The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz: a review

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.

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