This is a book review on Party of the People by Jules Witcover. As Witcover demonstrates, the Democratic Party has changed dramatically since it was Jackson’s party – although probably not as much as the Republican Party has change since it was Lincoln’s party.
As Witcover demonstrates, the Democratic Party has changed dramatically since it was Jackson’s party – although probably not as much as the Republican Party has change since it was Lincoln’s party. But its current appeal is still linked to the principles that its leaders argued for close to two centuries ago. The Democratic Party, beginning in the 1820s and 1830s, was successful in positioning itself as the party of the people, of the average working person and farmer who had been shut out of the first fifty years of government by educated quasi-aristocrats. It was Jackson’s leadership that gave the part much of the appeal that it had to those across the country who felt that the ordinary person was not getting his due. Jackson – and the Democrats – were able to rise to power in large measure because of reforms in voting laws that allowed all adult white males to vote, while before only relatively wealthy adults had been allowed to vote (since only those with a certain amount of property were eligible to vote). This fundamentally changed the nature of the American electorate and continues to inform the American political debate today – as Witcover’s analysis of the run-up to the 2004 election demonstrates.
Witcover’s book is somewhat uneven: At times he includes a great deal of primary material that helps make the historical material come to life and allows us to understand history from a contemporary perspective. However, in other places (and despite the length of the book), he seems almost to rush through material, summarizing important ideas and incidents rather than let us learn about them directly ourselves. Overall, however, the book is informative and enjoyable, and a useful reminder of how little has changed in the continuing political fight for the heart of the nation – and the power to guide its citizens.
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