The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz

wilentz_rise.jpgThe past decade has seen a major revival of interest in America's revolutionary and founding era, demonstrated most prominently by the success of works by popular historians like David McCullough (John Adams, 1776) and Joseph Ellis (Founding Brothers, American Creation). And the Civil War publishing mill has not shown many signs of slowing down, with dozens of new books about America's internecine conflict hitting the shelves every year. Yet the half-century or so that falls between these events has traditionally received only a fraction of this attention, with most texts about the founding era ending at or before Jefferson's first inauguration, and most concerning the Civil War starting, at the earliest, with the Compromise of 1850 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act. To the extent any consideration is given to this period, it is usually devoted solely to the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

Two authors have, in the past several years, made valiant contributions to correct this deficiency. To cover the period from 1815-1848 for the slowly-expanding Oxford History of the United States, UCLA Professor Daniel Walker Howe wrote What Hath God Wrought, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History last year. Taking on a slightly more expansive timeframe, if narrower subject matter, was Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz, who published The Rise of American Democracy in 2005 with the apt subtitle "Jefferon to Lincoln." The Founding Fathers considered "democracy" an epithet, yet fifty years later a visiting Frenchman would achieve widespread success with two volumes titled De la démocratie en Amérique. That evolution is Wilentz' subject:

The changes were astonishing, but neither inevitable nor providential. American democracy did not rise like the sun at its natural hour in history. Its often troubled ascent was the outcome of human conflicts, accomodations, and unforeseen events, and the results could well have been very different than they were. The difficulties and contingencies made the events all the more remarkable. A momentous rupture occurred between Thomas Jeferson's time and Abraham Lincoln's that created the lineaments of modern democratic politics.

The early chapters of Wilentz' book are the most familiar, charting the revolutionary period, the early outbursts of populist strife (like Shays' Rebellion), and the growing breach during the Washington administration between Hamilton on the one hand, and Jefferson and Madison on the other. This breach erupted into near-open warfare during the Adams administration, culminating in the first truly contested presidential election for the young republic:

Jefferson's "revolution of 1800" did leave open some major questions about the democratization of American politics. The egalitarian fundamentals of his appeal, along with the democratic electioneering efforts undertaken by his supporters, surpassed anything seen before in national affairs. The Republicans' absorption of the techniques and the constituency of the city democracy... had created both a Republican infrastructure of newspapers, public events, and loyal operatives, and a national colaition of planters, yeoman, and urban workingmen allied against a Federalist monocracy...

Yet Federalism was far from dead, at least in the northern states. And the Republican coalition of city and country democrats, built in part ouf of the elements of the Democratic-Republican societies, was still commanded by Virginian gentry slaveholders. Traditional political arrangements, conducted by elected officials -- gentlemen for the most part, well removed from the voters -- still largely determined national political affairs. It remained far from clear that the patrician Republican leaders considered partisan popular politics -- described by Jefferson as recently as 1789 as "the last degradation of a free and moral agent" -- as anything more than an unfortunate and temporary expedient to ward off monocracy.

Indeed, the next two decades seem, from a distance, to have been a time of political drift. The quarter-century of rule by the Virgnia dynasty was notable not for its ideological purity, but for the various ways in which the Republicans had to compromise on so many of their ideals, like their supposed hatred of a national bank (the Second Bank of the United States was charted the Madison administration). The once-insurgent Republicans came to be seen as the party of privilege and inertia, exemplified most strikingly (if inaccurately) by the supposed "corrupt bargain" which saw John Quincy Adams appoint Henry Clay as Secretary of State after he won the 1824 presidential election in the House of Representatives (Clay was Speaker of the House).

Thereafter, the largest vehicle for expanding democracy became the flawed Jackson Democracy. Organized as a movement of reform to eliminate a perceived recrudescence of privilege, the Jacksonians combined the evolving city and country democracies into a national political force. They also created a new kind of political party, more egalitarian in its institutions and its ideals than any that had preceded it, unabashed in its disciplined pursuit of power, dedicated to securing the sovereignty that, as its chief architect Martin Van Buren observed, "belongs inalienably to the people."

...Yet the Jacksonians were hardly consistent egalitarians, nor did they encompass all of the democratic impulses that were breaking out in the 1830s. Above all, in order to preserve the spirit of the Missouri Compromise and their party's intersectional unity, the Jacksonians joined in the attack on the radical abolitionists and bent over backward to placate southern outrage, short of disunion, at attacks on slavery.

Indeed, the only major example of the Democratic leadership standing up to the south was the 1828 Nullification Crisis, which foreshadowed the extremist doctrine gaining sympathy in southern circles. Otherwise virtually every major event, from the "Compromise" of 1850, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to the Lecompton Constitution, to the Dred Scott decision, signified an effort to placate or substantiate southern sectionalism. Wilentz makes repeated references to the major constitutional defect which contributed to this outsized southern power: the Three-Fiths Compromise, which ensured that even as the country as a whole became more democratic, the South was overrepresented in the House of Represntatives and thus the Electoral College. But as the decades past, the ability for the political parties to withstand these centrifugal forces diminished, such that by 1860 they were either destroyed or irreparably divided:

Two factors -- the expansionist pursuit of Jefferson's empire of liberty, and the extraordinary continued growth of plantation slavery thanks to the cotten revolution -- upset the Democratic and Whig Parties that had formed by 1840, and hastened the growth of the antagonistic northern and southern democracies. Americans experienced the crack-up primarily as a political crisis, about whether slavery would be allowed to interfere with democratic rights -- or, alternatively, whether northern tyranny would be allowed to interfere with southern democracy. Over those questions, which encompassed clashes over northern free labor and southern slavery, the political system began falling apart in the mid-1840s.

From here the story becomes familiar again, particularly to those who have read any of the major Civil War histories (like James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, reviewed here) or one of the great Lincoln biographies of the past several years (like Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, reviewed here). Northern outrage at the 1850s' series of surrenders to the South, the perfection of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian electoral strategies by the infant Republican Party, and the fatal sectional division of the Democratic Party lead to Lincoln's election, secession, and civil war.

Wilentz's review of America's political history from Jefferson to Lincoln is undoubtedly thorough. If anything, too thorough, as it becomes rather difficult to follow the state-by-state analysis he conducts at various stages of the book, despite the colorful names of the antagonists (e.g. Locofocos). And those looking for a broader scope, touching on social, cultural, economic, military, or other historical forces, will be largely disappointed. Wilentz touches on these elements only insofar as they inform the political sphere. Still, a useful book for those who seek a fuller understanding of the development of this country's political system and the relationship between the government and the people.