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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Given the diversity of the American population, the grievances of those (especially women, African Americans, and natives) intentionally excluded from the franchise and from wider participation in American life, and the play of events (not all of them domestic) between the Revolution and Civil War, it's the author's supreme achievement somehow to control his materials. Just the names of the various political factions--Tertium Quids, Barnburners, Locofocos--that have walk-on parts in this drama, after confusing generations of students, are threats enough to any reader's attentiveness. But Wilentz never lets their necessary coverage get in the way of the larger tale.

So what is the principal theme? All readers will find in a tale as tangled as this what disposition and interest lead to. But one of Wilentz's indisputably signal achievements is to keep firmly in view two sets of contesting ideas of democracy that existed throughout the pre-Civil War era. Both were in evidence before 1787. Both established themselves firmly as enduring features of American politics after that. Both were fateful.

One set of opposing ideas centered on the tension between rural farmers and artisans on the one hand, and urban workingmen on the other, over the market economy: The value, supply, and control of money, the form and extent of taxation, the nature of trade and commerce, and the sale, settlement, and ownership of land. It played itself out in alternating demands by rural and urban working people for influence over the politics of these issues--demands that had, first, to be satisfied by their gaining the franchise and then by their beginning to elect to public office men who were not of the old gentry.

While it's not possible fully to pull this contest apart from the other one, it was central to the epic battles between political parties. It was also responsible for the political emergence in the 1820s of the hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson. Unlike Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, whose enduring political visions open and close the volume, Jackson is the figure who bestrides the book, just as he did its great predecessor, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson (1945), whose propulsive energy is one of the very few qualities that Wilentz's book lacks in like measure.

Unlike some recent historians and biographers, Wilentz has a kind of grudging respect for Jackson, and can retain his interpretive balance even when writing of the Tennesseean's destructive and controversial Indian-removal policies. If one closes the book without sharing the author's modest weakness for this president, there's no denying either the difficult choices that Jackson's two administrations faced, and the consequences of those decisions, or the undeniable fact (as Wilentz writes) that the Jacksonians "created the first mass democratic national political party in modern history."

Many of Jackson's acts, such as his attack on the Second Bank of the United States, were localistic, pig-headed, and ideological. Others, like his response to the South Carolina Nullifiers in 1832-33, were shrewd and coldly nationalistic. Yet it's hard to imagine the triumph of popular government without Jackson and his followers. Jackson's vision, his grudges, and his combination of stout localism and unswerving nationalism faced in two directions. They emerged from Jefferson's often-mystic agrarianism and continentalism and led inexorably to Lincoln's determined unionism. Wilentz is right to place Jackson at the center of this work.

The other contested set of ideas concerned the status of labor itself, especially white laboring people's mastery over African Americans, both slave and free. As the 19th century wore on, this tension manifested itself sectionally. The South became the terrain of a kind of herrenvolk democracy, in which one race, all of whose participants mistakenly believed themselves to be engaged as free agents in politics and society, ruled over another, in this case for the purpose of exploiting that race's physical labor. Plantation owners psychologically empowered small white farmers to make common cause with them over black slave labor; southern political democracy constructed itself in racial terms.

In the North, scarcely less racist in its attitudes, a greatly lower proportion of blacks led early to gradual emancipation, and thus greatly weakened the identification of work with race. As a result, an ideology of honorable, free labor helped fuel attacks on entrenched political and other privilege, and effectively led (by the time of the Civil War) not only to white manhood suffrage but also to the growing conviction that the spread of the slave system had to halt and make way for white, laboring voters.