The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
By Sean Wilentz. W. W. Norton
The Nation, October 31, 2005

Undoubtedly the most celebrated and influential account of American life by a foreign observer is Democracy in America, written by Alexis de Tocqueville after his visit to the United States in the 1830s. As a French aristocrat, Tocqueville rather disliked democracy, but he understood that it had become central to Americans' understanding of themselves. Democracy, he recognized, was more than simply the right to vote; it was a habit of the heart, a deeply rooted set of beliefs that encouraged both individual initiative and an active public sphere populated by numerous voluntary organizations that sought to better society. Tocqueville was all too aware of American democracy's shortcomings (some of which sound uncannily up-to-date)--the venality and ignorance of public officials, the tendency toward conformism, the danger that demagogues could use democracy to climb to power. But he recognized America's experiment as the wave of the future. The same democratic upsurge, he wrote, was certain to sweep over Europe.

Ever since Tocqueville, historians have tried to explain the growth of American democracy. Did it spring from Anglo-Saxons' innate love of liberty? From the frontier? From the genius of the founders? How can one account for the limitations of a democracy that embraced white men, including immigrants from abroad, but excluded nonwhites and women?

Sean Wilentz is the latest to tackle these weighty questions. Wilentz, who teaches at Princeton, is best known for his first book, Chants Democratic, a study of workingmen's movements in Jacksonian New York City and probably the finest single volume to emerge from the American version of the "new labor history" of the 1970s and '80s. In The Rise of American Democracy, Wilentz traces the checkered history of American democracy from the Revolution to the Civil War. Drawing on extensive research and a deep immersion in modern scholarship--the footnotes alone provide a road map to the last quarter-century of historical writing--the book is a magisterial synthesis that deserves the attention of anyone interested in the American past.

Among its other virtues, The Rise of American Democracy reaffirms the vitality and relevance of political history. Once the centerpiece of the study of the American past, political history has been overshadowed of late by social and cultural analysis and efforts to write history "from below." Accused of elitism or simply deemed irrelevant as subjects like the family, consumer culture, and racial and ethnic relations rose to the fore, political historians have been reduced to pleading with their colleagues to bring politics back into discussions of the American past.

As Wilentz's subtitle suggests, national political leaders play a central role in his account. He refuses to submerge politics in social history or to see it as merely a reflection of social forces. Politics shaped American society and was, in turn, shaped by it. But unlike the hagiographies of Founding Fathers that regularly turn up on the bestseller lists, The Rise of American Democracy is political history that builds upon and incorporates the innovations in social history rather than repudiating or ignoring them. Statesmen and laborers, men and women, blacks and whites, deists and evangelicals--the cast of characters is as kaleidoscopic as American society itself. Jefferson and Lincoln are here, but so is the Indian leader Tecumseh, slave rebels Gabriel and Denmark Vesey, pioneer feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and radical abolitionists David Walker and William Lloyd Garrison. All took part, often in unpredictable ways, in the rise of democracy.

Like Tocqueville, Wilentz recognizes in the rise of democracy a profound political transformation. The idea that "sovereignty rightly belongs to the mass of ordinary individual and equal citizens," he insists, represented a new departure in the Western tradition. As long ago as Aristotle, political philosophers had warned that democracy inevitably degenerated into anarchy and tyranny. For centuries, doctrines of divine right and hierarchical authority had dominated political thought. Democracy's triumph was hardly preordained. Rather than a gift from benevolent political leaders or the culmination of the immanent logic of the Revolution and Constitution, democracy was born in struggle, its advance contested, its achievements always fragile and sometimes reversible. Wilentz's view of democracy as the result of a long, complex historical process rooted in the lives and aspirations of ordinary citizens offers a welcome alternative to current claims that democracy is a timeless (and easily exportable) feature of American "civilization."

All of the subjects treated in Wilentz's book--from the American Revolution to the battle between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, the triumph of Andrew Jackson and the coming of the Civil War--have been examined by previous historians, and much of his story will be familiar to specialists. But no one has integrated these elements into a seamless narrative that places democracy and the contest over it at the center. Wilentz begins with the Revolution, not because most prominent patriots were democrats (most were not) but because the struggle for independence emboldened ordinary men and women to demand a greater voice in public affairs. In colonial America, Wilentz writes, the "people" had existed only on election day; most Americans did not enjoy a continuous presence in public life. But the struggle for independence threw into question various forms of authority and inequality. Wilentz traces the rise of two overlapping but distinct groups pressing for greater popular participation in public affairs--rural democrats, attuned to local self-government and fearful of centralized political power, and city artisans, who demanded a say in urban affairs but proved willing to support a powerful national government such as that created by the federal Constitution.

Because of pressure from below, new state Constitutions adopted during the Revolution reduced the amount of property required to vote. But according to Wilentz, the groundwork for a democratic political system was not truly laid until the 1790s. With its lifetime judges, a Senate elected by state legislatures and a cumbersome indirect method of choosing the President, the national Constitution hardly established a functioning democracy. But conflicts in Congress over Alexander Hamilton's economic program--which linked the Republic's future to the self-interest of propertied merchants and bankers--quickly spread to the populace at large, a development unintended by the Founders. More and more citizens attended political meetings and became avid readers of newspapers and pamphlets.

Critics of George Washington's Administration established Democratic-Republican societies, which insisted on the right of the people to debate public issues and organize to affect public policy. Washington, who saw the government, not private associations, as the authentic voice of the people, condemned the societies as "self-created." But Wilentz insists this was precisely what made them democratic-- unlike most previous political groups, they were not formed by political leaders, yet they claimed the right to scrutinize and criticize the conduct of elected officials. The Sedition Act of 1798, which made virtually any criticism of the government illegal, shows that many Federalists could not accept this democratic principle. By beating back Federalism and opening office to "self-made plebeians," Wilentz argues, Jefferson's election as President in 1800 marked a major advance for democracy. But national politics still operated "from the top down," with members of Congress initiating policy and choosing Republican and Federalist presidential candidates.

The War of 1812, Wilentz shows, gave further impetus to the rise of democracy. By fighting Great Britain, the world's greatest power, to a draw, the United States undermined lingering assumptions about the natural superiority of the well-born. By breaking the remaining power of Indians east of the Mississippi River, the war opened new lands to settlement by the "country democracy." In a "cruel irony," the pan- Indian resistance to white encroachment, organized by Tecumseh, had helped persuade Americans to go to war with his ally Great Britain in the first place. The road to white democracy was paved with the shattered dreams of Native Americans.

Between 1816 and 1820, four new Western states (Indiana, Illinois, Alabama and Mississippi) entered the Union. All established very liberal voting requirements as a way of attracting settlers. In the East, even as the expansion of industry and commercial agriculture increased the number of wage earners who could not meet property qualifications, poorer citizens insisted that they were as fit as anyone else to exercise the right to vote. By the 1820s, nearly all the states had divorced voting from property ownership. But as Wilentz shows, the progress of democracy did not come without fierce resistance by adherents of the older view that men without property lacked a political will of their own and should not have a say in government.

By the 1830s, when Tocqueville visited America, the principle that "the people" ruled had become an axiom of American politics. Those who opposed this idea, Tocqueville wrote, "hide their heads." The central portion of Wilentz's book discusses the flourishing system known as Jacksonian democracy, a boisterous, highly partisan political order that engaged the energies of massive numbers of Americans (by 1840 something like 80 percent of eligible voters turned out on election day). Unlike many previous historians, Wilentz insists that substantive differences separated Jacksonian Democrats from their Whig opponents. The Whigs, led by Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, retained an elitist view of politics and, not trusting individual initiative, looked to the national government to promote and regulate economic development through centrally planned canal and railroad construction, a protective tariff and a national bank regulating the currency. Jacksonians favored a "more secure and egalitarian commercialism," which they believed would give ordinary citizens greater opportunity to share in the fruits of economic growth.

Wilentz is clearly more sympathetic to Jackson than to his opponents, but he identifies a rising generation he calls the New Whigs--men like Abraham Lincoln--who wedded their party's commitment to economic development with a sincere embrace of democracy and a broad humanitarianism. They were more willing than most Jacksonians to speak out about the plight of Southern slaves and of Indians removed from their remaining lands during Jackson's presidency. Eventually, through the Republican Party, these men would come to power.

Wilentz's treatment of the Jackson era bears comparison with a classic of American historical scholarship, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Age of Jackson, published six decades ago. Like Schlesinger, Wilentz takes Jacksonians' commitment to democracy seriously and, like him, finds the roots of democratic radicalism in popular struggles, especially on economic matters, led by the "city democracy," not by Western frontiersmen. But Wilentz's account also shows how the writing of history has changed since 1945. Schlesinger ignored Indian removal, a central event of the 1830s. Despite his overall sympathy for the Jacksonians, Wilentz offers a powerful indictment of the policies that produced the Trail of Tears. Even more striking, Wilentz places the issue of slavery at the center of his account. The rise of American democracy, he shows, went hand in hand with the expansion of slavery and the consolidation in the South of the most powerful slave society the modern world has seen. The conflict between the slave South and free-labor North over the meaning of American democracy eventually led to civil war.

Some reviewers criticized Wilentz's first book for ignoring both the presence of blacks among New York City's working class and the racism of white workers' political parties and trade unions. The Rise of American Democracy, in contrast, foregrounds the role of the abolitionist movement and makes African-Americans major actors in the rise of democracy. The birth of radical abolitionism, exemplified by the black pamphleteer David Walker and the white newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, formed part of the democratic agitation of the Jacksonian era.

Abolitionist societies were among the numerous voluntary associations whose proliferation so impressed Tocqueville. But because they attacked not only slavery but also the racial boundaries that excluded free African-Americans from a share in democracy, abolitionists represented "a new kind of American political community." Both major parties tried to exclude the slavery question from public debate. Neither could conceive of a biracial democratic order. Abolitionists castigated slavery as an aristocratic institution that threatened the future of democracy for whites and blacks alike. When the nation's territorial expansion thrust the slavery question into the heart of the political system, a new generation of Northern political leaders, Abraham Lincoln foremost among them, picked up the theme that genuine democracy could exist only in a free-labor society. Lincoln's election as President in 1860 plunged American democracy into its greatest crisis. And the Union's triumph--achieved in part by the service of 200,000 black men in the Union Army and Navy--led Republicans to purge the laws and Constitution of the racial exclusion that had from the beginning disfigured American democracy.

Wilentz tells this story in a long, detailed narrative--too long and detailed, no doubt, for the taste of some readers. But he is a vivid writer and the story never flags. Some will surely question individual judgments. Wilentz is, in my view, rather harsh on John Quincy Adams, whom he characterizes as a "cosmopolitan liberal aristocrat" unable to adjust to the "democratic ferment of the 1820s." Perhaps so, but Adams's vision of a federal government that assumed the responsibility to promote the arts and sciences stands in sharp contrast to the anti-intellectualism so rife among the Jacksonians (not to mention today's political leadership). Wilentz perhaps too readily gives the Jacksonians the benefit of the doubt on slavery and race, attributing their refusal to countenance suffrage for the North's free blacks to the belief that political equality is meaningless without social equality. But overall, the book will surely become the standard account of the development of American political culture in its formative years.

The Rise of American Democracy ends at the outset of Reconstruction, with the impaneling of an interracial jury to hear the case against Jefferson Davis, the erstwhile Confederate President. Davis never did go to trial, but the jury's composition seemed to symbolize the advent of a democracy based on truly universal participation. Of course, the story does not end here. Women--half the population--were still excluded from the vote. The late nineteenth century witnessed a marked retreat from democracy, with blacks and some poorer whites losing the right to vote in the South, and new registration and residency requirements reducing voting by immigrants and others in the rest of the country. Not until the 1920s did most women gain the right to vote; not until the 1960s did Southern blacks regain the right to participate in American democracy.

In the era Wilentz describes, far more Americans than today remained outside democracy's boundaries. Yet in some ways, that democratic system was more robust than our own. Voter participation was far greater, popular involvement with political parties and leaders far more intense. Questions then thought to be subject to democratic control--currency and banking policy, public regulation of the economy, how to combat economic inequality--are now off the agenda. Today, only half the eligible population bothers to vote, no one is sure if his or her ballot will be accurately counted and the people's representatives are widely held in disrepute. As in the nineteenth century, we still grapple with the question of what kind of democracy America is and ought to be.