Solcz Blog 2

I whole heartedly agree with the editors of “Beyond the Founders” interpretation of the importance of the newspaper in early 19th century politics. Particularly, I support the belief that the newspapers “represented and embodied” the ideals of each political party (41). In an era where communication across a state could take days to accomplish, there was a great schism in terms of shared ideas amongst party members. Even more so, those who supported these parties but, were not actively involved in them struggled further to acquire knowledge about all the various policies and ideas of the group. Due to this phenomenon, the newspaper provided both party members and followers access to the crucial details of their party’s ideals, policies, etc. Without the papers, the various drunken banquet toasts that were so important in terms of the stance of different parties would have been lost in the night’s events, rather than becoming a rallying point for members.

Today, it is social media that is replacing the newspaper as the entity that embodies and represents all the public needs to know about a political group. For me, twitter is my go to for any political information that I need, as I follow various groups and people that represent the ideologies I believe in. I am not alone in this usage either, as in a link I posted with this blog, it outlines how a number of political parties use twitter, Facebook, and many other forms of social media to spread their messages and garnish support for any upcoming elections of people or policy. The newspaper may be outdated in terms of its effectiveness in present day but, its usage lives on within the vast networks of connections we have through social media.

Though I initially disagreed with Noah Webster’s points on an aristocracy and the problems of giving people power, after reading Eli’s position on the argument I have swayed my position a bit. Eli’s statement regarding Webster being a product of his time was the catalyst that sparked my transition. Webster made his comments not long after the American Revolution, which thereby meant not long after the Americans ceased to be British. It would be unreasonable to believe that American ideology was suddenly so different from the British perspective regarding the ruling of a country. Many probably still believed that the rule of their land should be placed in the hands of an elite group, but a group that represented their interests. In today’s world, I know I do not want any man walking down the street having control of our country’s directive. It takes a specific type of person with a unique mind to have the ability to rule such a diverse land, something few people within this country possess. With this in mind, I concur with Eli’s position on Webster not being so radical even in today’s political arena.


Repost: The Rise of Democracy

I think one of the most interesting things I took from Jill Lepore’s People Power was the point on democracy’s transformation from “unutterably bad to unassailably good” in the minds of Americans and people around the world. I took two things from this, as a historian it hit home the lesson of contextualizing sources in the proper time period because Jefferson and Jackson were fighting against traditional norms and their plans to expand democracy to “everyone” had no historical precedent. From our society and the values we’ve been given I think many people would say, oh yes, that’s normal, everyone wants democracy. But what Jefferson did and Jackson did were not the same. Imagine if you will, someone today arguing for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in America. What would your response to that be? What would the people’s response to that be? While I’ll leave the debate concerning the causes of democracy’s eventual triumph to Mr. Webster and his colleagues, I think triumph itself, given the challenges it faced, shows how strange this time period in America was and sheds a different light on the men and women who helped push the limits of democracy that we should take into account when reading primary sources written by these men and women. The second point was that I found Noah Webster fascinating. While I take issue with some of his points, I believe honest men can arise in equal measure from the aristocracy and his so called “knaves and fools,” his points on democracy becoming an “unquestionable truth” ring more true today than they did then. On a personal level, I feel that quest to improve the American government has stalled a bit in our present age because of an unwillingness to question and probe its faults because we have been bound by tradition of our democracy. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Tomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, it’s that sometimes breaking tradition can lead to something better.

Eli Caldwell Post (Edit)

Having just read “Four Episodes in Re-creating a Life” by Martha Hodes, I can say that it is a fascinating piece. I see more of an episode of “This American Life” in it than I do a historical analysis. It is compelling to watch the author struggle though the historical documents and knowledge with which she can work. Hodes creates the historical story from letters that Eunice and others wrote, knowledge of the customs of the area with regard to churches and shipping, as well as a great deal of conjecture shaped by political and cultural knowledge. The story that Hodes wants to believe at the end is intriguing: a married woman, torn between her husband and a black, East Indies sea captain. Her husband joins the Confederate Army as she becomes more enamored of the captain and, fleeing the South and her husband (in fear of birthing a black child), moves to Lowell and then Vermont, where the charming captain courts her from a distance via correspondence after her husband has died. Her brother, a Union soldier frowns upon this and destroys some of the correspondence.

This compelling narrative seems the stuff of historical fiction, and it might very well be. It may be the most likely narrative, and yet my desire for this interesting story to be true nurtures my skepticism and doubt that it actually is true. Most of all, I enjoyed the author’s use of cultural and contextual knowledge to try to draw conclusions about Eunice’s behavior or belief: information about the churches she might have attended, the culture of Mobile before the civil war and how it might have scared her as a Northerner, her brother’s possible desire to protect his own future and reputation in Lowell.

In response to some of my fellows’ writings from last week, I must defend Daniel Webster. Many of you criticized Webster’s beliefs, while still acknowledging that he was a product of his own time, and perhaps not as radical then as we view him today. While I take issue with Webster’s conclusions, I agree with many of his perceptions. “Give the people the power, and they are all tyrants as much as Kings. They are even more tyrannical; as they are less restrained by a sense of propriety of by principles of honor; more under the control of violent passions, exasperated by envy and hatred of the rich; stimulated to action by numbers; and subject to no responsibility.” Not only do I agree with this statement, but I believe that the founders (dubious company though they may be) and many people today would agree with this. A fear of the so-called “tyranny of the majority” is, I believe, the reason that the Supreme court, the filibuster, the impediments to constitutional amendment, and the intentional gridlock of our political system are so important.

Furthermore, I think that Webster had a prescient and historically accurate perception of the aristocracy’s role in governance: “If there ever was a government, which under the name of a republic or a democracy, was generally guided by eminent wisdom, virtue and talents, it was a government of mixed kind, in which an aristocratic branch existed independent of popular suffrage.” Now, you may argue, the United States is a glaring counter example. I disagree. Webster wanted to politically enshrine the aristocracy in our system, failing to realize that it is unecessary–the economic power of those aristocrats allows them to take their own political power and buy a government in which a top marginal income tax rate of 39% is socialism. I disagree with Webster’s belief that this has a positive effect, and yet I wholeheartedly echo his perception that aristocrats have always been the government.

Regarding Thomas Jefferson and the story of the cheese delivered to him, I found the learning that I did regarding the politics of the time far more interesting than the anecdote itself. I had no idea that politics were so intensely local, without a national party but rather individual citizens working to advance their own ideologies. I was particularly intrigued by the role of newspapers, not as impartial sources of information, but as tools of ideological propaganda and, sometimes, tools of advancement for individuals in the community.

I believe that that type of politics may have been better than the highly edited version we have today. A modern, top-down system of politics certainly seems efficient, and represents some citizens, but the partisan, messy politics of early America seem more bottom-up. In such a system, ideas of every individual are more thoughtful, and, if the product of their local newspaper, at least not the product of a media conglomerate corporation broadcasting from New York City.

People Power Blog 1

Jill Lepore questions American Democracy and its origins with a plethora of differing opinions. She cites the primary two approaches to appraising Democracy during the era of the Early 1800s including the disparate philosophies of Noah Webster, Thomas Jefferson, and his successor, Andrew Jackson. Webster was, on the one hand, an unapologetic pedant and elitist who wished nothing more than for the rich to maintain the upper hand in society and for the poorer peoples of meeker status to be barred from participating in national politics. Jefferson and Jackson were of the opposite opinion that the farmers and “plain peoples” of the country were model citizens who showed that civic duty and hard work were all it took to to be honest, contributing members of society. Noah could only describe the average American as an “insufferable idiot” while that same (white) man was labeled a hero and “the great repository of Republican virtue”, in the words of Jefferson. These men clearly had starkly different beliefs into what a democracy should consist of.

It is easy to say presently, with so much time having elapsed since these events, that Webster was obviously out of touch with the masses. One must realize that in their time, there had been no true successful democracy so it would seem unlikely that a democracy providing sufferage to all “fools and knaves” would be feasible. Oddly enough, however, Webster married into a wealthy family and even required an allowance from fellow Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, in order to purchase a residence in New York. It appears the plain people of the country are not the only people who have the potential to become integral members of society.

It is less simple to note whether democracy arose from the West or the East. I find it unlikely that the West would have had a greater affect on the East than vice versa, as the East was the birthplace of so many political documents, parties and movements such as the Boston Tea Party which demonstrated the democratic nature of America. The West was simply populated by Easterners endowed with democratic principles who were inspired to spread these ideas to the furthest reaches of the continent. The West was clearly the depository for the Easterners most ambitious and desiring to spread the benefits of democracy West to those unaware. Lepore juxtaposed many of these ideas but it is necessary to critique each viewpoint if one is to realize that History has no right or no wrong, but what actually happened and the opinions (that of slaves or presidents) that have dictated the intermining centuries.



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.

Eli Caldwell Post 1

“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.

Blog 1

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.