“A democracy, when put to the strain, grows weak and is supplanted by oligarchy.”


The Rise of American Democracy:
Jefferson to Lincoln

by Sean Wilentz

New York: W.W. Norton;
1,004 pp., $35.00

To write a book about democracy, a word that functions today as little more than an advertising slogan, an author should first define what it is that he is talking about, giving attention to the historical origins and development of that concept, what the best minds of the past have thought about it, and, above all, whether—however defined—it bears any relation to an observable reality.  All this, Professor Wilentz fails to do.

By applying the Whig or progressive paradigm to American democracy, Wilentz obscures the fact that antebellum America was much more democratic than her postbellum or 20th-century incarnations, despite a more-restrictive suffrage.  In 1800, although few citizens could vote directly for the presidency, they had a real choice before them.  John Adams would have maintained the centralized, repressive, mercantilist state created by Alexander Hamilton.  Jefferson released political prisoners, repealed all internal taxes, reduced the national debt by a third, and bought Louisiana from France.  In 1832, the presidential election amounted to a referendum on whether to continue with a national bank: The majority voted for Jackson, and the bank went down.  In 1836, the Democrats nominated Martin Van Buren, who espoused, in Wilentz’s words, “some of the most radical economic doctrines of his day,” and he won.  The 1844 election was a national referendum on continental expansion: Clay opposed it; Polk wanted it.  Polk won, and we got California.  All this would become inconceivable later.  In 1916, 1940, 1964, it did not matter for whom you were voting: You were voting for war.  And since the 1930’s, neither party has opposed the rule of money.

Early on, Wilentz fumbles around for a definition of democracy, finally suggesting that it “appears” when a

large number of previously excluded, ordinary persons . . . secure the power not simply to select their governors but to oversee the institutions of government, as office holders and as citizens free to assemble and criticize those in office.

By this standard, vague as it is, American democracy was finished by the late 19th century.  William Graham Sumner, the Yale historian and sociologist, did not hesitate to identify the United States as a plutocracy by the 1880’s.  Professor Wilentz is neither so bold nor so perceptive.  Elsewhere in the Preface, he refers to “our own more elevated standards” (meaning universal suffrage), thus highlighting the problem at the heart of this work.  As long as one regards unlimited suffrage as the most important attribute of democracy, he will never grasp how mass voting, by fostering the illusion of consent, masks oligarchic rule.

Democracy today is more a civil religion than a description of a type of government.  Its sanctity, moreover, is sprinkled over everything the oligarchy regards as necessary, inevitable—and, hence, taboo for discussion.  A writer in the New Yorker has recently explained that

democracies preclude contending absolutisms and the dicta of fixed identities.  They have to do with identity in flux, with culture, and cultures, constantly transforming, molting into something new—something surprising and different and open-ended and free.

That’s multiculturalism, not democracy.

Much of the same kind of conceptual confusion is to be found here.  For instance, Wilentz regards the antebellum movement to disenfranchise free blacks in the North as a setback for democracy when it was actually an expression of democracy—more specifically, of the herren-volk democracy that was the preference of an overwhelming majority of Americans, Northern as well as Southern.  Wilentz is confusing categories.  When a man native to the country who is otherwise entitled to vote is barred from the polls simply because of his race or color, it is an injustice; when it is done by popular acclaim, it is a democratic injustice.  Similarly, Wilentz treats Northern abolitionism as a democratic movement, but that is to misconstrue the nature of the American government before 1861, which was confederated.  It was up to the Southern state democracies to abolish slavery.  On the other hand, the Northern states were acting democratically—even if unconstitutionally—when they passed laws to obstruct the enforcement in their states of the federal fugitive-slave laws of 1793 and 1850.  Of course, that was an act of nullification in accordance with Jefferson’s and John C. Calhoun’s doctrine, which Wilentz opposes when it goes against a law he agrees with, such as the protective tariff.  Wilentz twice names Calhoun as the author of the compact theory of the Union—an egregious error.  (Jefferson and James Madison are responsible for it.)

That Wilentz’s conception of democracy is ultimately results-driven is made clear in his dismissal of the Crittenden Compromise, which might have averted the war.  Lincoln helped “kill the plan,” believing that the “only just and legitimate way to settle the matter was through a deliberate democratic decision by the nation’s citizenry.”  If he believed that, why did he oppose submitting the compromise to a nationwide popular referendum?  Wilentz does not tell us, but congressional Democrats proposed doing just that, and the Republicans blocked the proposal.

Wilentz regards Andrew Jackson’s vigorous and constitutionally questionable assertions of executive power as eminently democratic, even endorsing Jackson’s theory of the presidential tribunate (the people’s supreme representative and leader)—unaware, apparently, that he is endorsing caesarism, not democracy.  Republican theorists from ancient to modern times have identified the assembly of citizens as the preeminent institution of a self-governing polity.  Furthermore, Montesquieu insisted that power must be diffused in an extended republic in order to avoid oligarchic control.  Jefferson agreed, upholding the states in his First Inaugural Address as “the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies.”  But Wilentz omits this quotation, and one would never know from reading him that, before 1861, Americans believed they lived in a confederation.  Nor does one learn that the author’s democratic heroes—Jefferson and Jackson—regarded the doctrine of federal judicial review as incompatible with democratic government.  If “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority [is] the vital principle of republics” (Jefferson) and “the majority must govern” (Jackson), then how can unelected judges be allowed to strike down laws or issue their own in the form of judicial edicts?  Wilentz has nothing to say on the subject, and it is clear that his only objection to Dred Scott (1857) is to the proslavery content of the result.

We may admire Professor Wilentz’s erudition: ten years of writing; many more of reading; the mastery of a vast historiographical labyrinth of journal articles and monographs and books.  He also writes well (ten times better than your average academic riddler).  Wilentz is at his best when describing the coalition of city and country democrats that formed the backbone of the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Jacksonian Democrats.  He is one of the few historians to get the Jacksonians right, pointing out that they sought not to liberate business from government but to liberate the government from the control of a grasping corporate plutocracy.

Wilentz loses his way about the time of the Mexican War, however, when his focus becomes so narrow that all he can perceive are the machinations of the “Slave Power” and the altruism of the growing Northern antislavery movement.  He believes that, by 1848, two antagonistic forms of democracy—a Northern free-labor one and a Southern pro-slavery version—were contending for national mastery and that only one could survive.  But this understanding of the history of the period is too simple.  There were certainly Democrats who, resenting the increasing Southern domination of the party, bolted, but what of the Sewards and Giddings who embraced antislavery politics because they saw it as a means of weakening the majority Democrats and smuggling in their unpopular mercantilist agenda?  And what of the Republicans who saw the war, once it came, as a means of crushing not only secession and states’ rights but democracy as well?

If the Jacksonians have no modern heirs, their rivals, a coalition of evangelicals and businessmen-on-the-make, are the clear antecedents of the praying plutocrats of the Republican Party.  The Whigs preached an early version of trickle-down economics: What was good for the rich was good for the poor, and never could their interests diverge.  They also engaged in what we have come to know as liberal bashing: Democrats were socialists, libertines, drunkards, and generally “unrighteous.”  Whig journalist Horace Greeley could sound just like Ann Coulter: “Wherever you find a bitter, blasphemous Atheist and an enemy of Marriage, Morality, and Social Order, there you may be certain of one vote for Van Buren.”  The party of the “righteous” were also the authors of the first recognizably modern election, the famous Hard Cider and Log Cabin Campaign of 1840, which was utterly devoid of substance or seriousness but featured plenty of torchlight parades, barbecues, free bourbon whiskey, campaign songs, and bogus rhetoric.  Eighty percent of the electorate turned out to vote, the highest percentage ever, and Van Buren, the friend of labor, was turned out.  Genuine democrats were stunned and began to doubt whether the people were really capable of self-government when they could be so easily duped.  The doubt remains.