Blogs > Cliopatria > Cliopatria Symposium...on Sean Wilentz's Bush's Ancestors

Oct 23, 2005 1:33 pm

Cliopatria Symposium...on Sean Wilentz's Bush's Ancestors

Our [ir]regular Symposia series continues this month with a discussion of Sean Wilentz's essay Oct 16 essay in the New York Times Magazine, Bush's Ancestors. I thank all the participants - Cliopatrians and otherwise - who send me their responses and I hope that Prof. Wilentz will find some time to read and respond here.

Click more to read the responses of Jonathan Dresner, K. C. Johnson, Ralph Luker, Caleb McDaniel, Wilson J. Moses and Greg Robinson. As well as Marc Comtois and Louis Proyect's contributions on their own blogs.

Jonathan Dresner: Meaningless Tradition As I've said before, everything has antecedents: there is nothing purely original and there's no question that an historian can't complicate by talking about what led up to it. Sean Wilentz traces the conservative movement -- the alliance (or intersection, or both) of anti-regulatory business owners with religious social moralists -- back from the Buckley-era to the immediate post-Revolutionary age. I don't think he went back far enough: the movement stretches back to the dawn of human history.

I'm frankly surprised that Wilentz doesn't go back at least into the revolutionary period, though perhaps the founders were too deistic and humanistic for their anti-oppressive zeal to fit the conservative mold but their successful revolution clearly set the tone for the movements he tracks forward. Clinton Rossiter said that"Conservativism is the worship of dead revolutions" but perhaps openly citing the founders would belie the supposedly unthreatening, moderate model conservativism which builds movements that rule rather than overthrow regimes. In any event, I think they are the clear predecessors of the early 19th century Whigs.

Of course, the pro-business, pro-Christian Revolutionary movement could have claimed a distinguished tradition of its own: the early modern European city, which ruled itself as a sort of Christian free enterprise zone. After all, the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution were sponsored by mercantile urbanites -- free-trade, free-thinking Christians -- which William Buckley and Sean Wilentz should be proud to call forebears. The burghers and Medici and Hanseatics were the heirs of a glorious history of tax evasion and private law, often cloaked in religious terms and blessed by the Church, which arose in the latter days of Rome (Western Rome, of course; Eastern Rome had a less distinguished pro-business history and is therefore justifiably neglected in Western historiography) and whose tax-free latifundia and pro-military, pro-Vestal politics clearly set the standard for future generations of Buckleyites.

Well, lest the 'conservative' of the age of Roman decline feel like an innovator or interloper, he could hearken back to the Optimates party, protectors of property, propriety and privilege against those proto-liberal crypto-Dem Populares (hey, liberals need ancestors, too!), the Gracchi (the Clintons of the Roman Republic, though their opponents didn't stop at character assassination). The Optimates, of course, probably cited as their model those Athenian" cultural conservatives" who so wisely voted for the death of atheistic, anti-traditionalist Socrates and who drove his communist/fascist follower Plato from the city; those same Athenians, of course, in their pro-merchant, pro-small farmer incarnations helped to fight off the tax-heavy, over-regulated Persian Empire....

I think Wilentz is blinkered by his Americanist training: World Historians can clearly see that the Buckley/Rove Conservative Movement has a 2500 year history (at least!) of consistent pro-religious, pro-business, limited-government advocacy. And it's been so effective....

K. C. Johnson: Sean Wilentz’s essay performs an important service in reminding us how the conservative intellectual tradition is not well understood—either by conservatives themselves or by the academy. As a big fan of Daniel Walker Howe’s Political Culture of the American Whigs, I’m intrigued, though not entirely convinced, by Wilentz’s decision to position the Whigs as among Bush’s ancestors.

The parallels between the Whigs and modern Republicans that Wilentz points out are compelling. Both employed a faux populism in their national political campaigns to obscure a fundamentally upper-class mindset. Both parties unabashedly embraced a pro-business perspective, with the differences in their specific policies explicable by the differences in the eras. And both adopted social policies that were heavily influenced by the religious revivalism of the time.

There seem to me, however, three significant differences between the two parties. First, as Wilentz notes, the Whigs originated in opposition to what they perceived as the excessive executive authority of Andrew Jackson, and they maintained this vision of a weak presidency for most of their party’s history. (William Henry Harrison’s cabinet government represented an extreme version of this philosophy.) At the same time, empowering Congress—and the pragmatism and spirit of compromise required to achieve legislative success—formed a critical element of the Whigs’ approach.

Ronald Reagan’s importance to the modern conservative movement personifies the contemporary right’s celebration of a strong presidency. And regardless of the merit of his policies, George W. Bush has been a stunningly powerful president—going five years without having to veto one bill, dramatically expanding executive authority after 9/11, and seeming to defy the Supreme Court with his handling of the Guantanamo prisoners issue.

A second significant difference exists in political stability. Wilentz notes that both the Whigs and the modern Republicans suffered from serious ideological divides, caused by tensions left over from the formation of the governing coalitions. I’m not sure I agree. The Whigs clearly were a divided party—on lines both sectional and ideological. The modern GOP, however, strikes me as about as cohesive a national party as we’ve seen in the United States since 1901. A few prominent moderates represent old Union states, but their numbers are very small. In the Senate, I would classify only three Republicans as true moderates—Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snowe, and John McCain. The number of House moderate Republicans is scarcely higher. In both congressional politics and national elections, GOP strength in the South, Rocky Mountains, and Plains States means that it no longer needs its old Union state base to prevail. The Whigs never enjoyed a political situation of comparable luxury.

Finally, it seems to me that we need to draw some distinction between the role of religion/moral issues between the two parties. The Whigs’ moralism sometimes translated into cultural conservatism—as in the quotes Wilentz supplies in his article, or in the temperance movement. Yet with abolitionism or the women’s suffrage movement, Whig moralism also could move in a more left-wing direction. The contemporary GOP, on the other hand, has embraced a more politicized, exclusively right-wing version of religion.

Ralph Luker: Reviewers of Sean Wilentz's new book, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln have already noted its linear descent from Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. It's a worthy tradition and Wilentz improves on it on matters that have always bothered me about Schlesinger's important book. It was, in every sense, a political tract, voting for the Democrats - from Jackson to FDR - as they say, on every page. With the passage of time, however, Schlesinger's failure to acknowledge Andrew Jackson's treatment of the Cherokee and that he was, after all, a slaveowner made his book increasingly unsatisfactory. When the noble Democrats failed miserably in the 1850s and the Republicans seized the mantel of reform, Schlesinger's narrative simply petered out - not with the bang of civil war, but the whimper of wait 'til the next century.

Wilentz is well aware of the inadequacies of Schlesinger's old narrative and apparently places the inadequacies of Jacksonian volksdemocracy at the heart of his new work. Yet, when it comes to reading the history backwards, as he does with Schlesinger, in this article, some of the old problems remain.

To begin with, as Eric Foner noted in his review of The Rise of American Democracy, Wilentz is remarkably unsympathetic to Andrew Jackson's rival, John Quincy Adams. Here, in"Bush's Ancestors," Adams gets no credit as a major figure in the Whig Party. The article might actually have been strengthened had Wilentz given Adams some space. In his inaugural address, Adams II outlined an ambitious program of internal improvements (including the founding of a national university), that might pre-figure early twenty-first century big government conservatism. Thus, I think, that Wilentz's emphasis on the Whig's"attack on big government" is simply misleading. If anything, the Democratic Party of the 1830s and 1840s was more strongly committed a weak federal authority and defending the power of the states within a federal union. As Wilentz points out, unlike the Federalists of the first party system, the Whigs accommodated themselves to a democracy of"just plain folks," but I'm not so sure that" conservative populism" is any more superficial than"Jacksonian populism." Andrew Jackson was, after all, the master of a plantation and owner of chattel slaves. The aw' shucks demeanor of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush no more prevents us from knowing that they were of a privileged elite than it prevented Jackson's generation from knowing that about him.

Had Wilentz given more attention to John Quincy Adams, he might have credited him with returning to Congress in old age and there becoming a major voice for political anti-slavery. If the Whigs were more inclined to moralism than were Jacksonian Democrats, one really ought not simply hold it up to mockery, to give them credit for that. While Jacksonian Democrats looked to fighting a war with Mexico to spread white democracy across the continent, conscience Whigs objected to the war and, increasingly, voiced their reservations about the extension of slave labor into the West.

In some ways, it is the kinship of what passes for" conservatism" in twenty-first century America with the Jacksonians, rather than the Whigs, that is most distressing. There are the unconstrained visions of empire, the willingness to make war abroad, the indifference to exploited black and Hispanic labor at home, the lack of attention to domestic infrastructures, and the shameful elevation of cronies and drones to high office. Where is John Quincy Adams just now, when we need him?

Caleb McDaniel: Professor Wilentz's stimulating essay argues that the Whig Party of the 1830s and the post-Reagan Republican Party share in common"a venerable if loosely knit philosophy of government," which Wilentz describes as a"blend of businessman's aversion to government regulation, down-home cultural populism and Christian moralism." But comparing Whigs and Republicans got me thinking about an additional ingredient in the ideological blend of modern Republicanism that Wilentz does not discuss, which (for want of a better term) I'll call"militant nationalism."

Since Reagan, the Republican Party has often won victories by playing to a particular kind of popular patriotism, a patriotism that views American democracy as exceptional in the world and exportable to other countries, by force of arms if necessary. Those ideas also have venerable roots in American political culture, dating back to the antebellum period. And they have been especially prominent in Republican discourses about the present foreign policy goals of America in the Middle East. But it's a bit more difficult to trace Republican views on foreign policy and nationalism back to Whiggery than it is to draw parallels between the two parties' very similar blend of populism, moralism, and anti-regulationism.

It was the Democratic Party that boasted the most ardent Western expansionists in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Partly this was because Jacksonian Democrats believed, like Jeffersonians before them, that a constantly moving frontier would create opportunities for agricultural development, whereas bottling up the population in eastern cities would serve the interests of manufacturers and businessmen who supported the Whigs. In that sense, the Democrats' expansionism can be seen as part of the general opposition to big business, as opposed to small landowners, that Professor Wilentz attributes to them in his essay.

Yet it is also clear that many expansionist Democrats wanted to annex western territories like Texas in order to create opportunities for the expansion of an agricultural economy based on slave labor. And many were willing, if necessary, to fulfill America's continental aspirations--its"Manifest Destiny"--by force of arms. James Polk, the President who provoked war with Mexico and entertained the thought of annexing not only Texas but large swaths of northern Mexico, was a Democrat. And the reason why John Tyler was barely considered a Whig was because he favored, like Polk, the annexation of Texas.

In defending war with Mexico, Polk and his Democratic supporters often argued that the conquest of Mexico would plant America's republican institutions south of the nation's border, help democracy spread throughout the lands of Spain's decaying empire, and depose a despotic dictator. (Sound familiar?) While for some expansionists, perhaps, this was a disingenuous way of rationalizing a grab for land, many expansionists clearly believed that part of America's"manifest destiny" was to spread the blessings of American democracy to the world and to topple dictators in both hemispheres. The most colorful species of Democratic expansionist were the renegade filibusters who hatched elaborate plans for invading Latin American nations like Cuba and liberating them for annexation to the United States.

To be sure, there were Whigs aplenty who shared the view that America's democratic institutions should be spread to the countries of the Old World. As Secretary of State in the early 1850s, Daniel Webster favored giving national succor to freedom struggles in Europe against the evil empires of Russia and Austria. And many Whigs were as likely as Democrats to say, when the United States' brash foreign policies were criticized,"Our Country, Right or Wrong," and to silence critics of the Mexican War as treasonous fanatics.

Nonetheless, in the national debates that ensued over the Mexican War, the hawkish expansionists tended to come from the Democratic ranks, whereas the Whigs--partly because of their pro-business interests and basic economic conservatism, and partly because of their antislavery tendencies in the 1840s--fought Texas annexation and became the most vocal critics of Polk's war. Most Whigs, while every bit the nationalists that Democrats were, tended to believe that American strength and freedom could best be projected into the world by force of example, rather than by"boots on the ground" in the halls of Montezuma or on the shores of Tripoli. They too thought that America would one day cover the continent--heck, they elected Zachary Taylor, the conqueror of Mexico City. But many Whigs--or at least more prominent Whigs than prominent Democrats--thought that the genius of republican institutions would win out over"barbarism" and"despotism" through a peaceful clash of ideas, not through a bloody clash of civilizations.

That dovish reticence informed Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican War as a Congressional Whig in the mid-1840s, and it also helps explain his desire to have the Confederacy fire the first shot on Fort Sumter before calling for recruits. Never a preemptive warrior, Lincoln was at his most Whiggish when he viewed war with a tragic fatalism. He was a consummate former Whig when he concluded from his forays into American history that republican institutions were fragile even at home, and that the best way to make sure"government by the people" did not perish from the earth was to dedicate his own nation to a constant rebirth of freedom, rather than to crusade around the world for the induced birth of other governments of the people.

I'm beginning to ramble, and playing a bit fast and loose with generalizations, so let me conclude: A central tenet of modern Republicanism is the view that American democracy has already been more or less perfected. Our most important mission now is to export democracy with the use of hard and soft power. When President Bush hammers that tenet, I've argued, he's echoing expansionist Democrats, rather than Whigs. Perhaps that raises the larger question of just how much modern Republicanism owes to the nationalistic ideology of Jacksonian Democracy as well.

To borrow an old chestnut, Whigs tended to envision a nation that progressed through time. Their concern was always with how to modernize American economy and society without setting either loose from their traditional moorings. Democrats, convinced that America had already reached, in the Revolution, the end toward which history was progressing, envisioned a nation that now progressed through space. Modern Republicans curiously combine elements of both those views. On the one hand, like Whigs, they worry that traditional"social values" are being threatened by modern science and society; their quarrel is with time. But on the other hand, like Democrats, they have a supreme confidence that American democracy is the crowning achievement of history and is only threatened by the despotism that still exists elsewhere in the world; their quarrel is with other bodies in space. (Perhaps the fitting allusion here is to President Bush's use of post-September 11 political capital to call ... for a war in Iraq and a return to the moon.) While Professor Wilentz convincingly shows that President Bush's ancestors were Whigs, perhaps his ideological family tree includes Democrats as well.

Wilson J. Moses: My definition of the"American political tradition" differs radically from than that of my esteemed colleague, Sean Wilentz, whose case-book on the early republic I continue to use and with enthusiasm. But I am, as many know, a supporter of the Hamiltonian tradition and no admirer of Jeffersonian or Jacksonian democracy, and one need only read the first paragraph or Wilentz's recent New York Times article to see that he repeats the most appalling errors of Arthur M. Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. The basic reason for my hostility to Jeffersonian democracy is not some puerile reaction to Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, or his undocumented love affair with Sally Hemings. I repeat it is not for these reason that I find Jeffersonian democracy repugnant. My reasons for hostility to Jeffersonianism are threefold. First I am appalled by Jefferson’s and Jackson’s antiquated and dishonest thinking with respect to government regulation of the economy. Second, I object to Jefferson’s, and Jackson’s, hypocritical and demagogic manipulation of the"leather aproned" handworkers, for whom they had only the profoundest contempt. Third, I object to that dangerous lie in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal.” This denial of inequalities, is at the root of America’s continuing refusal to address inequalities, and of its failure to maintain a system that provides for the health, education, and welfare of the economically handicapped, the racially disadvantaged, and the physically disabled.

The paranoid anti-governmental tradition is founded in Jeffersonian hypocrisy, Jacksonian demagoguery, Wilsonian arrogance, and Reaganite reactionism. This tradition has mouthed anti-governmental shibboleths, but has always increased the police state powers of the federal government. It is the tradition associated with Athenian slaveholding, with Jeffersonian assaults on civil liberties, with Jacksonian cynical manipulation of the mob, and ironically, but inevitably with suppression of the rights of the individual. By contrast, the benevolent elitist tradition of the Whigs is founded in the enlightened despotism of Hamilton and Washington, the centralism of Lincoln, the industrial democracy of both Roosevelts, and the neo-federalism of Eisenhower. This tradition has utilized elitist means towards egalitarian ends. It is this tradition that freed the slaves, by the fiat of a military tyrant; ended segragation by mandates of the least democratic branches of government; and regulated the economy through benevolently elitist bureacracies. Thank God for the tyrannical judicial activism of Earl Warren, and the despotism of Herbert Brownell!

The problem of equality in America cannot be solved by admitting more women and minorites to Stanford, but by destroying that system of privilege that presupposes that persons admitted to Yale are smarter, more creative, or more skilled than those who attend San Diego State. If we want to discourage elitist privilege, we need to stop making inculcating hero worship for the likes of Ronald Reagan, and Oprah Winfrey, Noam Chomsky, Yo Yo Ma, Peyton Manning and Condoleeza Rice. We should admire the genius of such persons, and have the honesty to admit that they are better than us, but we cannot continue to hold them up to our children as the embodiment of behavior to which most of them cannot reasonably aspire.

Most people, whether commoners or kings, are destined to mediocrity, and that is why kingship, contrary to Thomas Payne's fulminations, is not such a bad idea after all. Kings and queens are usually not brilliants like Frederick II, but normals like George III and George Bush, very ordinary people, and thus well-qualified to embody the mundane fears and banal joys of ordinary people.

Greg Robinson: Sean Wilentz’s article “Bush’s Ancestors” cleverly attempts to connect George W. today’s Republican Party with the generation of Whig politicians whose heyday came in the generation before the Civil War. It is a nervy generalization, and Wilentz does hit a core of truth when he shows how both The Whigs of the 1840s and the Republicans of the age of Reagan concealed their focus on aiding the rich by attacking the government and presenting themselves as the allies of the people. One is reminded of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s. famous thesis in The Age of Jackson that the 1830s represented a forefunner of the New Deal in the attack on entrenched privilege by an aroused democracy led by a strong President. However, Professor Wilentz’s deft performance conceals as much as it enlightens.

First, while Conservatives are dominant in the Republican Party, which can lay claim to being the majority party since 1980, the Whigs of the 1840s were undoubtedly the minority party. The only two Presidential elections the Whigs won were due more to the individual popularity of the former Generals the Party put up than the brilliant attractiveness of their program, and there was a Whig speaker controlled the House for only eight years of their existence. Even within the Whig Party were serious divisions and shadings of opinion, of the sort that Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay managed to defuse. While Henry Clay could enforce discipline in the Senate, no Whig leader succeeded in setting the party agenda as closely as a small group of Republicans has. The Whigs are arguably much closer in this respect to Canada’s new Conservative Party, whose chiefs have experienced far greater internal and interpersonal dissension over less drastic ideological differences.

Another important difference concerns immigration. In the antebellum era, as today, there arose a fundamental contradiction between the desire of businesses for cheap immigrant labor and the political imperatives of nationalism, which was resolved through thunderous speeches and large-scale inaction. While the Democrats of the 1840s made new immigrants a formidable voting bloc in their coalition, Whigs courted nativist voters by their attacks on the newcomers, especially the Irish. Whiggish extremists ultimately joined together to form the openly xenophobic American (i.e. Know Nothing) Party. In contrast, Ronald Reagan received a majority of the Roman Catholic vote, and George W. Bush has wooed Hispanic and other immigrant populations. (Of course, any antebellum U.S. political leader who requested the political support of the Pope, as Bush did in 2004, would have been hounded from office faster than you can say “Osama Bin Laden”). Finally, the moral that Wilentz takes from his comparative study is unclear. With one breath, he states that today’s Republicanism is a more powerful and successful ideology than Whiggism, and one that cannot be dismissed as a mask for privilege. On the other hand, he points to the ease with which the Whig Party disintegrated as an object lesson for Republicans in the instability of their similar, if modernized, ideas. Yet if Mr Wilentz is clear on his sense of the links between today’s Conservatives and the Whigs, he is much less so about the connection between the Whigs and post-Reconstreuction Republican Party, which appealed to many of the same constituencies and proved a durable ruling party for half a century.

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Marc A. Comtois - 10/23/2005

As a native Mainer and one familiar with it's politics, I'd say that Collins and Snowe are considered to be "two peas in a pod." However, I haven't actually compared their voting records. It may be true that Collins is a bit more conservative than Snowe, but still not conservative wrt the national "baseline", so to speak.

Marc A. Comtois - 10/23/2005

I understood that:

"My point wasn't that George W. Bush wasn't born into an elite class in the United States, but that unlike colonial elites (which the Founding Fathers largely were), it is an elite class, which if it wants to exercise direct political power, must curry favor and support from a mass electorate."

I think that, and perhaps due to my hastily written piece, you actually managed to construe the exact opposite of what I was trying to say! (As I review it, it looks like a couple words I thought I'd removed were included and the whole paragraph is, frankly, a mess.) What I was trying to say is that Pres. Bush isn't particularly unique in being an elite running for office by trying to appeal to the average Joe. (John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, etc.) Thus, it seems that, by using Wilentz's logic, no contemporary elite could "lay claim" to the Founders' ideas. Hope that clears it up. Sorry to have gotten you so flumoxed.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/22/2005

Marc, If you think that what I said means that President Bush doesn't come from an elite background, you've got to be kidding. Was your grandfather a Senator and your father a President? How many people in this country are: a) born into a family of very substantial wealth, b) educated at our most elite institutions, and c) have had family members in the highest offices in the land, going back three and four generations? My point wasn't that George W. Bush wasn't born into an elite class in the United States, but that unlike colonial elites (which the Founding Fathers largely were), it is an elite class, which if it wants to exercise direct political power, must curry favor and support from a mass electorate.

Marc A. Comtois - 10/22/2005

Ralph, thanks for the clarification. It helps me understand why Wilentz wouldn't think that President Bush--or other conservatives(?)--could trace his politics from the Founders. However, I guess it also means follows, as I said, that neither could anyone considered a contemporary "elite" of the political class. Thus, Pres. Bush isn't particularly unique in that.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/22/2005

As a "moderate Republican," myself, I agree with Mike Davidson's comment about Susan Collins. John McCain's voting record and stand on a number of public issues is more conservative than hers. I'd also include Pennsylvania's senior Senator among the moderate Republicans.

Michael R. Davidson - 10/22/2005

By any standard of judgement, your list of Senate 'moderates' cannot be too far off, but I am intrigued by your omission of Susan Collins. To a Mainer, she appears to be a classic example, in the mold of Margaret Chase Smith, Bill Cohen, AND Olympia Snowe, of a Moderate Northeast Republican. Why do you leave her out? Who else would you say does not quite make the cut and why?

Mike Davidson

Jonathan Dresner - 10/22/2005

Marc is right: this was primarily intended as a satire of what struck me as a very presentist presentation.

More specifically: Religion, states and business are three near-constants in human history, and it is [probably] possible to find movements that represent every conjunction of pro and anti positions on these institutions in almost every age of every society. To preserve the structural comparisons, I did try to stick to instances where some form of popular rule was in force, when social movements might matter, politically.

For there to be a "tradition" or a causal connection of any meaning requires much more than simply a structural resemblance. For comparative purposes, instances of structural similarity are interesting, but when it's presented as a "heritage", there needs to be a more active connection.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/22/2005

My point, Marc, was that the generation of the Founding Fathers was a product of a deferential politics which has already been deeply eroded by the time of the Jacksonians and the Whigs. There were "self-made" men among the Founders -- one thinks of Franklin or Hamilton -- but they were hardly "democrats" in the sense of subjecting themselves to the judgment of the masses of people who owned no property. Except in South Carolina, by the time of the Whigs and Jacksonians, property-ownership was mostly no longer a requirement for voting by white males. So, you have men of an elite class, even if "self-made" like Jackson, who contend for the votes of very ordinary blokes.

Marc A. Comtois - 10/22/2005


Point 1:

Jonathan can defend himself, but I took his piece as an illustration as to how one could take nearly any political antecedent and claim to trace how it is the primary influence on current entity "A." I understand what you mean by being "hamstrung for meaningful discussion," though. Perhaps that's why I (mostly) stuck to only illustrating the inconsistencies of Wilentz's claim within the framework of the antebellum political scene. Again, I await Jonathan's explanation.

Point 2:

I do have a question, though. You said: "I think that Wilentz is reasonably persuasive about why he does not track the Bush ancestry back to the Revolution -- because there was a fairly dramatic expansion of the franchise between that of the Founding Fathers and the Jacksonians, when we're really talking about a white, male democracy." I'm not sure if I follow your logic. Does that then mean that no contemporary political entity could trace their political ancestry back to the Revolutionaries? If all of the ideas of the Founders were formed in such a relatively isolated time in our history, can anyone lay claim to them?

To try to tie point 1 and 2 together, one of my main contentions with Wilentz's piece is that many of his comparison's are just as viable if one switches a few names. To paraphrase what you (Ralph)wrote:

"If [John Kerry or Ted Kennedy] are a part of an elite that would exert political authority, as they surely are, like [Andrew Jackson], they are an elite which must exercise persuasive influence over the free will of people who are not a part of an elite class."

Thus, the fact is that in the antebellum era, there were two groups of elites--though Jackson was more a self-made than hereditary one--trying to appeal to the masses, using much the same techniques and both claiming to be the "true" bearers of the Founders' legacy. I'm not sure much has changed.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/21/2005

I want to take exception to Jon Dresner's comment, "Meaningless Tradition." We'd be hamstrung for meaningful discussion if we traced every phenomenon back to its ancestry in primal dust and I don't think that an immersion in "world history" either enables or obliges us to do so. At best, world history _might_ enable us to put this discussion in a comparative perspective. Moreover, I think that Wilentz is reasonably persuasive about why he does not track the Bush ancestry back to the Revolution -- because there was a fairly dramatic expansion of the franchise between that of the Founding Fathers and the Jacksonians, when we're really talking about a white, male democracy. If the Bushes are a part of an elite that would exert political authority, as they surely are, like the Whigs, they are an elite which must exercise persuasive influence over the free will of people who are not a part of an elite class.

Caleb McDaniel - 10/21/2005

I think it's a bit hasty to accuse Wilentz of presentism or "Whiggish" history on the basis of this essay. Nor do I think that all attempts to compare present and past (or, more importantly, to connect them) are "pathetic" or fallacious.

One thing that Wilentz is clearly doing here is engaging with interlocutors in the Republican Party itself who reach back uncritically to McKinley or Lincoln for examples of their forbears. Wilentz is pointing out, I think, that these kinds of decontextualized recovery projects are much more complex than their practitioners may realize. Political uses of history make strange bedfellows: that's one point Wilentz is making, and it's worth making. If historians challenge political appropriations of historical legacies by pointing out how heterogeneous those legacies are, that doesn't by itself make historians guilty of Butterfield's fallacy.

Of course, Wilentz does go on at the end of the essay to make projections about the strength of Republicanism on the basis of the demise of the Whigs. I share Greg Robinson's reservations about that move in the essay, because it seems to be saying both that the Whigs' ideological and institutional powere both was and was not stable.

But nonetheless I think it is valuable to think about "Bush's ancestors," at least because Bush's supporters themselves are doing so.

Nic Palar - 10/21/2005

In the words of Herbert Butterfield:

"The whig interpretation of history is not merely the property of whigs and it is much more subtle than mental bias; it lies a trick of organization, an unexamined habit of mind that any historian may fall into. It might be called the historian's "pathetic fallacy". It is the result of the practice of abstracting things from their historical context and judging them apart from their context - estimating them and organizing the historical story by a system of direct reference to the present."

Louis N Proyect - 10/21/2005

This was posted to my mailing list shortly after my own commentary on Wilentz appeared there. Lause is a history professor concentrating on the American civil war period.


Most of these kinds of articles muddle things pretty thoroughly.

Sean Wilentz is more hostile to the Whigs than the evidence justifies.
The old FDR-era version of this period was that Jackson was a man of the
people and had the support of the workers and the radicals. I think
Wilentz's CHANTS DEMOCRATIC isn't critical enough of that

The Whigs were great believers in planning, as opposed to laissez-faire,
to which Jacksonian rhetoric appealed. I expect this is why a number of
the most radical workers were actually predisposed to be Whigs (or the
"National Republicans" as they were called in the early days)....This is
reaching back into dim recesses of my memory, but I think Samuel
Huestis, the first American trade unionist (New York Typographical
Society) to join an explicitly socialist organization (New York Society for Promoting Communities) had National Republican/Whig connections. So did the presiding officer of that group, Dr. Cornelius Blatchley. The
leader of the Workingmen's Party of NYC--and its most prominent advocate
of expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the redistribution of property
(this, in 1829)--Thomas Skidmore was a National Republican. Then, there
was Horace Greeley and a boatload of Fourierists....

The failure to be sufficiently critical of Jackson mirrors a similar
affinity to FDR or to John Kerry.


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