Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Doe Face" or "Dough Face"?

John Randolph of Roanoke famously coined the term dough face during the debates over the Missouri Crisis as a term of opprobrium for northern representatives who were willing to sacrifice their principles to cast votes in favor of measures favored by the south. Frustratingly, I can’t find a web-verifiable citation to the original quote. I suspect that it may have appeared in a newspaper report, rather than the Annals of Congress, but that's just a guess.

Citing a secondary source, Robert Pierce Forbes provides the quote and context as follows:
John Randolph . . . bitterly sneered that he had always known that the northern representatives who voted for the Compromise “would give way. They were scared at their own dough faces – yes, they were scared at their own dough faces! – We had them, and if we had wanted three more, we could have had them; yes, and if these had failed, we could have three more of these men, whose conscience, and morality, and religion, extend to ‘thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude.’

To this day, historians remain uncertain where Randolph got the phrase. Prof. Forbes himself suggests that Randolph intended the phrase to be “doe face”, and that it was misunderstood and subsequently interpreted to be “dough face”:
It is apt that the wracked, erratic, half-mad Virginian should have coined the peculiar epithet, “doe face,” that became, in a curious mutation, “doughface,” the universal term of contempt for such “Northern men with Southern principles,” or rather, as Randolph implied, with no principles at all.

Prof. Forbes supports this contention by reference to a passage in Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is: The Testimony of a Thousand Voices (New York, 1839). There, Weld mysteriously states:
Doe face,” which owes its paternity to John Randolph, age has mellowed into “dough face” – a cognomen quite as expressive and appropriate, if not as classical.

Weld also suggests that the “cognomen” “dough face” came to be rationalized as a reference to northern flour that was eagerly shipped to southern customers (emphasis added):
Our newspapers are full of these and similar daily occurrences among slaveholders, copied verbatim from their own accounts of them in their own papers, and all this we fully credit; no man is simpleton enough to cry out, “Oh, I can't believe that slaveholders do such things,” – and yet when we turn to the treatment which these men mete out to their slaves, and show that they are in the habitual practice of striking, kicking, knocking down and shooting them as well as each other – the look of blank incredulity that comes over northern dough-faces, is a study for a painter: and then the sentimental outcry, with eyes and hands uplifted, “Oh, indeed, I can't believe the slaveholders are so cruel to their slaves.” Most amiable and touching charity! Truly, of all Yankee notions and free state products, there is nothing like a “dough face” – the great northern staple for the southern market – “made to order,” in any quantity, and always on hand. “Dough faces!” Thanks to a slaveholder's contempt for the name, with its immortality of truth, infamy and scorn.

Weld does not explain why the original phrase as he understood it, “doe face,” was expressive. Presumably, he understood it to mean that the men were as timid as female deer in their accommodation of the south.

Other commentators have more or less thrown up their hands. Leonard L. Richards, for example, characterized Randolph as referring to “weak men, timid men, half-baked man,” suggesting he believed the word was “dough” rather than “doe.” But Richards then punted:
Not everyone understood Randolph’s reference, and no one dared to ask for an explanation. A few apparently thought the sardonic Virginia aristocrat had a female deer in mind and the word he used was doe. Others thought he was referring to a child’s game where children put dough on their faces, worked it into strange configurations, and then looked at their reflections.

Whatever Randolph had in mind, his words stuck.

Most others have opined that the original word was “dough” and then tried to explain why. Daniel Walker Howe has opted for the children’s game theory:
Randolph, mocking the northerners intimidated by the South, referred to a children’s game in which the players daubed their faces with dough and then looked in a mirror and scared themselves.”

This is also Sean Wilentz’s explanation:
[Randolph] was probably referring to a game where children placed wet dough on their faces and frightened themselves and their friends by looking in a mirror.


  1. Thanks for this informative article about a pejorative term often applied to our enigmatic 14th President, Franklin Pierce. It appears the origins, and indeed, even the correct spelling of the word will remain shrouded in the mists of antebellum history.

  2. Greetings, In my 1960's US History class I learned from my teacher, Andrew Sonner (later State's Attorney of Maryland) that Presidents Filmore, Pierce and Buchanan were called the three dough faced presidents for their contribution to the resulting Civil War.

  3. I wonder if this is a reference to the doughface masks and costumes used in Christmas serenatin' (serenading) practiced in rural Georgia, Carolinas and maybe Virginia as late as the 1950s (I know someone from there who grew up doing this). Supposedly these pranks, songs, skits, and costuming done by neighbors visiting neighbors for treats during Christmas time were a survival from old English mummers' plays from medieval times, and which survived, like many old folk customs, in the U.S. among English settlers and their somewhat enclosed communities. The doughfaces were the masks the celebrants used. The reference by the representative would have implied that his opponents were not "for real."


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