Sean Wilentz: His inspirational address

Historians in the News

American democracy is not a static, unchanging phenomenon, but rather an ongoing argument said Sean Wilentz, this year's Phi Beta Kappa orator.

Because of its evolving nature, democracy is not something that can be easily exported, nor does it come about automatically as the result of overthrowing tyranny, he said.

"Our own history shows differently," said Wilentz, the Dayton-Stockon Professor of History at Princeton University and author of "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln" (2005). "American democracy is more of an event or a process than a thing."

Wilentz spoke Tuesday (June 6) in Sanders Theatre at the 216th Literary Exercises of the Alpha Iota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Elizabeth Alexander, associate professor of African American Studies at Yale University, was this year's PBK poet.

Harvard's chapter of PBK, founded in 1781, is the oldest uninterrupted chapter of the organization in the nation. The Radcliffe chapter was founded in 1914, and the two were merged in 1995. Originally held in Holden Chapel, the Phi Beta Kappa Exercises have taken place in Sanders Theatre since 1876.

In his talk, "History & Democracy," Wilentz used historical evidence to show that defining democracy has always been a struggle and that the democracy of today is a far cry from that of 100 or 200 years ago.

For example, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s and wrote his classic study, "Democracy in America," American democracy still included slavery and excluded the poor from voting, "hardly a democracy as we would define it today, and yet it was more of a democracy than at the time of America's founding, less than three score years before," Wilentz said.

Looking at history, it is possible to see periods when American society was revising itself, Wilentz said. For example, between 1815 and 1860, "a sizeable number of Americans began to recognize slavery as an undemocratic enormity."

The change was by no means universal. Northern abolitionists took the lead in condemning slavery while other elements of society defended it or tried to reach some compromise. "But out of those conflicts, there arose in 1854 the first anti-slavery party in human history," Wilentz said. And it was this group, the Republican Party, that nominated Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860.

Such changes can also be traced in the careers of individuals, Wilentz said. For example, when President Andrew Jackson, credited with extending democracy to the common man, came to Harvard in 1833 to receive an honorary degree, one Harvard overseer, John Quincy Adams, boycotted the ceremony, calling Jackson "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name."

Yet, by 1839, the erudite and elitist Adams, who had run successfully for a seat in the House of Representatives after losing the presidency to Jackson, had embraced abolitionist principles to such an extent that he defended the mutinous slaves of the Spanish ship "Amistad" in the U.S. Supreme Court and won their freedom.

Meanwhile, Wilentz said, "Jackson sided with those who thought democracy and slavery could go hand in hand."

These examples should teach us that while democracy may be "the world's best hope," it is also "fragile and contested" and that "self-satisfaction is dangerous and foolish."

Wilentz ended by saying that "if we're going to make hope and history rhyme, with all our might we must join democracy's argument and help write the verse."

Read entire article at Harvard Gazette

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