early american democracy

Jill Lepore on the origins of American democracy in the New Yorker.

Readers may weary at the length of Wilentz’s book, but, as a model for integrating social and political history, it’s hard to dispute. That it will be disputed is, however, certain, if only because Wilentz has been such a vigorous critic of his colleagues. He has had little use for historians who defend Federalists like Noah Webster. To those who celebrate Federalists for their opposition to slavery, Wilentz counters, “Rarely has any group of Americans done so little to deserve such praise.” In his New Republic reviews, Wilentz has been particularly indignant about historians who place Federalists in a better light than Republicans or who dismiss Jefferson’s entire career because he owned slaves (including some who were almost certainly his own children). David McCullough’s “John Adams” was, in his view, “popular history as passive nostalgic spectacle.” Garry Wills’s book about Jefferson’s election, “Negro President,” he deemed “misadventurous.” In another essay, Wilentz concluded, “Were he alive today, Jefferson would probably regard modern American historians as a rascally bunch.”

But one thing that Federalists understood—for all their failings, for all their unmitigated snobbery—was the fragility of democracy. I’d be willing to consider you an angel, Webster told Jefferson, if you could show me a democracy that isn’t corrupt, or if you could protect the United States from “the instruments with which vicious and unqualified men destroy the freedom of elections, and exalt themselves into power, trampling first on the great and good, and afterwards on the very people to whom they owe their elevation.” Webster may have been a prig, but he wasn’t a duffer.