Democratic Storytelling

The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by Sean Wilentz (W.W. Norton & Company, 969 pages, $35.00)

During the early 20th century, “Progressive historians” interpreted the American past as an epic struggle to perfect a democratic republic for the common people. Adopting the great American taste for moral melodrama, they cast Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as heroic democrats pitted against the elitist defenders of privileged wealth: Federalists and Whigs. Progressive history served the politics of the Progressive Era: the construction of an activist and reformist state pitched against entrenched business interests.

Celebrating Jefferson, Jackson, and American democracy was easy so long as historians defined “the people” in 19th-century terms as white men. Like their more conservative competitors, the Progressive historians regarded women as politically irrelevant, Indians as doomed primitives, and black slaves as exceptions in a national story of democratic progress. Although women, Indians, and blacks added up to the majority of the American people, they mattered less than the expanded political rights of common white men to the Progressive story.

During the 20th century, political struggle belatedly produced a truer democracy as women gained the right to vote and blacks claimed civil rights. At century's end, that broadening of the political nation rendered a new generation of historians, the “Neo-Progressives,” uncomfortable with the older, narrower equation of democracy with opportunity only for white men. Wealthy gentlemen like Jefferson and Jackson also suffered from the new preference for social and cultural history, which insisted that a truly democratic history would focus on common people. Jefferson's and Jackson's roles as slaveholders and Indian despoilers moved into the foreground, casting a shadow on their political victories for common white men.

In general, historians described 19th-century America as a white man's republic, a “Herrenvolk democracy.” It was no mere coincidence that most white men gained the right to vote at the same time that states and the nation escalated the dispossession of Indians and filled the conquest with new farms and plantations worked by enslaved Africans. For most of those triumphant whites aspired to exploit the land and labor of those who could be denied rights on a racial basis.

This interpretive shift has led many Neo-Progressive scholars to rehabilitate northern Federalists and Whigs as relatively sympathetic to the plight of slaves, Indians, and white women. They supported Indians' persistence provided that the Indians embraced private property and the Christian faith. In contrast, Democrats eagerly pushed Indians west to obtain all of their lands east of the Mississippi for white settlers. The elite paternalism of the Federalists and Whigs emphasized class over race, which justified denying the vote to poor whites while preserving it for those few free blacks who owned a farm.

Resenting the slights of class, common whites rallied to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian politicians who emphasized the racial superiority of all white men. Over Federalist and Whig protests, the Democrats wrote or rewrote state constitutions to expand the vote to all white men who paid any tax, but those constitutions usually disenfranchised free blacks. And the Democrats deprived widows of the vote in the one state (New Jersey) that had permitted it. The Democrats argued that the votes of widows and free blacks served the interests of crypto-aristocrats determined to keep down the common white man.

Alas, Neo-Progressive history does not play well in contemporary American politics. Swing voters still prefer a morality tale with epic heroes, a happy trajectory, and a unifying message. Once upon a time, Jefferson and Jackson belonged primarily to the Democratic Party as the opening acts leading to Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. That lineage became less coherent after historians recovered the complications of race. At the same time, a political realignment increased the reliance of Democrats on blacks and women, while the Republicans happily championed white men, especially in the South. With glee, Republicans have claimed the traditional narrative of democracy and its 19th-century heroes.

This Republican cultural victory troubles Sean Wilentz, a distinguished historian active in Democratic politics. Although he does not directly say so, Wilentz joins the recent spate of liberal thinkers -- including Thomas Frank, George Lakoff, and Robert Reich -- who blame Democratic electoral defeats on inferior storytelling. They all seek an affirmative Democratic narrative that connects with a public understood in general terms rather than as congeries of clashing class, race, and gender identities. On that mission, Wilentz seeks to redeem the traditional democratic tale told by the Progressives.

No reactionary, Wilentz frankly acknowledges the racial sins of his democratic heroes. But he practices a double strategy of containment. First, he denies that the Federalists and Whigs were significantly better on issues of African slavery and Indian dispossession. To that end, he plays up those occasional northern Democrats who championed black political rights in defiance of their party's southern leadership. Second, he insists that democracy for white men should trump the setbacks for blacks, Indians, and women as the headline story for the 19th century. He prefers to see democracy for some as leading eventually to democracy for all, writing that “[a] momentous rupture occurred between Thomas Jefferson's time and Abraham Lincoln's that created the lineaments of modern democratic politics.”

Striving to contain, rather than to deny, the darker aspects of our history, Wilentz writes in two alternating voices: discursive narrative and overt argument. In most of this massive tome, he describes the flow of political events -- state constitutions, party conventions, contested elections, congressional debates, presidential vetoes, and Supreme Court decisions. He thoroughly and insightfully covers the old standards, including the Federal Constitution, the political war between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Alien and Sedition acts, the Marbury v. Madison decision, Aaron Burr's treason trial, the Embargo, the War of 1812, Nat Turner's Rebellion, Jackson's Bank War, John C. Calhoun's nullification doctrine, William Henry Harrison's log-cabin and hard-cider campaign, the Dred Scott case, the rise of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans -- even the Peggy Eaton scandal.

In this narration, Wilentz emphasizes democratic gains but concedes the costs paid by blacks, women, and Indians. Jefferson's “empire of liberty was for whites,” and “Jeffersonian idealism about the Indians had a coercive side.” He adds, “Northern Democrats did take the lead in disenfranchising blacks … even as they celebrated the growing political participation of lower-class white men.” Wilentz also notes that “Jackson, when aroused, was an implacable and accomplished killer.” If he represented American democracy, it was a grim equation.

But the narrative periodically breaks for segments of argument against the Neo-Progressive case for the Federalists and Whigs. When they charged the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians with hypocrisy for holding slaves while preaching liberty, Wilentz detects a political tactic devoid of moral foundation. For example, by dwelling on Jefferson's slave mistress, Federalists sought to embarrass the president, not to free Virginia's slaves. Wilentz also refutes charges that Jacksonian democracy was “a genuine slaveholders' party.” He insists that the Democrats resisted abolition only “to protect constitutional order, national harmony, and party unity.” If so, they botched all three.

At times, Wilentz seems to debate himself. For example, he struggles to defend Jackson's brutal policy of Indian removal as “sincere” and well-meaning. Yes, Jackson did believe that he was helping Indians by removing them from their covetous white neighbors, but the road to perdition is paved with good intentions. Jackson's sincere coercion helped to kill 8,000 Cherokees on their Trail of Tears west beyond the Mississippi. Ultimately, Wilentz concedes, “Nothing exculpates Jackson and his pro-removal supporters from the basic truths in the antiremoval arguments.” Wilentz just wishes that historians would devote less attention to Indian removal and more to Jackson's crusade against the Bank of the United States.

In general, the narrating Wilentz makes a better case than does the arguing Wilentz. For example, he discusses Jackson's tacit support for the suppression of abolitionist literature mailed to the South. Initially, Wilentz vindicates this “show of Jacksonian prudence,” but ultimately he acknowledges the “failure of leadership” that “mired the Jacksonian Democracy in contradictions that would one day prove its undoing.” Similarly, Democrats both northern and southern, defended “the gag rule,” which, until 1844, barred congressional consideration of abolitionist petitions. Defending slavery by suppressing free speech doubly corrupted the democratic cause.

To his credit, Wilentz recognizes that democracy transcended the politics of Jeffersonians and Jacksonians. Indeed, he finds an alternative model of democratic politics developing within the Whig Party as it attracted northeastern and midwestern evangelicals during the late 1830s. Treating politics as moral crusade, the new Whigs sought an activist government to promote temperance, quiet Sabbaths, and Protestant education. Adopting the popular campaign style of the Jacksonians, the revitalized Whigs captured the presidency in 1840. “Democracy,” writes Wilentz, “had spoken as never before -- and democracy turned out to be Whig.”

But the Whig Party lost its southern wing during the late 1840s and early 1850s, when the nation polarized into “two distinctive democracies, northern and southern.” Southern Democrats insisted that white male equality of rights depended on owning a servile class defined by racial inferiority. Northern evangelical Whigs and their Republican heirs concluded that slavery for some threatened liberty and opportunity for all.

For Wilentz, Lincoln ultimately vindicated the northern democracy by returning to the purest of Jeffersonian principles: the equality of all men. Given Jefferson's evasions of equality, there is a better case that Lincoln selectively invented a morally consistent Jefferson, a patron saint for a more inclusive democracy. However useful unto our day, this simplified Jefferson distorts the historical record. But at least his revision seems plausible. Not even Lincoln could perform that operation on Jackson.

Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, won the Pulitzer Prize for William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. His most recent book is Writing Early American History.

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