Book Review

Dr. Marshall Cohen, Department -History and Social Sciences (Book Review)

By Denebola
Published: September 2008

Where are the old-fashioned “political histories of the United States?

Historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (whose three volumes on Franklin Roosevelt remain more relevant by the day ) and Richard Hofstadter (whose American Political Tradition remains widely read and taught half a century later) wrote about political parties, coalitions, and the twists and turns of government policy from election to election.

Their works are long gone in one sense but certainly not forgotten.

Moreover, their type of analysis is still greatly revered by historians and students of history. In fact, in spite of nods in the direction of the “new social history the CEEB Advanced Placement Exam is still focused more on political history than on any other type of analysis.

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Yet the major fault with a purely political focus is that it tends to obscure all actors other than white upper and middle-class Anglo-Saxon ethnic males of course, and until the 1960s this was the major mode of historical analysis.

Several years ago, after decades during which no American historian would add to the classic histories of parties and elections, 19th Century specialist Sean Wilentz now at Princeton burst forth with a reinterpretation of the political history of the “first half of American history – roughly from the Revolution to the Civil War.

After paying his respects to Schlesinger Jr., Wilentz in this study proceeds to spin a narrative of personalities, interest groups, and the evolution of a brand of government that was new to the world.

American democracy, he explains, was not a function of the great bounty of the land (David Potter’s “people of plenty) or the divinely inspired genius of the Constitution makers (Clinton Rossiter, et al) and their two pieces of sacred ‘Ëœscripture,’ the Declaration and the Constitution..

Instead what we consider one aspect of American exceptionalism, the unique American arrangement of governance, was the natural product of intense political party competition. No polite debating society occasioin, this bare-knuckled and often violent struggle whose early history we either neglect or forget outright, the contest to best an opponent, eventually led to importance historic consequences.

An enlarged electorate for one, policies that expanded opportunity for middling Americans for another, and eventually it even undid chattel slavery.

Professor Wilentz is a moderate Democrat. An unabashed Clinton partisan, he has always been unafraid to express his political outlook. Last year, for example, he wrote a tract in Rolling Stone in which he made a serious case that George W. Bush is the worst President in American history.

Considering the competition (James Buchanan, for example, can plausibly be blamed for the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our history and the three 1920s Presidents scarcely worth bad jokes), this is at least an audacious claim.

Wilentz, however, argued the case persuasively, marshalling facts to great purpose and great effect.

His political outlook is also apparent in The Rise of American Democracy, but Wilentz states his case with such power that I found myself won over, despite whatever disagreements I might have had in the past with his point of view.

In his world-view, Wilentz definitely sees Good guys and Bad guys, or more accurately, better guys and worse guys, but it is less about individuals of integrity than about the outlook of large groups of voters.

In the contest between the Federalists and the Republicans, for example, he lines up with the old truths: that American democracy took a great leap forward when Jefferson was chosen President instead of John Adams in an election that Jefferson’s party somewhat melodramatically called “The Revolution of 1800.

Wilentz’ argues that Republican victory was immensely meaningful, even if its moniker was pure hyperbole. Jefferson represented a coalition of forces that included “city and “country democrats whose outlook was decidedly different and more inclusive than the view shared by adherents to the coalition represented by his opponent, John Adams.

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In politics it is often the constituents of the parties who push the politicians into the issue positions that they take. One need only look today at the way that both John McCain and Barack Obama have crafted their messages to reflect the views of their likely constituents (and potential electoral supporters) to see how this process works.

To gain their respective party’s nominations, Senator McCain was pushed to the Right and Senator Obama was pushed to the Left.

By the same token, Thomas Jefferson was forced to be even more open to a rejuvenated democracy than he might have been otherwise inclined. John Adams, for his part recall, was pushed to embrace the Alien and Sedition Acts, despicable attempts to suppress the votes of his opponents. Such an interpretation is significant in the face of a recent John Adams revival spurred on by the nearly mass-market publication of a huge and detailed Adams biography by popular historian David McCullough.

Similarly, the orthodox view that Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election symbolized a victory of the modest over the well-to-do has suffered greatly from countless studies that show Jackson’s adherence to slavery and policies unfavorable toward Native Americans. (It also ignores his considerable land holdings.) Wilentz takes the view that even though Jackson’s Democratic Party was the home to most people in the slave-holding South, still “Old Hickory, on balance, still represented more forward thinking than did the bulk of his Whig counterparts of that era.

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The balancing act we must make in historical judgment, he suggests, is never simple.

In Wilentz’ nuanced view of the complex relationship between party factions, both major political parties were composed of groups that ran the gamut, the full range or spectrum in political ideology from “Right to “Left. When all is said and done, the Jacksonians, as did the Jeffersonians before them, represented a major step toward a more democratic polity.

Using a compelling narrative to engage and propel his reader along hundreds of pages, delightfully devoid of social scientific jargon, Wilentz weaves a tapestry of colorful individuals and their associations in factions, and ultimately in huge, national political machines.

The reader watches with deepening foreboding, however, as these machines decompose during the troubled 1850s ultimately exploding into the cataclysm of civil war. Faction leaders such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster are drawn with such ideological and personal precision that they leap from the page.

Presidents such as Zachary Taylor and the indefatigable Martin Van Buren are sensitively portrayed and their actions and strategies are explained that make us both think and feel.

As every student of American history knows, the Constitutional requirement that the President must receive a majority and not a plurality of electoral votes has helped produce a party system in which, unlike Europe, two parties finally dominate.

These parties are nevertheless, as if we needed reminding heading towards November 2008, huge coalitions of groups that span the entire ideological spectrum. It is sobering to remember that both major Nineteenth Century parties contained elements opposed to the expansion of slavery, and both parties contained elements who cared little if slavery spread far and wide.

While these two enormous national parties struggled for the spoils of national and local office they held together the fragile structure that was the Union.

Democrats and Whigs helped pull the rival sections of the nation (North and South) remain focused on winning elections rather than on placating their increasingly sectional bases (those opposed groups). During the 1850s, first the Whigs and finally the Democrats ceased to exist as national parties.

In the crucial Presidential election of 1856, the first completely sectional political party, the Republicans, fielded a candidate for President. John C. Fremont nearly won that election without winning any Southern electoral votes.

The handwriting was on the wall. The Union was doomed.

It is hard to tell whether the general reader will find Wilentz’ narrative as rich as I have described. My guess is that those interested in history will love it. Certainly, history geeks and policy wonks now have a new Bible. The handwriting was on the wall. The Union was doomed.

It is hard to tell whether the general reader will find Wilentz’ narrative as rich as I have described. My guess is that those interested in history will love it. Certainly, history geeks and policy wonks now have a new Bible.

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