A review of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, by Sean Wilentz

What the Democratic Party has most liked to say about itself—that it is the party of the working man, the voice of the oppressed, the tribune of the people—loses some of its strut in the light of a rather long list of inconvenient facts, chiefly having to do with slavery and race. Such facts as these: that the Democrats were the party that championed chattel bondage, backed an expansionist war to expand slavery's realm, and corrupted the Supreme Court in order to open the western territories to the cancer. The party's Southern wing then led the nation into civil war in defense of slavery while its Northern wing did its best to stymie the administration of Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded by the Democrats as an accidental, even illegitimate, president. Thereafter, the party embraced Jim Crow as slavery's next-best substitute, elected a president who imposed segregation on the federal workforce, and remained the chief opponent of racial equality in much of the United States (though with important dissenters) up to the brink of the 1960s. The wonder, however, is not that the Democratic Party survived its six-decades-long infatuation with slavery and its century-long alliance with segregation, but that the party repressed all memory of that infatuation and that alliance so quickly—and made so successfully the argument that it had never ever, in its heart of hearts, been slavery's best friend after all.

This argument was made in the broadest terms in 1945 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in The Age of Jackson, and it has now been made once again, with even greater scope, by Sean Wilentz in The Rise of American Democracy. No one, in fact, is more aware of the line that connects The Age of Jackson with The Rise of American Democracy than Wilentz himself, who pays lavish tribute to Schlesinger in his preface. (Schlesinger returned the favor in an essay published in theNew York Review of Books, April 27, 2006.) According to Wilentz, it was Schlesinger's great achievement to place "democracy's origins firmly in the context of the founding generation's ideas about the few and the many…seeing democracy's expansion as an outcome of struggles between classes, not sections." This is an elegant, and somewhat deceptive, way of saying that Schlesinger rescued the history of the Democratic Party from the opprobrium with which Charles Beard and J. Allen Smith had covered all the founders, as the evil twins of the robber barons, who constructed the Constitution in order to rob ordinary folk of the economic egalitarianism promised by the Declaration of Independence. No, replied Schlesinger, the Jacksonian Democrats were genuine keepers of the Progressive flame; Andrew Jackson was a sort of antebellum FDR (and FDR a latter-day Jackson) restoring democracy and care for "the little guy" to the republic. This is the gauntlet Wilentz sees himself taking up.

There have always been several unpleasant difficulties with this argument, beginning with Andrew Jackson himself, who has not survived the trampling of biographers as an entirely admirable character. Michael Paul Rogin's enormously influential Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (1975) portrayed a Jackson who suffered from "manic omnipotence, paranoid rage, and occasional deep depression." Rogin argued that, in his obsessive pursuit of domination, Jackson struck out recklessly and passionately at one imagined threat after another—the Creeks, Choctaws, Seminoles, and Cherokees, principally, but also the British, banks, corporations, his wife's first husband, Charles Dickinson (whom he killed in a duel), and Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Armbrister (whom he executed "on the wholly fanciful ground that men from a neutral country aiding one nation at war with another were pirates in international law and could be killed upon capture").

Not only is Jackson himself in question, but the Democratic Party whose fortunes Jackson revived in the 1820s has to some appeared less as the forerunner of the New Deal than as a congealed mass of ethnic and cultural alliances. Neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School or of the Gramscian persuasion have insisted that political parties in the Jacksonian era served less as vehicles for specific policies or political programs than as networks of ethnic and religious clans. Lee Benson, for instance, found little evidence in New York state politics of a great Jacksonian class war that pitted the downtrodden "many" against an aristocratic "few." Very much to the contrary, Benson found in The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy (1961) that "farmers, mechanics, and 'working classes' did not form the 'main-stay of the Democratic party.' Instead of low-status socioeconomic groups, the Jacksonians' strongest support came from relatively high-status socioeconomic groups in the eastern counties, and relatively low-status ethnocultural and religious groups in all sections of New York."

The most important survey since Schlesinger's of the Jacksonian era, Charles Sellers's stupendous The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, essentially jettisoned both Jackson and politics from Jacksonian democracy and re-envisionsed it as a cultural struggle which only incidentally erupted in political shape. Sellers never had any doubt, writing in 1992, but that "capitalism commodifies and exploits all life…. Relations of capitalist production wrench a commodified humanity to relentless competitive effort and poison the more affective and altruistic relations of social reproduction that outweigh material accumulation for most human beings." The warfare of capitalism against yeoman republicanism, and the market "penetration" (sounding as though it were a rape) into every corner of American life, were the real story of Jacksonian America. Andrew Jackson and his party were, at best, marginal players, ultimately unsuccessful at resisting the ravishment. Even Jackson's Bank War, which Sellers cast as "the acid test of American democracy," could not be a total victory for Jacksonian democracy because it "was distorted from the start by a Constitution designed to frustrate majorities." The Constitution had made "democracy safe for capitalism." American politics was not a vehicle for implementing democracy, but an obstruction to it.

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Enter Sean Wilentz, with a ringing re-affirmation of the basic Schlesinger premise: politics really is central to the story of Jacksonian America, which really is a story about the struggle to eliminate the artificial political privileges of the "monied aristocracy"; and Jackson and the Democratic Party really are the heroes. It is a story that begins in Parliamentary England and unfolds as British common-law theorists routinely demean the idea of democracy, while Americans learn to practice it. This democratic idea, under the aegis of Andrew Jackson, develops into a political ideology that deplores the capitalist "credit-and-paper, boom-and-bust system" and favors "a more secure and egalitarian commercialism…which [Jacksonians] believed would distribute wealth more evenly while keeping political power in the hands of the majority of the citizenry." Jacksonian Democracy was a movement for "those who considered themselves producers pitted against a nonproducer elite" who were able "to oppress the productive many…because of deliberate political corruptions that thwarted the great principle undergirding American government, popular sovereignty." 

But then there is the nagging problem of slavery. How can anyone believe seriously in the democratic bona fides of a president who cheerfully owned slaves and a party whose instinctive reaction to any question involving slavery was to defend it? Wilentz's answer is kin to a good cop-bad cop routine: there were good Democrats and bad Democrats. The good Democrats were descended from the "city democracy" of revolutionary urban artisans and militia, and then later, in the 1820s, of the Workingmen's parties in New York and Philadelphia. The Workies constituted an authentic early republican proletariat, dislodged from the old "established customs, hierarchies, and solidarities of craft" by the Industrial Revolution's "rearrangement of work" and "a spreading permanent dependence on wages." They are, in Wilentz's account, almost always on the side of the angels: they are the vanguard of opposition to slavery in Congress, they abide by "the central Jacksonian principle that the majority is to govern," and they make Andrew Jackson president. (There were also moderately good Democrats—e.g., James Madison and Thomas Jefferson—who struggled to temper the absolutism of the "city democracy." But their legacy, though "ambiguous," was still "largely positive," even when it came to slavery.)

Jackson is, of course, the beneficent chieftain of them all—and given the fact that he was a slaveholder, a wealthy landowner, a duelist, gambler, and cockfighter, he receives the most severe airbrushing Wilentz can apply. True, Jackson was responsible for the most drastic episode of ethnic cleansing in the history of the nation, the forced relocation of the Cherokees, but at the final tally, "Jackson was a benevolent, if realistic paternalist who believed that the Indians would be far better protected under federal jurisdiction than under state law." The Bank War was not, Wilentz would like us to believe, yet another example of Jackson's "rage" or his "abiding hatred" of Nicholas Biddle, but a "symbolic and substantive" strategy to "liberate democratic government from the corrupting power of exclusive private business." 

By contrast (and by way of exculpation), the bad Democrats were the "country democracy," the "Virginia Quids" whose first spokesmen were John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke, who abhorred "strong national government," made a fetish out of states' rights, and defended slavery as a "positive good." Their only real kinship with the "city democracy" was their shared hatred of "capitalist consolidation" and "federal complicity" in it through the First and Second Banks of the United States. However, the undeserved clout bestowed upon them by the three-fifths clause made them a force to be reckoned with in Democratic councils. The need to keep the "country Democrats" on board explains, for Wilentz, virtually all of the embarrassing racism and disunion that otherwise plagued the Democratic reputation. 

Unquestionably, the evil genius of the bad Democrats is John C. Calhoun. But James Knox Polk—who committed the republic to war with Mexico in order to expand slavery's boundaries—is Wilentz's marker of the end of authentic Jacksonianism. Thereafter, the spirit of real Jacksonianism passes to David Wilmot and his famous Proviso, and from there to a new coalition of anti-slavery stalwarts, while political Jacksonianism is betrayed to the southern "country" slaveholders. In this scenario, the Republicans of 1856 and 1860 are really good Democrats who had been forced out of their party by the Calhounites, and Wilentz is not slow to point out that "the planners" of the Republican party were "all men with either strong past Democratic links…or Democratic affinities." Abraham Lincoln becomes almost an honorary Democrat.

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Still, awful as the bad Democrats turn out to be, they are never so awful as the Federalists, who suffered from "hidebound elitism" and who sought "to set one class above all others: insider monied men and speculators who manipulated government to gain special favors and advantages at the direct expense of ordinary citizens." Unlike the "city Democrats," who can be excused from the Democratic dalliance with slavery on the grounds that slaveholding was not a characteristic of real Democrats, the Federalists receive no quarter from Wilentz. Never mind that Federalism included Washington, Adams, and Hamilton; "all" Federalists "agreed that the Revolution had been won to replace the British monarchy with a natural American aristocracy of more well-educated property holders, the rightful governors over a licentious and disorderly populace." 

But at least the Federalists worked from principles. The same cannot be said for Henry Clay and the Whigs, who form the real axis of evil in Wilentz's morality play. Clay is a shifting, devious, power-hungry politico whose sole lust is for the presidency, while the Whigs are a cave of Adullam who "purport to represent the people" and who ignore the systemic abuses of industrial capitalism in favor of exhorting Americans to economic self-help and sentimental moralism. No Whig can be sincere. Even Davy Crockett, who had "a falling out" with Jackson "over some land legislation," was lured—"snatched up," writes Wilentz, as though the two-term Tennessee congressman were a witless oaf standing fuddled on a street-corner—by the Whigs into their party merely "to prove their populist credentials with the electorate." 

Such a long book did not have to be a tale of such great simplifications. There are howlers in this book which Wilentz should have known far better than to patter-up. Anti-slavery "fusion" Democrats never made up more than a fraction of the Republican vanguard, which was largely dominated by ex-Whigs like Abraham Lincoln; Henry Clay did not lose the 1844 election because nativist Whigs turned against him, but because the newly-swollen immigrant vote went largely to Polk; Lincoln's original proposal to Stephen A. Douglas was for over fifty debates, not nine. But his treatment of the Whigs reveals that Wilentz has a far deeper problem in celebrating his Democrats as the party of democracy than just the party's chilling embrace of slavery. The problem is the way Wilentz, and the Democratic party, conceive of democracy itself. 

The Whigs have always had something of the unhappy aroma of the Washington Senators, in that they seemed always to be losing; eventually, people feel justified in concluding that there must be an inherent weakness of some sort in a team or a party. So far as the Whigs go, that is a simplification. Whigs and Democrats traded control of Congress pretty frequently in the 22 years the Whig Party flourished, between 1834 and 1856, and although the two presidential elections they won were fumbled away by the victor's death in office (William Henry Harrison in 1841, Zachary Taylor in 1850), the Whigs came agonizingly close to carrying off the laurels for Henry Clay in 1844. (Clay lost the popular vote by only 38,000; and the state voting was so close that if slightly more than 2,000 voters had gone for Clay rather than Polk, Clay would have taken New York, the Electoral College, and the presidency). That makes the Whigs victorious in two out of the six presidential elections they contested, and almost three out of six, which is not bad. Obviously, they were attracting someone.

And that someone was not likely to have been an avaricious coalition of bankers, merchants, factory-owners, and stock-jobbers, if only because there simply weren't enough of them in antebellum America to win an election; just as, for that matter, there weren't enough alienated urban workers to create the kind of proletarian Democratic Party Wilentz so fondly describes. Wilentz, who first made his mark in 1984 with Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850, continues in The Rise of American Democracy to see New York City as the nation. But Jacksonian America was still an overwhelmingly agricultural republic, and the winning or losing of elections turned a good deal more on the skill with which parties organized voters—especially new voters—and capitalized on the other party's policy mistakes than it did on the clash of class interests. Even at the apogee of Jackson's presidency, only a little more than 7% of Americans lived in towns or cities larger than 2,500 people, and only 7% of American manufacturing took place under chartered corporations. As late as the 1850s, the average industrial concern employed only 14 workers in New England, eight in the mid-Atlantic, and four in the trans-Appalachian West.

But Wilentz is correct in at least one respect: the Democracy was consistent in its commitment to some form of equality. The difficulty is that this notion of equality was an equality of restraint and suspicion, the conviction that no one deserves to have more than I do; and if they do have more, it can only be because of unjustifiable luck or illegitimate scheming. Despite Wilentz's struggle to dissociate the racism of the "bad" Democrats from the shining virtues of his "good" Democrats, an idea of equality based on restraint means narrowing the field of those whom equality can afford to admit to its ranks—which is why Wilentz's workingmen were so strangely indifferent to slavery. In a world of limited resources, lines had to be drawn defining who would be allowed to exploit those resources, and the racial line was a convenient one for white slaveholders and white workingmen alike. The Whigs, on the other hand, were not so much the critics of democracy as they were the partisans of an entirely different concept of democracy, built on the openness of a competitive economic society but also accepting the up-and-down risks of open markets. What Jackson's Democrats thought of as the ideal political economy was a pyramid in which everyone was guaranteed a fixed place, so that the justly rich were secure and the poor were subsidized (and in the South, literally subsidized through slaveholding and appropriations of Indian land). 

That may, in the end, show how very little has changed in the fundamental ideology of the Democratic Party since Jackson's day. And this, in turn, may explain the anxiety of Democratic apologists to distance themselves from the ugly remembrance of slavery. For them, The Rise of American Democracy will deliver a very usable past; but it will be a mythic past, and in support of a mythic politics.