding with the failure of proslavery forces to secure a constitutional convention that might change the state’s position on slaveholding. In this chapter, we see the first iterations of Peck’s important arguments—that clashes over slavery were really disputes over “the meaning of freedom” and that Illinois debates on these subjects reproduced those of the nation in minature (p. 17). Peck’s second chapter completes the early republic section of the book by taking readers from 1825 to 1842. Here he makes the fairly conventional argument that the party system of the Jacksonian era kept disputes over slavery largely under control even as northerners’ and southerners’ political economies continued to diverge. The general thrust of this chapter will be familiar to specialists, but his close attention to Illinois’s state party politics will give many nineteenth-century Americanists something new to consider.
The pace of the monograph slows considerably beginning in the third chapter. Peck’s best analysis covers the two decades between 1840 and 1860, and the last two-thirds of Making an Antislavery Nation is focused on this period. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the Democratic Party and its partisan rivals from the late 1830s to the late 1840s. Peck demonstrates how the expansionist foreign policy of the James K. Polk presidency thrust slavery back into the national spotlight and brought to light the fault lines within Polk’s own party. Some Illinois Democrats, especially those in the northern and traditionally more antislavery parts of the state, worried that their party was beginning to favor the interests of the slaveholding South over those of the free West. Simultaneously, antislavery partisans moved in fits and starts to begin their own political party. Peck suggests that Free Soilers’ ability to dress antislavery sentiment in nationalist garb was especially threatening to the Democrats and particularly to their southern wing. He takes his microscope to Illinois’s courts, revealing that, by and large, jurisprudence in the state favored the emerging free soil consensus on slavery and the law.
While Peck’s vacillations between state-level and national politics can at times be jarring, the last three chapters, with their focus on the Illinois politicians who came to dominate the national stage, link his two scales of analysis together most convincingly. Chapters 5 and 6 focus primarily on Stephen A. Douglas and the Democratic Party he sought to control. Peck is especially sharp in his discussion of the Northern Democrats’ antebellum strategy. As he explains, for men like Douglas, “popular sovereignty seemed a perfect fusion of democracy and Union. Beneath it lay a characteristic northern Democratic tolerance for enslaving blacks” (p. 115). But even as southerners succeeded in tying their proslavery agenda to the future of the Union, the “Douglas Democracy” began to falter. As Douglas and other northerners in the party hitched their wagon to proslavery nationalism in a bid to save the party and the nation, space opened for the emergence of an antislavery party. The final chapter focuses on the rise of Lincoln and the Republican Party out of a diverse coalition of antislavery interests. Peck provides a granular analysis of the party’s Illinois origins, both in the 1856 convention and in Lincoln’s 1858 senatorial bid. This chapter describes Lincoln’s antislavery argument as “eminently conservative” in its deference to the Founders’ original plans for the country and in its appeals to constituents’ sense of national pride, even as Lincoln himself is depicted as a radical (p. 178). Peck concludes that it was the Republicans’ success in “attracting a crucial cadre of conservative recruits” with this antislavery nationalism that catapulted Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 and ultimately brought on the Civil War (p. 182).
While Peck’s work is rigorously researched and well-written, one problem stands out: he seems to struggle in his theorizations of land and labor. The first chapter of the book is, in many ways, a story about land. As he explains, the “acquisition and exploitation of land made possible the personal and economic opportunity ... associated with freedom” in Illinois. Surprisingly, the Native Americans who claimed, lived on, and worked much of the land called Illinois are virtually invisible, save Peck’s aside that, in 1818, “Indian titles from the northern half of the state had yet to be extinguished” (p. 21). In Peck’s telling, settlers competed with each other—but only with each other—for land in the new state. In reality, the making of the “freedom” white Illinoisans coveted was contingent on an often genocidal relationship with local Native Americans and their land claims, and their conceptualization of that freedom cannot fully be understood outside this context.
Indeed, in Making an Antislavery Nation, freedom is a slippery concept. Peck speaks often about “the meaning of freedom”—for example, when he argues, also in chapter 1, that “the meaning of freedom in Illinois was not yet clear” in the early days of its statehood (p. 17). The unarticulated fact at the center of this claim is that it was not yet clear what system of labor would come to predominate in the state. Peck explains in his introduction that what “the words freedom and slavery meant to most Northerners from 1787 to 1860” was incompatible with “Southerners’ understanding of the same words,” which “set the North and the South on a collision course” (p. 4). But “freedom” and “slavery” necessarily had different meanings, in any area of the country, in 1787 than they did in 1860. The political economies of the North and the South changed drastically through those seventy-odd years. Industrialization, the cotton boom, westward expansion, radical abolitionism, the free labor movement, and any number of other factors altered the ways northerners and southerners conceptualized freedom over time. Recognizing that the clash between the North and the South was a clash not just between two distinct ideologies of freedom but also between two ideologies grounded in labor systems that had developed very differently during the early republic and antebellum periods might have helped Peck make clearer how ideas about freedom evolved even within the two sections of the Union.
Nevertheless, Peck has written an impressive monograph, notable for both its chronological scale and its thorough evidentiary work. Making an Antislavery Nation is at its best when it turns its careful attention to the political environs of pre-Civil War Illinois. That both Lincoln and Douglas, two of the antebellum nation’s leading figures in opposing political parties, hailed from the same state becomes more understandable with Peck’s discussion of Illinois’s unique position in US politics. Peck’s meticulous account of often vicious intrastate political battles serves as a reminder that great ideological divides persisted in the North even as southern politicians closed ranks on the slavery question. While Making an Antislavery Nation may not totally “recast the history of antislavery politics,” it offers an important and thoroughly researched window into party politics and antislavery ideology in Illinois (p. 8). Peck’s work is a significant addition to the canon of scholarship on the coming of the Civil War and an essential read for scholars of antebellum American political history.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-nationalism.
Kellen Heniford. Review of Peck, Graham A., Making an Antislavery Nation: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Battle over Freedom.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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