The Magazine

Embryonic America

How democracy was nourished in the young Republic.

Apr 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 30 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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The Rise of American Democracy

Jefferson to Lincoln

by Sean Wilentz

Norton, 992 pp., $35

SOME BOOKS ARE ALL ATTITUDE; others all balance, sobriety, and calm. This one is of the latter kind, which may come as a surprise to those who have known the author through his earlier work, especially his 1984 Chants Democratic, a superb, edgy study of the creation of New York City's working class before 1850. There, Sean Wilentz put himself on the side of the workies, and of much of the striving social history of the time, of which he proved a master. That book was part of a body of scholarship seeking to understand the history of the kind of people--the women and African Americans, as well as the laboring men, who deviated from the white, male, middle-class norm--so often overlooked in the traditional histories of the United States.

The makings of Wilentz's new work could have been detected in that first one. It was fully attentive to detail while reaching for a comprehensive perspective, and it revealed an empathetic understanding of its diverse human subjects. It was also attuned to politics, policies, and institutions--some of the attributes often missing from social history. Here, in a major book that builds out from his earlier work, Wilentz reveals the rest of himself. Less actively engaged in his material, he gives us a work that's grander and even more masterful.

The most remarkable characteristic of The Rise of American Democracy is its unblinking focus on the nation's political life and institutions between 1789 and the Civil War. It's likely that most readers won't find that remarkable at all. They'll assume that politics and political institutions should be at the center of the "master narrative" (as it's now called) of any national history. How, after all, can one write the history of democracy's emergence from the elite, deferential society of the Revolutionary era, except in political terms?

In fact, there are other ways, other emphases--so many, in fact, that during the past 40 years, when social and cultural history were making their great, historiography-shaking advances in American letters, political historians often felt that they were carrying on a rearguard campaign against the disappearance of their subject. Of course, that subject never disappeared, and was unlikely to do so. If it had, Wilentz couldn't have written this book--or at least couldn't have written it the way he has done, as he in effect acknowledges in his exhaustive citations to others' work and occasional, but unobtrusive, issue-taking with some fellow historians. A political history that appropriates social history where needed, The Rise of American Democracy should be seen as a purposeful demonstration that a grand history of politics can still bear the weight of authoritative interpretation.

The work is a summation of current understanding of the political history of the first 75 years of the republic, and it's hard to conceive of a better summary for our times, if taken on its own terms.

Wilentz insists on the centrality to the national narrative of the growth of popular government in the United States--that is, of the emergence from elite rule of participatory politics--starting in the earliest days of the republic. "The mysterious rise of American democracy," he writes, "was an extraordinary part of the most profound political transformation in modern history: the triumph of popular government--and of the proposition--if not fully the reality--that sovereignty rightly belongs to the mass of ordinary and equal citizens."

How that triumph--or at least the triumph of white, male democracy--came about by 1865 is the burden of 800 pages of text, pages that occasionally weary the reader by their detail but never by the scale or nature of their subject. And it's a sobering tale, not so much for the outcome (which, while limited by 1865, was substantial) as for the complexity of it all.

Wilentz is at great pains to analyze that complexity. The first phase of political democracy didn't leap forth, Athena-like, fully formed from the Founders' heads. An external authority didn't impose it, nor was it independent of the larger culture of religion, institution, economy, and intellect. Instead, it was built in response to events, contested every step of the way, and, as Wilentz reminds us, never uniformly envisaged or even fully understood by most participants.