four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
By: 
Sean Wilentz
user_rating: 
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Jefferson to Lincoln

A-TheRiseOfAmericanDemocracyAmerican democracy has taken its licks over the past two election cycles—with the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the vote count in Florida and claims of fraud in Ohio. Though we often take our right to vote for granted, it was not always so. Were it not for the vision and vigilant efforts of our forebears, America might be a Federalist country, with power centered in the hands of very few. Though Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln faced decidedly different challenges in their administrations, each carried the ideals of representative democracy forward. In The Rise of American Democracy, Sean Wilentz presents a comprehensive political history of the forces and ideas that shaped our nation between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars—and forged a democracy rather than an aristocracy.
Norton. 1044 pages. $35. ISBN: 0393058204

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Rise of American Democracy demands that we take politics and the history of democratic culture most seriously, that we recognize democracy as ‘a historical fact’ and an ongoing struggle, that we understand democracy as ever involving recreation and replenishment. It could not be more timely." Steven Hahn

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The old-fashioned title, then, is no postmodern joke. It is a defiant signal that Wilentz is out to resurrect an old-fashioned story. He wants to reinstate the centrality of political history and of American democracy in that history." Anders Stephanson

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Wilentz takes on an enormous subject and articulates a grand theme, supported by a wealth of detailed scholarship. Inch by inch, he covers a broad expanse of ground, analyzing countless local struggles to widen the voting franchise, dislodge entrenched privilege and make good on the lofty promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution." William Grimes

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"An old-fashioned account of the rise of democracy during the first half of the 19th century, it is a tour de force of historical compilation and construction. … By suggesting that the race, gender and cultural issues that drive much of the modern left are not central to the age of Jackson, Wilentz seems to imply that they should not be central to the future of the present-day Democratic Party." Gordon S. Wood

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sean Wilentz … is here writing unabashed political history instead of the social version that has dominated his profession for so many years. It is true that he incorporates social history into his account at various points, but he spends most of his time analyzing rulers and great events—that is, offering the kind of history that most students routinely learned a generation or two ago." Harvey C. Mansfield

Critical Summary

Going against prevailing historical fashion, Sean Wilentz delivers a long, exhaustive survey of political machinations, both grand and minute. Though he forays into social and cultural history, the bulk of The Rise of American Democracy is a blow-by-blow account of what happened in the corridors of young America with a "house divided." Wilentz, author of Chants Democratic (1984) and professor of history and director of the American studies program at Princeton University, tells this compelling story with precision and poise, but reviewers question whether anyone but scholars will slog through the 1000-page tome. Within academic halls, at least, this impressive volume is certainly eligible to be the definitive synthesis of the era.