Author Interview: Jack Furniss

Author Interview: Jack Furniss

Today we are sitting down with Jack Furniss, author of “Devolved Democracy: Federalism and the Party Politics of the Late Antebellum North,” which appeared in our December 2019 special issue. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2018, he served as a Visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Rothermere American Institute (RAI) at Oxford University. He is currently teaching History and Politics at Old Palace School, a high school in south London.


Thank you for taking time over the holiday break to speak with us about your work. What inspired you to write on this subject?

The more I’ve studied nineteenth-century politics, the more I have wanted to try and write something like a guidebook or handbook to antebellum party politics. Specifically, I wanted to show how the rules and structures of political competition – dictated by federalism – played an active role in shaping how parties operated and competed. Superficially, the two-party system of the mid-nineteenth century can appear to resemble our own – especially as the party labels remain the same today. Yet the nineteenth century was a very different time and place, and I wanted to show how the balance of federalism has changed and how, as scholars, we have to recognize the significance and consequences of nineteenth-century politics being far more local than its modern counterpart.

As the issue editor, Rachel Shelden, stated in her editor’s note, this entire special issue focuses on federalism and how “most nineteenth-century Americans understood their relationship to the government, both in theory and in practice” (499). Can you start us off by explaining what the term federalism refers to, and how it has shaped the American political system?

Federalism refers to the particular system of government enshrined in the constitution, which divides power and sovereignty in the United States between one central, national government and a series of state governments. The immediate question becomes what the relationship should be between these different levels of government and which tier has responsibility for acting on any given issue. The constitution holds some answers but also leaves plenty of ambiguities. While the balance of power has shifted over time, the federal system has always resulted in federal and state governments contesting and sharing power and responsibility. As a result, federalism has shaped public policy in the United States since the founding. It lay at the heart of arguments over slavery and citizenship in the early republic and continues to structure debates over everything from universal healthcare to marijuana. Within the realm of electoral politics, it helps explain why parties choose their presidential nominees after a series of state primaries and why the president is then chosen by the electoral college rather than a pure national vote.

Thanks for providing that overview! You lay it out very clearly. In your article, what is your specific argument—the main “take away” for your readers?

My article argues that placing federalism at the heart of our analysis of late antebellum northern politics forces us to reconsider the factors that explain the triumph of the Republican Party by 1860. Anti-slavery, of course, remains central to understanding the formation, appeal, and success of the Republican movement. But what I show is how Republicans’ widespread electoral success owed much to their ability to remain fluid and flexible, adapting their party structure and ideology to suit varied local circumstances across the Union. In the first half of my article, I document the many ways that federalism dictated a devolved political system that ensured electoral politics played out on many independent, state-level theatres, rather than one national stage. As a fledgling organization – only formed in 1854 – the Republican movement proved more adept than their Democratic opponents at remaining a coherent national organization despite being comprised of a disparate collection of state-level parties. Operating as a federal system in this way, Republicans matched horses for courses, building a series of electoral coalitions tailor-made to the different temperaments of individual northern states.

This interplay between state power and federal power is truly fascinating. To elaborate on the previous question, why do you think it is so vital for historians of this period to consider federalism in their analysis?

Fundamentally, I think it gets us closer to the history that nineteenth-century Americans lived. Federalism forces historians to look beyond national actors in Washington. By doing so, it makes the stories we want to tell more complicated – involving more locations and more people – but it better reflects the realities of the mid-nineteenth century. The national government was a fraction of the size it is today. Despite the burgeoning transportation and communication revolutions, Americans still lived predominantly local lives and understood nationalism through state and local allegiance. In an era of growing sectional crisis over slavery, national issues of course existed. But we gain new insights by exploring them from the bottom up.

In my own work, understanding national politics from the viewpoint of the states has yielded numerous benefits. As my article here argues, antebellum politics is revealed to be less stable and less ideological when examined state by state. Along with many other scholars like Stephen Engle, Judy Giesberg, A. James Fuller, and William Harris, I’m trying to restore state governors – largely forgotten by historians of the last fifty years – to the status they enjoyed among their contemporaries. Governors sat at the intersection of local and national government and help us understand how the federal system functioned as a whole. The papers of state executives contain neglected sources, like petitions for pardon, that provide a compelling snapshot of how citizens and non-citizens understood and interacted with government at different levels on an almost daily basis. For a fuller exposition on this, the articles in this issue by Laura Edwards and Kate Masur offer brilliant accounts of how federalism framed nineteenth-century Americans’ everyday encounters with law and government.

Your article focuses especially on the Republican Party, as you mentioned earlier. Can you provide a specific example of where you see federalism at play?

As I talk about in the article, the electoral calendar provides a particularly powerful illustration of how federalism shaped party politics. Americans today complain about an endless election cycle. They’d be less jaded if they knew how things used to be. Our modern mid-terms are at least usually over in one night. Mid-term elections in the antebellum era were spread over eighteen months! State elections were scattered sporadically across different years and different months within those years. The fact that states felt no need to align reflected the limitations of national political identity in this era. And what I try and show in the article is that these details are not simply ephemera, an arsenal for the most niche of trivia nights. This calendar had consequences. It meant that parties, rarely having to run simultaneously across a large number of states, could continually adapt their form and messaging to changing circumstances. It gave local and state elections heightened importance as they served as opinion polls for subsequent contests.

The results in particularly important states did even more than predict future contests, they were sometimes seen as deciding them. When Pennsylvania went to the polls in October 1860, the newspapers judged that their gubernatorial contest would decide Lincoln’s fate the following month. Backing up their claim, the turnout in Pennsylvania’s governor election exceeded that in the presidential election – a phenomenon hard to imagine today.

Now that this is in print, what is the focus of your next project?

I have two projects on the go at the moment. First, I’m revising my book manuscript – States of the Union: The Rise and Fall of the Political Center in the Civil War North. States of the Union rediscovers and maps the centrist politics that allowed northern politicians to persuade a fundamentally conservative people to provide electoral backing for the revolutionary measures needed to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery. Second, I am in the early stages of a new project, Reconstruction in an Age of Empires. This will place Reconstruction in international context, exploring how the challenge of realizing greater racial equality in the United States was beset by international headwinds driven by European nations in the process of growing and justifying their global Empires.


Many thanks, Jack, for participating in this interview. Readers, be sure to check out his full article, available through subscription and on Project Muse.

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