Reviews in American History 34.2 (2006) 169-175
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Democracy as a Work in Progress
In this magisterial volume, Sean Wilentz provides a detailed, dramatic, elegantly written, narrative interpretation of American politics from the Revolutionary Era to the Civil War, "with the history of democracy at its center" (p. xxi). Accessible to the general reader, with brilliant cameos of major and minor figures, it offers a grand, Bancroftian synthesis to a profession in the throes of monograph fever. Among the many surprises in the book is its placement of politics, politicians, and parties at the center of American history. Like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in The Age of Jackson (1945), Wilentz sets the rise of democracy in the context of conflict between classes. But, he argues, most Americans viewed social and economic developments through a partisan political prism, fighting for (and over) democracy, broadly conceived, at the local, state, and national level. Drawing on a tsunami of recent scholarship, demonstrating that "even the lowliest of Americans" could—and did—have a significant impact on public policy, Wilentz gives strikes and social movements their innings in The Rise of American Democracy, with vivid descriptions of Workies and Washingtonians (p. 558). But presidents, senators, and congressmen command the stage. This methodology—and his assumption that ordinary Americans were deeply engaged in elections and knowledgeable about public policy—will be music to the ears of embattled, under-appreciated political historians, even when they take issue—as many will—with his judgments of pivotal moments in the antebellum era.
Wilentz recognizes that democracy is a capacious and "troublesome word" (p. xvi). To its champions and its critics in the nineteenth century, democracy meant one or some of the following: majority rule; minority rights; political participation by "the people" through voting; equality before the law; economic egalitarianism; equal opportunity for individuals to pursue happiness, unencumbered by the state. By twenty-first-century standards, Wilentz points out, antebellum America was decidedly undemocratic on many counts: it enslaved most blacks, deprived Indians and free blacks of citizenship, and denied women basic political and civil rights. Wilentz is interested in the origins, evolution, [End Page 169] and growth of democracy. Evincing an appreciation of the role of accommodation and compromise in changing the relationship between public officials and their constituents, he sees democracy as a work in progress. Democracy, as he defines it, grants sovereignty to the citizens of the nation and flourishes as larger numbers of persons, previously excluded (what the eighteenth century called "the many")—"secure the power not simply to select their governors, but to oversee the institutions of government, as officeholders and as citizens free to assemble and criticize those in office" (p. xix). The Americans he writes about, unfortunately, often do not use this definition of democracy. And, alas, Wilentz does not adhere to it consistently either.
Wilentz emphasizes that democratic progress was not inevitable. It came in fits and starts. During the 1770s and '80s, he demonstrates, hierarchical assumptions were undermined and "democratic interests and ideas made considerable headway" (p. 28). The people out-of-doors had to be taken into account as never before. Before long, John Adams predicted, "every man who has not a farthing will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state" (p. 9). In Massachusetts, the Berkshire Constitutionalists demanded equal representation and an end to property qualifications for voting. In Pennsylvania, the radicals secured broad suffrage and a unicameral legislature. The Constitution, to be sure, "put institutional filters on the powers of ordinary citizens," but the Founders eschewed mixed, class-based government and endorsed popular sovereignty, in the preamble to the document and in the provision for special ratifying conventions of the people (p. 32). The Constitution was not, as James Wilson had it, "in its principles . . . purely democratical," but Wilentz concludes that by 1789 "the unthinkable was becoming desirable" (p. 10).
In the early national period, the Democratic...