Blogs > Cliopatria > Jill Lepore: Review of Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy (Norton)

Oct 17, 2005 8:33 pm

Jill Lepore: Review of Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy (Norton)

... Wilentz’s initial foray into the story of democracy’s rise came with his first book, “Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850” (1984), in which he argued that urban workers and radicals constituted the truly democratic element in Jacksonianism. Wilentz was criticized for his depiction of manly artisans fighting the good fight (in my dog-eared copy, I found a note, passed to me by a classmate: “Do Wilentz’s workers have any vices other than the occasional stiff drink?”), but the book earned him considerable praise. Ironically, it also won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award of the Organization of American Historians.
“The Rise of American Democracy” is, to some degree, “Chants Democratic” writ large. It expands that story both geographically—following democracy’s growth among what Wilentz labels “city democrats” and “country democrats”—and chronologically; the book’s subtitle is “From Jefferson to Lincoln,” a choice that Wilentz is at pains to explain. “By singling out Jefferson and Lincoln, I certainly do not mean to say that presidents and other great men were solely responsible for the vicissitudes of American politics,” he writes. That Wilentz, the loving chronicler of nineteenth-century New York workingmen’s “shirtless democracy,” should become a champion of Presidential history, in any form, is remarkable. But he believes that social historians have lost their way. The problem with social history, he argues, is that it has “generally submerged the history of politics in the history of social change, reducing politics and democracy to by-products of various social forces.” What he’s done in “The Rise of American Democracy,” and done exceedingly well, is to trace the play between politicians and political ideas, on the one hand, and the people and popular movements, on the other. More metaphors, this time Wilentz’s mix: “Just as political leaders did not create American democracy out of thin air, so the masses of Americans did not simply force their way into the corridors of power.”

Consider the story of an American slave named, improbably enough, Madison Washington. In the fall of 1841, Washington was serving as a cook on a ship called the Creole, sailing from Virginia with a hundred and thirty-five slaves aboard to be sold in New Orleans as part of the entirely legal coastal slave trade. When the ship neared the Bahamas, he left the ship’s mess to lead a group of eighteen slaves in a revolt. They overwhelmed the crew and had the ship steered to Nassau. There the British authorities arrested the rebels and freed the rest of the ship’s slaves.

Like the Amistad case, two years earlier, the Creole uprising sparked an intense national debate. More important, it sparked a debate in Congress, where discussions of slavery had been silenced by a gag rule put in place by Southern legislators in 1836. Using the Creole controversy to challenge the gag rule, a young Ohio congressman named Joshua Giddings introduced a series of antislavery resolutions in the House in March, 1842, including one calling the Creole rebellion just. A motion to censure Giddings passed, 125 to 69, in a vote that split along sectional, not party, lines. But Giddings won back his seat just a month later, in a special election—in a vote of 7,469 to 393. Even his enemies conceded that Giddings’s stunning reëlection was “the greatest triumph ever achieved by a member of this House.” As Wilentz writes, “Although the gag rule would not be formally voted down until December 1844, it had, as Giddings later related, ‘morally ceased to operate.’ ”

In telling stories like this, Wilentz recovers the role played by men like Madison Washington in national politics and in democracy’s rise. Washington didn’t vote to end the gag rule; Giddings did. But Giddings was able to do what he did because Washington did what he did. “Giddings was on the lookout for some way to advance antislavery agitation beyond organizing yet again against the gag rule,” Wilentz writes, “but he found it only after the Creole rebellion.” Together, black rebels, white abolitionists, and antislavery politicians like Giddings forced the discussion of slavery onto the floor of Congress.

Readers may weary at the length of Wilentz’s book, but, as a model for integrating social and political history, it’s hard to dispute. That it will be disputed is, however, certain, if only because Wilentz has been such a vigorous critic of his colleagues. He has had little use for historians who defend Federalists like Noah Webster. To those who celebrate Federalists for their opposition to slavery, Wilentz counters, “Rarely has any group of Americans done so little to deserve such praise.”

In his New Republic reviews, Wilentz has been particularly indignant about historians who place Federalists in a better light than Republicans or who dismiss Jefferson’s entire career because he owned slaves (including some who were almost certainly his own children). David McCullough’s “John Adams” was, in his view, “popular history as passive nostalgic spectacle.” Garry Wills’s book about Jefferson’s election, “Negro President,” he deemed “misadventurous.” In another essay, Wilentz concluded, “Were he alive today, Jefferson would probably regard modern American historians as a rascally bunch.” ...

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