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The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln [Paperback]

Sean Wilentz

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Book Description

9 Jan 2007
This title is included on "The New York Times" 100 Notable Books of 2005 list and noted as a best book of 2005 in "The Economist". Acclaimed as the definitive study of the period by one of the greatest American historians, "The Rise of American Democracy" traces an historical arc from the earliest days of the republic to the opening shots of the American Civil War.

Frequently Bought Together

The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln + Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States) + What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)
Price For All Three: 41.01

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Product details

  • Paperback: 1104 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (9 Jan 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393329216
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393329216
  • Product Dimensions: 23.3 x 16.1 x 4 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 521,242 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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"...truly magnificent... a landmark of American historiography. It is elegantly written, imaginatively conceived, and the footnotes alone are worth reading as a guide to the past thirty years of scholarship on pre-Civil War US history... Sean Wilentz has injected new life into a familiar story." Adam I.P. Smith, The Times Literary Supplement "Written by one of America's leading historians of the early republic, it provides a rich, detailed and lengthy narrative of the pre-Civil War period." John E. Owens, The Times Higher Educational Supplement"

About the Author

SEAN WILENTZ is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History and the director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton University.

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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  40 reviews
108 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sean Wilentz on American Democracy 29 Dec 2005
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
In "The Rise of American Democracy" (2005) Sean Wilentz has written a sweeping study of pre-Civil War United States. His study explores the long-standing tensions in early America which led to the Civil War, and it emphasizes the nature and fragility of democratic government. Sean Wilentz is Professor of History and director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton. He has written extensively on American history.

The primary goal of Professor Wilentz' book is to show how democracy expanded and grew in the United States from the earliest days of the Republic through the election of Abraham Lincoln. The book is lengthy (796 pages of text plus over 150 pages of notes) and filled with learning and detail.

In his book, Professor Wilentz offers a traditional narrative history as he focuses, and stresses "the importance of political events, ideas, and leaders to democracy's rise -- once an all-too-prevalent assumption, now in need of some rescue and repair". (p. xx) The three primary characters in his story are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, and the history centers around the direction these leaders gave to the development of democracy in the United States.

There are three large sections in the book. The first section covers the United States from the Revolution through the War of 1812 and emphasizes the transition from an elitist government founded on property and privilege to Jeffersonian democracy. The second section covers the "Era of Good Feelings" (which Professor Wilentz recharacterizes as the "Era of Bad Feelings"), moves through the Missouri Compromise, and then concentrates on the presidency of Andrew Jackson with his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States and his confrontation with South Carolina over nullification. This section concludes with the formation of the Whig party and the election of 1840. The third section of the book covers the growing and increasingly polarized conflict between North and South over slavery. This conflict was exacerbated by the War with Mexico and the resultant questions about the extension of slavery into the new territories. North and South became increasingly milit!
ant following unsuccessful Congressional attempts to defuse the controversy in 1850 and 1854. Professor Wilentz gives the reader the history of this conflict, with perceptive treatments of the Fugitive Slave Act, "bleeding" Kansas, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Dred Scott decision and much else (including a good discussion of Herman Melville and "Moby Dick"). This section culminates in a discussion of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860, and Southern secession.

The book has a thick, complex texture because of the disparate events it covers and the many threads Professor Wilentz integrates into his narrative. There are long economic discussions focusing on the Bank of the United States and the tariff. There are good treatments of American expansionism and "manifest destiny", of Indian policy, and above all else slavery. Professor Wilentz covers both national and state and local politics as he offers detailed discussions of how the individual States, both North and South, gradually expanded the franchise to include, by the outset of the Civil War, virtually all white males. Professor Wilentz gives a wealth of information about coalition politics and about compromise as the many movements in American pre-Bellum society, from the Federalists, to the Northern and Southern Whigs, to the Northern and Southern Democrats of every political stripe formed alliances with each other in an attempt to create a national politics and to cover o!
ver increasing dissention and disagreement resulting from the "peculiar institution". Professor Wilentz also emphasizes how much of American democracy developed "from the ground up" beginning from the time of President George Washington. Americans formed combinations and organizations outside the political system to make their voices heard. There are many instances, but the fullest treatment in this study belongs to abolitionism and to incipient unionist organizations of workers.

Professor Wilentz ties his material together by lengthy summations and preludes at the beginning and end of virtually every section. This allows the reader to keep track of what otherwise would be (and still remains) a complicated story. There is an excellent use of biography of many people,familiar and unfamiliar, and of the telling story or anecdote. In addition, Professor Wilentz' interest in democracy -- how it developed and how it was unable to keep the United States from falling into sectionalism and near destruction -- gives a center to the book. Professor Wilentz' sympathies are obviously with the growth, expansion, and inclusiveness of American participatory democracy as they developed up to the Civil War and continued with the "New Birth of Freedom" that President Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg.

This book probably will overwhelm readers who lack at least a basic grounding in pre-Civil War American history. For those with the requisite background and interest, the book presents an outstanding overview of America's pre-Bellum history, and a thoughtful account of where our country has been and where, Professor Wilentz suggests, it should be going.

Robin Friedman
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A true prize-winner 25 Sep 2006
By Constant Weeder - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I find it hard to describe this tremendous work of scholarship and learning. In all the 70-plus years that I've been reading American history, never have I learned so much new factual material and never have I seen such tightly reasoned analysis presented so concisely. My underlining of passages appears on almost every page. To take just one isolated case, the Bank of the United States, I learned what Hamilton had in mind, what the Federalists agenda was when it was established, how Andrew Jackson vetoed its re-charter and why, and the economic panics caused by the political jostling over a period of fifty years and more. From grand issues such as the expansion of slavery, to individual portraits of the little-known presidents who served in the 1830s and 40s, to such minutiae as the derivation of the word "booze" (from E. C. Booz, who operated a saloon in New York), I came away feeling that I had just completed a two-year postgraduate course in American history, a far superior one to that which I studied in Berkeley in the early 1950s. This is definitely a prize-winning work: it is balanced, detailed, easily read and grasped by those willing to take the time to do it, and I heartily recommend it to any reader unfamiliar with the crucial events of 1795-1861.
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent! 27 Mar 2006
By Nathaniel H. Biggs - Published on Amazon.com
This long academic text covers the changes that took place in the development of American democracy between the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Actually the book begins with democracies roots in America during the period of the Revolution and the Articles of Federation. The book traces the growth of American democracy from the "top-down" democracy of the early Federalists and Jeffersonians to the more grass-rooots oriented democracy that really began to take shape in the 1830s and 1840s to the crisis that American democracy faced with the coming of the Civil War.

Professor Wilenz does an excellent job chronicling the many changes that took place in American democracy during this time. In an easy to read style, Wilenz covers the changing political, economic, and sociological circumstances that effected the way that democracy developed in America. This text is an excellant political overview of the first 90 years of America's history. From the first stirrings of popular democracy under Jefferson, to the advances of the Jacksonian period, to the rise of abolition and southern fire-eaters, to the series of territorial crisis that finally brought about the Civil War. This book covers all of these events in a manner that is easy to understand and ties them together into a larger historical context. I have read other books covering the same period and came away feeling confused; not with this text. The example that sticks out in my head is the rise of the Whig Party in the late 1830s. Other texts have left me confused regarding the reasons behind the rise of the Whigs; I found Wilenz's explanation very easy to follow.

My only word of caution regarding this book - it is not for casual reaaders. This is meant to be an in depth look at a complex set of historical circumstances. I do not recommend it for people with only a passing interest in American history or those who are just beginning to delve into the period. It is not a book that you will finish it a night, but the time it takes you to read it will be well spent!
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars tour de force 23 Mar 2006
By Dale P. Henken - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Sean Wilentz's The Rise Of American Democracy is a tour de force. It is a long way from beginning to end. The journey is like traveling from Boston to Richmond in the 1800's by coach. Be prepared for a bumpy, arduous ride. It is well worth the trip. You arrive exhausted but the better for it. Gordon S. Wood in his review for the NY Times said probably only graduate history students would read the book. Tell Professor Wood that I am not a graduate student but I feel like one because of how much I learned about American democracy from Wilentz's book.

In the beginning was Jefferson & his Republican reaction to the Federalist cause & in the end another Republican of a different stripe, Abraham Lincoln. In the middle towers Andrew Jackson eroding the government of, by, and for the Privilaged Few by the torrents of his Populism. All those Presidents in between (there are eleven excluding Jackson) come to life in this hefty piece of scholarship. The dramatic tension is between those Presidents, Congress, the Court, & the people; it is the struggle to define democracy. Political differences are seen to coalesce to form parties, some more well defined than others but none maintaining the granite like identity of the now conservative & liberal parties in Great Britain. American political parties (when they appeared) were giant blobs of improvisation using the power of their constituencies to puff themselves up to govern for a time then deflate & morphing into something else again. It is an enchanting tale. The rise continues to this day.

Somehow my early education never connected the dots between the Founding Fathers & the American Revolution & Lincoln's Second Revolution. The dots get connected but the picture is not graphically pleasing. The rise of American democracy was an evolutionary process that was essentially gritty & chaotic but the themes Wilentz exposes are what make the story so much fun to read & so valuable to learn. I now have a better understanding of how we got here & the trip was well worth the ride.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best available introduction to the subject 3 Jan 2007
By Rob Forbes - Published on Amazon.com
Sean Wilentz has achieved a reputation as a significant American public intellectual, and as a notably partisan historian, defending his beloved Democratic Party and its revered founder, Andrew Jackson. Thus many historians might be forgiven for expecting this work to be polemical and biased. They would be wrong. In seeking to grasp the entire span of American history between the Revolution and the Civil War, Wilentz has in this long-awaited volume embraced a balanced, nuanced, and judicious view of his subject.

Moreover, despite the book's imposing length, I found myself continually surprised by Wilentz's admirable conciseness on matters of great complexity. It is not too much to say that this is an elegantly brief portrait of the crucial founding decades of the American republic.

Finally, The Rise of American Democracy restores politics to the front and center of American history, not as an elite pastime, but as the main arena of American life. This is a bold and courageous corrective to the long reign of social history in the academy, from an author who is himself one of the pioneers of social and labor history.
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