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The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

3.95  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,230 Ratings  ·  45 Reviews
Acclaimed as the definitive study of the period by one of the greatest American historians, The Rise of American Democracy traces a historical arc from the earliest days of the republic to the opening shots of the Civil War. Ferocious clashes among the Founders over the role of ordinary citizens in a government of "we, the people" were eventually resolved in the triumph of ...more
Paperback, Abridged, 496 pages
Published December 1st 2007 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published October 24th 2005)
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Steven Peterson
Feb 07, 2011 Steven Peterson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sean Wilentz provides an excellent commentary on the tensions bedeviling the republic--and wrecking the parties--from the origins until Lincoln's election.

Underlying much of the tension was slavery. In the South, we saw the development of competing visions of democracy, with slaveholder aristocracy at one end of the spectrum. The Democratic Party found it hard to hold its already unruly coalition together after the Jacksonian ascendancy (northern Democrats were in conflict wit one another, with
Sep 29, 2009 Lisa rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book was the slowest trudge I have ever taken! I was annoyed from cover to cover. The author's obvious adoration for Jefferson and Jackson dripped from nearly every page and bordered on sycophancy. Could not wait to be finished with it. Unfortunately, now it takes up a ton of space in my closet.
David R.
Jul 20, 2012 David R. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
A monumental and detailed examination of the development of American democracy in its earliest years. Wilentz does a splendid job connecting the dots from the emergent Jeffersonian conception (one in reaction to British monarchy and oligarchic Federalism) through Jacksonian and Calhounian tracks to the ultimate showdown between southern and northern polities: the War Between the States of 1861-1865. Wilentz demonstrates that there was no one American democracy; at every important juncture we fin ...more
Essential reading for anyone interested in American history and democracy. Wilentz' book is a rich, fascinating dissection of the evolution of the meaning(s) of democracy in the US from the ratification of the Constitution to the first shots of the Civil War.

Wilentz scrupulously teases out very different notions of what "democracy" meant across an evolving and expanding landscape, from inner-city wards of Philadelphia to the farms of New England and the charred remains of Bloody Kansas. This is
Bookmarks Magazine

Going against prevailing historical fashion, Sean Wilentz delivers a long, exhaustive survey of political machinations, both grand and minute. Though he forays into social and cultural history, the bulk of The Rise of American Democracy is a blow-by-blow account of what happened in the corridors of young America with a "house divided." Wilentz, author of Chants Democratic (1984) and professor of history and director of the American studies program at Princeton University, tells this compelling s

Jan 10, 2013 Kevin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a solid single-volume American history reader. I read it in conjunction with some college coursework many years ago, and while Wilentz does compromise a bit of his researching intensity for readability, most readers will thank him for it. This is a book I will return to later, because it is a pleasure to read while being densely packed with useful historical information. Moreover, Wilentz is careful to not try to weave a unifying historical narrative out of disparate events. Rather, ...more
Mar 30, 2014 Bap rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well written history of the United States during the period of the early 1800's until the election of Lincoln . Democracy evolved in fits and starts with the south and the entire country grappling with how to incorporate the enslavement of millions and reconcile that with democracy and the notions that all men are created equal. More than anyone else, Andrew Jackson was responsible with creating democratic norms and the concept that the people were more powerful than the monied interests repre ...more
Oct 26, 2009 Lexi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a monster. The Levain cookie of US political history. And I'm all for that. But there is a point at which blow by blow details of (often state or local) electoral outcomes and the factions involved (the 'Loco Focos', 'Grey hairs', 'Silver foxes'...) gets a little tired. Also, in a thousand pages you'd think Wilentz could devote a little more attention to economic or technological transformations.
I want to give this 3.5. But alas....
Jan 29, 2008 Stuart rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War was cloudy for me until I read this book. It's interesting to see how Jefferson's party evolved into the pro-slavery party and to read of the rise of the Republican party. That's right, in the mid-19th century, the Republicans were the good guys and the Democrats were basically the political wing of the KKK. A century later the parties decided to swap their positions on civil rights.
Henry Sturcke
This book is long and detailed, a bit of a slog at the beginning, but I stuck with it, and felt rewarded for it. In some ways the book is old-fashioned history in its broad narrative sweep and its resuscitation of the hero-approach, as the subtitle implies. Along with role played by Jefferson and Lincoln, but not quite on their level because of his own personal flaws and the irreconcilable contradictions in his political movement, is the treatment devoted to Jackson. But the real hero of the boo ...more
Eric Hatting
Mar 17, 2009 Eric Hatting rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An amazing composite sketch of the schizophrenic development of the US's two party system starting with the late Federalist era and ending at the very beginnings of our current Republican-Democratic configuration. Well worth the time.
Nov 09, 2008 Joshua rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: lame-wads
Boring. I guess it's an amazing synthesis, but it's way too long. How did this win the Bancroft Prize? Ambition counts for a lot, I suppose.
Brad Smith
Jul 17, 2016 Brad Smith rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Superb account of the struggle to work out this democracy thing in America between the early days of the founding of the United States thru the Civil War. I would submit that this history is largely unknown to most Americans, and reading this book I realized that today's political battles bear close kinship to those faced in the years between 1800 and 1865. Key takeaway: politics and democracy has always been messy, because human beings at their core haven't changed. We are capable of great thin ...more
Un-friggin-believable. This book was astonishing. That's all I can say.
May 09, 2015 Christopher rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An exhaustive book on the transition from the republicanism that defined the early era of America to the full-blown, but not without its own contradictions, democracy that we are familiar with today. And when I say exhaustive, I mean I am surprised this wasn't split off into three separate volumes. Wilentz puts enough details on social and political history covering, roughly, from 1789 to 1860 that it is a great reference on early America and its government as well as a good read. Wilentz also s ...more
The Rise of American democracy by Sean Wilentz is a thorough analysis of American democracy really from the time of Washington and the foundation of the federalists and anti-federalists through the rise of the republicans against the various factions of democrats and Whigs at the start of the Civil War. The book thoroughly covers Jacksonian Democracy and the divide between republicanism and leadership of the educated few (in the south White only) and the electorate of the masses. The book follow ...more
Aug 30, 2007 Sara rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: US history lovers
Wilentz's book is a work of political history of the United States in the early republic. It is an excellent overview of the period taking the reader on a chronological journey through America's history rather than a thematic one. While a good overview, because of its insistence on only reviewing political history the story revealed is, in many instances, incomplete. Read the book for an understanding of how John Tyler became president because of Harrison's early death in office, or how Andrew J ...more
May 17, 2012 Heather rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm still in the process of reading this book but I really like how the author writes. It's fairly easy to get through considering it is somewhat lengthy (page wise). It's a great political history during an amazing time in America's past. Mr. Wilentz definitely does bring to life the debate over the role the new government would have in Americans lives. His study explores the tensions in early America which led to the Civil War while emphasizing the fragility of a democratic government. It is d ...more
Steven Muhlberger
This is not an easy read or quick one. It took me well over a month to get through it. It tells you a tremendous amount about the origins of American politics, particularly the complexities of the road towards Civil War. Yes, indeed the Civil War was about slavery, but there were many other issues on the table as well, and a very complicated evolution of what democracy meant or might mean. People who want to know how political institutions were created during this period of the early Republic wi ...more
Epic history of the evolution of American Democracy from the revolution to the civil war. Controversial.
A triumph -- both for me (it is 1044 pages, though 250 of them are notes/index) and for Wilentz.
James Violand
Jul 13, 2014 James Violand rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
A brilliant work showing how enfranchisement evolved away from restricted power.
Nov 14, 2012 Amy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I haven't finished this and I will probably never sit down and read it all the way through, which is fine. It's an excellent study of the period and my only complaint is that it is perhaps too comprehensive. Good for sinking into the details of any aspect of the times (changing party system, accomplishments of each administration, etc.) but not so good for getting a clear overall narrative. Or maybe it is, but only if you can read it intensively and all at once, which I can't do.
Colleen Browne
Aug 15, 2015 Colleen Browne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Don't let the length of the book put you off. This is a well written, well researched book by an exceptional historian. Never one to accept the status quo, Wilentz questions assumptions and then researches them thoroughly to form his own conclusions. This book does an excellent job of exploring and explaining the development of democracy and the political parties in our history. I will use it as a reference book in the classroom. I would recommend it highly.
Aug 20, 2011 Megan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It took me a long time to finish this book. Mostly because it's really dense and it takes a lot of energy to read. The material is interesting, but it was too much for me. I was expected to remember details from the beginning of the book at the end of the book, which didn't happen.

I would recommend this book to someone who is really fascinated by all of our political parties from Jefferson's time to Lincoln's. There's a lot of detail, and it is interesting.
Dec 07, 2007 Lisa rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This was a super intense book. If you love political history than here a book for you. I struggled getting invovled because it was so much about politics and elections and blah, blah, blah. I like the kind of stuff but not 800 pages of it. Most of the time he wrote alot of things that didn't seem really important but every once in awhile he would toss you a gold nugget and for those, it made the book okay to read.
Apr 21, 2012 Stephen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An amazing book that explores developments in American democracy from the 1790s to 1860 in incredible detail. A must-read if you want to understand the Age of Jackson, the rise of the 2nd two party system, and how slavery broke down the Whig Party, the Democratic Party, and then the nation itself. I wish every idiotic Southern apologist would read this book.
Jan 05, 2009 Pete rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
hard to read. also the remaindered paperback i bought of it is trimmed way, way too small and glued too tight -- as result, it is impossible to read without exerting like several kilojoules of energy to keep it pried open.

if you're really into a kind of breathless, light recap of american electoral history and need like 1200 pages of that, go nuts on this.
Oct 16, 2012 Karen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is a tour de force performance! The entire sweep of American political history from 1800 - 1860 in just under 800 pages. I have not read anything else that even comes close to explaining the history and events that lead to the civil war and to the creation of the repiblic that was born of that war. This book is a must read if you love early US history.
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Sean Wilentz (b. 1951) is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1979

In his spare writing time, he is historian-in-residence at Bob Dylan’s official website,
More about Sean Wilentz...

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