Title: The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
Author: Sean Wilentz
Year: 2005
Categories: Democracy, Political History, Early Republic, Jacksonian Era, Sectional Crisis
Place: United States
Time Period: 1783-1861

Argument Synopsis
In a massive synthesis of political history Sean Wilentz charts the shockingly rapid growth of democracy in American politics from the initial period of republicanism to the eve of the Civil War. This development was by no means pre-ordained, and Wilentz argues that especially at its outgrowth, advanced in fits and starts. At the heart of his book is a broader plea for the importance of politics in history.

Wilentz argues that Thomas Jefferson set the terms for the growth of modern democracy in his Revolution of 1800 that defeated the Federalists through a big-tent coalition of city and country democrats. During Jefferson's administration and James Madison, Wilentz argues that democracy underwent a radical expansion via the extension of white male suffrage. After the War of 1812, Wilentz derisively describes the "Era of Bad Feelings" that was inaugurated with the Panic of 1819 and the Missouri Compromise saga of 1819-1821. The Panic served to sharpen class divisions and resentments, while the Missouri Compromise launched slavery to the forefront of questions about democracy. Wilentz is deeply critical of the presidency of John Quincy Adams, who he sees as being more akin to a "enlightened aristocrat" rather than a true champion of democracy, and notes how JQA backed down from Georgia's expelling Creeks via a grossly unfair treaty.

1828 marked a watershed year for Wilentz with the success of Andrew Jackson in formulating a stable coalition that transitioned from fractious, often unstable competing visions of democracy into two major competing visions. Wilentz, although acknowledging the racism and flaws of Jackson's administration, goes to great lengths to defend him from the assails of historians. Everything gets interpreted through the lens of Jackson's reformist zeal for democracy. The Bank Veto was an attempt to reign in powerful aristocrats, his Force Bill in response to the Nullification Crisis demonstrated his commitment to democracy over any allegiance to slavery, etc. His second term was marked by his crushing of the Second Bank of the United States and an ill-fated foray towards hard-money policy via the Specie Circular. Although he managed to get his successor, Martin Van Buren, elected, the economy tanked in the Panic of 1837, which together with growing sectional discord over slavery marred Van Buren's presidency.

In contrast to someone like David Walker Howe in What Hath God Wrought, Wilentz takes the side of Jackson against the opposition Whigs, who coalesced in the early 1830s behind a banner of trying to soften perceived class divisions, castigating Jacksonians as corrupt despotism, and advancing reform and improvement (both of the self and of society). In doing so, they also were forced to embrace the Jacksonian style of democratic politics by launching populist campaigns and embracing common people. In contrast to the Whigs, Jacksonians highlighted class differences by pitting the producing class against a non-producing elite, who they feared were unfairly exercising power over a majority. 

Note: did not read Section III on 1840s-1850s

Key Themes and Concepts
- Primacy of politics - large-scale political participation by ordinary Americans shaped how they saw the world and changes taking place
- South vs. North competing visions of democracy by 1840s
- Importance of class coalitions
- 1828 as a watershed with ascension of Jackson

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U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.