Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz - Book Review

For some time I’ve wondered how and why political parties developed in America. George Washington warned against political parties, holding that they were divisive and would corrupt the new republic being founded. But it didn’t take long for a party system to develop. By the time of the accession of John Adams to the presidency, the conflicts about how the new country should govern itself found their voice in the development of organized factions, and we were on our way to the party system. Sean Willentz’s massive book The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln tells the story of the growth of the party system and the eventual emergence of a two party system in America. It’s sometimes difficult to remember in these days, when we are subjected to endless hours of discussion of the process of politics, that people actually differ on substance. Political parties often reflect genuine philosophical and practical differences in belief about how the nation should be governed, what it stands for, and what actions it should take. These differences are reflected in people’s choices about identification with political parties. It turns out that as long as people identify with the needs and desires of like-minded others, parties are inevitable. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the country was developing and changing rapidly, issues separated regions socially and economically, and political matters were unsettled enough to give hope to many factions.

Within this context, Wilentz covers a period of about sixty years with very close detail. He uses the personalities of the big players and issues. Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln dominated the presidency, while lesser lights like van Buren, Taylor, Tyler, Polk, and (worst of all and much like George Bush) Buchanan gummed up the works. Banking, westward expansion, internal improvement (today read infrastructure), and tariffs dominated the issues, but overall the specter of slavery reigned. The Founding Fathers ducked the issue, leaving it for succeeding generations to settle, perhaps believing the problem would collapse of its own inefficiency and never anticipating the need for the bloodiest strife in our history to settle the problem. The other set of personalities and powers dominating the book are politicians who never made it to the presidency. Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Stephan A. Douglas, and John C. Calhoun were the legislative giants of the era. The two largest conflicts during this period had to do with the role of the federal government in regulating money and the question of the expansion of slavery into the new territories being admitted as states. Wilentz clearly demonstrates that later southern apologists claiming that states rights, not slavery, was the central cause of the Civil War are revisionists efforts to rehabilitate the south. For nearly half a century preceding the war, slavery was the single most dominant issue: where it would be, how chattel slaves could be bought and sold, what property rights concerning human possessions slaveholders could maintain. The devil’s bargain to count slaves as 3/5 of a human being for census purposes while never granting any rights to these people enshrined in the Constitution assured the dominance of a rather small minority of slave owners in this continuing struggle.

Through the 1850’s as the Whig Party dissolves and the Republicans invent themselves; the rise of Abraham Lincoln seems almost inevitable, as does the dissolution of the Union. Particularly interesting to me was the platform in which Lincoln ran. I have often thought that, had he been alive today, Lincoln would have been a democrat. The Republican platform of 1860 pretty well seals the deal for me. Ever since I can remember and longer than that, the Republican Party has claimed to be the party of Lincoln and left us to be represented by Jefferson and Jackson. Actually we deserve Lincoln, too. A look at the platform he ran on in 1860 shows this pretty clearly. Why not take the appellation of ”the party of Lincoln" away from the Republicans.
Here're some of the major points of the Republican platform of 1860:
1. Condemned John Brown (anti-terrorism)
2. Opposed nativist changes in the immigration laws.
3. Backed the Homestead Act. (free land for those willing to (im)prove it)
4. Federal aid to internal improvements (infrastructure).
5. Asserted that the "normal condition was and always has been Freedom (opposed slavery)
During Lincoln's campaign, he was dubbed the "Railsplitter," i.e. the representative of the common man. Furthermore, his campaign forcefully opposed the efforts of southern hotheads to destroy the union, standing instead for a reasonable approach that would maintain the Union, in which he was eventually joined by Stephen A. Douglas. (pp.762 -763 of Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy. It would certainly be nice if Democrats could legitimately claim Lincoln as well as Jefferson and Jackson, two somewhat problematic figures. The Republican “southern strategy” of the last generation bears remarkable similarity to the approaches of the party labeled Democratic in the pre-Civil War era.

The period abounded in a multiplicity of factions calling themselves parties: Loco Foco, Federalists, Barnburners, Hunkers, Whigs, Free Soilers, and the Liberty Party among others. Irony, too, can be found. As Americans struggled to determine what the democratic ideal would look like, they explored suffrage (women, blacks, people who did not own property), slavery, the nature of money and debt, national expansion, international place in the world, and a number of other often conflicting and confounding issues. The irony of the pre-Civil War Democrats becoming the party of FDR’s New Deal and the party of civil rights while the Republicans opposed slavery and encouraged the development of national transportation networks but became the fomenters of today’s Republican party, which has lost almost all representation in the northeast cannot be missed.

The Rise of American Democracy is not a book for the faint of heart. It contains nearly 800 pages of pretty dense text and over 200 more of notes and index. It is filled with detail. Nonetheless, for people who consider themselves students of American history, this book is essential, and pleasurable, reading. The book can be obtained from local bookstores and online. In trade paperback, it retails for $19.95, a good buy on a per page basis. In terms of its body of information it’s really a great read.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pick of the Litter

I started out to put together a portfolio of pictures I wanted to call "Best of 2008." As I worked through my photos, I realized there were too many I liked for me to call them the best or to call them anything else. The pictures in this portfolio were all taken between mid-January and the first day of May, 2008 at a number of different events. I picked the particular shots because I like to think they capture something essential I see in the subjects. Whether it's humor, lonliness, concentration, intensity, or some other quality, I like to think of these as portraits that capture something more than just an image. If they work as photographs, they move you in some way. I'll provide some context and maybe a few comments, but, for the most part, let's let the pictures speak for themselves.
Molly Kate Cherryholmes

Molly Kate & Susanna Langdon

This year, Dailey & Vincent enjoyed almost unprecedented success, winning seven awards at the annual IBMA awards show. The pictures below were taken during one of their first performances, at the Rodeheaver Boys Rance in Palatka, FL in mid-February.

Jamie Dailey

Jamie Dailey & Darrin Vincent

Owen Saunders & David Davis

Paul Priest

Lorraine Jordan & Jerry Butler

At age 84, Tut Taylor continues to be a force in bluegrass music. He is an eternal font of ideas. From inventing a new way to pick the Dobro as a young man, to inventing a new form of resonator guitar he calls the Tutbro, to putting out two new albums in the past three years, Tut continues to have one of the most creative and inventive minds in music.
Tut Taylor

Lee Taylor (Mrs. Tut)

Laurie Lewis

Sean Lane

Sierra Hull & Hiway 111 have made a huge impact in the past couple of years. Fronted by a, now, seventeen year old mandolin phenom and featuring Cory Walker, two years her elder, the band showcases the virtuosity and energy of so many young musicians. People who have given up hope for the future of bluegrass need look no further than this group.
Sierra Hull & Hiway 111

Sierra Hull (she also plays guitar)

Cory Walker

Andy Hall

Travis Book

David Holt & Dr. Ralph Stanley

Pete Wernick (Dr. Banjo)

It doesn't take being around bluegrass too long for fans to recognize that this music is nearly lily white in complection. The Carolina Chocolate Drops create a fascinating and entertaining linkage between bluegrass music and the string band music of the early twentieth century, which is one of the wellsprings from which bluegrass sprang. Their lively shows are something no bluegrass fan should miss.
Justin Robinson (Carolina Chocolate Drops)

Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops)

Each year, Merlefest puts a group of the country's finest mandolin players on the Creekside Stage on Saturday afternoon for a set called Mando Mania. Here are four of the great pickers chosen for 2008. Look for an equally appealling and challenging group in 2009.
Mike Compton

Darin Aldridge

Sierra Hull

Rebecca Lovell

Merelefest is a huge festival and the Watson Stage faces a vast sea of seats. Few performers can carry an audience with a solo performance in a venue like this. Tim O'Brien is one of them.
Tim O'Brien

Rhonda Vincent

Alison Brown

Joe Craven

Doc Watson

Claire Lynch

Bela Fleck

Dan Tyminski

Adam Steffey

It has often been said that bluegrass music, at least historically, has been pretty much a boys' club. A look at the four faces that follow as well as back up the list indicates that much of the creativity, energy, and tunefulness in the music comes from the women and girls performing today.
Becky Buller

Valerie Smith

Sherry Boyd (Emcee for Norman Anderson Festivals)

Cia Cherryholmes
Katie Wilson (The Wilson Family Band)

The Gibson Brothers' last four CDs have reached number one in the Bluegrass Unlimited charts. For a pair of brothers from the northernmost reaches of New York State, singing an innovative and creative mix of pure bluegrass, classic country, and rock tinged songs of their own composition, this is quite an accomplishment, and they've found a national audience.
Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

Clayton Campbell

Steve Gulley (Grasstowne)

Alan Bibey (Grasstowne)

Kevin Prater (James King Band)

James King

Kevin Prater & James King flank the late Eugene Crabtree

Junior Sisk

Larry Gillis

Ralph Stanley

So there's a collection of pictures that I'm proud of. I know that some of your favorites aren't here, but these are the ones that particularly appealed to me as I trolled through my files during the last couple of days. I hope you enjoy them.