William J. Cooper,
The South & the
Politics of Slavery, 1828-1856

(Louisiana State University Press, 1978)

William J. Cooper goes to great lengths to reinforce the stereotype that southern politics before the War Between the States was centered around the issue of slavery, and that local issues were unimportant compared to it. In The South & the Politics of Slavery, 1828-1856, Cooper is especially explicit in announcing slavery to be the "fulcrum" of southern politics.

The book covers the period of the second American party system, from 1828 and the advent of Jacksonianism to the disintegration of the Whig party in 1856. In explaining why Whigs as well as Democrats spoke "constantly" about slavery-related issues, Cooper argues that only the slavery issue afforded political stability to any party position. He insists that the white South was of a unified, proslavery mind. He is not completely successful at explaining why this should be so. He does succeed in describing slavery as a national issue, pointing out that only the national government could officially recognize the peculiar institution's legitimacy in America. In the process of explication, Cooper seems to imply that the parties were utilized by southern politicians to gain national power, which could then be harnessed to protect southern rights. Since the second-party system first emerged in 1828, he seems to date the birth of the southern rights crusade to a time even before the Nullification crisis.

Cooper identifies four factors that animated the "politics of slavery" -- the institution of slavery itself, southern parties and politicians, the political structure of the South, and the values of white southern society. Cooper would certainly agree that the North and South were culturally different in the antebellum era. He describes this sectional difference in political terms: local issues predominated in northern politics, whereas slavery dominated southern political discourse. Conditionally, southerners viewed parties' roles differently than did their northern counterparts -- southerners relied on the national parties to work for the preservation of southern rights within the nation.

Local issues were irrelevant in the South, Cooper argues repeatedly, compared to the indomitable politics of slavery. He rejects emphatically the common belief that economic matters defined party politics in the era of the second-party system. Cooper dismisses the crucial significance of economic and diverse social issues at the local and state level by placing over each such issue a mask of proslavery. Specific issues emerged and faded, he argues, but slavery remained always at the core of each one. He does not seek to understand just who became Whigs or who became Democrats or the reasons why, for he sees in the South a unified system of political thought.

Cooper's argument is almost circular: the drive for southern rights shaped the national party structure, but this self-same party system fostered sectionalism within the parties and essentially destroyed the second-party system. Cooper insists that the Democrats enjoyed political hegemony in the South in the late 1850s because no new party could replace the Whigs under the unspoken rules of the southern political system; the existence of anti-Democratic voters -- who were a large minority of the southern population -- and the existence of local issues could not subsume the slavery issue in politics.

Cooper relies mainly on data from presidential elections, ignoring nonpresidential contests at the state and local level. This approach prevents him from acknowledging the lack of unity and order in southern politics. He refuses to admit the existence of discord not only between but within parties, and he is blind to any evidence that the South was anything but unified in proslavery ideology by the 1850s.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 20 August 2005

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