Semester of Graduation

Summer 2022


Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



In the debates over Kansas’ statehood, the presidential campaigns of 1860, and their responses to Southern threats and acts of secession, American politicians in rival factions rooted their visions of American institutions and citizenry in rival interpretations of the nation’s founding. These differences in interpretation did not neatly fall alongside the Mason-Dixon Line. As shown in this thesis, Northerners opposed one other’s visions for the nation and policies to promote those visions. They disagreed with each other on the Founding Fathers’ vision as much as they did with their Southern counterparts. Mid-century Americans referred to the Founding in three ways: references to documents like the Declaration of Independence or Constitution, references to individual Founders or the Founding generation, references to British rule, and references to the events of the Revolution or Early Republic. These categories are more descriptive than analytical; they are not listed in order of importance.

One can see the differences in politicians’ interpretations of the Founding in the contrast between two leading figures: Charles Sumner and Stephen A. Douglas. The Radical Republican, Charles Sumner, referenced the American Founding in his speeches to describe the barbarism and tyranny of slavery, and to dispel notions that popular sovereignty fell within the Founding vision. In contrast, the Northern Democrat, Stephen Douglas, used American Founding rhetoric to describe a racial political order, justify his doctrine of popular sovereignty, and encourage Southerners not to secede. Lincoln fell somewhere in the middle. He appealed to the Founding to define congressional and presidential powers, argue against popular sovereignty, and assuage Southern fears. Lincoln cited constitutional and legal evidence, while Sumner and Douglas largely relied upon their interpretations of the Founders’ moral and cultural mores. Their appeals to the Founding were not a part of disingenuous political schemes; these men truly believed in their political causes and the value of their Union. Each politician’s use of the American Founding reveals his vision for the nation. This thesis explores how each man used American Founding rhetoric on the eve of the secession crisis.



Committee Chair

Dr. Aaron Sheehan-Dean



Available for download on Friday, July 06, 2029