Friday, November 24, 2006

"The Rise of American Democracy" by Sean Wilentz

[posted by Callimachus]

Wilentz's book covers the evolution between the revolutions. The War of Independence and the Civil War stand as bookends to his text. His narrative spikes in three political revolutions, so-called: those that put Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln in the White House.

The book opens as the leaders of the young nation test their new American system. Their different notions of how it should work jostle for authority. Wilentz does a good job of pointing out how distant some of those assumptions were -- especially regarding the role of parties and the press -- from where we've ended up.

The Founders as a group never intended us to be a pure democracy in 1787, though a few of them would have supported the idea if the rest did, and a few of them later helped the process along when it became expedient to their political causes.

A key principle of the early republic was that the people should rule, but that the power to vote ought to be the privilege of free men only. One who was bound by debt or loyalty to other men was not free to give himself, or his vote, totally to the good of the public. That accounts for the Founders' general horror of debts, banks, lenders, and mortgages.

It also accounts for why many states required voters or office-holders to be men of a certain income or property. This was at heart a republican, not an aristocratic, principle. The ownership of property, unencumbered by debt, was the rock foundation of republican independence, virtue, and liberty.

And that's my reading of it. But it's not Wilentz's. In his mind, property restrictions on voting seem to have been a rank relic of aristocracy and proof of capitalist mistrust of the lowly orders of society.

Wilentz tells how the new republic quickly came to a crisis with Jefferson's election in 1800. Afterward Americans, including the political leaders, overcame the Founders' scruples and arrived at a general consensus that elections ought to be open to as many white males as possible.

Andrew Jackson's victory in 1828 was both a result of expanded suffrage and a rout of the last conservative defense against it. For the first time in America, popular causes begin to really drive national policy.

In the book's final third, the struggle over slavery distorts the march to democracy by forking it into two ideals: a Northern one and a largely anti-democratic Southern one.

But "The Rise of American Democracy" fails to rise above the mundane school of academic history-writing. It sees the past too much through the filter of current events. (Historians even have coined a word for this, "presentist.") Wilentz even lapses into modern catch phrases like "support the troops" that have dubious utility when applied to the War of 1812. Consequently, a great deal gets left out of his narrative.

Wilentz gets right to work in his introduction, asserting his right to define "democracy" in terms that would make it unrecognizable to the Founders, readers of ancient Greek, and many modern Americans.

Madison, for instance, might have defined "democracy" as a form of government vesting sovereignty in the majority, and in which the rulers serve the ruled.

Poppycock, Wilentz writes. "I think we go astray in discussing democracy simply as a form of government or society, or as a set of social norms ... a thing with particular structures that can be codified and measured." No? If democracy is not a form of government or society, what is it?

Democracy appears when some large number of previously excluded, ordinary persons -- 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]

Ah, so. Democracy is a permanent state of "power to the people" revolution against the would-be ruling class gnawing at the roots of the tree of liberty. But instead of defining what democracy is, he's only described one way it happens.

I might call that a sometimes-feature of democracies, but to Wilentz it is the whole elephant. In so doing, Wilentz sweeps aside the notion that democracy ever can be a "gift bestowed by benevolent, farseeing rulers." Which puts the Founders in their place. Instead, "it must always be fought for."

And well you might assert that if you were publishing in 2006 and you had just announced your opinion that "George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace." In Wilentz's world, it seems the only assurance of a nation's freedom is a continuous state of anti-administration truculence by the working people, and carping at leaders is the highest form of patiotism.

Contra Wilentz, however, American democracy was more than just a tug-of-war between rich aristocrats and noble working people. New England had a "classical/puritan" model of republicanism, the South embraced a "modern/agrarian" model, and different strains of republicanism flourished in between -- in Dutch New York and Quaker Jersey and Pennsylvania. Democracy had roots in cultural and religious traditions Wilentz ignores.

You can find that in the works of historians like David Hackett Fischer, but none of this really gets any treatment in Wilentz's book, which presents America's political evolution as the work largely of organized lower-class outsiders and a few insider allies in Washington.

Wilentz, whose specialty is American working class leaders and movements (his c.v. is here) naturally wants to make radical labor leaders and anti-capitalist agitators the heroes of the story. Certainly they played a role in the evolution of the United States from the mixed-government republic of the Constitution toward the horizontal democracy it was becoming by the time Wilentz winds up his book circa 1861.

But his attempt to pump up the importance of the radicalized working class often oversells the product. The result can remind the reader how classless American politics, as opposed to European, tend to be. Marx's old perplexity remains, and that probably wasn't what Wilentz wanted you to notice.

For instance, in the chapter on the Van Buren administration he touts "polemics" by Fanny Wright and other radicals against paper money. As though Van Buren sat up at night in bed reading radical pamphleteers and shaping his policy accordingly.

The more likely results of the radical agitation turn up a few pages later when Wilentz mentions the administration's opponents made hay by tarring its fiscal policy as "the 'Fanny Wright' campaign to destroy all banks." Then as now, in America, shrill voices tend to taint the causes they preach, however valid those causes may be in the minds of most Americans. Only devotees of Ann Coulter and Cindy Sheehan need be surprised by that.

In chapter after chapter, Wilentz breathlessly builds up the momentum of a working-class or radical movement on some issue. Mass meetings gather and brave men make bold speeches. Then the elections come and the radical parties get a "respectable" 10 percent or so, and in a month it's all forgotten. But you can be sure Wilentz will remind you the winners were "forced to take notice" of the distant third-place finishers.


"The Rise of American Democracy" actually is a turn back to an older style of history writing, one focused on the leading men of the age. Wilentz seeks to merge this with the modern academic historian's fixation with race, class, and gender abstractions and economic explanations.

And though throughout Wilentz shows his propensity for retroactively empowering "ordinary Americans, including some beyond the outermost reaches of the country's formal political life," he also believes this progress toward democracy was accomplished by the combined efforts of the people and certain egalitarian political leaders.

As such, the book actually is a corrective to much of what has been written in the past 20 years or so. Those works can make it seem American history only ever happened from the bottom up.

Wilentz stays true to his purpose to write a history of the politics of the times. "The Rise of American Democracy" is blissfully free of statistics. Science and literature are invisible. "Moby Dick" appears only as an allegory of the national struggle over slavery; Walt Whitman strolls across the stage only as a political journalist.

Unfortunately, Wilentz seem to have fallen into his topic, like Alice through the looking glass, and has written a history book in political prose.

All historians do this to some extent, but the scent of it is particularly strong here. Wilentz uses campaign-trail rhetoric: good fanatics are "passionate" "reformers" who "rail against" their enemies; bad ones are "hot-headed" "extremists" who "sneer at" them. A writer he approves is an "author;" one he disapproves is a "scribbler."

If a class of men you approve engages in politics you don't, blame it on exploitation by party bosses and propaganda. If a class of men you despise engages in politics you approve, dismiss it as the cold calculation of self-interest and temporary expedience.

Men of Party-I-Like have "moral seriousness" and take care to be "estranged" from the extremists on their side. Men of Party-I-Don't-Like, on the other hand, believe in their hearts the most extreme versions of their dogmas; it's only the "more candid" ones who say "frankly what others try to cloak."

The most complex situations resolve into simple good guy-bad guy plotlines more worthy of a professional wrestling show. Working-class Irish-American racism against blacks, deftly analyzed in Noel Ignatiev's "How the Irish Became White," tends to crop up in Wilentz's book as a case of innocent immigrants exploited by political schemers. The Irish immigrants, you see, are "offended by the Republicans' nativist tinge and empathy for black slaves" (never mind that the racism was in place a generation before the birth of either Know-Nothing nativism or Republicans).

Wherever Wilentz mentions Irish antipathy to blacks, he couples it with the political press and Democratic candidates who benefited from Irish votes. It all begins to read like an apology, as though the press was the source of the racism, not the fan to the flames. As though the basic arithmetic of wages and available labor were something only a politician, not an Irish workman, could calculate. It is odd that Wilentz's class-consciousness would overlook this, but he has bigger fish to fry. If working people are heroes and working people are racists, it must be someone else's fault.

It's only in a footnote on Irish-black relations that Wilentz admits his version is outside "The conventional and by no means wholly discredited view on Irish-black relations ...."

In such a milieu, it's no surprise political men, who ought to burst to life on these pages, simply fall out of them like cardboard bookmarks.

The great chamaeleon Van Buren goes from a cynical but brilliant coalition-builder for Jackson, playing footsie with the slave-masters for the sake of a majority, to the "courageous" and principled candidate of the Free-Soilers in their anti-slavery crusade. He then reverts to party hack when he refuses to join a later abolitionist movement.

John C. Calhoun is the great cartoon villain of the work, of course. And of course every breath Calhoun takes is explained as being grounded either in his pathological desire to make himself president or his twisted racist defense of slavery. Which would be absurd to anyone who could step outside Wilentz's world long enough to glance at Calhoun's career of deliberate steps that sabotaged his hope to lead the nation, or the future of slavery, for the sake of being consistent to his principles.

Wilentz is content to mouth the old Van Burenite slanders against Calhoun, because doing so suits his ideological need for a slaveocrat arch-satan. The caricature is downright scurilous, as when cartoon Calhoun's opposition to the huge annexations that followed the Mexican War, on anti-imperialist grounds, is dismissed as merely a racist desire to keep swarthy Mexicans out of the union.

Calhoun's constitutional position, the key to everything he did, finally gets a word in edgewise on page 729 of Wilentz's book, more than 600 pages after Calhoun first pops up in the text. He's already a decade dead and buried by that time, and Wilentz only deigns to give his doctrine a reasonably fair one-sentence summation for the sake of then pointing out how extreme, by contrast, were some of the Southern leaders who followed him.

(Along the way he also manages to misidentify Calhoun's "Disquisition on Government" as "unpublished" -- probably to diminish its importance. It was the summation of thought that Calhoun worked on until his death, and it was published three years later in a treatise of 107 pages.)

Nothing shows how completely Wilentz fails to consider Calhoun more than his description of Calhoun's "attacks on democracy -- or what ... he carefully called 'absolute democracy' ..." blithely eliding over the chasm of distinction at the core of Calhoun's entire career as though it was a rhetorical trick any clever modern-day Princeton historian can see through.

Even Lincoln, who in this book can do no wrong, is a cypher as he rides the political rapids from one political alignment to another. Other men seem to be simply inexplicable in Wilentz's world, such as Mayor Fernando Wood: champion of New York City's working-class poor AND pro-Southern conservative.

As a result, some of the juiciest perplexities of the times go unexplored in "The Rise of American Democracy." The evolution of radical anti-constitutional and disunionist sentiments by the Northern abolitionists happened at the same time there was, for the first time, a mainstream abolitionist political party. Why is that?

Wilentz rightly notes something historians often overlook: It wouldn't have mattered if the Democratic Party had maintained unity in 1860; Lincoln would have won anyhow. But this comes after a lurid account of how the evil Southern fire-eaters gleefully split the Democratic Party in hopes it would spur secession.

That, he sees, is a threat to democracy. The fact that a regional candidate like Lincoln could win the national election with only 39 percent of the popular vote doesn't seem to cross his transom for trouble. Eighteen-sixty was the most anti-democratic election (defining "democracy" in the usual way) in American history, yet because it brought to power an outsider minority that ultimately set another outsider minority free, it was for Wilentz the supreme democratic event. You'd think he'd at least acknowledge the contradiction in that.

The modern Middle East is sobering some Americans to the ugliness that can rise up to power in a popular election. A look at our past might teach the same lesson.

In the 1850s, the extreme men of the South made slow inroads among the leadership class in Dixie -- the aristocrats of slavery that Wilentz scorns. Instead, the underminers of the union had much more rapid success among the enfranchised masses in popular elections. Wilentz even notes this paradox -- "The upholders of Southern aristocracy were gaining power through the Southern democratic ballot box" [p.755] -- and there it starts and ends, as far as this book is concerned.

The Southern Confederacy and its rhetoric offer a broad-side barn target for a modern enlightened American. Wilentz's abhorrence of racism and African slavery make him the kind of fellow you'd invite to a dinner party. But they alone hardly qualify him to write this sort of drive-by history book.

The national deterioration in the 1850s was a radical table tennis match played across the Mason Dixon Line: Christiana riots, Nebraska, Dred Scott, John Brown. But in Wilentz's chicken-or-egg story of the conflict between North and South, the Southern fried chicken always comes first. To see the thing in purely political terms requires the historian to put aside his revulsion at slavery, his utter sympathy for the abolitionists, and consider the process.

Wilentz simply drags out the dusty old dossier of quotes mined from Southern political speeches and declarations of 1860 to prove defense of slavery as the central motive for secession. Then he angrily dismisses the reflective views of the chief men of both sides, years after the bid for Southern independence had failed, as a pack of lies. Because the later writings put the slavery debate in the context of the spark that lit the fire, the perceived proof of the need to separate, not the purpose of the new nation.

And so we have here the spectacle of the historian of politics dismissing the calmer reflections of historical writing as wicked lies and insisting the political boilerplate speeches and heat-of-the-moment rallying cries are the only true statements. Oh, he's not alone. It's prevailing wisdom these days, however absurd it will look to a future generation.

Still, Wilentz passes up a chance to explore the really interesting political mentality of men like Alexander Stephens, a Henry Clay-style Southern Whig by nature who felt the need to reconcile his later embrace of slavery with his essential Whig ideology based on order and philanthropy.

The slavery passage in the speech Stephens made in Savannah in 1861, which Wilentz cherry-picks to prove that the Southern rebellion had no purpose but to protect slavery, is a reflection of Stephens' internal struggle to maintain consistency of thought.

Here was a man who had publicly reversed most of his earlier political positions. As late as the 1860 election, Stephens had backed the moderate Douglas, not the South's hard-line choice, Breckenridge. He considered secessionists "demagogues," and he defended Lincoln, with whom he had served in the House. Lincoln, he wrote, "is not a bad man. He will make as good a president as Fillmore did and better too in my opinion." Lincoln, for his part, actually considered inviting Stephens to join his cabinet.

But Stephens cast his loyalty with his section, not his principles. If he could not correct the South, he would try to guide it and, by compromising some, attempt to save the rest. He failed, and the South failed.

The Savannah speech is a sad affair, not just because of the blunt racism of that one passage -- the racism itself, it ought to be noted, would hardly have offended any white audience in 1861 America, North, South, or West, outside a few abolitionist circles. But sad because it shows a politician who has so twisted himself to try to hold the reins of a revolution that he has got tangled in them and they now rule him. He embraces what he once scorned, and he mocks positions he once held. He has thrown away his ideals, and the "cornerstone" passage, to me, reads so much more accurately as an odd eruption of a warped and very personal ideological struggle.


It's not surprising that a Princeton historian would tack well to the left of the typical American (in his article on Bush, Wilentz writes, "Historians do tend, as a group, to be far more liberal than the citizenry as a whole"). But Wilentz actually has to shield himself from the extreme left side of his profession when it comes to his hero Andrew Jackson. Which may be why I found the Jackson section of the book the most appealing.

Jackson's Indian removal policy, he writes, has become "the great moral stain on the Jacksonian legacy." Wilentz bristles that "Jackson's democracy, for these historians -- indeed, liberal society -- was founded on degradation, dishonor, and death." Jackson, Wilentz insists, "truly believed" his policy was relatively just and humane. He was "a benevolent, if realistic paternalist." Why, he went so far as to adopt an orphaned Indian boy. What's more, his policy was constrained by his commitment to follow the Constitution.

Thing is, I agree with Wilentz about all that. And that the Indian removal, however well intentioned, was the least-terrible from a short list of terrible options, a tragedy, and a misguided benevolence whose good intentions were undercut by the administration itself.

But still it's amusing to watch Wilentz completely flip-flop on a paternalistic master-race leader and rally to his defense because, after all, the man advanced democracy, the one value that matters. He scolds the version of the story given by Jackson's detractors in the history-writing profession:

Like all historical caricatures, this one turns tragedy into melodrama, exaggerates parts at the expense of the whole, and sacrifices nuance for sharpness.

Which is a better summation than I could write of my opinion about "The Rise of American Democracy."

There are better studies than this one available for every issue and administration covered here, and they make the same points with more vigor and evidence. I suppose it's some use to have all this between two covers. But so much ground gets covered that, even for a book this size, and even if you agree with Wilentz about everything, the treatment is superficial.

The Jackson section is best, but we already have Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s "Age of Jackson" for that. Wilentz adds only a few dabs of color to that masterpiece. Compare any passage of Wilentz and Schlesinger on the same topic: Calhoun in the Senate grimly casting the tie-breaking vote that he thinks will end Van Buren's career; Van Buren remaining in "careful ignorance" of the unfolding scandal as the rest of Jackson's cabinet self-destructs in the Peggy Eaton affair.

Feel the vitality of the writing, the subtlety of the political comprehension. Nuance can share a page with sharpness.

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