An affecting portrait of the US on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
In this lyrical coda to Sentimental Democracy (1999), Burstein argues that a fondness for recasting history “continues to animate American political culture; it is at once as quaint as romance and as insidious as ideology.” He believes the videotape of American history paused briefly in the summer of 1826, when the nation looked back with deep gratitude to the Revolution and its heroes, some of whom (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams) were still alive. Americans had elected John Quincy Adams president in a contest settled acrimoniously in the House of Representatives, but they had already begun to embrace the more democratic principles of Andrew Jackson, who would win the presidency in 1828. As a prologue, Burstein describes the extraordinarily emotional return to America in 1824–25 of revolutionary hero Lafayette. The old Frenchman toured each of the 24 states, where he was feted, saluted, and hugged by former comrades-in-arms, many of whom dissolved into tears. Burstein then takes us on a tour of American culture and politics. He acquaints us with the romantic fascination with death. He teaches us about the cheese industry, the building of the great canals, fashions in footwear. He brings to life the known (John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, John Randolph) and the lesser known (William Wirt, US Attorney General for 12 consecutive years; Ethan Allen Brown, an early Ohio governor; Eliza Foster, author of the now-obscure novel Yorktown). His accounts of the deaths of Jefferson and Adams, both of whom passed away on July 4, 1826, are deeply poignant, and provide a fitting coda for the work.
Burstein’s evocative reconstruction shows Americans pausing to consider where they had been and where they were going. (20 b&w illustrations, 2 maps)