John Suval is the author of Dangerous Ground: Squatters, Statesmen, and the Antebellum Rupture of American Democracy, a new release from Oxford University Press that explores how white squatters in the American West came to occupy a central and destabilizing position in U.S. political culture in the decades culminating in the Civil War. The book opens fresh vistas on the rise and fall of the Jacksonian Democratic Party, the conquests of Manifest Destiny, and the sectional conflict over slavery, shining urgent light on the perennial promises and vulnerabilities of American democracy.
Dangerous Ground was awarded the Southern Historical Association’s 2023 James A. Rawley Award for the best book on secession and/or the sectional crisis published during the preceding two years.
Historian Alan Taylor, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, writes: “In Dangerous Ground, John Suval insightfully explores a compelling mystery: how, during the mid-nineteenth century, did the disreputable squatter become transformed into the patriotic pioneer of expansion and the arbiter of the nation’s future? With broad research and in clear writing, Suval reveals how opportunistic politicians encouraged and exploited squatters to dispossess Native peoples and play the dangerous game of sectional confrontation in the run up to the Civil War.”
Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash, writes: “In his pathbreaking new book, John Suval proves that Jacksonian Democrats used the image of the hearty squatter and his large family to manipulate the partisan debate in favor of land grabbing, continental expansion, and the ruthless removal of Native peoples. Like today’s paeans to the hardworking, self-made man, the squatter magically stood in for everyman: planter elites, small-scale speculators, and artful politicians all pretended that they and the poor white man were essentially equal in social endowment. Suval’s insightful and richly researched book reminds us that American democracy was as much about land, wealth, and the populist cant of opportunity as it was about voting rights."
Jonathan Earle, author of Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, writes: "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."