The American Political Tradition
All of the subjects treated in Wilentz's book--from the American Revolution to the battle between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, the triumph of Andrew Jackson and the coming of the Civil War--have been examined by previous historians, and much of his story will be familiar to specialists. But no one has integrated these elements into a seamless narrative that places democracy and the contest over it at the center. Wilentz begins with the Revolution, not because most prominent patriots were democrats (most were not) but because the struggle for independence emboldened ordinary men and women to demand a greater voice in public affairs. In colonial America, Wilentz writes, the "people" had existed only on election day; most Americans did not enjoy a continuous presence in public life. But the struggle for independence threw into question various forms of authority and inequality. Wilentz traces the rise of two overlapping but distinct groups pressing for greater popular participation in public affairs--rural democrats, attuned to local self-government and fearful of centralized political power, and city artisans, who demanded a say in urban affairs but proved willing to support a powerful national government such as that created by the federal Constitution.
Because of pressure from below, new state Constitutions adopted during the Revolution reduced the amount of property required to vote. But according to Wilentz, the groundwork for a democratic political system was not truly laid until the 1790s. With its lifetime judges, a Senate elected by state legislatures and a cumbersome indirect method of choosing the President, the national Constitution hardly established a functioning democracy. But conflicts in Congress over Alexander Hamilton's economic program--which linked the Republic's future to the self-interest of propertied merchants and bankers--quickly spread to the populace at large, a development unintended by the Founders. More and more citizens attended political meetings and became avid readers of newspapers and pamphlets.
Critics of George Washington's Administration established Democratic-Republican societies, which insisted on the right of the people to debate public issues and organize to affect public policy. Washington, who saw the government, not private associations, as the authentic voice of the people, condemned the societies as "self-created." But Wilentz insists this was precisely what made them democratic-- unlike most previous political groups, they were not formed by political leaders, yet they claimed the right to scrutinize and criticize the conduct of elected officials. The Sedition Act of 1798, which made virtually any criticism of the government illegal, shows that many Federalists could not accept this democratic principle. By beating back Federalism and opening office to "self-made plebeians," Wilentz argues, Jefferson's election as President in 1800 marked a major advance for democracy. But national politics still operated "from the top down," with members of Congress initiating policy and choosing Republican and Federalist presidential candidates.
The War of 1812, Wilentz shows, gave further impetus to the rise of democracy. By fighting Great Britain, the world's greatest power, to a draw, the United States undermined lingering assumptions about the natural superiority of the well-born. By breaking the remaining power of Indians east of the Mississippi River, the war opened new lands to settlement by the "country democracy." In a "cruel irony," the pan- Indian resistance to white encroachment, organized by Tecumseh, had helped persuade Americans to go to war with his ally Great Britain in the first place. The road to white democracy was paved with the shattered dreams of Native Americans.
Between 1816 and 1820, four new Western states (Indiana, Illinois, Alabama and Mississippi) entered the Union. All established very liberal voting requirements as a way of attracting settlers. In the East, even as the expansion of industry and commercial agriculture increased the number of wage earners who could not meet property qualifications, poorer citizens insisted that they were as fit as anyone else to exercise the right to vote. By the 1820s, nearly all the states had divorced voting from property ownership. But as Wilentz shows, the progress of democracy did not come without fierce resistance by adherents of the older view that men without property lacked a political will of their own and should not have a say in government.
By the 1830s, when Tocqueville visited America, the principle that "the people" ruled had become an axiom of American politics. Those who opposed this idea, Tocqueville wrote, "hide their heads." The central portion of Wilentz's book discusses the flourishing system known as Jacksonian democracy, a boisterous, highly partisan political order that engaged the energies of massive numbers of Americans (by 1840 something like 80 percent of eligible voters turned out on election day). Unlike many previous historians, Wilentz insists that substantive differences separated Jacksonian Democrats from their Whig opponents. The Whigs, led by Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, retained an elitist view of politics and, not trusting individual initiative, looked to the national government to promote and regulate economic development through centrally planned canal and railroad construction, a protective tariff and a national bank regulating the currency. Jacksonians favored a "more secure and egalitarian commercialism," which they believed would give ordinary citizens greater opportunity to share in the fruits of economic growth.
Wilentz is clearly more sympathetic to Jackson than to his opponents, but he identifies a rising generation he calls the New Whigs--men like Abraham Lincoln--who wedded their party's commitment to economic development with a sincere embrace of democracy and a broad humanitarianism. They were more willing than most Jacksonians to speak out about the plight of Southern slaves and of Indians removed from their remaining lands during Jackson's presidency. Eventually, through the Republican Party, these men would come to power.
Wilentz's treatment of the Jackson era bears comparison with a classic of American historical scholarship, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Age of Jackson, published six decades ago. Like Schlesinger, Wilentz takes Jacksonians' commitment to democracy seriously and, like him, finds the roots of democratic radicalism in popular struggles, especially on economic matters, led by the "city democracy," not by Western frontiersmen. But Wilentz's account also shows how the writing of history has changed since 1945. Schlesinger ignored Indian removal, a central event of the 1830s. Despite his overall sympathy for the Jacksonians, Wilentz offers a powerful indictment of the policies that produced the Trail of Tears. Even more striking, Wilentz places the issue of slavery at the center of his account. The rise of American democracy, he shows, went hand in hand with the expansion of slavery and the consolidation in the South of the most powerful slave society the modern world has seen. The conflict between the slave South and free-labor North over the meaning of American democracy eventually led to civil war.