Is settlerism democratic? On the relationship between conservative thought and democratic practice: Joshua A. Lynn, Preserving the white man’s republic: The Democratic Party and the transformation of American conservatism, 1847–1860, PhD Dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2015

15Oct15

Abstract: In the late 1840s and 1850s, the American Democratic party redefined itself as “conservative.” Yet Democrats’ preexisting dedication to majoritarian democracy, liberal individualism, and white supremacy had not changed. Democrats believed that “fanatical” reformers, who opposed slavery and advanced the rights of African Americans and women, imperiled the white man’s republic they had crafted in the early 1800s. There were no more abstract notions of freedom to boundlessly unfold; there was only the existing liberty of white men to conserve. Democrats therefore recast democracy, previously a progressive means to expand rights, as a way for local majorities to police racial and gender boundaries. In the process, they reinvigorated American conservatism by placing it on a foundation of majoritarian democracy.

Empowering white men to democratically govern all other Americans, Democrats contended, would preserve their prerogatives. With the policy of “popular sovereignty,” for instance, Democrats left slavery’s expansion to territorial settlers’ democratic decision-making. Democrats also applied democracy and individualism to temperance, religious liberty, and nativism. Democratic conservatism would protect white men against “fanaticism,” an ideology which countenanced governmental imposition of moral norms. Democratic principles united white men from the Slave States and Free States, Catholics and Protestants, conservative former Whigs, and native and foreign-born Americans with the promise of moral autonomy on issues like slavery. In addition to political principles, Democrats also ascribed to shared cultural prescriptions regarding whiteness, manhood, and domesticity.

As became clear by the late 1850s, however, majoritarian democracy could actually destabilize racial and gender boundaries. Local democracy could undermine the white man’s republic, especially when marginalized Americans turned democracy to their own ends. In basing a conservative political order on the instability of democracy, Democrats failed to bulwark white supremacy and slavery, but did place American conservatism on a new, populist trajectory. The tenets of modern conservatism, culminating in the twentieth and twenty-first-century New Right, coalesced during the 1850s debates over white supremacy and slavery. Historicizing the conjunction of conservative thought and democratic practice reveals the point at which majoritarian democracy and “liberal” antistatism and individualism became the “conservative” means for upholding a specific racial and gendered order.



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