Sean Wilentz: Accused of partisanship by conservative businessman cum historian





[Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (Public Affairs).]

This book is a prodigious feat of scholarship and organization, weaving into its narrative every political splinter group, and attempting to give appropriate weight to all the tides and currents of American sociology from the Revolution to the Civil War. No detour into labor and religious and political factionalism is too obscure to be deserving of the brief redirection of the entire narrative to include it. An endless sequence of labor and social and religious agitators, of Clodhoppers, Tertium Quids, Loco Focos, Hunkers, Barnburners, and Know-Nothings; of cameo figures from Madison Washington to Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar to the assertive Governor Wilson Lumpkin, (pp. 556, 561, 428), crowd, and generally enrich, the story. The progress of the voting franchise, by racial and property-holding criteria, is authoritatively recounted for almost all of the states.

The thoroughness of the author's research and organization of his material is exemplary. The writing, despite occasional outbursts of pedantry and a tendency to dryness that understates the farcical aspects of much of the subject, flows smoothly and is often pleasing and even stylish. It is slightly disconcerting to read of "Walter" Whitman and "David" Crockett, or that Henry Clay "coaxed" President William Henry Harrison into something "before he died" (presumably before Harrison died). The implications of doing so after one or both of them had died are sufficiently disturbing that the point is better not made (p. 524). But these are minor cavils and this book is quite readable despite its intense detail and complexity.

It has only one serious problem: the author's relentless partisanship. He is a yellow dog Democrat who romanticizes and exalts the forebears of the present Democratic Party, and denigrates their opponents with a mechanical and sometimes grating consistency.

Washington and Lincoln are too celebrated to be frontally attacked, but, not being Democrats, they are seriously diminished. Washington is passed over as an almost irrelevant figurehead as president who presumably rendered some service in the Revolutionary War and had earned the respect of his countrymen. But he is presented as essentially a ceremonious constitutional monarch who indulged the alleged cupidity, treachery, and anti-republican tendencies of Hamilton. In fact, he suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion to preserve the government of the young republic from insurrectionists, not because he was a stooge of Hamilton's, as is implied (pp. 72-73).

"Spotty" Lincoln is presented as eloquent and cunning at times, but often devious. He apparently had almost nothing to do with founding the Republican Party, unjustly exploited the discomfort of the Democrats over slavery, and may not have exhausted acceptable means for avoiding the Civil War. His ultimate victory, and the salvation of the Union and Emancipation of the slaves, were mitigated by the deaths of 600,000 people in the War. ...

Wilentz's admiration for the Democrats is perfectly reasonable and is an arguable view, but it is not a legitimate filter to be imposed on the interpretation of historical events by a serious historian, which he certainly is.

The discriminating reader quickly becomes alert to the author's leanings, and can compensate for them. But it is disappointing that such an important and valuable work should be so unrigorously partisan. This is also incongruous in a book that is in other respects an exemplary work of scholarship and presentation.

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William R. Everdell - 4/1/2006

It is hard not to admire Mr. Black's valiant rearguard effort to stem the retreat of the neoconservative interpretation of American History. I hope, though, that his readers will know how to read a quixotic assertion like: "But [Washington] is presented as essentially a ceremonious constitutional monarch who indulged the alleged cupidity, treachery, and anti-republican tendencies of Hamilton. In fact, he suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion to preserve the government of the young republic from insurrectionists, not because he was a stooge of Hamilton's, as is implied (pp. 72-73)."

I hope Mr. Black and others will read William Hogeland's new book, "The Whiskey Rebellion," and discover that those "insurrectionists" whom Washington and Hamilton (an ambitious rather than greedy young man who favored aristocracy) suppressed in 1794 were also democrats (favoring rule by majorities of a citizenry broadened to include the propertyless). France had achieved democracy two years before and Vermont back in 1777.

Those democratic Whiskey "insurrectionists" were also the first propounders of the community value of progressive taxation, a democratic idea that the propertied oligarchs of our fair land have gone to considerable trouble to stamp out. The rebels of 1794 were much too far ahead of their time with an idea that did not become federal law until 1862, or constitutional until 1913.

This nation still loves its visionaries. But--note to both Whiskey Rebels and partisans of the Unitary Executive--it is intolerant if they break the law before they succeed in changing it.


Rick Perlstein - 3/29/2006

Swindler. (Alleged, I mean.)

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