#1 Good Democrats and Bad Democrats by Rev 26.12.2013 15:57


Good Democrats and Bad Democrats

A review of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, by Sean Wilentz

What the Democratic Party has most liked to say about itself—that it is the party of the working man, the voice of the oppressed, the tribune of the people—loses some of its strut in the light of a rather long list of inconvenient facts, chiefly having to do with slavery and race. Such facts as these: that the Democrats were the party that championed chattel bondage, backed an expansionist war to expand slavery's realm, and corrupted the Supreme Court in order to open the western territories to the cancer. The party's Southern wing then led the nation into civil war in defense of slavery while its Northern wing did its best to stymie the administration of Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded by the Democrats as an accidental, even illegitimate, president. Thereafter, the party embraced Jim Crow as slavery's next-best substitute, elected a president who imposed segregation on the federal workforce, and remained the chief opponent of racial equality in much of the United States (though with important dissenters) up to the brink of the 1960s. The wonder, however, is not that the Democratic Party survived its six-decades-long infatuation with slavery and its century-long alliance with segregation, but that the party repressed all memory of that infatuation and that alliance so quickly—and made so successfully the argument that it had never ever, in its heart of hearts, been slavery's best friend after all.

This argument was made in the broadest terms in 1945 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in The Age of Jackson, and it has now been made once again, with even greater scope, by Sean Wilentz in The Rise of American Democracy. No one, in fact, is more aware of the line that connects The Age of Jackson with The Rise of American Democracy than Wilentz himself, who pays lavish tribute to Schlesinger in his preface. (Schlesinger returned the favor in an essay published in the New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006.) According to Wilentz, it was Schlesinger's great achievement to place "democracy's origins firmly in the context of the founding generation's ideas about the few and the many...seeing democracy's expansion as an outcome of struggles between classes, not sections." This is an elegant, and somewhat deceptive, way of saying that Schlesinger rescued the history of the Democratic Party from the opprobrium with which Charles Beard and J. Allen Smith had covered all the founders, as the evil twins of the robber barons, who constructed the Constitution in order to rob ordinary folk of the economic egalitarianism promised by the Declaration of Independence. No, replied Schlesinger, the Jacksonian Democrats were genuine keepers of the Progressive flame; Andrew Jackson was a sort of antebellum FDR (and FDR a latter-day Jackson) restoring democracy and care for "the little guy" to the republic. This is the gauntlet Wilentz sees himself taking up.

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#2 RE: Good Democrats and Bad Democrats by Cincinnatus 26.12.2013 16:21


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