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The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to…
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The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

by Sean Wilentz

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    The Age of Jackson by Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr. (MarkStickle)
    MarkStickle: Wilentz is largely Schlesinger warmed-over, at greater length and not as well-written. Curiously, in nearly 1000 pages we never learn exactly what Wilentz means by 'democracy' and who exactly the concept includes. In its Jeffersonian and Jacksonian incarnation it certainly does NOT encompass women, blacks, or native Americans.… (more)
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“The Rise of American Democracy,” by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, is nothing short of a magisterial synthesis of political history in the United States from 1800 to 1860. In 800 pages, followed by extensive annotated endnotes, Wilentz explores how the bases of political power and political involvement expanded through the momentous antebellum period – and how they laid the foundation for both Southern secession and Northern resistance at the outbreak of the Civil War.

It is a story filled with conflict and a myriad of overlapping movements striving to obtain for themselves what the Revolutionary generation had called “the blessings of liberty.” It details the slow, but steady, expansion of suffrage in all of the states in the early 19th century. Then it considers how these voters were wooed by, or formed, political groups to pursue various goals, especially economic ones. In each election, various coalitions of these groups banded together as larger political parties, but Wilentz makes clear that these groups were never completely united or even entirely cohesive, which has significant implications on any understanding of American history during the period.

Breathtaking in scope, in research, in judgment, and in the ability to incorporate into the overall narrative hundreds of influential figures, Wilentz's book is, simply, a masterwork, the culmination of an impressive career. Not only readable, but consistently engaging, it reminds all that what is called historical progress is not inevitable or easy, but has been achieved in American history in the consistent and persistent agitation and activity of politically engaged groups of people. ( )
  ALincolnNut | Mar 3, 2014 |
This massive study of democracy's advance in the US from 1800 to 1861 is brimming with careful and original research. There are 796 pages of text, 156 pages of notes, and a detailed 96 page index. I liked that the study of each election for President and each Administration was carefully explicated in lucid prose. It is hard to see how the subject could be better explained. I thought sometimes explanations were more detailed than necessary, but I ound the book masterful and very convincing in showing the pretty steady advance of democratic ideas, even though when it ends in 1861 there are still huge advances to be made in Americah democracy. .After reading this book no one with an open mind can doubt that the Confederacy came into being because the South wanted to keep slavery and the myth of the South wanting 'freedom' is thoroughly shown to be untenable. ( )
  Schmerguls | Sep 7, 2012 |
This is a remarkable accomplishment. Wilentz' mastery of detail is a bit overwhelming, but his ability to tie all those details into a coherent narrative and to draw useful conclusions from the torrent of events is quite astonishing. The result is occasionally like hacking your way through a thicket, but it's a rewarding thicket.

The book draws on and is aware of other work in the field, but its emphasis differs from most modern narratives of the period. Wilentz concentrates on the alliances which make political parties, and generally takes the activists at their word. One result is that he largely ignores economic causes of events except when they're so overwhelming they cannot be avoided. But he generally judges other causes sufficient, for reasons he explains in great detail. We watch the Democrats and Whigs emerge from the chaos of the "Era of Good Feelings" (a notion Wilentz simply rejects, by the way), then both parties lose their bearings as the political environment changes. Another decade of chaos eventually gives birth to the Republican party, which in this telling directly leads to the Civil War.

There's an enormous amount of material here, but there are two predominant themes: Changing and conflicting definitions of democracy, and the inability of successive political generations to settle the slavery issue. The two themes reinforce each other, but they're essentially independent threads in a tapestry. But reducing the story to those two themes degrades Wilentz' accomplishment, which is to survey all the engines driving the Union's emerging political system.

There's room to dispute this book's theses, but this is our time's definitive explication on the era's politics. Well worth your money and effort, but budget yourself time to savor the telling.

This review has also been published on a dabbler's journal. ( )
  joeldinda | Jun 15, 2010 |
A very long narrative of the development of democracy in America. Covers a lot of rather obscure events, and I felt that I was seeing lots of trees, but the forest was hard to make out. Still, it does give a good sense of how democracy developed, from the end of the Federalist era to the Civil War.

Wilentz does seem somewhat enamored of Jefferson, Jackson, and the Democrats, and not at all pleased with the Federalists and the Whigs. So while he does mention some of the horrible ways that Jeffersonians and Jacksonians treated Blacks and Indians, he is rather forgiving of their human rights abuses. At the same time, he is very harsh in his treatment of the undemocratic tendencies of the Federalists and Whigs. ( )
  JPMcGrath86 | Jan 18, 2010 |
I'm still in the process of reading this book but I really like how the author writes. It's fairly easy to get through considering it is somewhat lengthy (page wise). It's a great political history during an amazing time in America's past. Mr. Wilentz definitely does bring to life the debate over the role the new government would have in Americans lives. His study explores the tensions in early America which led to the Civil War while emphasizing the fragility of a democratic government. It is definitely not boring and if you are interested in this time period, then you should definitely read this book. Keep in mind it is a sweeping study of pre-Civil War United States. ( )
  Angelic55blonde | Jul 11, 2007 |
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This book's simple title describes the historical arc of its subject.
PROLOGUE
 On pleasant evenings in the middle of the 1830s, Noah Webster, nearing his eighties, would return from his daily walk around New Haven, sit on his front-porch rocker, pick up his newspaper, and moan.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393058204, Hardcover)

A grand political history in a fresh new style of how the elitist young American republic became a rough-and-tumble democracy.

In this magisterial work, Sean Wilentz traces a historical arc from the earliest days of the republic to the opening shots of the Civil War. One of our finest writers of history, Wilentz brings to life the era after the American Revolution, when the idea of democracy remained contentious, and Jeffersonians and Federalists clashed over the role of ordinary citizens in government of, by, and for the people. The triumph of Andrew Jackson soon defined this role on the national level, while city democrats, Anti-Masons, fugitive slaves, and a host of others hewed their own local definitions. In these definitions Wilentz recovers the beginnings of a discontenttwo starkly opposed democracies, one in the North and another in the Southand the wary balance that lasted until the election of Abraham Lincoln sparked its bloody resolution. 75 illustrations.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:57 -0400)

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A political history of how the fledgling American republic developed into a democratic state offers insight into how historical beliefs about democracy compromised democratic progress and identifies the roles of key contributors.

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