Come join historian, Dr. John Suval as he reveals how white squatters in the American West transformed from remote frontier scourges to central actors in the crisis engulfing the United States in the lead-up to the Civil War. In his new book, Dangerous Ground: Squatters, Statesmen, and the Antebellum Rupture of American Democracy, Suval shares the surprising story of squatters’ outsized (and overlooked) role in the conquests of Manifest Destiny and the sectional conflict over slavery, casting urgent new light on the perennial promises and vulnerabilities of American democracy.
The squatter – defined by Noah Webster as “one who settles on new land without a title”- had long been a fixture of America’s frontier past. In the antebellum period, white squatters propelled the Jacksonian Democratic Party to dominance and the United States to the shores of the Pacific. In a bold reframing of the era’s political history, John Suval explores how Squatter Democracy transformed the partisan landscape and the map of North America, hastening clashes that ultimately sundered the nation.
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About the Book:
With one eye on Washington and the other on flashpoints across the West, Dangerous Ground tracks squatters from the Mississippi Valley and cotton lands of Texas, to Oregon, Gold Rush-era California, and finally, Bleeding Kansas. The sweeping narrative reveals how claiming western domains became stubbornly intertwined with partisan politics and fights over the extension of slavery. While previous generations of statesmen had maligned and sought to contain illegal settlers, Democrats celebrated squatters as pioneering yeomen and encouraged their land grabs through preemption laws, Indian removal, and hawkish diplomacy. As America expanded, the party’s power grew. The US-Mexican War led many to ask whether these squatters were genuine yeomen or forerunners of slavery expansion. Some northern Democrats bolted to form the Free Soil Party, while southerners denounced any hindrance to slavery’s spread. Faced with a fracturing party, Democratic leaders allowed territorial inhabitants to determine whether new lands would be slave or free, leading to a destabilizing transfer of authority from Congress to frontier settlers. Squatters thus morphed from agents of Manifest Destiny into foot soldiers in battles that ruptured the party and the country.
Deeply researched and vividly written, Dangerous Ground illuminates the overlooked role of squatters in the United States’ growth into a continent-spanning juggernaut and in the onset of the Civil War, casting crucial light on the promises and vulnerabilities of American democracy.
“This is an uncommonly good and sweeping study of the vast, destabilizing roles white ‘squatters’ on western lands played in American political culture in the decades before the Civil War. Using a striking array of sources, Suval demonstrates how figures once commonly associated with illicit land grabs became a central force in Jacksonian politics and, eventually, key players in the clashes over slavery and its expansion. Ranging from the Mississippi Valley in the 1830s to Gold Rush California and the contested prairies of Bleeding Kansas, the author shows how the figure of the squatter was transformed from a frontier scourge into the main actors of a fraying nation’s most serious crisis.” — Jonathan Earle, author of Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854
About John Suval:
John Suval is a historian of the nineteenth-century United States specializing in antebellum political culture, the American West, public lands, and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and was a Research Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, serving as an editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson. He recently moved to West Virginia where he is at work on a book examining inflection points in the history of American democracy.