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Sean Wilentz on American Democracy
on December 29, 2005
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.