Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Michael E. Woods's "Arguing until Doomsday"

Michael E. Woods is associate professor of history at Marshall University and author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy, and reported the following:
Since there happens to be a section break on page 99, this page features two distinct topics, both from the year 1849. First is an account of Illinois senator Stephen Douglas’s success in getting Congress to create the Minnesota Territory, followed by a brief discussion of Douglas’s continued interest in, and close political ties to, residents of that territory. After the section break, the focus shifts southward to Mississippi, where many politicians—including Senator Jefferson Davis—and voters combined in a swelling outcry against the possible prohibition of slavery in the southwestern lands recently ceded by Mexico to the United States.

I’ll admit to having been skeptical of The Page 99 Test, but it works moderately well for my book. Readers who perused page 99 would meet its two main figures—Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis—and a few other important individuals, including Henry M. Rice, one of Minnesota’s first senators (and Douglas’s neighbor in Washington, DC), and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. They would also be introduced to several key themes, including westward expansion, the intense antebellum conflict over the extension of slavery, and connections between local and national politics. They would get a taste of how Davis and Douglas envisioned the West, with Douglas imagining a booming northwest stretching from Illinois to Puget Sound, while Davis saw the southwest as a vital source of strength for the South.

What’s missing from this page is a clear indication of how repeated collisions between Davis and Douglas, dating back to their earliest encounters in Congress in the mid-1840s, ratcheted up tensions within their Democratic Party and ultimately produced a dramatic rupture in 1860. These conflicts, born of the imperative to show their respective constituencies that the national Democratic Party could advance state and regional interests, propel the book’s narrative. I suspect that this demonstration of change over time, which is so central to the work of the historian, might often be difficult to capture in a single page.
Learn more about Arguing until Doomsday at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue