The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz: a review

This is a remarkable accomplishment. Wilentz’ mastery of detail is a bit overwhelming, but his ability to tie all those details into a coherent narrative and to draw useful conclusions from the torrent of events is quite astonishing. The result is occasionally like hacking your way through a thicket, but it’s a rewarding thicket.

The book draws on and is aware of other work in the field, but its emphasis differs from most modern narratives of the period. Wilentz concentrates on the alliances which make political parties, and generally takes the activists at their word. One result is that he largely ignores economic causes of events except when they’re so overwhelming they cannot be avoided. But he generally judges other causes sufficient, for reasons he explains in great detail. We watch the Democrats and Whigs emerge from the chaos of the “Era of Good Feelings” (a notion Wilentz simply rejects, by the way), then both parties lose their bearings as the political environment changes. Another decade of chaos eventually gives birth to the Republican party, which in this telling directly leads to the Civil War.

There’s an enormous amount of material here, but there are two predominant themes: Changing and conflicting definitions of democracy, and the inability of successive political generations to settle the slavery issue. The two themes reinforce each other, but they’re essentially independent threads in a tapestry. But reducing the story to those two themes degrades Wilentz’ accomplishment, which is to survey all the engines driving the Union’s emerging political system.

There’s room to dispute this book’s theses, but this is our time’s definitive explication on the era’s politics. Well worth your money and effort, but budget yourself time to savor the telling.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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