Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning The Rise of American Democracy, Bob Dylan in America, and many other works.
A central question of American history is how U.S. democratic institutions developed from the early republic to the beginning of the Civil War. In this informative, thoughtful, and thoroughgoing book, Wilentz (history & American studies, Princeton Univ.; Chants Democratic) demonstrates how multiple meanings that have attached to American ideas of democracy, both as a form of government and as a social construct, were altered in a complex fashion from the egalitarian Jeffersonian view to the populist Lincolnian perspective. He examines events and experiences, in particular the phenomenon of increased popular oversight of state and national government, that led to changing relationships between governors and the governed. Wilentz's themes include the political conflicts found in the development of representative democracy and the implications of the slavery controversy in battles concerning democratic reforms. His clear, insightful narrative conveys new interconnected understandings of main historical dimensions in our national life and will enhance citizens' understanding of the history of American political development. This superb analysis is highly recommended for public and academic libraries. -Steven Puro, St. Louis Univ. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
As the revolutionary fervor of the war for independence cooled, the new American republic, says Princeton historian Wilentz, might easily have hardened into rule by an aristocracy. Instead, the electoral franchise expanded and the democratic creed transformed every aspect of American society. At its least inspired, this ambitious study is a solid but unremarkable narrative of familiar episodes of electoral politics. But by viewing political history through the prism of democratization, Wilentz often discovers illuminating angles on his subject. His anti-elitist sympathies make for some lively interpretations, especially his defense of the Jacksonian revolt against the Bank of the United States. Wilentz unearths the roots of democratic radicalism in the campaigns for popular reform of state constitutions during the revolutionary and Jacksonian eras, and in the young nation's mess of factional and third-party enthusiasms. And he shows how the democratic ethos came to pervade civil society, most significantly in the Second Great Awakening, "a devotional upsurge... that can only be described as democratic." Wilentz's concluding section on the buildup to the Civil War, which he presents as a battle over the meaning of democracy between the South's "Master Race" localism and the egalitarian nationalism of Lincoln's Republicans, is a tour-de-force, a satisfying summation and validation of his analytical approach. 75 illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.