America From Tom to Abe

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 He has a reporter's obsession with facts, with getting it right--and with fighting what he calls "the immense sanctimony of posterity that we impose on the past. We always think we know better. But you have to try and walk in other people's shoes." As a result, he spends as much time creating the context for his characters as he does writing about their deeds. So we see Jackson, for example, as an Indian killer and a slaveholder, but also as a child who grew up in a frontier milieu where dueling over matters of honor was perfectly acceptable. We also see him as the man who singlehandedly invented the modern presidency, validated the idea of an inviolate Union (Lincoln would later look to Jackson for inspiration) and took the notion of majority-rule democracy further than it had ever been taken before. "The hard thing for people to realize," Wilentz says, "is that these are human beings, not just actors with wooden swords, so they're going to be flawed. And they had ideas, and those ideas mattered."

It is easy to get a little lost in the 1,044-page "Rise of American Democracy" because throughout the story the very idea of democracy never stops changing. And, according to Wilentz, it keeps changing: "We're still trying to figure out what democracy ought to be." So when we talk about exporting the stuff to, say, Iraq, what exactly are we talking about? "You're bringing them an argument. And that argument is important and it has to be preserved. But it's not static. Democracy in America is the spectacle of Americans arguing about democracy." Wilentz shows what that fight has cost, and why it's worth it.