RUDE REPUBLIC by Glenn C. Altschuler


Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century
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Altschuler (Changing Channels, 1992) and Blumin (History/Cornell) debunk the supposed “golden era” of American electoral

politics: 1840 through 1860, when voter turnouts approached 80 percent in many elections.

Now that turnouts have dropped to record lows and even Op-Ed columnists complain that current political campaigns are

painfully tedious, one might be tempted to regard the decades leading up to the Civil War as halcyon days of a flourishing

democracy carefully managed by a concerned citizenry. The authors warn against “using the nineteenth century as a club with

which to beat subsequent generations,” pointing out that the majority of Americans were then barred from voting by considerations

of gender or race. They follow seven representative towns through three election cycles (1840–42, 1850–52, and 1858–60),

observing both active participants and bystanders. Even among those who enjoyed the franchise, politics comprised an enormous

range of experiences and degrees of involvement, from active partisanship to the carnival atmosphere generated by campaign

bonfires and “jubilees” for those on the fringes. The party system effectively mobilized voters through advertising, entertainments,

and plain bribery, but it also distanced most citizens from the real decision-making taking place among professional pols (mostly

lawyers) in the notorious smoke-filled back rooms. Journalists and reformers of the era criticized the political arena as a sinkhole

of vice and crudeness—at best, an unpleasant duty for gentlemen—and cartoonists savagely caricatured repulsive party bosses

and uncouth voters. Drawing on party annals, newspaper reports, personal correspondence, and journals, Altschuler and Blumin

convincingly demonstrate political indifference, corruption, and cynicism—along with sincere engagement. The authors admirably

avoid simplistic pronouncements, but their dense, leaden prose (even by academic standards) and awkward juxtapositions fail to

evoke the diverse, contentious period that they document.

A substantial, valuable study. (22 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: April 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-691-00130-8
Page count: 303pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2000


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