Sean Wilentz is an historian familiar to those who have studied Jacksonian politics. The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting piece on him this week.
Even his harshest critics, however, pay their respects to Wilentz’s academic career. His first book, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (Oxford University Press, 1984), is still a staple of graduate-school courses. “When he wrote Chants Democratic, it was, I think, the best example of the New Labor history in the United States,” says his longtime friend Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia. Indebted to the British historian E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, it excavated the political attitudes of artisans, craftsmen, and other laborers facing the wrenching transformation to a wage-based economy.
Wilentz’s book registered blows against so-called consensus history—the notion that Americans, despite their differences of opinion, agreed on a certain conception of political and economic liberalism—and the leftist version of American exceptionalism, which held that the United States lacked a radical, anticapitalist tradition. Wilentz argued instead that in 18th-century America, workers made those anticapitalist arguments using the vocabulary of Thomas Paine and the founders, not of European socialists.
Despite the book’s classic status, there are dissenters from its thesis. In 1990, Robert J. Norrell, of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, wrote that it contained “too little evidence of sustained class action or of broader applicability outside New York City to believe that basic transformation of the social structure had taken place. One had to be strongly predisposed to be persuaded.”
After a detour to explore a bizarre millenarian cult, in The Kingdom of Matthias, written with Paul E. Johnson, of the University of South Carolina, Wilentz appeared to shift scholarly gears. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton, 2005), his magnum opus (and thousand-page doorstop), which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize, was a decade in the making, partly because Wilentz changed course midway through. Intending at first to focus on social movements, he incorporated an account of high politics after his adventures in Washington. “I had a front-row—or second- or third-row—seat,” he says. “I could see how politics worked up close. I was at once more appreciative and more appalled.”
The book sought to revive the reputation of Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonians, under attack for a generation. Modern scholars focus on Jackson’s racism and his forced removal of American Indians from their lands. Wilentz updated the arguments of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who saw in Northern, urban Jacksonianism, at least, crucial precursors to Lincoln’s Republican Party and subsequent U.S. pro-labor politics.
The move from seemingly hard-left labor historian to defender of traditional political history—notably in the New Republic essay about Lincoln scholarship—has caused some head-scratching in the academic world. (Wilentz has also written a sweeping work of contemporary history, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008; and a short biography of Andrew Jackson.)
But Foner says Wilentz’s career simply “reflects an evolution that is going on in the American historical profession generally.”
“It just happens that he has written some of the very best examples of the avant-garde of the 70s and the avant-garde more recently,” Foner says. “Back then we were trying to recover a lost past or neglected past. More recently historians have been trying to integrate that vision into a larger vision of American history as a whole.”
Jonathan Earle, an associate professor at the University of Kansas and a former graduate student of Wilentz’s, makes a similar point. “People who don’t know him think that there is the New Republic Sean, the Chants Democratic Sean, the Clintonista Sean, the Rise of American Democracy Sean. I don’t get it. I think it’s all of a piece. He is a historian of American politics, but not just high politics.”
If you read the entire article, then I think you’ll find, as I did, that Wilentz is a fascinating individual.