Gordon Wood reviews Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy. His review is fine, as far as it goes. (I should mention that I am now reading Wilentz’s book as well, and, despite my critical tone, I think it merits reading.) Woods’ review does reveal that on the one hand the book is surprisingly thoughtful and is real political history, and on the other, that Wood himself only sees what moves American history imperfectly: Wood has the same problem that Wilentz has. Wood mentions that Wilentz’s hero, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., never mentioned Andrew Jackson’s removal of the Indians in his book on Jackson. How revealing. Yet Schlesinger won the Pulitzer for the book, in large part because it gave the Liberals (now not really calling themselves progressives) something to fight with; Arthur junior brought Liberalism back very close to the Founding, and made it more secure and persuasive. Wilentz wants to do it better by moving the "history of democracy" to the center of American history. Yet, there is a forced quality to the thing, like placing a screw a milimeter too large into a hole not made for it. The democratic talk is overdone and overheated, and oddly theoretical from a historian who claims not to be such and who claims to understand that context is critical. It is not so much that our people and our history do nothing but contend over the real meaning of democracy, as Willnetz would have it, but rather that we have thought out and worked out the meaning of freedom as a blessing.
That is, the architecture of the Constitution is not at odds with the Declaration’s good ends. The practical wisdom that this understanding demands--as well as the decisions that it brought forth--is what makes our union move, that is, have a history. It is not "the struggles over contending ideas of democracy," as Wilentz would have it. That is a much less interesting, and a smaller point. But that’s all these guys have.