America from Tom to Abe; A Hip Historian's Take on How Democracy Took Root
Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek
Byline: Malcolm Jones
Sean Wilentz ends his massive history, "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln," with a description of a photograph taken in 1865: 13 men, six white, seven black, the jury empaneled to try Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederacy, on charges of treason. To Wilentz, the picture is an apt emblem of "the hopes of the Civil War era as to how a post-slavery United States might look." Sitting in his office at Princeton, Wilentz shakes his head in admiration. "All these white guys and black guys together. And you realize, this is unthinkable five years earlier. And it's a step toward democracy." Another shake of the head, this one more rueful. "But it all came undone. By 1900 it looks blasphemous." He leans forward to drive the point home. "Democracy can come undone. It's not something that's necessarily going to last forever once it's been established."
As Wilentz tells it in his book, the story of how democracy took root in this country prior to the Civil War is an epic worthy of Homer. Some of the actors are familiar--all of those dead white guys on our currency are there. But joining them is a cast of thousands: ward heelers, abolitionists, novelists, minstrels and terrorists. Notables and nobodies jostle for a place on the stage, and Wilentz runs as fast as he can to keep up with the action. The result is a magnificent chronicle, the life of an idea that, although it is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, nevertheless slowly elbowed its way into the heart of American life.
Wilentz, 54, is gregarious, curious and eclectic: on the walls of his book-lined office, portraits of Andrew Jackson and Bob Dylan stare at each other from opposite walls (in his spare time, Wilentz is the "historian in residence" at BobDylan. …