Relentless Partisanship

By Black, Conrad | The American Spectator, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Relentless Partisanship


Black, Conrad, The American Spectator


Relentless Partisanship The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by Sean Wilentz (W.W. NORTON, 992 PAGES, $35)

THIS BOOK is A PRODIGIOUS FEAT of scholarship and organization, weaving into its narrative every political splinter group, and attempting to give appropriate weight to all the tides and currents of American sociology from the Revolution to the Civil War. No detour into labor and religious and political factionalism is too obscure to be deserving of the brief redirection of the entire narrative to include it. An endless sequence of labor and social and religious agitators, of Clodhoppers, Tertium Quids, Loco Focos, Hunkers, Barnburners, and Know-Nothings; of cameo figures from Madison Washington to Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar to the assertive Governor Wilson Lumpkin, (pp. 556, 561, 428), crowd, and generally enrich, the story. The progress of the voting franchise, by racial and property-holding criteria, is authoritatively recounted for almost all of the states.

The thoroughness of the author's research and organization of his material is exemplary. The writing, despite occasional outbursts of pedantry and a tendency to dryness that understates the farcical aspects of much of the subject, flows smoothly and is often pleasing and even stylish. It is slightly disconcerting to read of "Walter" Whitman and "David" Crockett, or that Henry clay "coaxed" President William Henry Harrison into something "before he died" (presumably before Harrison died). The implications of doing so after one or both of them had died are sufficiently disturbing that the point is better not made (p. 524). But these are minor cavils and this book is quite readable despite its intense detail and complexity.

It has only one serious problem: the author's relentless partisanship. He is a yellow dog Democrat who romanticizes and exalts the forebears of the present Democratic Party, and denigrates their opponents with a mechanical and sometimes grating consistency.

Washington and Lincoln are too celebrated to be frontally attacked, but, not being Democrats, they are seriously diminished. Washington is passed over as an almost irrelevant figurehead as president who presumably rendered some service in the Revolutionary War and had earned the respect of his countrymen. But he is presented as essentially a ceremonious constitutional monarch who indulged the alleged cupidity, treachery, and anti-republican tendencies of Hamilton. In fact, he suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion to preserve the government of the young republic from insurrectionists, not because he was a stooge of Hamilton's, as is implied (pp. 72-3).

"Spotty" Lincoln is presented as eloquent and cunning at times, but often devious. He apparently had almost nothing to do with founding the Republican Party, unjustly exploited the discomfort of the Democrats over slavery, and may not have exhausted acceptable means for avoiding the Civil War. His ultimate victory, and the salvation of the Union and Emancipation of the slaves, were mitigated by the deaths of 600,000 people in the War.

John Adams, a solid if unexciting New Englander, is portrayed as a buffoon masquerading as having martial aptitudes, a virtual counter-revolutionary, brushed aside by the virtuous Jefferson. He receives no credit for installing Jefferson over the shadowy Aaron Burr in the 1800 electoral college vote. He and Washington and Hamilton had been upholding "a hidebound elitism" (p. 116). John Quincy Adams runs the author's gauntlet more successfully, but he was, after all, technically a Jeffersonian when he became president, having been Monroe's very successful secretary of state. Henry clay is presented as a whiskey-sodden schemer and poseur, wrongly seeking credit for the 1850 Compromise, which, according to Wilentz, really belonged to Douglas (pp. 642-4). Daniel Webster e-merges as a bibulous and ineffectual windbag.

Jefferson, who was a slave-holder and Indian-baiter, comes through as almost without fault.

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