Monday, June 09, 2008

Whig History with Real Whigs

I was maybe two-thirds of the way through Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought when I heard that the book had won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. This work, the most recent installment of the Oxford History of America, covers the period from the end of War of 1812 to the end of the Polk administration. In the single sentence of this 855-page the reviewers singled out, Howe writes, “This book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis.” I don’t know if anybody much believes this expression of innocence, however; for, though Howe is indeed a storyteller and a very good one, his tale is narrated in continuous counterpoint to three previous and equally magisterial accounts of the same era: Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution, and Sean Wilentz’ Rise of American Democracy. In the Bibliographical Essay at the end of his book, Howe writes “All three books celebrate the Democratic Party of the time as the agent and defender of democracy against its Whig rival. I disagree with these works…” The mechanical operation of this disagreement takes the form of highlighting the technological and economic benefits of the emerging market economy during the first half of the 19th Century (against Sellers) and soft pedaling the chicane and class interest of the Whigs (against Schlesinger and Wilentz). This is not an illegitimate or unfruitful strategy—every history means by leaving things out—but Howe does sometimes sound like Henry Clay’s campaign manager. The more interesting thing, however, is that he also sounds like Barack Obama’s campaign manager.

Arguments between historians about events that happened hundreds of years ago often come across as allegorical debates about contemporary politics. Howe is an Englishman, but his reinterpretation of Jackson and his enemies is highly relevant to the redefinition of the American party system that has been going on for most of my lifetime. I don’t know if one can reasonably claim that the Democrats have become the party of John Quincy Adams, but they are surely now the party of Lincoln. In the process of absorbing all those Southerners, the Republicans have not only absorbed the racism that was a hallmark of the Democrats right up to FDR, but also adopted as their own Jackson’s lawlessness, demagoguery, and glorification of violence. They have also revived the spoils system—big time as Chaney would say—so that the election of every new Republican president has become the occasion for a riotous looting of the Treasury by thieves in suits. Meanwhile, the Democrats, who are hardly angels, are at least aware that you aren’t supposed to act like that and have taken over the role of defenders of fiscal sobriety from Republicans whose notion of public finance currently owes a lot more to Huey Long than Howard Taft. The Democrats have become the dour proponents of individual and collective responsibility—the realities of universal health care, effective environmental stewardship, and improved educational availability will turn out to be anything but a free lunch—while the Republicans have become the advocates of something for nothing. Go ahead, buy a Hummer. Something will turn up.

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