Practicing Democracy: Popular Politics in the United States from the Constitution to the Civil War ed. by Daniel Peart, Adam I. P. Smith (review)
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Practicing Democracy: Popular Politics in the United States from the Constitution to the Civil War. Edited by Daniel Peart and Adam I. P. Smith. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. Pp. 304. $49.50 cloth; $49.50 ebook)

This book of ten essays is a study of democracy, but one that refuses to privilege the Founders or well-known political figures such as Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. The editors’ introduction offers a clear summary of the shift in the historiography: political historians have gone from praising the second party system to adopting a highly skeptical perspective, categorizing the great Democratic and Whig parties as nothing more than “great hoaxes” (p. 9).

Most of the volume’s authors endorse the idea that the so-called party system was not a system at all. Andrew Robertson describes American democracy as “peculiar” instead of “exceptional,” underscoring the fact that the expansion of suffrage to nonpropertied white men in the early nineteenth century came with the exclusion of free blacks and all women, thus undercutting the myth that American democracy was increasingly inclusive (p. 119). Daniel Peart challenges the competing notions that James Monroe’s presidency ushered in either an “era of good feelings” or “no feelings.” It was both, since state and local politics became the more important engine of mass [End Page 491] participation while interest in national politics flagged. Peart further debunks the argument that Jeffersonian democracy eliminated deference, by showing that deference and party discipline could “coexist” (p. 136). So, greater voter participation did not weaken the social authority of elites but simply gave them a new means of consolidating and coordinating a political leadership class.

Two of the most original essays focus on state and local politics. Graham Peck examines the nature of party activity and loyalty in Illinois during the antebellum period. He discovers that while voters did subscribe to party labels, neither the Whig nor Democratic parties were stable or institutionally secure enough to withstand the challenge posed by the slavery issue. The political division over the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was not the start of a new party realignment but a continuation of a pattern in which parties held little prestige and minimal sway over the electorate. One of Peck’s valuable insights is his recognition that voters were highly mobile. In a state like Illinois, high rates of migration in and out of the state, and even movement from county to county, undermined party loyalty. He further argues that land was the overriding issue, which is why the Free Soil Party and later Republican Party rose up so effectively, because both parties connected slavery to vital concerns of property ownership and economic freedom. For Peck, parties existed and operated, but antebellum Whigs and Democrats never constituted an integrated national “system.”

Andrew Heath offers a compelling study of Philadelphia, suggesting that the revision of the city charter in 1854 was not just a legal reform: it was really a conscious effort to reshape the city’s political landscape. He reveals how the City of Brotherly Love was sharply divided by class, with the urban center dominated by elites, and the suburbs a hodgepodge of neighborhoods sorted by class, race, and ethnicity. Elite reformers wanted to turn Philadelphia into an American Paris, consolidating power through a new charter to weaken the hold of ward politicians. Reformers railed against the politics of the streets, where poor children learned their values from the workingmen’s [End Page 492] institutions of fire companies, taverns, and street gangs. While consolidators wanted to return power to the “best men,” they still had to make compromises and, in the end, did not eliminate local ward bosses so much as make them more disciplined through patronage. Heath’s findings reinforce the theme of this book: namely that democracy took its vital shape at a local level rather than amid the noise of national party politics.

Nancy Isenberg

NANCY ISENBERG is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University. She is the author of Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (1998), Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (2007), coauthor with Andrew Burstein of Madison...


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