Book Review: J. Mills Thornton's book, Politics and Power in a Slave Society, Alabama, 1800-1860
By: Michael W. Kramer
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As one glimpses into the past and reviews antebellum southern history in the nineteenth century, they would most likely summarize and find it common knowledge that the primary reason the Civil War was fought was to eliminate the savage institution of slavery that cast a dark shadow over the south. Historical hindsight allows one to conclude that slavery was indeed an unfortunate and regrettable era in American history. At the conclusion of the war, the resultant northern victory removed the dark shadow that loomed over the southern portion of the nation. The result was the light of freedom now shined on blacks and whites alike throughout the region. The causes of the nation's conflict and where slavery ranks in Civil War causality have and continue to cause a great amount of debate among historians.

In historian J. Mills Thornton's book, Politics and Power in a Slave Society, Alabama, 1800-1860, the author takes a unique approach by arguing that the southern desire to preserve slavery was not the main driving force pushing the south into succession and eventually war. Instead, Thornton argues that it was Alabama politicians constant ability to instill fear into voters that corruptible forces, if left ungoverned, would enslave the white man and condemn him to a life void of self-reliance and instead one of forced servitude to hostile oppressors.

Contrary to placing preservation of slavery as the primary motivation for the south to succeed, Thornton's ambitious and unique interpretation of antebellum Alabama culture argues that slavery was so thoroughly woven into the fabric of everyday life that it was of minimal concern the states residents and political leaders. In fact, his writings understate the impact slavery had on everyday events that it is possible for the reader to sometimes forget that slavery even existed in the state.

Thornton contends that the political, economic, and social situations that came about in Alabama were a microcosm of all southern society. Thornton believes that by focusing solely on one southern state, one can see that “The war was the sum of the age. And thus the experience of Alabamians in these years was, at some level, the experience of all Americans.” (XXI)

In the following review, the first portion will summarize Thornton's arguments. Second, comparisons will be made between two other antebellum-era historians (Michael Holt and David M. Potter). Finally, a critique of Thornton's arguments and will be done with comparisons being made between all three aforementioned historians.

Thornton's arguments draw a great deal upon various types of evidence that he researched. Alabama political records, communications between politicians, voting statistics, and newspapers provide the basis for his arguments. His analysis of evidence is outstanding as he is able to interpret political happenings and trends at the state, sectional, and county wide levels. He draws heavily on voting statistics, financial records, and numerous other sources to accurately validate his arguments that the political actions generally reflect how Alabamians viewed themselves and the outside world.

The most common theme the author expresses throughout his book is that politicians were obsessed with neutralizing any fear that would deprive Alabamians of their cherished freedoms which they regarded as the greatest of all their possessions. Thornton adequately details how devotion to Jacksonian ideology transformed into strict a loyalty to the Democratic party. As the 1850s progressed, he informs how southern rights advocates gradually joined the party and changed it in into being one more aggressively anti-northern in nature. In addition, he then explains how the Democratic gradually accepted Whig ideals and slowly modernized their party platform into being slightly less reluctant to change.

In part one of his book, Thornton’s analysis of legislative activity from 1800-1850 conclusively displays that the state and local political body contained leaders who were humble in not allowing their own power to become too centralized. The political events, or lack thereof as Thornton argues, kept the fearful banks in check as electoral practices applied to banks leadership prevented any over-expansion. Thus, Alabamians were able to keep banking in check which was a reflection of President Andrew Jackson's staunch effort to keep banking out citizens everyday lives.

The author also produces valid evidence by arguing that, in the early antebellum period, wealthy planters and yeomen farmers in the state were dominated by middle class farmers and not a wealthy slave holding elite. At the end of chapter three, he proposes the question as to who ruled Alabama during the early half of the nineteenth century. He concludes by simply answering ...nobody. It was the people that ruled with the least amount of government influence being exerted. Essentially, Thornton argues that Jacksonian ideology produced a utopian style of living for all self-reliant white Alabama yeomen prior to the mid-nineteenth century.

In the 1850s, when economic fluctuations effected the state, the Democratic party was thrown into disarray as centralized powers developed (such as monster banks, big industry, and a growing market economy) resulting in additional political parties being created (such as the Know-Nothing party and Southern Rights party). Thornton summarizes how the Democratic party was able to survive the crisis by using party loyalty and the central might of the Democratic party to remain the most powerful political party in the state. Radicals (often labeled (fire-eaters) influence on the Democratic party gradually became more intense. But, the Democratic party remained in tact once again leading it to maintain it's political prominence.

Thornton states it best when he writes “The essence of Jacksonian society was the worship of the idols Liberty and Equality. Southerners, because of their daily contact with genuine slavery, were even more fanatically devoted to the Jacksonian cult than were most Americans; they did not exclude human sacrifice in order to sustain it.” (221)

Thornton's analysis of southern Alabama in the succession crisis does indeed reflect how the south was pushed past the breaking point in their fear of losing Jacksonian values. His review of geographical voting evidence conclusively proves that state residents in the south favored immediate succession and northerners favored a gradual succession through compromise with the north. His evidence of state voting patterns, delegate assignments, and county voting statistics validate his argument.

In summary, Thornton argues that the democratic party and population were so obsessed with fear of losing control of ones liberty that eventually politicians reached their breaking point with succession being the ultimate result.

In comparison to Holt's book, The Political Crisis of the 1850s, both authors make the assumption that historical events that transpire can be reflected by the political happenings of the time. Each historian provides a detailed analysis using similar forms of evidence that the eventual collapse of the two party system in the south led to a lack of voters to have adequate options to enact reasonable resolution to any presented fear. The eventual collapse of inter-party state rivalries led to the eventual polarization between Democrats in the south and Republicans in the north. As such, both authors would agree that the failure of the political system and political leaders to provide adequate leadership led to eventual succession. It of no surprise that Holt is mentioned in the author's acknowledgments as Thornton draws heavily on the writings of Holt throughout his book.

Holt differs from Thornton in that his arguments stress how the actions of southern states (Alabama) were perceived by northerners. Due to the larger scope of Holt's work, he is more persuasive in demonstrating how northerners view of Alabama was one of the possible fear of a slave power conspiracy existing. Thornton, on the other hand, while providing an superior account of the everyday activities of Alabama political leaders, does not demonstrate how the state political events led to a perception of a growing distrust and fear in northern areas. In a sense, he does not review how events outside the state effected how politics in the north were a reaction to the perceived threat by Alabama.

In regards to westward expansion, unlike Holt, Thornton does not indicate that Alabama politicians had much intent to take over the west and north for the eventual slave power to take heed. Instead, as the state's population grew in the hill counties, rural areas, and urban centers, the west was viewed by Alabama residents and politicians as being a refuge for those who to escape from the state if it should fall to the forces of anti-Jacksonian powers.

Like Holt, both authors focus heavily on how fire-eaters ideas were eventually absorbed into the existing Democratic party. But, the existing party did not immediately become too extreme until the dawning of the succession crisis when fire-eaters and staunch southern rights politicians became the primary voice of the party. The result was a democratic party split whether to maintain northern party support or advocate either immediate or cooperation methods should the necessity to succeed arrive. Thornton example of the eventual sectional breakdown of the two-party system is reflected in the final chapter of his novel where he showcases how Alabama fire-eaters such as Benjamin Fitzpatrick, John Anthony Winston, and William Yancey all strove for higher political power to prove to voters who was the better defender of southern rights against a slowly, but ever intruding, hostile northern forces led by Abraham Lincoln and the antislavery Republican party.

Thornton's analysis of politics and power in Alabama falls short because it leaves many questions unanswered and focuses too heavily of the Democratic party and it's leaders. Quite simply, it shows the reader how events were seen through the eyes of the powerful and not the powerless.

In contrast to Thornton and Holt, Potter's book The Impending Crisis, America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, he finds that Jacksonian politics in the south (of course, including Alabama) was not the most influential reason succession came amount. Instead, his argument is that northern opposition to slavery expansion and continual southern motivation to expand slavery were of higher importance. In summary, Potter argues that westward expansion and the prospects of industrial growth when combined with the southern reluctance to yield power modernization of the south and reluctance to end slavery led the south to succeed.

Prior to addressing the possible shortcomings of Thornton's work, there are fundamental historical problems that one encounters in arguing that one state can be seen as a microcosm of the entire southern society. Such method of historical interpretation tends to over generalize that all southern states in a region have similar histories. Differences between states are abandoned because the historical focus is too narrow. Also, Thornton tends to focus too highly on the history of the Democratic party without providing the contrasting point of view which slowly but surely came into existence after the Civil War. Throughout Thornton's book, there is an overwhelming amount of newspaper sources utilized that had a pro-Democratic leaning. Comparing and contrasting a comparative Whig party newspaper or antislavery anti-Democratic information would have helped validate Thornton's arguments.

The other fundamental problem of Thornton's methods is that it focuses too much on how Alabamians saw themselves and not how outsiders saw them. In effect, one can get to know oneself better by finding out how one is perceived. If Thornton used additional sources and examined how one would view the state from the outside they may have a completely different impression on the events that transpired during the antebellum years.

Another fault found in Thornton's book is that he tends to over analyze the Democratic party. In fact, he even acknowledges in chapter XX that he is using only one source, a democratic party newspaper, in interpreting events. Thornton overemphasizes the emotion of fear and how the Democratic politicians use of fear was their chief method of sustaining power in the state. By over emphasizing the role of the Democratic party, the question “who watches the watchers” and alternate points of view from Whig sources or anti-Democratic party believers would address the paradox of whoever spreads fear in actuality should be more feared than the scapegoats and villains that those spreading fear inform to be afraid of.

The greatest criticism of Thornton's book, as well as Holt's and Potter's, is that all three books, the author's arguments are taken strictly from existing evidence of the powerful ruling political party. At no time does any author review any evidence of how slaves, women, and original Indian inhabitants viewed the events that occurred in Alabama from 1800 to 1860. The sorrowing stories of the massive mental and physical abuse inflicted on slaves in the states history is nowhere to be found in Thornton's book. Slavery, indeed as now known to all, was human cruelty at it's worst. During the northern and southern political campaigns, the moral question of slavery was heavily debated. Thornton's analysis include no first-hand evidence of how slaves interpreted the events unfolding. Also, the level of which politicians treated or punished their slaves is never mentioned. The impression that one can have towards traditional Jacksonian values can be dramatically changed if the negative moral aspects of slavery were to be taken into account. As such, an argument can be made that Thornton only tells half the story as known by the oppressors and not the oppressed. While his attempt was to let the reader see Alabama through the eyes of its residence, he fails to mention that did not include viewing the state through the eyes of the oppressed.

By not addressing how those in power treated slaves, it blinds the reader into out of sight out of mind mentality and leads one to lose focus on the human element of southern society that northern antislavery advocates were strongly against. Political events can offer a great example of what led to the civil war. But, the collection conscious of a state is of equal if not more importance in historical analysis.

Throughout the nineteenth century, religions movements in the north especially the evangelical movement were having a renaissance. In the north, this led many people to oppose slavery on religious grounds because they considered living a virtuous lifestyle to be a critical duty for citizens that did not include enslaving another human being. Religion, combined with all other aspects that contrasted northern and southern society, gave south the stigma of being uncivilized. Thornton's book contains no analysis or mention about any religious beliefs (possibly hypocritical) shared by political leaders. As far as Thornton is concerned, religion was of little to no significance for Alabamians. Instead, the only God worshiped in Alabama appears to have been the God devoted at all times to the preservation of all Jacksonian culture.

Thornton also underemphasis the role immigration played throughout antebellum Alabama society. In the north, dramatic Irish-Catholic immigration impact resulted in a mass necessity for politicians to appeal to native Americans. Thornton mentions little about how Alabama politicians, large plantation owners, slaves, and yeomen courted the vote of the native Americans.

Throughout Thornton's book, it is again clear that he views preservation of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian culture as being the most important element leading to the sectional crisis with the north. The fact is repeated in abundance throughout the entire book as the nature of Jacksonian ideology is the belief that party politics provides protection against any fearful monster threatening the people. However, the contradiction is rarely stated that the Jacksonian style of power is built on fear and authoritarian devotion to the Democratic political party and the politicians therein. The natural result of such devotion eventually ended up being blind devotion to party patronage, party leaders, and eventually sectional southern superiority. All authors so far reviewed do not ask or answer the question of whether or not the Democratic party eventually became the monster of which it strove to protect the people against.

Thornton's analysis of political power is accurate, but only to a point. The question of whether absolute power corrupts is often asked by historians and scholars alike. By reading Thornton's book, the question is answerable as it demonstrates that getting power doesn't corrupt, but actually staying in power at all costs to prevent the course of time from enacting dramatic change corrupts. Like Holt, Thornton's overview of Alabama clearly showcases how politicians use their power to seek out crusades of which the people can be led to fear. However, in a functional democracy, the crusades and issues cannot be adequately manufactured. By scapegoating monsters, whether it be a bank, money, race, or culture, the result created is a natural battle of “good vs. evil” being implanted in the minds of voters. As such, the use of politics to gain power and fear was conceived with the Jacksonian ideology and that method has been everlasting in the nations future. Rather than glorify the era and ideology like Thornton does, the era requires review with a keen eye to keep focus on the big picture that a strong government is needed to preserve liberty.

Historians, such as Thornton, who attempt to underemphasis the role of slavery and how intertwined it was with the culture, economy, and conscious of the people indeed do make a valid argument. But, doing so ignores the obvious issue and the obvious outcome of the Civil War which is that the dark cloud that hovered over American history was lifted and the effect of slavery ending was a victory, not only for the country, but for all humankind.

To under emphasize the relevance of slavery is to ignore how the tapestry of the collective lifespan of the American nation was woven. The consequences of the end of slavery as opposed to Jacksonian ideology ending was not comparable. In Thornton's book his argument is otherwise. As Potter states in his books, Jacksonian ideology was bound to collapse. The signs of the end of slavery to wage labor surrounded Alabama and the south on all sides. As Potter notes, Jacksonian ideological decline was inevitable to happen regardless of any attempt to fend it off by the south. Their victories over the north to preserve slavery were indeed all hollow victories for the expansion of slavery. However, Thornton would content Potter's argument by arguing the victories were not hollow but instead necessary victories for the preservation of Jacksonian ideology. Reluctance, avoidance, and resistance to end it never occurred in the south and there were no signs it was headed to a natural demise.

Thornton does not separate the two. He sees Jacksonian ideology and slavery as being interwoven and inseparable. That interpretation, when combined with evidence that focuses too greatly on the oppressors instead of the oppressed, undermines his bold attempt to allow the reader to fully understand Alabama society, the south, and the nation as a whole from 1800-1860. To Thornton's credit, his very detailed explanation of how powerful politicians gained and used power in Alabama is narrated to perfection.