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A Government We Deserve

“A democracy, when put to the strain, grows weak and is supplanted by oligarchy.”

—Aristotle

The Rise of American Democracy:
Jefferson to Lincoln

by Sean Wilentz

New York: W.W. Norton;
1,004 pp., $35.00

To write a book about democracy, a word that functions today as little more than an advertising slogan, an author should first define what it is that he is talking about, giving attention to the historical origins and development of that concept, what the best minds of the past have thought about it, and, above all, whether—however defined—it bears any relation to an observable reality.  All this, Professor Wilentz fails to do.

By applying the Whig or progressive paradigm to American democracy, Wilentz obscures the fact that antebellum America was much more democratic than her postbellum or 20th-century incarnations, despite a more-restrictive suffrage.  In 1800, although few citizens could vote directly for the presidency, they had a real choice before them.  John Adams would have maintained the centralized, repressive, mercantilist state created by Alexander Hamilton.  Jefferson released political prisoners, repealed all internal taxes, reduced the national debt by a third, and bought Louisiana from France.  In...

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