The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

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Winner of the Bancroft Award: "Monumental…a tour de force…awesome in its coverage of political events."—Gordon Wood, New York Times Book Review
Acclaimed as the definitive study of the period by one of the greatest American historians, The Rise of American Democracy traces a historical arc from the earliest days of the republic to the opening shots of the Civil War. Ferocious clashes among the Founders over the role of ordinary citizens in a government of "we, the people" were ...

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Winner of the Bancroft Award: "Monumental…a tour de force…awesome in its coverage of political events."—Gordon Wood, New York Times Book Review
Acclaimed as the definitive study of the period by one of the greatest American historians, The Rise of American Democracy traces a historical arc from the earliest days of the republic to the opening shots of the Civil War. Ferocious clashes among the Founders over the role of ordinary citizens in a government of "we, the people" were eventually resolved in the triumph of Andrew Jackson. Thereafter, Sean Wilentz shows, a fateful division arose between two starkly opposed democracies—a division contained until the election of Abraham Lincoln sparked its bloody resolution. Winner of the Bancroft Award, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2005 and best book of New York magazine and The Economist.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
With the publication of The Rise of American Democracy, add Sean Wilentz to the ranks of great American historians. His groundbreaking tour de force about the transformation of American political life from the earliest days of the Republic to the opening shots of the Civil War stands as a model of dramatic storytelling and riveting history. This is a book that is sure to change the way we look at a fundamental period in the nation's development.
William Grimes
The Rise of American Democracy deserves to be read slowly. 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.
— The New York Times
Gordon S. Wood
This enormous book by Sean Wilentz has been in the works a long time, and the results are nothing less than monumental. 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 that more than justifies all the articles and monographs on antebellum politics written by historians over the past several decades. Wilentz, the Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton, has drawn extensively on these secondary sources and on his own research. He has brought it all together into a clear and generally readable narrative.
— The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Publishers Weekly
As the revolutionary fervor of the war for independence cooled, the new American republic, says Princeton historian Wilentz, might easily have hardened into rule by an aristocracy. Instead, the electoral franchise expanded and the democratic creed transformed every aspect of American society. At its least inspired, this ambitious study is a solid but unremarkable narrative of familiar episodes of electoral politics. But by viewing political history through the prism of democratization, Wilentz often discovers illuminating angles on his subject. His anti-elitist sympathies make for some lively interpretations, especially his defense of the Jacksonian revolt against the Bank of the United States. Wilentz unearths the roots of democratic radicalism in the campaigns for popular reform of state constitutions during the revolutionary and Jacksonian eras, and in the young nation's mess of factional and third-party enthusiasms. And he shows how the democratic ethos came to pervade civil society, most significantly in the Second Great Awakening, "a devotional upsurge... that can only be described as democratic." Wilentz's concluding section on the buildup to the Civil War, which he presents as a battle over the meaning of democracy between the South's "Master Race" localism and the egalitarian nationalism of Lincoln's Republicans, is a tour-de-force, a satisfying summation and validation of his analytical approach. 75 illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Wilentz's account of the rise of American democracy is a triumph of scholarship and industry. Ranging with immense learning from the politics of New York State to the ethnic, class, and moral politics that shaped the emerging mass democracy, Wilentz has prepared a feast for all those drawn to this crucial but little-known era in the United States' past. In spite of its many virtues, the book unfortunately falls short of the kind of transformative work that would open this era to modern readers in the way that the Civil War and Revolutionary War periods have been opened. Eschewing some of the shibboleths of mid-twentieth-century historiography, Wilentz is driven by a sort of historical affirmative action to focus excessively on figures and movements of the period that share key values with the enlightened twenty-first-century academy (applications from antibank, antislavery, pro-labor feminists of color eagerly sought) while neglecting less enlightened figures who, alas, often had more influence at the time. The most striking failure of this kind has to do with Wilentz's near-total neglect of the rise of party organizations and political corruption and influence peddling. The net result is that Wilentz's picture, although finely detailed and masterfully drawn, bears less relationship than it should to the actual flow of American history. The future of the Democratic Party for more than a century would be a coalition of "master race" democracy Southerners and corrupt urban machines in the North, while the Republicans cemented a large popular base to Whig and Federalist economic ideas. Little in Wilentz's book prepares the reader for this anticlimactic result.
Library Journal
A central question of American history is how U.S. democratic institutions developed from the early republic to the beginning of the Civil War. In this informative, thoughtful, and thoroughgoing book, Wilentz (history & American studies, Princeton Univ.; Chants Democratic) demonstrates how multiple meanings that have attached to American ideas of democracy, both as a form of government and as a social construct, were altered in a complex fashion from the egalitarian Jeffersonian view to the populist Lincolnian perspective. He examines events and experiences, in particular the phenomenon of increased popular oversight of state and national government, that led to changing relationships between governors and the governed. Wilentz's themes include the political conflicts found in the development of representative democracy and the implications of the slavery controversy in battles concerning democratic reforms. His clear, insightful narrative conveys new interconnected understandings of main historical dimensions in our national life and will enhance citizens' understanding of the history of American political development. This superb analysis is highly recommended for public and academic libraries. -Steven Puro, St. Louis Univ. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Is the U.S. a democracy, or a republic? As Wilentz (History/Princeton Univ.) shows in this sprawling account, Americans debated the issue from the post-revolutionary era to the Civil War. In classical terms, a republic is governed "through the ministrations of the most worthy, enlightened men," whereas a democracy "dangerously handed power to the impassioned, unenlightened masses." One-time revolutionary firebrand Noah Webster so mistrusted the mob that, he thundered, had he foreseen popular rule, he would never have fought for freedom; even Thomas Jefferson, that most impassioned of democrats, allowed that given a free choice, the public chose wrongly more often than not. Democracy as such was an oxymoron, Wilentz observes, with power limited to white propertied men in the early days of the republic; the extension of rights throughout the 19th century to a wider polity was a matter of fierce fighting, and eventually war. The battle over just who was to be in charge began almost as soon as national freedom was achieved, an early test, Wilentz writes, being the Whisky Rebellion of 1794, fought by country people against an excise tax on distilled liquor imposed by urbanite arch-republican Alexander Hamilton. As the contest expanded, Wilentz notes, some of the differences between country and city people gave way to other divisions, and by the time Andrew Jackson ran for office in 1824, the gulf between North and South was beginning to widen (as, for a time, was that between those who believed in a cash economy and those who argued for the merits of credit). Abraham Lincoln, though deeply committed to democratic values, would insist on the supremacy of federal over states' rights, while thenominally democratic leaders of the South meant to exalt "the supreme political power of local elites." Wilentz shows that none of these battles was new when Lincoln took office; in some respects, they are still being fought today. Wilentz's book, though very long, wastes no words. A well-crafted, highly readable political history.
Steven Hahn - Chicago Tribune
“Remarkable . . . a book that befits its subject in artistry as well as scale.”
Franklin Foer - New York
“Confirms Sean Wilentz as the Richard Hofstadter of our day—the supreme political historian.”
Eric Foner - The Nation
“A magisterial synthesis that deserves the attention of anyone interested in the American past.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641932038
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/24/2005
  • Pages: 992
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 2.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History and director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton University. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Scholastic, informative, enjoyable, but biased. Should not be the only inquiry on the subject.

    A good history of early American Politics. A little overly scholastic maybe, and perhaps a little bit biased with a modern-day, partisan view of politics.

    Wilentz picks sides here, glosses over "his" heroes' character flaws, and plays down (or leaves out) pertinent information that could give readers a fuller appreciation of the time periods presented.

    For instance: Jefferson comes off rather well, Hamilton a real demagogue, and Washington gets a less than admirable treatment here. To Wilentz, the federalists are anti-democratic aristocrats intent on using government to enrich themselves (not accurate in my opinion), and the Republicans (the earliest Democrats) are the heroes fighting for liberty against their tyranny

    The author tries to be impartial, but his modern day liberal views are pretty bare for all to see- which is a bit of a shame considering the breadth of what he's trying to accomplish here- a full and thorough accounting of political thought and history from 1800s-1860s.

    Not a bad read though, especially for the more "progressive" minded, but SHOULD NOT be the only source for information on the subjects covered.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Good for (Advanced) Students

    I read this book the summer before I had to take a senior level college class on antebellum America. It turned out to be the perfect book to read. It covered most of the major topics in the course (at least the political aspects), and probably helped me do much better than I otherwise would have done. <BR/><BR/>As far as I can tell there is no new scholarship in this text. What makes it unique, however, is the complex synthesis Wilentz uses by taking massive amounts of state and local sources and blending them into what becomes an original narrative.<BR/><BR/>Wilentz is a good author and a respected historian (which is why I chose this book in particular). I would recommend this book for those who want a thorough understanding of the early American Republic.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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