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.”