Party of the People: A History of the Democrats; Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans

In This Review

Party of the People: A History of the Democrats

By Jules Witcover
Random House, 2003
848 pp. $35.00
Purchase

Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans

By Lewis L. Gould
Random House, 2003
624 pp. $35.00
Purchase

Witcover's long and disappointing book purports to be a history of the Democratic Party. One hopes that few people believe the claim; dreary, potted studies of this kind are one reason so few educated people think that the study of U.S. political history holds any interest. The narrative largely confines itself to perfunctory accounts of the national battles for the Democratic presidential nomination and the ensuing presidential campaigns. There is no history of the life of the party: the electric energy of its origins among previously disenfranchised common citizens; the rise of the big-city machines; the struggle over slavery and the uneasy balance among corrupt urban leaders in the north; racist white Southerners who made the Democratic Party the great defender of Jim Crow for three-quarters of a century; and the "goo goo" reformers who sometimes managed to scramble to the top of this rickety heap and wrecked the old Democratic Party at the height of its success. Democrats deserve better; let us hope that they get it.

Gould does much more with the Republicans. This is a well-written, fast-paced, sensible, illuminating, and coherent account of the Republican Party that helps readers understand the passions behind the partisan battles that have done so much to shape U.S. history. Abolitionists, prohibitionists, nationalists, conservatives, progressives, John Birchers -- they are all here, and Gould is reasonably fair even to those party factions that he dislikes. Tariffs, for revenue and protection, formed the bedrock of Republican Party thinking 100 years ago, in the way that tax cuts do today; Gould helps readers understand why the tariff once commanded such loyalty and also sheds light on how the Republicans have changed. This is a book that even Democrats can read with profit and pleasure; everyone who cares about U.S. politics ought to have a copy.