Striving for Democracy

Striving for Democracy

Sean Wilentz

The democratic ideas that spurred America's budding capitalists on were vigorously contested--and still are.

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Americans, including many historians, like to think of the period from the end of the War of 1812 to the outbreak of the Civil War as an ebullient, egalitarian era, the age of the common man, when ordinary workingmen and farmers came into their own as full-throated citizens and voters. It was a time, so the story goes, when age-old prejudices linking virtue with property holding finally dissolved. Men of humble background who worked with their hands could aspire one day to gain wealth and social standing--and even, like Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln, to become the nation's head of state. It was all a far cry from the high-blown, deferential New World republic that the Revolutionary generation had envisaged. Instead of a cultivated gentry elite, it would be the People--"King Numbers," in the disdainful phrase of the disgruntled Virginia aristocrat, John Randolph of Roanoke--who would guide the nation's destiny. Democracy, a word that greatly troubled the Framers in Philadelphia in 1787, became a shibboleth for partisans of almost every persuasion.

More skeptical scholars have questioned this colorful, egalitarian tableau. Some have pointed out important antidemocratic features of the period. In several states, for example, expansion of the suffrage for white men before 1860 was accompanied by an abridgement of the suffrage and other political rights for free blacks, as well as (in the one state where such rights had existed, New Jersey) for women. Egalitarian with respect to class, these historians argue, the era was just the opposite with respect to race and gender. Moreover, although officeholding became less attached to family influence and noblesse oblige than it had been after the Revolution, politics remained firmly in the control of coteries of well-connected local partisans. Other historians have argued the opposite: that an excess of democracy opened the way for the rise of demagogues, whose agitation degraded politics and led directly to the Civil War. 

About the Author

Sean Wilentz, currently a Wilson Center Fellow, is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University.

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