Sean Wilentz: A hip historian's take on how democracy took root





Sean Wilentz ends his massive history, "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln," with a description of a photograph taken in 1865: 13 men, six white, seven black, the jury empaneled to try Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederacy, on charges of treason. To Wilentz, the picture is an apt emblem of "the hopes of the Civil War era as to how a post-slavery United States might look." Sitting in his office at Princeton, Wilentz shakes his head in admiration. "All these white guys and black guys together. And you realize, this is unthinkable five years earlier. And it's a step toward democracy." Another shake of the head, this one more rueful. "But it all came undone. By 1900 it looks blasphemous." He leans forward to drive the point home. "Democracy can come undone. It's not something that's necessarily going to last forever once it's been established."...

Wilentz, 54, is gregarious, curious and eclectic: on the walls of his book-lined office, portraits of Andrew Jackson and Bob Dylan stare at each other from opposite walls (in his spare time, Wilentz is the "historian in residence" at BobDylan.com). He has a reporter's obsession with facts, with getting it right—and with fighting what he calls "the immense sanctimony of posterity that we impose on the past. We always think we know better. But you have to try and walk in other people's shoes." As a result, he spends as much time creating the context for his characters as he does writing about their deeds. So we see Jackson, for example, as an Indian killer and a slaveholder, but also as a child who grew up in a frontier milieu where dueling over matters of honor was perfectly acceptable. We also see him as the man who singlehandedly invented the modern presidency, validated the idea of an inviolate Union (Lincoln would later look to Jackson for inspiration) and took the notion of majority-rule democracy further than it had ever been taken before. "The hard thing for people to realize," Wilentz says, "is that these are human beings, not just actors with wooden swords, so they're going to be flawed. And they had ideas, and those ideas mattered."...






comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list