Democrats: A concise history

Former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis has found a home in the Republican Party and now needs a mission to suit his talents. I hope he’ll find it in 2014. Among other things, Mr. Davis is a serious reader. In the American Spectator’s Christmas books symposium, he recommends The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by Sean Wilentz (among other interesting selections). A Bancroft Prize-winning book, The Rise of American Democracy weighs in at 1104 pages.

The Claremont Review of Books published a memorable review of Wilentz’s book by Allen Guelzo around the time of its publication in 2005. Here is the opening of Guelzo’s 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 (though with important dissenters) up to the brink of the 1960s. The wonder, however, 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.

Professor Guelzo winds up the review with an assessment of the historic animus of the Democratic Party:

Wilentz is correct in at least one respect: the Democracy was consistent in its commitment to some form of equality. The difficulty is that this notion of equality was an equality of restraint and suspicion, the conviction that no one deserves to have more than I do; and if they do have more, it can only be because of unjustifiable luck or illegitimate scheming. Despite Wilentz’s struggle to dissociate the racism of the “bad” Democrats from the shining virtues of his “good” Democrats, an idea of equality based on restraint means narrowing the field of those whom equality can afford to admit to its ranks—which is why Wilentz’s workingmen were so strangely indifferent to slavery. In a world of limited resources, lines had to be drawn defining who would be allowed to exploit those resources, and the racial line was a convenient one for white slaveholders and white workingmen alike. The Whigs, on the other hand, were not so much the critics of democracy as they were the partisans of an entirely different concept of democracy, built on the openness of a competitive economic society but also accepting the up-and-down risks of open markets. What Jackson’s Democrats thought of as the ideal political economy was a pyramid in which everyone was guaranteed a fixed place, so that the justly rich were secure and the poor were subsidized (and in the South, literally subsidized through slaveholding and appropriations of Indian land).

That may, in the end, show how very little has changed in the fundamental ideology of the Democratic Party since Jackson’s day. And this, in turn, may explain the anxiety of Democratic apologists to distance themselves from the ugly remembrance of slavery. For them, The Rise of American Democracy will deliver a very usable past; but it will be a mythic past, and in support of a mythic politics.

Whole thing here (all of it timely and still worth reading).

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