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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Only the War for the Union could decide which form of democracy would prevail, and the North's did. Wilentz concludes with a riveting photograph of a postwar Virginia jury of 12 men, seven of whom are black. The shared responsibility for democratic society by members of both races, like those dozen jurymen, was the promise of political democracy wrested from the South by war. But it was a promise soon aborted and not fully realized until our own time.

These themes by no means make up the entire structure of the book, nor do they exhaust its virtues, of which there are many. Every history like this must take up certain basic topics. Wilentz's coverage of most is superb, his pages on the Democratic-Republican Societies of the 1790s, and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, for instance, being particularly penetrating models of their kind. A single page on John Brown is beyond compare.

Wilentz rarely takes his eyes off the states, where so much of the day's political action was located--and where readers may sometimes tire. He joins a line of recent interpretation that holds higher the presidential achievements of James Madison than earlier historians did. He fails to give enough credit to the Federalists and Whigs, the conservative political forces of their days, for their contributions to the emergence of democracy. And--signs of his old self--he occasionally falls into the trap of seeing workers allied with the Jacksonians as rational, and those voting for the Whigs as elite-led and passive. But these are small faults in such a massive work.

For all the book's achievements, it would be a mistake to think that Wilentz's presentation of the slow emergence of white manhood democracy by the time of the Civil War is the history of "the rise of democracy" in all its many possible forms. It's the history of the rise of political democracy. But what of social and cultural democracy? Here, a fuller, parallel history could have been interleaved to good effect. Yes, the book would have been even thicker and heavier. But it would have had more about voluntary associations, about reform societies and religion, about the emergence to positions of great moral authority and effective administrative capacity of thousands of women, about the great democratic literary renaissance typified by the works of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and, especially, Walt Whitman.

To limit the story principally to political issues, movements, developments, and institutions makes it possible for Wilentz to prove his point about the robust life that remains in history told from a political perspective. But it also truncates the story and prevents it from becoming the even grander-scope saga that it might have been.

Nevertheless, the narrative Wilentz offers of the extension of political democracy is unsurpassed as the American nation's--indeed, any nation's--central narrative. For the United States, only one other such narrative is available to rival it: The stitching together of a nation from all the people on the face of the earth, the emergence of political, social, and cultural democracy for all Americans from the welter of humans and traditions that have composed the nation from its birth. That's a different tale from the one Wilentz chooses to convey; he cannot be criticized for the choice he has made. But a reader should bear in mind that there does remain the option of telling the story otherwise.

Yet do either of these narratives serve the search for what historians used to call a usable past? Surely none would dispute that, in our fractured world, both story lines can offer beacons of hope and guidance to those attempting to create democracy and comity out of the wreckage of tyranny and tribalism.

There does, however, remain one other grand way of telling the American story, one rarely ventured, even though we ourselves need to understand it. After all, other people--the British, Canadians, Australians, French, even the Germans--can teach the world about democracy and market economies. Some others can set examples of how to build multiethnic and multiracial societies. But what of the history of an open society, a society in which all that is not harmful to others is tolerated and permitted? Americans probably do about as good a job of managing an open society as can be conceived, despite our bitter battles, our stumbles, and sometimes our outright failures. Yet, alongside the number of histories of democracy, and of the peopling of the United States, one is hard-pressed to find a single history of the nation told as the history of the emergence of an open society from a closed one.

Until we have such a history, this will stand as the best available account of the growth of political democracy in the United States in the first three-quarters of a century of government under the Constitution. It is difficult to imagine a better one.

James M. Banner Jr., a historian in Washington, is co-director of the History News Service.