Jill Lepore's Historiography

Jill Lepore’s article “People Power: Revisiting the Origins of American Democracy” reads like a brief historiography of some of the more prominent takes on the history of the American Democratic movement.  Lepore does a solid job of organizing and chronicling the changes in historical thought about our democracy over time.

Lepore has portrayed the debates and arguments over the American Democracy as becoming much more complicated as time has progressed.  The first book, Mabel B. Casner and Ralph Henry Gabriel’s “The Rise of American Democracy,” seems simple in its writing and intent.  The play at the end of the book is used to demonstrate the theme that frontier land and hardworking men were largely responsible for the rise of the political system.

Lepore then sets up a contrast between Noah Webster and Thomas Jefferson that is also representative of the conflicting views of the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans.  As the Federalists begin to lose ground, Jefferson’s beloved farmers gain more power and say in the government.  This is something that really ticked off Webster.  H believed that he had more to lose than small, poor farmers and therefore his vote should weigh more.

Lepore does a nice job of bringing in Alexis de Tocqueville’s opinions on equality and democracy.  Tocqueville is such a widely read opinion that it is crucial for Lepore to include him in this historiography.  The arguments made by Frederick Jackson Turner and Sean Wilentz contradict each other on the importance of the West and the frontier struggle to the development of American Democracy.  While Turner’s argument glorifying the brave men who trekked out West is noble, Wilentz seems to make a stronger point that urban workers were the most democratic element of Jacksonian America.

Wilentz’s use of major political figures intertwining with less prominent men is a smart way to approach such a broad topic.  Wilentz knows that in order to fully understand history, a careful balance of the big and small must struck.  If this balance is made successfully, a reader or a student will be able to best learn about the past.  They will receive the fullest possible idea of history and how people really lived.  This will give us in the present, the best tools necessary to, as Casner and Gabriel wrote, “strive to learn not to repeat these errors. The generations which lived before us left us a heritage of noble ideals; let us hold fast to these” (1).

American democracy: an intangible force

While Alexis de Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America is often held as one of the best critiques on America’s early political society, his ideas may have been about twenty years late to the party. Jill Lepore’s article “People Power” highlights famous American lexicographer and politician Noah Webster, a Federalist reactionary who cautioned against universal male suffrage and populist rhetoric. While Republicans such as Jefferson held the yeoman as the figurehead of American democracy, Webster held in his place the sage aristocrat. Although Republicans and Federalists had famed, heated debates over the federal government’s role in banking, internal improvements, and tariffs, the true debate laid in whether or not the nation would continue centralizing influence amongst the elite or share it amongst all its (white male) inhabitants.

This political debate reveals an integral problem in post-revolutionary America: democracy proved to not be a tangible object, but an elusive idea. Lepore notes a number of historians’ interpretations on the nature of American democracy, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, Mabel Casner, Ralph Gabriel, Arthur Schlesinger, and Sean Wilentz. Casner and Gabriel’s book The Rise of American Democracy, whose play adaptation casts rough, virtuous Westerners as the beacons of democracy, appears to be heavily influenced by ideas presented in Turner’s essay “The Contributions of the West to American Democracy.” Turner stresses the importance of the American frontier on the evolution of American democracy, from the need for full political participation amongst frontiersmen to the ideals of Western independence and individualism. To Turner, the rapid urbanization of the frontier and the civilizing of the frontiersman can only erode and corrupt American democracy. Wilentz and Schlesinger instead emphasize the role of economics in the progress of democracy. The rich and poor have separate interpretations of the word “equality”, and how it ought to be applied politically, socially, and, of course, economically, in American government.

In the modern age, Webster’s argument may cause even the most impassioned Hamiltonian to scratch his head: the limitation of voting rights and office holding to white, male, property owners. However, it is key to remember that Webster does not make his arguments out of elitism or malice. He believes that education and honor are the best determinants of good governance, and these qualities are best harbored in the aged aristocracy. Jefferson, however, does not believe that the common man is any more corruptible than the aristocrat, but rather represents the American tenets of individualism, equality, and self-determinism. To the likely dismay of a lexicographer such as Webster, Lepore proves how “democracy” in the early republic was not as definable as we may have thought.

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“People Power,” a book review from the New Yorker by Jill Lepore, asks a few very good questions: Who should participate in a democracy? What caused American democracy or how did it grow? How have historians in the past mistaken the causes of American democracy? How can historians balance those parts of history which deal with elites with those parts which are mostly populist or grassroots?

As volumes could be written in an attempt to answer any of these questions, this brief article does not answer them but uses others arguments to illustrate different positions on some of these important questions. Lepore uses the different positions between Thomas Jefferson, who believed in democratic participation by white males, and Noah Webster, who seemed to believe that the masses were not fit to govern and that aristocrisy was always the mode of true governance, even in so-called democracies.

Lepore also examines the example of a slave called Madison Washington, who played a role in politics by allowing congressman Joshua Giddings to take meaningful action in congress as an example of the balance that can be struck in examining politics as the business of elites and the masses, side by side. This examination seems to suggest that to examine one or the other would be myopic, and to combine both would be more honest when Lepore says “Giddings was able to do what he did because Washington did what he did.”

People Power pulls in sources such as books written by historians, articles and reviews from various magazines including the Atlantic and the New Republic, and a letter from Webster to Jefferson.

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Though I have written a piece supporting the Anti-Federalist claims against the Constitution and the democratic system established within America, I still find Noah Webster’s claims against democracy shocking. In many of the Anti-Federalist papers written during the 1780s, a number of authors point put the issues of allowing a few to speak for the many. I could be wrong about this but; I believe it was one representative for every fifty thousand individuals within the United States. For the Anti-Federalists, this was an abomination to allow within the democratic society, as it created a ruling aristocracy. Yet, Webster seems to have believed that this was the only possible way the system would be successful. His words about the “insufferable idiots” that comprised the United States went well beyond any Anti-Federalist positions to the point of conforming to British aristocratic beliefs. It was a common thought amongst the British elite that the generally uneducated farmers which comprised the United States were unsuited for running such a vast land and would inevitably fail in their venture. This notion seems comparable to the statements of Noah Webster regarding his pessimistic stance against American Democracy, as he believed the system as destined for doom.

If anything, one could view Webster’s insults to the common American citizen as prejudice. By differentiating between the fools/knaves and the honest man, Webster alludes to a comparable discrimination such as black and white. At the bare minimum, he is saying that anyone with property like himself is a clearly more charismatic and sophisticated individual than those without any. It is no wonder Webster was at odds with Jefferson after statements such as these. For Jefferson, these “fools and knaves” that Webster so feverishly insulted were the backbone of his view for the future of the United States. Jefferson’s view also could potentially be seen as the major influence behind Fredrick Jackson Turner’s stance on the West influencing democracy. Turner’s position institutes that the lower class individuals that spread West with dreams of a better life were the catalysts that sparked democracy’s successful growth into such a strong governing force. For Jefferson, this was the vision of his utopia.