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The American Political Tradition | The Nation

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The American Political Tradition

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Some reviewers criticized Wilentz's first book for ignoring both the presence of blacks among New York City's working class and the racism of white workers' political parties and trade unions. The Rise of American Democracy, in contrast, foregrounds the role of the abolitionist movement and makes African-Americans major actors in the rise of democracy. The birth of radical abolitionism, exemplified by the black pamphleteer David Walker and the white newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, formed part of the democratic agitation of the Jacksonian era.

About the Author

Eric Foner
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia...

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Abolitionist societies were among the numerous voluntary associations whose proliferation so impressed Tocqueville. But because they attacked not only slavery but also the racial boundaries that excluded free African-Americans from a share in democracy, abolitionists represented "a new kind of American political community." Both major parties tried to exclude the slavery question from public debate. Neither could conceive of a biracial democratic order. Abolitionists castigated slavery as an aristocratic institution that threatened the future of democracy for whites and blacks alike. When the nation's territorial expansion thrust the slavery question into the heart of the political system, a new generation of Northern political leaders, Abraham Lincoln foremost among them, picked up the theme that genuine democracy could exist only in a free-labor society. Lincoln's election as President in 1860 plunged American democracy into its greatest crisis. And the Union's triumph--achieved in part by the service of 200,000 black men in the Union Army and Navy--led Republicans to purge the laws and Constitution of the racial exclusion that had from the beginning disfigured American democracy.

Wilentz tells this story in a long, detailed narrative--too long and detailed, no doubt, for the taste of some readers. But he is a vivid writer and the story never flags. Some will surely question individual judgments. Wilentz is, in my view, rather harsh on John Quincy Adams, whom he characterizes as a "cosmopolitan liberal aristocrat" unable to adjust to the "democratic ferment of the 1820s." Perhaps so, but Adams's vision of a federal government that assumed the responsibility to promote the arts and sciences stands in sharp contrast to the anti-intellectualism so rife among the Jacksonians (not to mention today's political leadership). Wilentz perhaps too readily gives the Jacksonians the benefit of the doubt on slavery and race, attributing their refusal to countenance suffrage for the North's free blacks to the belief that political equality is meaningless without social equality. But overall, the book will surely become the standard account of the development of American political culture in its formative years.

The Rise of American Democracy ends at the outset of Reconstruction, with the impaneling of an interracial jury to hear the case against Jefferson Davis, the erstwhile Confederate President. Davis never did go to trial, but the jury's composition seemed to symbolize the advent of a democracy based on truly universal participation. Of course, the story does not end here. Women--half the population--were still excluded from the vote. The late nineteenth century witnessed a marked retreat from democracy, with blacks and some poorer whites losing the right to vote in the South, and new registration and residency requirements reducing voting by immigrants and others in the rest of the country. Not until the 1920s did most women gain the right to vote; not until the 1960s did Southern blacks regain the right to participate in American democracy.

In the era Wilentz describes, far more Americans than today remained outside democracy's boundaries. Yet in some ways, that democratic system was more robust than our own. Voter participation was far greater, popular involvement with political parties and leaders far more intense. Questions then thought to be subject to democratic control--currency and banking policy, public regulation of the economy, how to combat economic inequality--are now off the agenda. Today, only half the eligible population bothers to vote, no one is sure if his or her ballot will be accurately counted and the people's representatives are widely held in disrepute. As in the nineteenth century, we still grapple with the question of what kind of democracy America is and ought to be.

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