Sean Wilentz: The implicit politics of Sean Wilentz's new book

Historians in the News

The Democratic Party and the endeavor of writing American history have a problem in common. Until the 1960s, both enjoyed the coherence of a shared narrative in which American politics and history could be described as a struggle by the great mass of virtuous Americans—"the people"—against privileged monopolists and plutocrats. Just before the 1948 presidential election, Harry "Give 'em Hell" Truman unloaded with a standard piece of populist rhetoric. "The Wall Street reactionaries," he warned, "are not satisfied with being rich. … [T]hey are gluttons of privilege … cold men … cunning men. … They want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship."

But in the 1960s, under the pressure of a divisive war abroad, the feminist critique of the family, and racial riots at home, both the Democratic Party and the writing of American history splintered. The monolithic virtue of the masses came under scrutiny. The racism, sexism, and militarism of "the people" emerged as a problem in the eyes of their former champions. The "solution" instituted in the wake of the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention was the quota-driven politics of the Dutton/McGovern reforms. Designed to remake the Democratic Party, the Dutton/McGovern rules pushed working-class Catholics away in favor of a party organized around quotas for racial, gender, "peace," and so-called youth interests. At the same time, the focus of American political history shifted to emphasize the study of race, class, and gender. The aim in both cases was to redress the injustices of the past, but the fragmented parts were never able to produce a cohesive whole.

Sean Wilentz's impressive new book The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln ambitiously tries to mend these breaches by presenting a history in which the fragments of identity politics are once again fastened together.

... Most historians would be content to let the implications of their arguments for contemporary politics speak for themselves. But Wilentz, a contributing editor at the New Republic, is by no means a typical historian. In a recent article, "Reconsidering Bush's Ancestors," published in the New York Times Magazine, Wilentz makes explicit the implicit politics of his historical interpretation. Reading history backward, he defines today's Republicans as the direct descendants of the now long-forgotten Whig Party of the 1830s and 1840s. The alternative to the Democrats in the years before the Civil War and the creation of the Republican Party, the Whigs—like today's GOP—clashed sharply with the Democrats on both the size of government and the shape of American foreign policy. For Wilentz, "the blend of businessmen's aversion to government regulation, down-home cultural populism and Christian moralism that sustains today's" Bush Republicans is but a continuation of the political formulas first laid out by the Whigs.

Wilentz is updating the arguments Arthur Schlesinger Jr. made famous for an earlier generation of liberals. For both men, the Jacksonian Democrats were the good guys, the horny-handed men of hammer and plow who were both the true tribunes of the people and the friends of the oppressed. "Jacksonians," Wilentz argues, "unlike conservatives then and now, also battled against the country's financial and mercantile elites and sought to reduce the power of what Jackson called 'associated wealth' over the nation's economy and politics." In essence, Wilentz aims to present Jacksonianism, along with abolitionism, as two facets of a common drive for democracy.

But Wilentz's tidy lineage skews the reality of Jacksonianism and misconstrues the Whig position as well. Jackson was a slaveholder, and some of his strongest supporters were small Southern and Western farmers who wanted Indian land that many of them hoped to farm with slave labor. The Democrats were a party with strong slaveholding interests, which drove the Indians of Georgia on to the "trail of tears" and then looked to westward expansion through a war with Mexico to advance their interests.

It was the Whig Party, which Wilentz accuses of hiding its elitist aims in the faux democratic symbolism of "the log cabin," that was the center of opposition to both slavery and the Mexican War. Moreover, when it comes to foreign policy, what Wilentz misses is that today's Northeastern Democrats are the heirs of the Whigs' dovishness, and today's Republicans, with their Southern base, are the heirs of Jacksonian hawkishness.

Read entire article at Fred Siegel in Slate

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