Sean Wilentz: Interviewed

Historians in the News

Of the numerous reasons that I found it compelling to speak with Princeton historian Sean Wilentz last winter, those that matter here are my fears of the state of historical pedagogy in the United States (Wilentz observes: “They’re not just interesting facts, they have within them historical importance, and what is historical importance? It’s what helps lead us from then to now.”) and the publication of what fellow historian Gordon Wood has termed a “monumental book,” The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. Wilentz explains that his book “can be read as a chronicle of American politics from the Revolution to the Civil War, with the history of democracy at its center.” The book is an account of how democracy arose in the United States, with three main sections focusing on the Jeffersonians, the Jacksonians, and the buildup to the Civil War. There are, of course, a prologue and an epilogue, and footnotes, of which, as you will see below, Wilentz is proud.

By the way, Wood makes a very important point in his laudation of The Rise of American Democracy:

"It is one of the many ironies of American history that the wildfire spread of democratic politics in both the North and the South eventually made it impossible to solve the problem of slavery peaceably. To learn how the triumph of democracy nearly destroyed the United States, this book is a good place to start."

In addition to American Democracy, which is out in paperback this month, Wilentz has published, among others: In The Kingdom of Matthias (co-written with Paul E. Johnson); The Key of Liberty (with Michael Merrill); Chants Democratic; Major Problems in the Early Republic; and The Rose and the Briar (with Greil Marcus), a collection of historical essays and artistic creations inspired by American ballads. He is also a frequent contributor to numerous American periodicals, including Rolling Stone.

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Robert Birnbaum: We are talking about your immense tome and other things. Let’s talk about what I want to talk about before we talk about—

Sean Wilentz: I’ll twist it around later.

RB: You can answer however you want. For whom was this book written?

SW: Everybody. I have written all kinds of things over the last 30 years. For professors, fellow professors, for students, for the general public, for politically interested people. All kinds of stuff—musical stuff that no one in other crowds will ever see. So I have had the chance, actually I have been lucky enough to be able to write for different audiences and write in different kinds of ways when I do. This was an attempt to write for everybody, the unborn as well as the born.

RB: [laughs]

SW: [laughs] No, really, sometimes you want to be a writer—I don’t know if every writer does this but some writers, I certainly did—they do the Babe Ruth thing, they just say, “I’m going to hit it out of the ballpark,” and then people look at them like they are crazy and it’s an act of arrogance and hubris, and nine times out of 10 it fails. And maybe you don’t say it so much publicly, but you put [success] in your own mind, and that’s what I wanted to do. So that’s what I tried to do.

RB: Despite the fact that you hold an endowed chair at Princeton, a professor of long standing at a prestigious university, am I right in my assumption that you think of yourself as a writer who happened to find a comfortable sinecure at a university?

SW: [laughs] Well, if people thought of me that way, I’d consider it a compliment. I can’t say I started that way, and I can’t say it’s a sinecure because it’s a lot of work. ...
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