Copyright The Economist
DEMOCRACY is a word that gets bandied about. George Bush likes to remind voters of the pressing need to “secure freedom and democracy” in Iraq. Afghanistan’s recent elections signal that it is on the “road toward a stable democracy”. The United Nations has lately (at America’s urging) started up a “Democracy Fund” as a bulwark for fragile democracies. And so it goes.
Yet democracy is a fluid concept. No one knows this better than the world’soldest continuous democracy. Minority rights, which Mr Bush says are among the “common principles” of democracies, were non-existent when America began. Its founders held slaves. They excluded blacks, women and many landless white men from voting. Free speech was often elusive, and even the much-feted system of checks and balances got off to a rocky start as early presidents simply ignoredSupreme Court rulings.
In a new book, Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University, contends that despite some promising principles, at the outset “the republic was not democratic”. Nor did those in power wish it to be. Thomas Jefferson was in a distinct minority when he declared, “I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom.” Jefferson’s planter friends regarded democracy as a blindalley: in Mr Wilentz’s phrasing, it wasdangerous to hand power to the “impassioned, unenlightened masses”.
When reform came, it was a halting process, and largely the result of the new economic and social realities of the expanding republic. The profusion of religions also played a role, as did the aggressiveness of party organisations. Mr Wilentz gets incensed by Federalist “mossbacks”, who despaired at the extension of voting rights to landless whites in the early 19th century.
This is a dense, authoritative and well-written study. It has been ten years in the making, and brings together an impressive accrual of detail. From the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Missouri Compromise to the election of Abraham Lincoln, everydevelopment is given careful study.
The book also contains many analytical nuggets. Why, the author asks, are not more federal officials impeached (or at least seriously threatened with impeachment), given the stark partisanship of politics today? The answer, Mr Wilentz says, harks back to 1804-05, when Samuel Chase, a Supreme Court justice, was impeached by the House of Representatives. His misdeeds largely consisted of being a staunch Federalist and crossing President Thomas Jefferson, a Republican. But the Republican-majority Senate broke with Jefferson and voted to acquit, signalling that the standard must be greater than mere ideology. Chase remains the only Supreme Court justice ever impeached.
Much of the narrative, of course, is taken up with the slave battles. Mr Wilentz cuts through the myths—even the Missouri Compromise was not a “compromise”, he insists, owing to the way it was constructed. Some of Congress’s fiercest fights were over the admission of new states to the union, and whether they should be slave or free. Often, Mr Wilentz explains, the free staters in places like Kansas were motivated by the ignoble desire to ensure that theirs was a lily-white enclave. Mr Wilentz also shows how slaveholders kept a chokehold on local power in much of the South; one reason they feared northern abolitionist propaganda was that it might generally sow doubts about the system among landless whites as well as among slaves.
A central figure in early American democracy and the evolving north-south rows was Andrew Jackson. Orphaned during the revolutionary war, Jackson rose from nothing to prominence in the fights against the native Indians, and he later became a national hero at the end of the war of 1812. When a large British force threatened New Orleans in 1815, he trounced them, helping to strengthen America’s shaky grasp on the Louisiana territory and promote westward expansion.
From there, the presidency seemed a quite obvious step. But the country had never seen a candidate like Jackson. Most early presidents were intellectuals. Jackson was the first since George Washington to be a military hero. Unlike the austere Washington, he also energetically embraced the masses, who returned the compliment by turning out to vote as never before. (Grumbled one rival, Henry Clay, “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult and complicated duties of the Chief Magistrate.”)
Jackson finally attained the presidency in 1829, despite the best efforts of his opponents, who took character assassination to a new level during the campaign, with slurs about his “adulteress” wife and his “prostitute” mother: another, less salubrious step in an evolving democracy.
Jackson and the democratic revolution he swept in form the basis of a new biography by H.W. Brands, a wonderful storyteller who has written eloquently on many topics including Benjamin Franklin, Texas’s revolution and the California gold rush. Mr Brands’s challenge is greater here, for Jackson is an ambiguous figure and the book’s muscular and enthusiastic tone is sometimes a poor fit with its subject.
Commonly known as “Old Hickory”, Jackson turns out to have been on the wrong side of history on many issues. He was an unabashed slaveholder who needlessly slaughtered Indians, and even went so far as to cut out tribes who fought as his allies from land deals. His policies as president led to the “Trail of Tears”, in which tribes were forced from the lands they had obtained by treaty from the federal government. Thousands of Cherokees died on the trek from the south to Oklahoma so that whites could till the rich Georgia soil.
Jackson also instigated financial turmoil. Having lived through a period of boom-and-bust land speculation, he distrusted paper money and banks. During his second term, he vetoed the renewal of the charter for the independent Second Bank of the United States, a private institution that kept the federal government’s deposits interest-free, and issued uniform paper currency. Jackson had some legitimate concerns about the bank, which he also viewed as unconstitutional—but in waging his struggle, he hurt not just the bankers, but also the ordinary citizens that Jacksonian democracy was meant to support. That Jackson’s visage remains on the $20, America’s second-most widely circulated bill, is both curious and ironic.
So why does the myth of Jackson persist? Besides giving voice to the common man, Jackson was above all a committed unionist, argues Mr Brands. The main crisis of his first term was South Carolina’s attempt to nullify a federal law on tariffs that it did not like. This amounted to a constitutional showdown. Jackson’s one-line toast at the moment of crisis—”Our Federal Union: it must be preserved”—helped to carry the day. South Carolina backed off. But, despite Mr Brands’s enthusiasm for his subject, such achievements still leave Jackson, as democrat and statesman, far short of the class of Abraham Lincoln.
Copyright The Economist