Democracy by Scripture versus Democracy by Process: A Reflection on Stephen A. Douglas and Popular Sovereignty

By Huston, James L. | Civil War History, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Democracy by Scripture versus Democracy by Process: A Reflection on Stephen A. Douglas and Popular Sovereignty


Huston, James L., Civil War History


Minor incidents in the midst of raging controversies can sometimes clarify with unusual precision a host of issues and refine existing interpretations. Such may be the case of the petitions of New England and Chicago ministers against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and Senator Stephen A. Douglas's response to their claims. This brief encounter--probably occupying less than four or five hours of Congress's time during the whole of the acrimonious debate over Douglas's Nebraska bill--nonetheless illustrates the nature of the religious division between Democrats and their opponents. It gives a clue as to the actual radicalism of the Democratic party, which turns out to be almost wholly political, not economic.

But in a broader sense this episode touches on the heart of a vital question that continues to absorb the public mind: the definition of democracy as a form of government. For those living in the late twentieth century, this small debate in the 1850s has excruciating contemporary relevance because the demise of the Soviet Union has brought with it a question about the meaning of of democracy, a question that has always flowed like a strong undercurrent in the historical literature but one that has been little examined. With the expiration of the Soviet Union and the consequent celebration of the triumph of "democracy," the fissures over definition have become stark as various pundits wonder exactly what has won and what has lost.(1)

The exchange between the ministers and Douglas in 1854 established the existence of two distinct views of democracy. For the ministers, there was ruling over human existence an eternal code, a moral law, that was the duty of government to obey and follow. This, for want of a better term, can be labeled "Democracy by Scripture." The purpose of democratic government or a democratic society is to obey that code more perfectly than other forms of government. The success or failure of democracy is thereby gauged as to how far the outcome deviates from the standard of truth, in this case biblical commandments or biblical reasoning. Opposed to this was Douglas's position. Democracy was a process of people choosing the laws they lived under. Morality in politics was determined by process, not by outcome. Douglas argued for "Democracy by Process." Other sorts of reservations and nuances and meanings may certainly be appended to the theory and practice of democracy, yet it is a striking fact that the essential debate over democracy, from its inception in the modern period to the present day, is a battle between those favoring Democracy by Scripture versus those arguing for Democracy by Process.(2)

Evidently Charles Sumner, Salmon P. Chase, and Harriet Beecher Stowe had contacted ministers throughout the North, suggesting that they protest Douglas's plan for organization of the Nebraska territory. A mass meeting occurred in Boston on March 1, 1854, and ultimately some 3,050 New England clergymen signed a large document denouncing the proposed legislation. On March 14 Massachusetts senator Edward Everett--apparently with some embarrassment--presented the petition to the Senate.(3) He entered into the record the opening passage of the petition, leaving the rest for Congress's dustbin of overly long petitions. It read: "[the undersigned] in the name of Almighty god, and in his presence, do solemly protest [against the Nebraska bill or the repeal of the Missouri Compromise as] a great moral wrong [and] a breach of faith." For the next several hours, senators denounced the clerical intrusion. Douglas was outraged. Virginian James Mason said that as the ministers petitioned in the name of God instead of citizens, they could be treated as foreigners and dismissed. Besides, preachers, "Of all others.... are the most encroaching, and, as a body, arrogant class of men." Texas's Sam Houston interestingly defended the right of ministers to petition the government, while John Pettit of Indiana made fun of the ministers' attempt to enter the public fray. …

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