Sean Wilentz: Responds to criticism his book is a brief for Democrats

Historians in the News

I was delighted to read the review of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by Fred Siegel, a historian I greatly admire. Yet I'm afraid that he has misapprehended my book as a brief on behalf of the modern Democratic Party. He bases his misreading not on the book itself but on an article I wrote for the New York Times Magazine, which pointed out some of the similarities between the forgotten Whig Party and today's Republican Party. Siegel says that the article flatly equates the Whigs and the Bush Republicans, and that this somehow betrays an esoteric polemical agenda behind my book. Actually, the article stated that"there are significant differences between the Whigs and today's conservatives." I pointed out some important points of similarity between the past or the present, but did not, as Siegel surmises, construct"a tidy lineage" or"suggest there are historical plumb lines" that place all virtue on the side of one political party. Nor does my book claim, even cryptically, that only good things were contained in the Jacksonian Democratic Party, and only bad things were Whig.

Siegel raises an interesting historical point. The Whig Party, he argues, was"the center of opposition to both slavery and the Mexican War," while the Jacksonians were a party"of strong slaveholding interests." But this is simplified and misleading. Until the 1850s, the Whigs included most of the wealthiest southern slaveholders and some of the nation's most outspoken pro-slavery ideologues (many of whom also opposed the Mexican War, as did the fractious John C. Calhoun, for pro-slavery reasons). Pro-war but anti-slavery northern Democrats led the fight to keep slavery out of all territories acquired from Mexico. Thereafter, the bulk of the support for the antislavery Free Soil Party in 1848 came from alienated Democrats.

My book argues, in some detail, that the national mainstream of both parties were dedicated to keeping the slavery issue out of national politics. This proved impossible in the 1850s, leading to the Whigs' demise and, by 1860, to the Democrats' division into two sectional political parties. Easier versions of history, pitting Whig"good guys" against Jacksonian"bad guys" on slavery, caricature the historical evidence.

comments powered by Disqus