Is the U.S. a democracy, or a republic? As Wilentz (History/Princeton Univ.) shows in this sprawling account, Americans debated the issue from the post-revolutionary era to the Civil War.
In classical terms, a republic is governed “through the ministrations of the most worthy, enlightened men,” whereas a democracy “dangerously handed power to the impassioned, unenlightened masses.” One-time revolutionary firebrand Noah Webster so mistrusted the mob that, he thundered, had he foreseen popular rule, he would never have fought for freedom; even Thomas Jefferson, that most impassioned of democrats, allowed that given a free choice, the public chose wrongly more often than not. Democracy as such was an oxymoron, Wilentz observes, with power limited to white propertied men in the early days of the republic; the extension of rights throughout the 19th century to a wider polity was a matter of fierce fighting, and eventually war. The battle over just who was to be in charge began almost as soon as national freedom was achieved, an early test, Wilentz writes, being the Whisky Rebellion of 1794, fought by country people against an excise tax on distilled liquor imposed by urbanite arch-republican Alexander Hamilton. As the contest expanded, Wilentz notes, some of the differences between country and city people gave way to other divisions, and by the time Andrew Jackson ran for office in 1824, the gulf between North and South was beginning to widen (as, for a time, was that between those who believed in a cash economy and those who argued for the merits of credit). Abraham Lincoln, though deeply committed to democratic values, would insist on the supremacy of federal over states’ rights, while the nominally democratic leaders of the South meant to exalt “the supreme political power of local elites.” Wilentz shows that none of these battles was new when Lincoln took office; in some respects, they are still being fought today.
Wilentz’s book, though very long, wastes no words. A well-crafted, highly readable political history.