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  • Practicing Democracy: Popular Politics in the United States from the Constitution to the Civil War ed. by Daniel Peart and Adam I. P. Smith
  • Michelle Orihel (bio)

Whig, Politics, Voting, Democracy, Political parties

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. Cloth, $49.50.)

In Practicing Democracy, Douglas Bradburn observes: “American historians have overwhelmingly been Whig historians” (26). The phrase “Whig history” originated in Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, published in 1931. Whig historians used the past, Butterfield argued, to explain and sanction the triumph of liberal democracy in nineteenth-century Britain. By orienting their studies toward that achievement, historians failed to understand the past on its own terms. In the United States, Whig history manifests itself in the democratization model of development. This model presents the nation as democratizing steadily over time, with democracy encompassing free elections, an expanding electorate, and a two-party system. Andrew Robertson contends that historians of nineteenth-century American politics have especially adopted a Whig perspective (99). Many historians search for the roots of democracy in the early republic, and trace its rise from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln. The ten essays in this compelling new volume edited by Daniel Peart and Adam I. P. Smith challenge that Whig trajectory.

While Whig histories chart a linear path to democracy, the essays in Practicing Democracy present case studies of uneven development, improvisation, and instability. John L. Brooke conceptualizes historical time as “lumpy and punctuated” rather than “smooth and continuous” [End Page 155] (75). Similarly, Robertson depicts a “tortuous trajectory” of development, one in which “democratic ideology and practices ebbed and flowed” (99). Political participation also varied by ethnicity, sex, race, and class. Irish and German immigrants in New York City, Tyler Anbinder finds, remained largely disengaged from controversies like the Kansas–Nebraska Act that polarized Americans in the 1850s. Instead, immigrants focused on local issues such as schooling that affected them directly. Reeve Huston further stresses “the geographic and temporal unevenness” of democratic practices (55). Illustrating these variations, Daniel Peart demonstrates that during the Era of Good Feelings voter turnout was much higher in Illinois, a frontier state that lacked organized parties, than in Massachusetts, a state where partisanship persisted. This conclusion challenges the standard interpretation of that era as one of political apathy in which partisanship subsided. The era, Peart claims, should be called “the Era of Experimentation,” a label that applies to early republic politics in general (138). Graham A. Peck also highlights this political improvisation. A rapid turnover in officeholding in Illinois, he argues, gave voters numerous opportunities to elect new representatives. In constant dialogue with voters, politicians changed positions on issues to “reflect voters’ interests and judgments” (145). He concludes that the historical category “Second Party System” fails to convey that dynamism.

Yet, many historians remain attached to the “Party System” concept, arguing that competitive political parties fueled democratization. Americans inherited this obsession with a two-party system, Bradburn argues, from early modern England: “The men who built the first party politics in the United States were ideological Whigs whose histories of England were filled with sharp dialectical fights between advocates for prerogative power and martyrs for liberty,” from the Parliamentarians and Royalists of the Civil War to the Whigs and Tories thereafter (40). This legacy, Bradburn maintains, shapes “the way too many American historians still write the history of their country” (41). Whig historians begin their inquiries with the two-party system, and then look backward to explain its origins and development. In his study of the movement to consolidate the city and suburbs of Philadelphia in 1851, Andrew Heath stresses that looking backward can be deceptive. Previous historians have seen consolidation as foreshadowing the urban machine politics of the late nineteenth century, but Heath argues that if one “look[s] forward from [End Page 156] . . . 1851, . . . the rise of boss rule does not seem preordained” (224). Instead, the consolidation movement reflected the reform and anti-party sentiments of elite Philadelphians in the 1850s, a group more...


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