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History and Democracy

The 2006 Phi Beta Kappa Oration

September-October 2006

Illustration by Tom Mosser


Illustration by Tom Mosser

Editor’s note: Introducing himself as a Princeton professor wearing a Yale gown as he prepared to address a Harvard audience, historian Sean Wilentz told the new Phi Beta Kappa inductees on June 6 that they had “chosen to reject the old and popular presumption that intelligence imperils, whereas benign stupidity is synonymous with goodness.” Having so chosen, “You are pledged to bring the manifold problems of life before your mind while keeping complacency and ideology at bay.” Doing so “might help you earn millions of dollars; or help win you recognition, fleeting fame, even immortality; or it might do none of these.” Whatever the outcome, “the moral obligation to be intelligent,” he said, using Lionel Trilling’s words, “always holds.”

I have decided to talk about democracy and history because both are matters about which some of the most intelligent people seem confused. As citizens of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, we Americans think we know what the word democracy means. Yet many of us know little about the history of our own democracy, and so our understanding is often cramped. This cramped understanding produces half-baked expectations that the overthrow of tyranny leads directly to democracy. It produces the misleading image of democracy as a panoply of institutions and structures that, once erected, will thrive and then advance democracy’s further growth. It produces the conceit that democracy can be easily exported, or that it can be a gift bestowed by benevolent, farseeing rulers, or that it can be won without being fought for, or that its successes are irreversible.

Our own history shows differently. American democracy has been more of an event, a process, than a thing. It occurs when some previously excluded, ordinary persons—what eighteenth-century Americans called “the many”—secure the power not simply to elect their own governors but to oversee the institutions of government, and to criticize those in office. Democracy is nothing without the rule of law, administered by an independent judiciary; yet it is also diminished and threatened when that rule favors one or more portions of the citizenry to the exclusion or even at the expense of the rest.

American democracy is not static. The polity that Alexis de Tocqueville perceived in 1831 as the democratic wave of the future was a polity that included slavery, and excluded from the active citizenry most free black males, all women, and in some places poor white men—hardly a democracy we would recognize today. Yet it was remarkably more democratic than what the framers of the Constitution had in mind only two score and four years before. It is mistaken to judge the democracy of Tocqueville’s time too harshly for its partiality and its prejudices, for it was only because of its successes that our own democratic standards can be as lofty as they are.

Above all, democracy is an argument. When Tocqueville visited the United States, democracy in America was the spectacle of Americans arguing over democracy. It still is. The unsettling paradox is that the argument now seems less engaging than it was back then, even though a far larger portion of the population can participate. In 1840, when active citizenship was largely restricted to white men, 80 percent of those citizens voted in the presidential election. Similar rates persisted through the nineteenth century. Today, although we are formally more egalitarian, anything appreciably above 50 percent is considered remarkable. Electoral turnouts are only one indication of democracy’s health. But the figures prompt a disturbing question: has the widening of American democracy created countervailing forces which over the long term render the nation’s political life less democratic, not more?

The answer might be yes, but I think the situation is also reversible—that the modern equivalents of “the many,” wisely led, may rekindle democratic interest and reassert the ideal, expressed by James Madison, that in any proper republic, “the censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not the Government over the people.” Perhaps I am wrong, but I vaguely sense such a rekindling around the country, even in this alarming time of genuine danger from without. But much will have to change.


Now, how instructive is the history of our democracy for our democracy’s current situation and foreseeable future? As a predictive tool, history is useful mainly in warding off the making of predictions. But history can at least offer what Walt Whitman called, in another context, “themes, hints, provokers.”

So much depends on what approach to history one thinks appropriate to democracy, especially American democracy. One popular mode is historical biography. The author of what some regard as the finest Harvard Phi Beta Kappa oration ever, Ralph Waldo Emerson, observed in one of his essays that “there is properly no history; only biography.” The phrase is often misread: he was talking not of literary form but of how each of us finds the emphatic facts of history in our private experience. But Emerson did try to render the past through the lives of those he called “Representative Men.” Writing biographies of American political leaders has never been out of vogue among either amateur or professional historians. Some have taken Emerson’s misunderstood words about history and biography as their motto.

Biography can have major drawbacks if you use it to try and understand American democracy. Too often, biographers try to explain how their subjects embodied, in their deepest character traits, some basic virtue (or bundle of virtues) of the sentimentalized great, gritty, and ultimately good American soul. Political deeds and their consequences, the chief marks of any democratic leader, good or bad, recede before personal rectitude, consistency, daring, and likeability. So do political ideas. Critical engagement with democracy and its discontents gives way to a passive exercise in character appreciation.

Still, biography is essential to understanding democracy’s history. Historians who dismiss study of great and powerful individuals as elitist make a small interesting point: the view from the top distorts. But just as political leaders did not create American democracy out of thin air, so the masses of Americans did not simply force their way into the corridors of power. They required leaders, some of the best of whom (and some of the worst) came out of their own ranks.

Another common form of historical writing focuses on ordinary Americans—a style Tocqueville surmised would prevail in democratic America. Especially over the past 30 years, many historians, myself included, have tried to show how the individual and collective experiences of slaves, servants, mechanics, midwives, farmers, and failures illuminated great general trends, in politics as in the rest of American history. It is an infinitely more open and various way of understanding history than traditional biography, and serves, as Tocqueville wrote, “to explain more things in democratic than in aristocratic ages.”

Yet to pit the history of the few and the great against that of the many, as some practitioners of both modes recently have, defeats democratic history. It ought to be a truism that, in democratic and undemocratic nations alike, certain individuals have greater influence over history than others. Finally, though, if leaders give democracy’s history its shape and tone, they must draw much of their own shape and tone from those they would wish to lead. Neither historical approach is fully intelligible without the other.


What, then, does a democratic history, merging the high and the low and everything in between, offer us? Above all, it affirms that change and contest, sometimes unexpected, are democracy’s lifeblood. It shows that, at its most serious, this contest involves Americans, well-known and anonymous, using their moral intelligence to meet fresh exigencies—changing, in the process, not just their political opinions but themselves.

The most astonishing emergence, and convergence, of these themes in American history occurred between 1815 and 1860, when a sizable number of Americans came to regard American slavery no longer as a necessary evil (let alone a positive good) but as an undemocratic enormity that had to be placed as soon as possible on the road to extinction. Pushed, at first, by righteous radicals (who would never gain much of a following), American antislavery faced ferocious opposition, in the North as well as the South. Out of those conflicts arose, in 1854, the first mass antislavery political party in human history, with leaders who often enough had to catch up with their followers—none more so than the Illinois lawyer and hitherto Whig Party hack, Abraham Lincoln.

Forty-five years is a long time, especially in the relatively brief span encompassed by the history of the United States. Yet there are much briefer periods in which it is possible to see American democracy in process of revising itself, one set of democratic conflicts giving way to another. As a historian who deals with concrete events, I’d like to tell a story set in part at this university that illustrates this kind of democratic change.

In 1833, President Andrew Jackson traveled north from Washington to visit, among other places, Harvard, which had decided to grant him the honorary degree of doctor of laws. Jackson had become the head of a popular political force which stood for widened democracy and against privilege. He arrived at Harvard fresh from a triumphant re-election campaign, when he had vetoed the re-chartering of a national bank which had allowed, he said, “the rich and powerful” to “bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.”

Thousands cheered Jackson on his way. (They included a young writer and budding Jacksonian, Nathaniel Hawthorne.) Others, however, thought the entire affair ludicrous. A satirist invented the story that when the unschooled Jackson received his Harvard diploma, he rose, rasped, “E pluribus unum, my friends, and sine qua non,” and then sat down. And one ashamed member of the Board of Overseers boycotted the ceremony, sickened, he wrote, that his alma mater would entertain “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.” The Overseer was former president John Quincy Adams, whom Jackson had ejected from the White House in 1828.

Adams was a man of sharp intelligence and enormous learning, but this was not his finest hour. He had come to equate Jackson and the democracy that Jackson advanced with the complete repudiation of learning, liberality, and light. Democracy was on Adams’s wrong side, just as he was on the wrong side about democracy. Hawthorne, no barbarian, knew better.

Yet the frame of American democracy was about to change, as the slavery issue soon played havoc with mainstream politics. Two years after his loss to Jackson, Adams had run successfully for a seat in Congress—the only former president to date who has returned to national elected office. And by the mid 1830s, having always steered clear of antislavery politics, Adams suddenly became the leading opponent in the House of Representatives to a new rule that silenced abolitionist petitioners to Congress. Bidden by his constituents as well as his conscience to vindicate democratic freedom of expression, Adams gradually drew closer to the abolitionists.

In July of 1839, a cargo of slaves on the schooner La Amistad, sailing from Havana to another part of Cuba, took over the ship and insisted that it be sailed back to Africa, where they had been born, captured, and sold. The Amistad was seized by the United States Coast Guard off Long Island, the Africans imprisoned and tried in New Haven for piracy and murder. After the rebels’ mostly Yale-educated lawyers succeeded in the lower courts, the case went before the Supreme Court in 1840—and now defending the Africans was John Quincy Adams. “The moment you come, to [the sentence in] the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided,” Adams told the justices. The Court ruled in the slaves’ favor and freed them.

The burden of democracy had shifted. The democratic leader Jackson, who by 1840 had departed the White House, and thought that John Quincy Adams had finally taken leave of his senses, sided with those who insisted that democracy and slavery could go hand in hand. The elitist Adams took another, more egalitarian view, which Abraham Lincoln and others later enlarged into the claim that slavery was democracy’s sworn enemy.

As Jackson’s own case rather ironically showed, what looks once upon a time like a steely determination to uphold a fixed idea of democracy can turn into an outdated, foolish consistency. With cases like Adams, who adapted to the changing realities of the years, mandarin hauteur can turn into democratic leadership. A great deal depends on the actions of uncelebrated, even lowly persons—including, in this instance, resolute abolitionist petitioners and a band of rebellious slaves. A great deal also depends on an openness, among leaders and followers, to changing course, owning contradictions without becoming their prisoner, and exercising intelligence with a courageous flexibility that is not to be confused with mere opportunism, or convenience, or the pursuit of a career.


None of this history can prescribe how to increase voter interest and turnout. Nor does it present any direct correspondences with current events about which all of us can readily agree. But it does suggest that even when American politics seem permanently cast in a particular shape, when one vision of democracy seems to have supplanted all others, abrupt and shattering changes may well be gathering force. Neither our elected leaders nor ourselves, with all of our intelligence, can know exactly how, or when, or where it will happen. Nor can we be certain that we will like the eventual outcome. But we can be reasonably certain that we will be tested by political upheavals we cannot foresee, as the eternal arguing that is the essence of American democracy takes another turn.

This reasonable certainty brings with it the question of hope, even in the face of tragedy—the kind of hope Lincoln sustained when he proclaimed a rebirth of freedom amid the mass butchery of the Civil War.

The Irish poet and Harvard professor Seamus Heaney writes, in The Cure at Troy:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Americans, a hopeful people, like to see democracy, and especially our own democracy, as the quake which causes those infrequent tidal waves of justice—what Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln both called, decades apart, the world’s best hope. But since our history shows that democracy itself is fragile and contested, its meaning eternally fought over, self-satisfaction is as dangerous as it is foolish. And so, if we would make hope and history rhyme, we must force ourselves, with all of our might, to join in democracy’s arguments and help write the verse.

Sean Wilentz is Dayton-Stockton professor of history and director of the program in American studies at Princeton University. His most recent book, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, won the Bancroft Prize. During this academic year, he will be a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.