THE OPENING OF AMERICAN SOCIETY: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion by Robert H. Wiebe

THE OPENING OF AMERICAN SOCIETY: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion

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Much heat, and some light, on the old problem of how the republic became a democracy. Wiebe (History, Northwestern), best known for studies of reform movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, begins this latest project with the ""gentry"" who dominated American public life at the end of the 18th century: how their elitist assumptions and expectations set them apart from the great mass of their fellow-citizens; how they expected the constitution to create a well-ordered, hierarchical national republic for such as themselves to govern; how (ironically) the political parties they organized in the 1790s would help make it possible for very different kinds of people to take their place. What finally conspired to finish off the gentry and its plans, Wiebe says, were the churning events of the next 40 or so years: rapid territorial expansion and the westward movement, rampant individualism and commercialism, enlarged ideas about individual rights, a new generation of state and local leaders, the advent of a second national party system, the Jacksonian assault on state power. By 1840 or so, he concludes, a decentralized, open, and democratic ""national society"" had supplanted the genteel republic envisioned by the founding fathers. Now this is hardly a conclusion that departs significantly from the conventional wisdom--no matter that Wiebe works hard to trick it up with a lot of fancy nonsense. ("". . . Jefferson and Madison responded by integrating the national government's vertical axis as their constitutional weapon. . .""; ""presiding in catholic majesty. . . Jefferson pursued the great dream of American happiness by expanding his hierarchy to cover as much of the nation as he could in a soft envelope of peaceful accommodation."") But there are compensations for struggling through. Wiebe's thumbnail sketches of the principal characters are memorable (he gets Monroe just right), and he has spotted some things that other historians have not really noticed--how the sentry's code duello shaped early American political practices, for example, or how much the first parties resembled ""militia musters of voters."" He makes a strong case that what the gentry had in common was more important than the differences that occasionally divided them, that the popular response to social change was not so pathological as often alleged, that class divisions loomed larger the more society became democratic, and even--in defiance of much historical writing nowadays--that the Civil War was not necessarily a struggle between an industrializing north and a still-agrarian south. He also makes effective use of new material in women's history, family history, and the history of medicine. The individual pieces, in short, are more interesting than the whole puzzle.

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1984
Publisher: Knopf