In This Review

The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
By Sean Wilentz
Norton, 2005, 992 pp.

Wilentz's account of the rise of American democracy is a triumph of scholarship and industry. Ranging with immense learning from the politics of New York State to the ethnic, class, and moral politics that shaped the emerging mass democracy, Wilentz has prepared a feast for all those drawn to this crucial but little-known era in the United States' past. In spite of its many virtues, the book unfortunately falls short of the kind of transformative work that would open this era to modern readers in the way that the Civil War and Revolutionary War periods have been opened. Eschewing some of the shibboleths of mid-twentieth-century historiography, Wilentz is driven by a sort of historical affirmative action to focus excessively on figures and movements of the period that share key values with the enlightened twenty-first-century academy (applications from antibank, antislavery, pro-labor feminists of color eagerly sought) while neglecting less enlightened figures who, alas, often had more influence at the time. The most striking failure of this kind has to do with Wilentz's near-total neglect of the rise of party organizations and political corruption and influence peddling. The net result is that Wilentz's picture, although finely detailed and masterfully drawn, bears less relationship than it should to the actual flow of American history. The future of the Democratic Party for more than a century would be a coalition of "master race" democracy Southerners and corrupt urban machines in the North, while the Republicans cemented a large popular base to Whig and Federalist economic ideas. Little in Wilentz's book prepares the reader for this anticlimactic result.