Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Would you believe it . . . he is a Democrat!"

Marc Egnal's new book Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War contains a detailed review of the statistical evidence showing that Whigs tended to be wealthier than Democrats, in both the North and South. But I really got a laugh out this little piece of anecdotal evidence (emphasis added):
Seventeen-year-old Varina Howell was struck by the tall, slender, intense planter she had just met. "I do not know whether this Mr. Jefferson Davis is young or old," she wrote her mother in December 1843. "He looks both at times. . . . He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself." But Howell was puzzled by Davis's politics. She told her mother: "Would you believe it, he is refined and cultivated, and yet he is a Democrat!" Her parents and (as she later recollected) "most of the gentlefolk of Natchez," where she was raised, were Whigs.


  1. What do you think of the book so far? I have a copy but haven't cracked it yet.

    Drew W.

  2. Drew,

    I'm not yet far enough into it to evaluate the author's overall argument. The overall thrust and tone, however, are promising. The author is clearly not a slavery-had-nothing-to-do-with-it ideologue. It's also pretty clear that the author sees economic explanations as complementing, not displacing, others.

    Subsidiary points are very interesting in their own right, and I'm glad I'm reading the book based on what I've learned already. For example, a number of books will tell you in conclusory terms that Whigs tended to be wealthier than Democrats, but I never realized how much statistical evidence underlay that hazy generality. At the same time, he does not oversell his conclusions and discusses other evidence. The author acknowledges, for example, a number of exceptions that mitigate the correlation between party and wealth, particularly in the south, and shows that he has read closely a number of the regional and state studies that disclose that southern voting patterns are simply not explicable based on economic status alone. Loyalty to Jackson and his memory, the political inclinations of the local elite, local desire for internal improvements, and sometimes pure historical chance could determine individual and local voting patterns.

    In short, I'm enjoying the book very much and am optimistic that it will be a valuable addition.

  3. Thanks for your comments. That's exactly what I wanted to hear. IIRC, that last part you mention was very similar to Noel Fisher's conclusion about E. Tenn. voting patterns. Some of the literature gets into generational factors as well -- conservative Whig fathers vs. radical sons.


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