Book Review: Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy


by Michael E. Woods

Cjapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. Pp. x, 338+. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1469656396

Defining American Democracy at Mid-Century

Illinois’s Stephen Douglas and Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis had different ideas on what the Democratic Party stood for and what was in the best interests of the United States, particularly the South and the Northwest sections of the nation. The two were critical to conveying to party members the major sectional issues that would lead to the ultimate rupture of the party when faced with the Presidential election of 1860. There were strains over property rights and democracy, majority versus minority rule, popular sovereignty versus the rights of slave holders, internal improvements, western expansion, and who best represented the interests of the South or the Northwest. Both statesmen, had Presidential aspirations, and were stubborn. Where Douglas often worked to compromise with many partisan party members, Davis was generally concerned with how every bill or action would help Southern slave holders, the economic and political rights of white people and continuing slavery. In the end, both leading antebellum politicians proved unable to compromise enough to prevent secession and civil war.

According to Michael Woods, author of this new dual biography, after his 1858 Senatorial election loss to the “Little Giant”, Abraham Lincoln predicted that Judge Douglas would not be able to keep the Democratic Party united for very long due to the interests of slave holders. Lincoln was correct and ultimately Douglas and Davis could agree on only one thing, opposing the election of Lincoln, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. In the end, although upon becoming the 16th President in March of 1861, Lincoln attempted to appease the South over the issue of the nation being half-free and half-slave, secession was already under way, and civil war soon followed. Douglas supported the interests of the U.S. as a whole, while Davis became the President of the Confederate States. On June 3, 1861, shortly after the conflict started, Douglas died. Davis, during the ensuing four-year war, viewed slavery as a source of unity for the new Confederacy, one which would enable it to survive and thrive. He was dead wrong, and ultimately the South lost the conflict and slavery ended.

Woods is able to portray both individuals as statesmen with differences over what were the best interests of America, offering important reappraisals of both Douglas and Davis. He notes that in many ways their lives were analogous; Douglas was born in Vermont, admitted to the Union as a free state in 1791, and Davis in Kentucky, admitted as a slave state in 1792. Both had young wives and children who died. They both benefitted from upward mobility and through western expansion, with the belief that “Manifest Destiny” would bring important and positive changes to the nation and the sectional interests of both North and South. But in the end, these two politicians failed to make their party and country safe for slavery, contributing to the demise of the Democratic Party.

Woods writes well, weaving a fast-paced and clear tapestry that both buffs and scholars will find of interest and rewarding.

The book has several useful maps, but could use more illustrations, to give the reader a look at some of the many people who appear on its pages.

With Arguing until Doomsday, a volume in the UNC series “Civil War America”, Woods has given us a superior new treatment of the lives and work of both Douglas and Davis. Highly recommended.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. He earlier reviewed The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation, and A Republic in the Ranks.




Note: Arguing until Doomsday is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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