The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics

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The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics. By Christopher Childers. American Political Thought. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Pp. [xiv], 334. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7006-1868-2.)

In The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics, Christopher Childers presents a much-needed study that shows how "the concept of popular sovereignty ... surfaced and evolved during the era of the early American republic" (p. 5). Childers eloquently describes how the idea of self-government that emerged during the Revolutionary era allowed both northerners and southerners to make arguments for or against the expansion of slavery. Childers successfully demonstrates to his readers that popular sovereignty was not something developed by Lewis Cass in 1848 as a solution to the Wilmot Proviso during his failed presidential campaign. Instead, the Michigan senator built a presidential platform based on a core of preexisting American principles to find a solution to growing sectional tensions over the Mexican cession.

The most lasting contribution that this study makes to the historiography of antebellum politics is Childers's description of the use of popular sovereignty as a political instrument by sectional partisans. By exploring the ways the doctrine evolved over time, Childers ultimately pinpoints a fundamental aspect of human nature--the inclination to act politically in one's self-interest. His study illustrates how this natural human tendency propels American democracy, causing it to reinvent itself as particular groups try to gain the upper hand. During the antebellum period, politicians in the North and the South constantly tweaked the definition of popular sovereignty to fit their particular agendas. Rather than a simple ideology devoted to self-government during a period of sectional crisis, popular sovereignty, as Childers shows, ultimately functioned as a tool for politicians to score political points without offending supporters in their electoral base. …