Blogs > Cliopatria > William Grimes: Review of Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy

Nov 6, 2005 9:40 pm

William Grimes: Review of Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy

It is attractive to think that once the ink dried on the Constitution, democracy in the United States took wing like the bald eagle. Attractive but wrong. Democracy was not in the cards, and that is exactly as intended by the framers, for whom the word implied mob rule and, as one Federalist leader put it as late as 1804, "the government of the worst." A severely limited franchise and restricted access to the levers of government ensured that decision-making power remained in the hands of the right people.

Yet somehow, between the presidencies of Jefferson and Lincoln, the top-down government bequeathed by the founding fathers evolved into a more participatory, bottom-up government recognizable, in its broad outlines, as modern American democracy. The process was messy, the battles fiercely waged, and the outcome often in doubt.

"American democracy did not rise like the sun at its natural hour in history," writes Sean Wilentz, a professor of history and director of the American studies program at Princeton University. "Its often troubled ascent was the outcome of human conflicts, accommodations and unforeseen events, and the results could well have been very different than they were." He uses the term "rupture," rather than "evolution," to characterize the changes that reshaped the old "politics of deference" and installed in their place a system of government in which citizens did not merely select their rulers but also gained access to the machinery of government.

"The Rise of American Democracy" goes over this contested terrain at great length and in great detail, with an emphasis on political ideas and party politics, rather than economics or social trends, as driving forces. Region by region, state by state, Mr. Wilentz traces the rude awakening of farmers, mechanics and the rest of the lesser fry who, in myriad ways, organized to demand their democratic rights and worked out the means to achieve them.

Progress was uneven. In Rhode Island it took something close to a civil war in the 1840's to overturn the state's colonial charter and loosen the grip on power of its landowning and merchant elite. In Louisiana the Creole elite in New Orleans held sway until a large influx of small farmers in the northern and central regions of the state exerted enough pressure to force a rewriting of the state's restrictive constitution in 1845. South Carolina retained its uncompromisingly aristocratic system of government until the end of the Civil War.

But by 1821, 21 of 24 states had eliminated property ownership as a requirement for voting, and in the election of 1828, more than a million Americans voted, four times the total of 1824. Voter turnout for the presidential election was 80 percent, a figure that held more or less steady for the rest of the 19th century. Women and blacks could not vote. But the vastly expanded pool of white male voters leapt at the opportunity to play an active political role unimaginable in the late 18th century. ...

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