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In "The Rise of American Democracy" (2005) Sean Wilentz has written a sweeping study of pre-Civil War United States. His study explores the long-standing tensions in early America which led to the Civil War, and it emphasizes the nature and fragility of democratic government. Sean Wilentz is Professor of History and director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton. He has written extensively on American history.

The primary goal of Professor Wilentz' book is to show how democracy expanded and grew in the United States from the earliest days of the Republic through the election of Abraham Lincoln. The book is lengthy (796 pages of text plus over 150 pages of notes) and filled with learning and detail.

In his book, Professor Wilentz offers a traditional narrative history as he focuses, and stresses "the importance of political events, ideas, and leaders to democracy's rise -- once an all-too-prevalent assumption, now in need of some rescue and repair". (p. xx) The three primary characters in his story are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, and the history centers around the direction these leaders gave to the development of democracy in the United States.

There are three large sections in the book. The first section covers the United States from the Revolution through the War of 1812 and emphasizes the transition from an elitist government founded on property and privilege to Jeffersonian democracy. The second section covers the "Era of Good Feelings" (which Professor Wilentz recharacterizes as the "Era of Bad Feelings"), moves through the Missouri Compromise, and then concentrates on the presidency of Andrew Jackson with his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States and his confrontation with South Carolina over nullification. This section concludes with the formation of the Whig party and the election of 1840. The third section of the book covers the growing and increasingly polarized conflict between North and South over slavery. This conflict was exacerbated by the War with Mexico and the resultant questions about the extension of slavery into the new territories. North and South became increasingly milit!
ant following unsuccessful Congressional attempts to defuse the controversy in 1850 and 1854. Professor Wilentz gives the reader the history of this conflict, with perceptive treatments of the Fugitive Slave Act, "bleeding" Kansas, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Dred Scott decision and much else (including a good discussion of Herman Melville and "Moby Dick"). This section culminates in a discussion of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860, and Southern secession.

The book has a thick, complex texture because of the disparate events it covers and the many threads Professor Wilentz integrates into his narrative. There are long economic discussions focusing on the Bank of the United States and the tariff. There are good treatments of American expansionism and "manifest destiny", of Indian policy, and above all else slavery. Professor Wilentz covers both national and state and local politics as he offers detailed discussions of how the individual States, both North and South, gradually expanded the franchise to include, by the outset of the Civil War, virtually all white males. Professor Wilentz gives a wealth of information about coalition politics and about compromise as the many movements in American pre-Bellum society, from the Federalists, to the Northern and Southern Whigs, to the Northern and Southern Democrats of every political stripe formed alliances with each other in an attempt to create a national politics and to cover o!
ver increasing dissention and disagreement resulting from the "peculiar institution". Professor Wilentz also emphasizes how much of American democracy developed "from the ground up" beginning from the time of President George Washington. Americans formed combinations and organizations outside the political system to make their voices heard. There are many instances, but the fullest treatment in this study belongs to abolitionism and to incipient unionist organizations of workers.

Professor Wilentz ties his material together by lengthy summations and preludes at the beginning and end of virtually every section. This allows the reader to keep track of what otherwise would be (and still remains) a complicated story. There is an excellent use of biography of many people,familiar and unfamiliar, and of the telling story or anecdote. In addition, Professor Wilentz' interest in democracy -- how it developed and how it was unable to keep the United States from falling into sectionalism and near destruction -- gives a center to the book. Professor Wilentz' sympathies are obviously with the growth, expansion, and inclusiveness of American participatory democracy as they developed up to the Civil War and continued with the "New Birth of Freedom" that President Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg.

This book probably will overwhelm readers who lack at least a basic grounding in pre-Civil War American history. For those with the requisite background and interest, the book presents an outstanding overview of America's pre-Bellum history, and a thoughtful account of where our country has been and where, Professor Wilentz suggests, it should be going.

Robin Friedman
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on September 24, 2006
I find it hard to describe this tremendous work of scholarship and learning. In all the 70-plus years that I've been reading American history, never have I learned so much new factual material and never have I seen such tightly reasoned analysis presented so concisely. My underlining of passages appears on almost every page. To take just one isolated case, the Bank of the United States, I learned what Hamilton had in mind, what the Federalists agenda was when it was established, how Andrew Jackson vetoed its re-charter and why, and the economic panics caused by the political jostling over a period of fifty years and more. From grand issues such as the expansion of slavery, to individual portraits of the little-known presidents who served in the 1830s and 40s, to such minutiae as the derivation of the word "booze" (from E. C. Booz, who operated a saloon in New York), I came away feeling that I had just completed a two-year postgraduate course in American history, a far superior one to that which I studied in Berkeley in the early 1950s. This is definitely a prize-winning work: it is balanced, detailed, easily read and grasped by those willing to take the time to do it, and I heartily recommend it to any reader unfamiliar with the crucial events of 1795-1861.
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on March 27, 2006
This long academic text covers the changes that took place in the development of American democracy between the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Actually the book begins with democracies roots in America during the period of the Revolution and the Articles of Federation. The book traces the growth of American democracy from the "top-down" democracy of the early Federalists and Jeffersonians to the more grass-rooots oriented democracy that really began to take shape in the 1830s and 1840s to the crisis that American democracy faced with the coming of the Civil War.

Professor Wilenz does an excellent job chronicling the many changes that took place in American democracy during this time. In an easy to read style, Wilenz covers the changing political, economic, and sociological circumstances that effected the way that democracy developed in America. This text is an excellant political overview of the first 90 years of America's history. From the first stirrings of popular democracy under Jefferson, to the advances of the Jacksonian period, to the rise of abolition and southern fire-eaters, to the series of territorial crisis that finally brought about the Civil War. This book covers all of these events in a manner that is easy to understand and ties them together into a larger historical context. I have read other books covering the same period and came away feeling confused; not with this text. The example that sticks out in my head is the rise of the Whig Party in the late 1830s. Other texts have left me confused regarding the reasons behind the rise of the Whigs; I found Wilenz's explanation very easy to follow.

My only word of caution regarding this book - it is not for casual reaaders. This is meant to be an in depth look at a complex set of historical circumstances. I do not recommend it for people with only a passing interest in American history or those who are just beginning to delve into the period. It is not a book that you will finish it a night, but the time it takes you to read it will be well spent!
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on March 23, 2006
Sean Wilentz's The Rise Of American Democracy is a tour de force. It is a long way from beginning to end. The journey is like traveling from Boston to Richmond in the 1800's by coach. Be prepared for a bumpy, arduous ride. It is well worth the trip. You arrive exhausted but the better for it. Gordon S. Wood in his review for the NY Times said probably only graduate history students would read the book. Tell Professor Wood that I am not a graduate student but I feel like one because of how much I learned about American democracy from Wilentz's book.

In the beginning was Jefferson & his Republican reaction to the Federalist cause & in the end another Republican of a different stripe, Abraham Lincoln. In the middle towers Andrew Jackson eroding the government of, by, and for the Privilaged Few by the torrents of his Populism. All those Presidents in between (there are eleven excluding Jackson) come to life in this hefty piece of scholarship. The dramatic tension is between those Presidents, Congress, the Court, & the people; it is the struggle to define democracy. Political differences are seen to coalesce to form parties, some more well defined than others but none maintaining the granite like identity of the now conservative & liberal parties in Great Britain. American political parties (when they appeared) were giant blobs of improvisation using the power of their constituencies to puff themselves up to govern for a time then deflate & morphing into something else again. It is an enchanting tale. The rise continues to this day.

Somehow my early education never connected the dots between the Founding Fathers & the American Revolution & Lincoln's Second Revolution. The dots get connected but the picture is not graphically pleasing. The rise of American democracy was an evolutionary process that was essentially gritty & chaotic but the themes Wilentz exposes are what make the story so much fun to read & so valuable to learn. I now have a better understanding of how we got here & the trip was well worth the ride.
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on January 3, 2007
Sean Wilentz has achieved a reputation as a significant American public intellectual, and as a notably partisan historian, defending his beloved Democratic Party and its revered founder, Andrew Jackson. Thus many historians might be forgiven for expecting this work to be polemical and biased. They would be wrong. In seeking to grasp the entire span of American history between the Revolution and the Civil War, Wilentz has in this long-awaited volume embraced a balanced, nuanced, and judicious view of his subject.

Moreover, despite the book's imposing length, I found myself continually surprised by Wilentz's admirable conciseness on matters of great complexity. It is not too much to say that this is an elegantly brief portrait of the crucial founding decades of the American republic.

Finally, The Rise of American Democracy restores politics to the front and center of American history, not as an elite pastime, but as the main arena of American life. This is a bold and courageous corrective to the long reign of social history in the academy, from an author who is himself one of the pioneers of social and labor history.
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on December 5, 2005
My computer log reveals that in the last 7 years I have read 133 books presenting the American government and its presidents during the 1800's. There are many classic's amongest them including McCullogh's - John Adams, Chernow's- Alexander Hamiltons and the recent "Team of Rivals". The latter two I predicted would compete for the Pulitzer Prize next year. However, The Rise of American Democracy could conceivably overshadow these two masterpieces to become the celebrated History work of 2005. Why? Because it is a profound and elegantly written piece which illuminates the gestational events leading to the civil war which sucha clear cause and effect presenatation of the facts that for once you will endeavor to say " I fully understand why the Civil War occurred and why slavery existed and why the South fought so diligently to preserve this institution and its lifestyle. What is slavery? "Receiving bt irresistible power, the work of another man, and not by his consent". The discussion on the Dred Scott decision which effectively produced a pivotal dichotomy in American politics by greating the great didvide or the Mason Dixson line. Every president partook in slavery's continuation either by compliance, ignorance, sheer stupidity (JQ Adams) or most often from fear of reprisal. The only statuesque figure who never found it fashionable to waver is opinion was Abraham Lincoln. Although, Lincoln expounded for their freedom he did not believe in their intellectual equality. Which if he had would truely have made him a man ahead of his time. But again he supported womens suffrage as early as 1841. Incidentally I do not recall learning anything on the Kansas-Nebraska bill with its attempt to circumnavigate the Missouri compromise of 1851. But the official blood letting began with the civil implosions by Missouri pro-slavery men attacking the free men of Kansas. Additionally, the interplay between Senators Clay, Webster (both abolitionists) and Calhoun (proslavery) gives the reader more insight into their propagation of slavery by their poor management of public affairs during the Missouri Compromise procedings. Reading the 800 pages of this classic history book will finally place the intellectual on equal footing with Scholars who we so active have read during these last five years. The many loose ends will finally be elucidated for the ample reading masses. Also Mr Wilentz book has won the 2006 Bancroft Award in History given out by Columbia University for the Best History Book of the year. This book was so note worthy that I feel it merited the Pulitzer for History.
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This is a wonderful work. Just one of the problems in getting a handle on our history is getting a grasp of what our Founding consisted of. Too often we think America in 1776 was pretty much like today, just smaller and older - and possibly more noble. However, Professor Wilentz shows us more of the component parts and the complex mix of attitudes that led not only to the Founding, but the Constitutional Convention and that changes that wrought. However, this book is not a simple narrative of events. Wilentz also takes us on a tour of interests, attitudes, and how all these interactions, collisions, fights, and wars played out into something no one could have expected on July 4, 1776.

It would be pointless for me to try and capture here the vast amount of information and the wonderful insights this book provides the reader. However, if you capture what it was the Federalists called Democracy you will realize that what we have today would have horrified them. There was a definite move over time that the culture made from monarchy to a representative democracy and then an ongoing series of redefinitions of who it was that was to be represented and how. The Federalists disappeared over time because the idea of a government by the deserving men of fine birth and bearing was not compatible with the raucous yearnings of a nation exploding across a continent.

Unless you are already a deep student of American history, you will read about political parties, conflicts, people, and maneuverings that you had never even suspected to have existed. And reading about them makes the responses and changes in our form of government over time make a lot more sense. This book avoids projecting our present judgments about the past into the intentions and choices the historical figures who made those choices and had those intentions. While the author does a superb job of distilling the past for us, he never feels the need to make things so neat and tidy that he falsifies the past from over-simplification. However, it makes the modern reader have to admit that his or her beliefs about our history were too pat and were not serving him as well as he had thought, at least that was my experience as I turned the pages only to be disabused of something else.

This wonderful book ends with the firing on Fort Sumter, but not before he shows all the complex dancing the political forces did to avoid war and then to finally plunge into it. I found Wilentz's discussion of the various brands of secession that competed for priority and had to come together in order to try and make their attempt at forming a new nation viable. The epilogue of the book picks us right after the war and summarizes what issues had been settled because of the conflict and what trends in our development remained open. The final page includes of photograph of the thirteen man jury empanelled for the trial of Jefferson Davis that never occurred. Seven of the thirteen citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia (12 jurors plus one alternate) were black. The country had come a long way since its founding. The fact that there are no women on that panel is just a small reminder of how far the Republic yet to travel on its road to our day.

This is a book you will gain a great deal from if you will allow yourself to put in the time. It isn't something you can simply dash through. It rewards careful reading and consideration and the rewards are wonderful.
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A book that will have more purchasers than readers. Its coverage of the U.S. political period in question is simply too detailed and lengthy for all but the most dedicated. However, if you are a very serious student of American politics, you should buy and read this effort.

Professor Wilentz displays a deep command of the complicated party politics of the sixty years preceding the first shots of the Civil War. He also favors Jefferson and Jackson, beyond my personal evaluation of the two. (For example, Jackson placed his friend Roger Taney on the Supreme Court to replace the great chief justice John Marshall. Marshall, a Federalist, was not thought of highly by Jefferson--or Professor Wilentz. Taney, meanwhile, later disgraced the U.S. judicial system by authoring the Dred Scott decision.)

I did learn from Professor Wilentz why South Carolina was so difficult in the years leading up to Fort Sumter and he effectively re-enforced my existing negative opinion of John C. Calhoun.
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on February 12, 2009
Other reviewers have done a good job of explaining the theme of the book as well as its virtues and flaws. I don't like Sean Wilentz or heed any of his commentary on modern politics, but I am glad I read the book. It covers a very complicated period in our history - one often neglected - and he generally does a good job as a writer in explaining the issues and carrying readers along.

That is, if you are a serious history buff with a long attention span. This book is not for light readers with a cursory interest in the period in question.

Do proceed with caution. Wilentz caricatures the early Federalists to some extent, and he sometimes goes easy on the Democratic Party. This naturally reflects his democratic - small 'd' - bias. Wilentz also likes to think he's savvier than most historians in assessing the true intentions of important figures, and the actual consequences of the major events, during that time. He flatters himself too much.

Yet Wilentz has enough integrity to recognize the faults of many of our post-revolutionary and antebellum leaders and he doesn't really whitewash anything. He is especially good detailing ground-level and grass-roots fights in localities and states over the nature and extent of democracy.

A worthwhile read despite its flaws. I'd also recommend What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe and Throes of Democracy by Walter McDougall for different though less detailed interpretations of the same era.
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on September 19, 2006
The Rise of American Democracy will, hopefully, raise interest in the relatively neglected period from the inauguration of Jefferson to the election of Lincoln in 1860.

Wilentz is a scholar who also knows how to write in an understandable way in which the reader can digest what he is saying.

The book is divided into three parts dealing with Jeffersonian Democracy; the rise of the Jacksonian era and in the final tragic section the slow descent into the hell of Civil War.

Slavery was a curse on the American political scene destroying the Whig Party and leading to the death of over 600.000 young


The book deals in detail with all the presidential adminstrations in the period. Such fascinating politicians as

John and John Quincy Adams, the great senators Henry Clay, John

C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster and great leaders in the antislavery cause such as William Lloyd Garrison, the half black

Frederick Douglass and Hnery Ward Beecher stride across the many pages in this tome.Wilentz discusses literary works such as Moby Dick and Uncle Tom's Cabin and how they were influenced by the inflammatory events ensuing

from the Truce of 1850.

It is all here! The Missouri Compromise, Dred Scott Decision,

Wars of 1812 and the Mexican War; the clash between urban labor

movements and aristocracy; the story behind the admission of states to the Union and complex discussions of the Bank of the

United States and economic concerns.

This is a classic text which is the sine qua non for the period. It is sure to become a standard work in courses on American history. The book does asssume some basic understanding of American history; demands concentration and is often a challenge to read. The mysteries of economics is still beyond my liberal arts mind!

Wilentz has marshalled all of the skills he possesses as an astutely brilliant historian. This book won the Bancroft Prize for History and will be used by this reviewer several times in

the future.

A very long book of almost 900 small print pages but a great

way to understand our past. Excellent!
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