Democratic false memory syndrome

Today we present the third of our three selections from the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here — please). In addition to the pieces we have featured here over the past few days, the new issue is full of such highlights as Michael Uhlmann’s essay on judicial usurpation and Michael Barone’s review of Andrew Busch’s book on the 1980 election. Check out the new issue’s table of contents at the CRB’s linked home page.

This year liberal activist and Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz won the Bancroft Prize for his 2005 book The Rise of American Democracy. When you’ve read Allen Guelzo’s review of the book in the latest CRB, you’ll understand one way in which Wilentz may have deserved the prize. It is, after all, the same prize that was awarded to Michael Bellesiles in 2001 for a book notoriously full of myths about early American gun ownership.

Wilentz is a Democratic Party apologist self-consciously in the tradition of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., whose The Age of Jackson (1945) sought to do for earlier generations of Democrats what Wilentz wants to do for this one — wipe clean the slate of history and give them a usable past. The great blot on the historical record of the Democratic Party is its association with slavery. As Guelzo writes, to open his review:

What the Democratic Party has most liked to say about itself — that it is the party of the working man, the voice of the oppressed, the tribune of the people — loses some of its strut in the light of a rather long list of inconvenient facts, chiefly having to do with slavery and race. Such facts as these: that the Democrats were the party that championed chattel bondage, backed an expansionist war to expand slavery’s realm, and corrupted the Supreme Court in order to open the western territories to the cancer. The party’s Southern wing then led the nation into civil war in defense of slavery while its Northern wing did its best to stymie the administration of Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded by the Democrats as an accidental, even illegitimate, president. Thereafter, the party embraced Jim Crow as slavery’s next-best substitute, elected a president who imposed segregation on the federal workforce, and remained the chief opponent of racial equality in much of the United States…up to the brink of the 1960s.

“The wonder,” writes Guelzo, “is not that the Democratic Party survived its six-decades-long infatuation with slavery and its century-long alliance with segregation, but that the party repressed all memory of that infatuation and that alliance so quickly — and made so successfully the argument that it had never ever, in its heart of hearts, been slavery’s best friend after all.” That is the kind of thing for which they hand out prizes.

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