“Dangerous Ground”: On 19th Century Squatters with new Postdoc John Suval


In assessing the tide-shifting significance of squatter (aka popular) sovereignty, the tendency among many Civil War historians has been to emphasize the what at the expense of the who. What’s lost as a result of this, Kinder Institute Postdoctoral Fellow John Suval noted in opening his October 26 colloquium, is a narrative of political maneuvering and western land taking that sheds new light on the history of Jacksonian Democracy and on our understanding of what put the United States on a path to civil war.

Central to this narrative, Prof. Suval explained, is a quid-pro-quo through which Jacksonian Democrats tethered their collective fate to that of white squatters, initially to astounding success. Specifically, both in rhetoric and policy, Jacksonian Democrats transformed squatters from intruding rabble without legal rights into forerunners of American expansion. Chief among the tools responsible for this makeover was the “settle-first-legalize-later” policy of preemption, which enabled squatters to retroactively—and for a pittance—obtain title to U.S. lands they occupied. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, this would serve as the symbiotic backbone of squatter democracy. The pioneer got cheap land and the Jacksonian statesmen in Washington got votes. As Prof. Suval showed, however, it was about much more than ballot support. The constituency Democrats stitched together by voraciously preserving preemption rights against Whig attack was made up of white men of all station and place: elite and not, slaveholding and not, Northerner and Southerner. Unifying its base across regional boundaries and class divisions thus allowed the party to expand its power while all the while side-stepping the question of slavery.

The squatter would grow during this era to near mythical status—descended equally of Plymouth Rock and Daniel Boone, a patriotic improver who displaced “the prowling wolf and roaming savage” from the frontier and who planted and defended the American flag at the nation’s vulnerable, ever-westward tending borders. Beginning in the 1840s, though, Prof. Suval noted, a number of factors would lead to the unraveling of this marriage of convenience. First came the Wilmot Proviso, which aimed to ban slavery in all territories acquired through the Mexican-American War. Though the Proviso itself failed, it galvanized the Free Soil Party around a platform that would ensure that western lands remained free of slavery and free for white settlers. After years of dodging the question of slavery, Democrats would have to take a stand on its extension, jeopardizing the delicate coalition it had built around spoiling Northerners and Southerners alike.

The party’s initial response was to re-double its commitment to squatter democracy, with Michigan Democrat Lewis Cass introducing a policy of popular sovereignty that called for settlers themselves to decide the slavery question. Once put to the test, first in Oregon and then in California, popular sovereignty proved ill-equipped to preserve party unity. White squatters, it quickly became apparent, wanted little to do with slavery; this to the dismay of Southern Democrats like John C. Calhoun, who vehemently challenged the legitimacy of letting squatters determine constitutional order on the fly.

Which brings us to where Prof. Suval’s talk began and where, in the mid-1850s, the fire of civil war was being stoked: Bleeding Kansas, where tract skirmishes between squatters escalated into factional battles between pro-slavery and free-state partisans, and where claiming land and deciding the fate of slavery, once cornerstones of Democrats’ “never the twain shall meet” party-building strategy, became irreversibly intertwined.


John Suval earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include Jacksonian political culture, the American West, public lands, and the nature of democracy, and his dissertation—“Dangerous Ground: Squatters, Statesmen, and the Rupture of American Democracy, 1830-1860”—explores how white squatters on western lands came to occupy a central and destabilizing position in U.S. political culture in the decades leading up to the Civil War. John’s work has appeared in the Oregon Historical QuarterlyWisconsin Magazine of History, and numerous other publications. He has received support for his research from the Bancroft Library, University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center, Kansas State Historical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, Oregon Historical Society, and other institutions. He joins the Kinder Institute as a 2018-19 Postdoctoral Fellow in Political History.