Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The most interesting things on the web, handpicked each day. Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

Birnbaum v.

Sean Wilentz

Historian Sean Wilentz talks about social studies versus history, purple prose in founding-father biographies, and how “states rights” started trumping slavery in Jefferson Davis’s memoirs.

Of the numerous reasons that I found it compelling to speak with Princeton historian Sean Wilentz last winter, those that matter here are my fears of the state of historical pedagogy in the United States (Wilentz observes: “They’re not just interesting facts, they have within them historical importance, and what is historical importance? It’s what helps lead us from then to now.”) and the publication of what fellow historian Gordon Wood has termed a “monumental book,” The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. Wilentz explains that his book “can be read as a chronicle of American politics from the Revolution to the Civil War, with the history of democracy at its center.” The book is an account of how democracy arose in the United States, with three main sections focusing on the Jeffersonians, the Jacksonians, and the buildup to the Civil War. There are, of course, a prologue and an epilogue, and footnotes, of which, as you will see below, Wilentz is proud.

By the way, Wood makes a very important point in his laudation of The Rise of American Democracy:

It is one of the many ironies of American history that the wildfire spread of democratic politics in both the North and the South eventually made it impossible to solve the problem of slavery peaceably. To learn how the triumph of democracy nearly destroyed the United States, this book is a good place to start.

In addition to American Democracy, which is out in paperback this month, Wilentz has published, among others: In The Kingdom of Matthias (co-written with Paul E. Johnson); The Key of Liberty (with Michael Merrill); Chants Democratic; Major Problems in the Early Republic; and The Rose and the Briar (with Greil Marcus), a collection of historical essays and artistic creations inspired by American ballads. He is also a frequent contributor to numerous American periodicals, including Rolling Stone.


Robert Birnbaum: We are talking about your immense tome and other things. Let’s talk about what I want to talk about before we talk about—

Sean Wilentz: I’ll twist it around later.

RB: You can answer however you want. For whom was this book written?

SW: Everybody. I have written all kinds of things over the last 30 years. For professors, fellow professors, for students, for the general public, for politically interested people. All kinds of stuff—musical stuff that no one in other crowds will ever see. So I have had the chance, actually I have been lucky enough to be able to write for different audiences and write in different kinds of ways when I do. This was an attempt to write for everybody, the unborn as well as the born.

RB: [laughs]

Sean Wilentz, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

SW: [laughs] No, really, sometimes you want to be a writer—I don’t know if every writer does this but some writers, I certainly did—they do the Babe Ruth thing, they just say, “I’m going to hit it out of the ballpark,” and then people look at them like they are crazy and it’s an act of arrogance and hubris, and nine times out of 10 it fails. And maybe you don’t say it so much publicly, but you put [success] in your own mind, and that’s what I wanted to do. So that’s what I tried to do.

RB: Despite the fact that you hold an endowed chair at Princeton, a professor of long standing at a prestigious university, am I right in my assumption that you think of yourself as a writer who happened to find a comfortable sinecure at a university?

SW: [laughs] Well, if people thought of me that way, I’d consider it a compliment. I can’t say I started that way, and I can’t say it’s a sinecure because it’s a lot of work.

RB: It’s not a cushy position?

SW: It has immense advantages. I will say that. The greatest advantage, really, was that it gave me the time and the—how to put it?—the lack of [long pause] angst to allow me to write something like this. And to allow me to write a lot of other stuff, too. It’s a job which permits you to say and do pretty much what you think. And that’s hard, because if you are working for someone else in almost any other realm outside of the academy, you have that worry. Look, Daniel Bell over at Harvard once said—he’d gotten a Ph.D. for a book he had already written, he’s a writer, all right—“Three good reasons to be a professor: June, July, and August.”

RB: [laughs]

SW: He’s right.

RB: Good one. I missed that in The End of Ideology.

SW: That’s not in there. [laughs] But he was a writer—one of these New York kids, like the whole generation: Irving Howe, the same thing; Alfred Kazin, the same. Bell is married to Kazin’s sister. Small world. I admire them in many ways, actually. But the world was different when I was coming up than when they were coming up. So you couldn’t do the same things. I take the teaching and my work at Princeton very seriously. I love being a teacher. I love it a lot, actually. So I don’t think of that as something that is simply a privileged place. Look the romance of a being a poor writer—I’d just as soon not have it. Phew! Forget it—it really strangles you. I know lots of writers like that. It eats at you, it’s corrosive. So I was lucky not to have to do that.

RB: This is a book that is both a history and a historiography. Historiography is normally not what you present to a mass, or at least mainstream, audience.

SW: Right.

RB: It’s published by a commercial house and [has received] mainstream attention. It’s a readable scholarly work, but it’s a thousand pages. When you started it, which you say somewhere was around 10 years ago—

SW: Even a little earlier—

RB: How much has it changed since you started writing it?

SW: A lot, but not in terms of the length. The text is only a svelte 796 pages—the thousand pages includes index and footnotes, which the average reader doesn’t have to read. Although, I love my footnotes: Some of them are pretty funny. All the good jokes are in the footnotes. It really started off 40 years ago—I always wanted to write a history of this period. And when I set out to write it I was slightly more conflicted. I had two books in mind, really. One was to write a history of the Democratic Party, which no one had ever written, up to the Civil War. And the other was to write a history of politics from the bottom up, which I wrote my first book about, and which is very much an academic book.

RB: Which was part of a wave of new revisionism.

SW: Yeah, very much a new labor history—it made its way. It got its degree of attention. It’s still being read. There was just a 20th-anniversary edition and I am very proud of it. But it is very much from the standpoint of protest politics, dissent politics, politics of labor, and how that affected mainstream politics. So I had these two different things that were struggling, and rather than write two books, I put them together, because the obvious point is that the distinction that is often made among historians, but also in people’s minds, is that there’s these two tracks of history: the history of great men and the history of social forces, or of not-so-great men, or however you want to put it—that they are somehow at loggerheads, that never the twain shall meet. Which is just wrong. In fact, it’s sort of crazy, because you cannot understand one without the other. And you have to understand the historical unfolding of any political movement, any political time, by looking at both and how they affect one another.

I didn’t take history when I was in junior high school, I took something called social studies.

RB: This is a distinction that begins in academia—to break down history into pieces—and it seems only the more visionary thinkers put the pieces together again.

SW: Thank you very much. [laughs] I agree, people forget, and also there is a political side to it.

RB: The politics of historiography?

SW: Not just that. The radical historians who came out of the ‘60s had a very strong idea, and it was something that influenced my work as well—that history is not made by the presidents, it’s made by the paupers. So you read a book like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and it’s history, topsy-turvy. Everything that was popular is now less important. Everything that was bad is now good. Everything is just twisted around. Your heroes are now villains. That’s what happens if you concentrate too hard on one aspect of things. And you can’t understand how politics works in this country by doing that, nor can you understand politics in this country simply by writing a biography of Thomas Jefferson. As interesting and endlessly fascinating as that is that he’s being pushed, pulled, and finding all kinds of things, and changing by forces that are outside of his control. And [those] very often are very insignificant people—the likes of a slave named Gabriel, whom I don’t even know if Jefferson even knew by name. But it still affected what happened in 1800, affected what was going on politically. So that was important to me. That, plus the idea of narrative, which has become a kind of conceit among academics and general writers—for the academics, it’s become a conceit because they think they have reinvented narrative.

RB: [chuckles]

SW: I wrote a book like this, too, and I’m proud of it, but it was an experiment in writing more than an experiment in historiography, where you take a story that is way off on the margins and then you develop that story almost as a novelist would. But you are making larger contextual points. But it’s the story that runs it, the narrative rather than some topical thing or laying in too heavily the historical conceptual apparatus. No, you just want the story to explain itself. And some brilliant books have been written along those lines—my former colleague, who I still consider a colleague, Natalie Zemon Davis, wrote a story set in early modern France [The Return of Martin Guerre] about a guy who had left his wife and his wife was involved with someone she thought was still him—it was sort of a sex scandal story. They made a movie out of this with Depardieu as the disappointed man, which was thought of as a new kind of narrative history. Now, I did some of that. I wrote a book about a religious maniac in New York in the 1830s [The Kingdom of Matthias] with a friend of mine, and which was endlessly satisfying. But the key to that is to strip away some of the duller academic conceits and do them, just don’t say them. You don’t have to hit readers over the head with it. The second was to let the story tell the story. The limit to that way of doing things, generally for me, for what I wanted to do, was that the stories all tended to come out from the margins rather than to say—you could tell the same story about John Quincy Adams. He has his stories, too, and in fact, they involved those other people. So the idea of putting a lot of them together and seeing them interact, that’s what led to this [book].

RB: Bringing up Howard Zinn reminded me that in your book, you don’t go into depth about Shays’s Rebellion, but in your account the governor who acted against Shays was not re-elected, was removed from office, and Shays was eventually—

The genius of the people seeped into that room and the more, I think, wiser delegates listened to and adhered to it.

SW: Pardoned. It all worked out. [laughs]

RB: But reading Zinn and Gore Vidal, I have always been left believing that Shays was badly and unjustly dealt with and that was it.

SW: Well, he was, but it had a happy ending in a funny way—the thing about the Shays people is it’s a much more interesting and complicated story than the way it is usually described. It’s usually described as mean, nasty, Eastern moneyed interests that need to raise a new fiscal policy because they are going broke. So they make life very difficult for the Western farmers. And the Western farmers get ticked off and they close down the courts because they have no representation and they are not being listened to, and they petition and petition and get nowhere, so they pick up guns and they shut down the courts. Now you can see that as way back at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century, even, as a parable of how crazy the people are, how unreliable the people are, and [why] you have to limit democracy and so forth. Or you can see it as a parable of the righteous people taking up arms against an oppressive government. Which is sort of Howard’s version and other people’s versions. Or you can see it as the complex event that it was. And in its complexity, it shows, in fact, the rawness of the potential of democratic government, in a very funny way, precisely for the very reason that you talk about. Here’s a group of people out around Springfield, Mass., who are not being listened to and are being evicted from their farms. They are getting screwed. And the government will not listen to them, mainly because it’s so malapportioned. And the governor, James Bowdoin is a very, very conservative guy and he finds this all shocking. Not just the resort to arms but the very fact that they are complaining. This is not good. So their resorting to arms did two things. On the one hand, it expressed their righteous anger and kept them from being evicted. But it also gave the governor an excuse to go crush them. Because when you are taking up arms, now, that’s a different story. So he felt he had the ability to raise a private army because he couldn’t get enough people from back East to march with him and crush Shays and his people. Had Shays not done what he did, nothing probably would have happened. But the final outcome is as you say: In the election the following year, the people were so angry at Bowdoin for his ham-fisted repression, they voted him out of office—there was a kind of adjustment of the grievances. The legislature and the General Court finally listened, so there was a kind of rough democratic outcome to this. The other side is that it also helped push—[it] scared enough rich guys around the country to be an impetus to forming the Constitution of the United States. Another parable: You can see that as righteous people rise up, merchants and planters get scared and come up with a conservative Constitution. And that’s a Charles Beard argument, a very familiar argument that the Constitution is essentially a reactionary document. But that misses a lot—precisely because even though Shays did scare people, the fact that the thing was settled did calm things down a little bit. The delegates in Philadelphia were not monolithic. There were no poor people in there, but there was Benjamin Franklin, who helped design the most democratic constitution of all the states, in Pennsylvania. You had guys there who resented or were suspicious of the many delegates who thought that the Constitution had to be actively anti-democratic. What you end up with is a constitution—and James Madison is very aware of this, too—that you can’t base a new federal government on a proposition that will offend the mass of the people, the mass of the citizenry as they saw it, which were men. The government won’t last. So you have to ground the government in populist sovereignty, first of all. Alexander Hamilton gets up and gives a speech basically proclaiming that the Constitution ought to be as close to the British model as possible. Everybody says, “Thank you very much, brilliant speech.” He sits down and they ignore him! They ignore him! And they come up with a system which, although it does have all sorts of indirect [mechanisms]—we still see it today the electoral college, the Supreme Court in some ways—

RB: What about the election of senators?

SW: Some people wanted senators to be based on a separate estate in society. In other words, you had to have a certain amount of property to vote for the Senate and that was true at the state level, actually. But in the United States, that wasn’t what was going to happen. It was going to be done though the state legislatures. It was an indirect check, but even then anybody could be a senator. You didn’t have to have a certain amount of property to be one—which was unlike the House of Lords, which was what it was compared to. It was not by any means open democracy, and that’s the story of the book. But the school that sees the Constitution as simply reactionary—that there were many more democratic possibilities in the Constitution because [of] what James Wilson, a guy from Pennsylvania who was a fellow delegate and really Madison’s kindred spirit, [called] the genius of the people. The genius of the people seeped into that room and the more, I think, wiser delegates listened to and adhered to it even if it wasn’t present in the room itself.

RB: What explains Ben Franklin’s much-quoted pessimism about the future of the Republic?

SW: A lot of people were pessimistic. They would talk a good game. Franklin has the great virtue of bluntness. And he was also very old at that point, so he would say what was on his mind rather than what he wanted people to think. And he was famous for saying “a republic, if you can keep it.” But look, this is a system of government that is being established as a republic in a world that is not republican. In a world of aristocrats and kings, it had just defeated the greatest military power in the world. What kind of odds are you going to give it for its future? Not great, I would say.

RB: In addition, Franklin’s pessimism was not about external forces but about—

SW: About internal—I think it was about both. You can’t have one without the other. Because a lot of what people were to say from then on, in fact, is that the more aristocratic elements, quote-unquote, like Hamilton, were really in league with the British and so forth. It’s never quite that simple, and right through to 1815, that’s always a question. But you are right: Can this machine work? Will it continue? There was a lot of fear about that because it was so delicately balanced. And the possibilities—

RB: Early on, you quote Webster about whether the Revolution was settled, and he believed it was not, it had just begun. If I were in public school today, would I be given the pabulum about the grandeur of democracy that was shoveled in huge bulk when I was in school?

SW: It depends on where you were going, obviously—

RB: Public schools.

SW: In public schools you would be lucky to be getting anything. History is under assault. Some school districts they start at the Civil War. So the cutback in history is a whole other separate issue. Teaching history in the United States—here’s where I agree with Lynne Cheney—it’s one of the few things we might ever agree on. The teaching of American history in the schools is not so much that it’s either patriotic pabulum or politically correct nonsense—you can find both—but it’s just not taught at all.

When some of my colleagues try to write for a popular audience they think that’s what you have to do—tell how the weather was, or the color of the wool.

RB: Why?

SW: There is a basic disrespect for the humanities but there is enough respect for English that people have to be literate, so they teach English. And they teach English, math, and science. And then everything else goes by the board. Every thing else is considered a luxury.

RB: Why wouldn’t there be an innate curiosity? Or something close to that.

SW: There is. That’s why people buy the books. But the schools don’t get it. There is also another problem, which I have written about in one of my other writing lives. Which is that the idea of history came to be twisted around by the idea of social studies. I didn’t take history when I was in junior high school, I took something called social studies. We didn’t have civics. It was all put into this mush that was called social studies. And there, the pedagogy has turned into a kind of touchy-feely, “the kids know everything already; we are facilitators.” When I was 10 years old, I knew every single batting average in the American league, day by day. Now, why did I know that? It was insane, but I had a passion for it. I loved baseball. I was not alone. Maybe not every one but the top 100. Kids, when they are small, like to memorize stuff. You have the capacity to do it and you enjoy it. It’s not bad. You can’t learn math without rote learning. But somehow the idea came across that rote learning is in and of itself a bad thing. So you avoid names, dates, and so forth.

RB: Nicholas Lemann wrote something awhile back that was an aside as he had a conversation with his high-school-aged son—he opined that the teaching of American history involved too much history. Meaning, I think, that students were asked to learn too much detail and not enough narrative—tariffs and legislation, and not the dramatic inner workings of events—not attending to the stories that make it interesting.

SW: I completely agree. Look, if you are just going to give people names and dates, blah, blah, blah, blah, then you lose them. You are not there to just do that. But in some ways, Nick’s son is going to a school that is very old-fashioned. And very atypical. Most schools don’t teach much in the way of facts at all. And not even stories—concepts and learning how to solve problems—learning all the stuff that the education schools think are important. But you are not really learning anything. You are learning something about a process. But a process without knowledge is a form of idiocy. So it’s a very advanced form of idiocy but it’s idiocy. So there has to be a way to link together the narrative of the country, the dates that are important, the events that are important. Gettysburg is an important battle. But why is it an important battle? Well, because of where the war was at that point and all the rest of it. They’re not just interesting facts, they have within them historical importance, and what is historical importance? It’s what helps lead us from then to now.

RB: Isn’t the story of Gettysburg compelling because one officer was told to hold the line—

SW: Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, right.

RB: It’s a great story.

SW: It is, and there is a great book written about it.

RB: I don’t recall anyone teaching me about that, either in high school or college American history.

SW: What I find is that the kids I teach are wonderful and smart—they’re great, they’re the best. They don’t know anything. Know nothing, but they are so hungry. By the time they come to upper-level courses at Princeton, they just take off with it. For most students there has been such a deadening process that they are not [hungry]. What you said before, which makes a lot of sense, is that there is this innate interest. And it often comes out later. So what I find going around is this big boom in founding-father studies, for example—Joe Ellis and David McCullough and all. Most of the audience for that are people 50 and older. Or their kids, who buy [these books] for them, who never quite got it right. But they want to know more. They really are interested in the country and that’s why these books sell.

RB: A good sign, despite my uneasiness about the unread bestseller, but it’s not a big number against the total population.

SW: It’s a problem. Until we figure out how to break the hold of the current ideology of high school teaching of history and social studies, which we are [doing] state by state—I have been a minor participant in this, others have been taking the lead—we are not going to get anywhere. We are going to be stuck with this mish-mash. Fortunately, my kids—but they went to private schools, for good and bad reasons—have had real history and you can really tell when it’s done right, it’s great. The masses get social studies, and it’s just terrible.

RB: There is a proliferation of historical novels that do a wonderful job of taking a plausible story—The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Doctorow’s The March, and others of his books—

SW: The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, which is a book about Gettysburg—look, historical novels can do some of it. One of John Updike’s not-so-well-known novels, Memories of the Ford Administration, is really a biography of James Buchanan. It’s sort of academic, and Updike being Updike, but you learn as much good history and interesting history about the coming of the Civil War there as you will in most history books. Vidal’s books, to me they vary more, but certainly Burr, which I think is his best of his historical novels, brings the world of the 1830s alive, let alone the Jeffersonian period. So novels can do that. And the narrative form is important. But it’s important in different ways for historians. It’s one thing to be lively and vivid. And when some of my colleagues try to write for a popular audience they think that’s what you have to do. Tell how the weather was, or the color of the wool.

RB: Exactly how McCullough begins 1776.

SW: Yeah, he does it a lot. You can smell the paint drying and all that—it’s movie writing, really. It’s very visual—it’s fine if you like that sort of thing. But the narrative—in the book on Adams, for example, there’s nothing about what I thought was most important about Adams: He had thoughts. He had ideas. And it’s very hard to give the color of an idea unless [laughs] you are of a different generation. Or talk about the smell of an idea. So you can’t then really render certain kinds of internals in history. And those internals—ideas are deeply important to history. They are not just out there. So, if you equate narrative with vividness, then you cut off a lot. If you equate the narrative with the idea that historical meaning only unfolds over time and with a very clear sense of movement of day to day, seeing how unintended consequences occur, seeing how people have different choices and [how] they make one rather than the other, and what that then leads them to, but seeing that not just for one person but for a whole country. If you can do that—you are doing [historical] narrative of the highest order, Herodotus, Thucydides, Gibbon—those are the models that people ought to be taking, not pop novelists.

RB: Your criticism of McCullough was of the book that he didn’t write, not what he in fact wrote.

SW: That’s right, but the book he did write still sells people short about this particular individual. If he had written a biography of—I don’t know, say, Patrick Henry. He was not a great intellectual but he was a great orator, and that you can render. That you can do. But there was a mismatch of style and subject. And that was really important, and then I think the problem with the style is that it tells people that this is what history is. This is not his [McCullough’s] fault. This is everybody else’s fault. When people write such dull books and such irrelevant books that nobody is going to read, well that’s a problem. Also, you can’t blame David McCullough or any of the bestselling writers these days for that. It’s just a coterie of things. It’s not just a style of writing, it has to do with television and who appears—it has to do with all of that stuff, a cultural mix. The face of American history gets set in one way—[go] back 30 or 40 years ago, 50 years ago, to what the face of American history was, where it was Charles Beard, way back in the ‘20s when every single intelligent household had a copy of The Rise of American Civilization in it. Or you think of Schlesinger or Richard Hofstadter—a little bit more upscale but still there. C. Vann Woodward was involved in politics a great deal. Daniel Boorstein and his big works on America—whatever you think of them, that is real history. That was a golden age, if you can talk about such things. The ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s changed.

RB: Which came first: the decline of interest, the emphasis on sciences, or the degradation—

SW: They all went together. They all went together.

RB: It’s a scholarly pursuit to try to separate these things apart from each other, which doesn’t account for the real-life process.

SW: That’s right.

RB: And that’s the way you talk about the democracy—it’s not finished. Didn’t start out finished and still continues, and all these things are happening and continue—

SW: People don’t live as political people—there’s a famous line—Coleridge was talking to Robert Southey, who was going to write a history of Brazil. So he asks, “Are you going to write of it as a political history or not? Or social history?” To which Southey says, “I’m going to write the history of Brazil.” People don’t live history in that way, in those different modes. Look, there is something to be said for what those other forms of historical scholarship have done. I really don’t like to put down people who have worked really hard to come up with this.

RB: Social history had to struggle for recognition.

SW: Absolutely. And they fought a very good fight and I was part of the fight. I’m not repudiating any of that. But, as I say, McCullough’s book on Adams has its limitations, so that stuff had its limitations. And I am the first to admit it. You just have to take it to higher ground. I am not trying to knock people down as much as I am trying to get everything up to a higher ground. I don’t want people to settle. People can settle real easy.

RB: Clearly you admire Schlesinger Jr.’s Age of Jackson. Did he do better work after that book? Might that have been the pinnacle of his work?

SW: Oooh, that’s a good question. Umm, yeah, in some ways it is. In some ways it’s the best history book, the best work of history he ever did. The Roosevelt books didn’t surpass it. People said he was too close to the Kennedys and this is what is interesting about him, too. It’s a plus and a minus. People see the minus because a lot of my colleagues consider him—

RB: An apologist—

SW: An apologist and betrayer. Betrayed the guild and the craft. He went on the inside and so he just stands up for the Kennedys at every opportunity. Yes and no. When you read, not so much A Thousand Days, which is really a memoir, just a book about Jack Kennedy. But you read his biography of Robert Kennedy. It’s very long, too, but it’s one of the best things he has done, frankly. And he did it so quickly. There, some of the same stuff is there. He is very close—these are his friends and his patrons—but it’s much more critical and he takes every opportunity not to bash people, but to try to understand what was going on. And he doesn’t apologize for a lot of stuff. And it’s less of a memoir than a biography. The thing about The Age of Jackson that you are getting at, which is so astounding, is that it was written by a guy who was 28 years old. And it reads like a guy who was 128. That is to say, he had been there. And he had managed to immerse himself in all of those sources. It’s a lot easier for me to do that—a lot of that stuff is out of libraries. It’s in printed form now. All the letters of the president, the correspondence, and the speeches. He had to go find all that stuff. The papers are on microfilm; they are easy to get. It was hard to do that in 1942 or whenever he did that. But quite apart from that, just the degree of historical wisdom of a 28-year-old. That’s amazing.

RB: His insight was that politics was being driven by class concerns, not by sectional concerns—class being anathema in America, that must have been bold. But it was in the air—

SW: All historians reflect their own times, et cetera. And there are parts of that book that run a little to close to being explicitly—not an allegory so much, but homologies, similarities. The labor movement, then and now. Andrew Jackson as FDR. It’s not quite that. It’s very hard to make the Patroon of Hyde Park into the—

RB: Indian-killing—

SW: Yeah, yeah, and just a guy who was a perfect nobody. [Jackson] was born in dirt. Very different men.

RB: Who played Jackson in the movies?

SW: Charlton Heston, always.

RB: [laughs]

SW: There are two movies and both of them have Charlton Heston in them. And they always dress him up as if he walked off a $20 bill. No matter what age he is. He could be 15. He’s got gray hair and he has that stupid lurch to him. Anyway, The President’s Lady and The Buccaneer—Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte with a ridiculous wig on his head. Poor Yul, and his mistress Claire Bloom is in the movie. Painted—she is supposed to be a mulatto so they give her a boot-polish thing—and there is Charlton Heston lurching about New Orleans.

RB: Isn’t that how we learn our history?

SW: Movies. There is a great book, or interesting book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies that some of us wrote five, six, seven years ago, which talks about our favorite historical movies—look, we learn history in all kinds of ways. Like we learn everything in all kinds of ways.

RB: You make a point that paintings showed significant shifts when they began to portray certain occupations that were previously were ignored.

SW: Yeah, they get more democratic. Yeah.

RB: Is it a common reference to talk about the Civil War as the “Second American Revolution?”

SW: Among some historians, yeah. The phrase was coined by Charles and Mary Beard, but they had a very different take on it then what we do. They thought of the Second American Revolution as a triumph of industrialism over agrarianism. And when you read their books, although they changed some, they are of a generation where slavery was not really the key issue. They are writing from 1905 to 1935. The fact that slavery itself was the driving issue for the war—it’s there, but it’s not there. So their revolution was a sort of classical-progressive, but much more industry defeating the countryside. So that’s where the term was originally phrased. Now it has a much different meaning. The meaning is that the Civil War not only abolished slavery, which had been an issue to some extent from the beginning of the founding of the country, and was an important political issue, but it also led to a rewriting of the Constitution. It really fundamentally changed the political order. Or opened up the possibilities for a change. Things that were compromised in 1787 and left intact in 1787 were blown apart by the war.

RB: It was a massive enfranchisement of not only blacks—you mention that the biography of Jefferson Davis and claim that it was the most influential presidential memoir ever.

SW: Yeah, it’s not a big field. [laughs] There was not a lot of competition. There are a lot of them but they are not very good. There is Grant’s, but that is all about the war.

RB: Grant has made a big comeback.

SW: He’s come up. And rightly so, I think. People now are reexamining his presidency and seeing that it wasn’t all about corruption. He took some very, very hard stands on Southern issues and on the Indians, actually, that were really quite admirable. But presidential memoirs—Ronald Reagan’s An American Life—I don’t think people are going to be reading it or about it. Johnson’s The Vantage Point, not really. Maybe Carter could come back and write a memoir someday. A better one.

RB: What’s your call on Clinton’s?

SW: It’s interesting and has a lot of stuff in it, but it’s just too big. When I say important—you find this out later on—when I say important, I mean it had an importance as a historical text in changing history. Look, none of the memoirs were written about the kind of crisis that Jefferson Davis was writing about, so in some ways they are not so interesting because they are all about littler things. He’s talking about the survival of the Union and the secession and all the rest of it.

RB: Was it read beyond historians and scholars?

SW: It had a certain popularity. It was long, though, two volumes long. It’s pretty turgid. I am not sure how many people read it but it helped set a tone. And helped set the tone, which was—there are two things about the book which are important. One is that Davis gets back at all his critics within the Confederacy. That’s not so interesting anymore to most people except for Civil War buffs. The second thing, though, is that he argues that the Civil War was not about slavery. [pause] He says it was about states’ rights. And that had been there from the beginning, and slavery just came along. Believe me, if you ask most Americans today, I don’t think you would find, I would bet, better than a small plurality that would say that the Civil War was about slavery. And that is because this idea that Davis pushed very hard—others did, too. Became part of a myth.

We are a different America. But we are still an America that’s rent by race.

RB: It was the hue and cry in the ‘50s justifying the Jim Crow South’s depredations.

SW: It all started in the 1880s—a good book about this by David Blythe who teaches at Yale. You see it actually in the Ken Burns film. At the very end, when they have all the soldiers from the Reb side and our guys reuniting in Gettysburg and all is forgiven, this is in 1913, the 50th anniversary. This is like the nadir of the black experience. Segregation is all over the place. How can you leave this out? And you leave it out because in part it’s politically safe. And there are a lot of reasons why this myth came about. But Davis had a lot to do with it. It’s a gigantic act of falsification. People still believe it. Lots of people still believe it. People who are not neo-Confederates still believe it. Even radicals believe it. They will say, “Well, Lincoln fought the war not about slavery but to save the Union. And he hated black people and he wanted colonization [to send slaves back to Africa].” This is ridiculous. C’mon. The guy gets elected, the South secedes. Why is he elected? Because he says he is going to put slavery on the road to extinction. “We cannot be half-slave and half-free; we are going to be free.” Duh! This was about slavery. Abraham Lincoln was an anti-slavery candidate. Now faced with secession, what was he going to say, “And we are going to use this as a chance to end slavery all over the country?” Of course not. Because he didn’t believe the Constitution allowed him to do that before the war. He wasn’t going to go against the Constitution. But still he saw slavery as an evil institution, morally, that was damned. But that was being preserved by a slave oligarchy that had taken control of the federal government. So the South secedes and then they are very honest: “Here’s why we are seceding—slavery! Goddamn Yankees won’t let us have our slaves.” But then later Davis, above all, tried to cover all that over and say it was about something else. You wouldn’t have had secession without slavery.

RB: Early on you make a point about the troublesomeness of defining democracy. If one accepts the perceptive insight that it is really a process, no finality, what do we have today? If so few people participate?

SW: That’s a great irony. For all of the limits to democracy that existed in 1840—only white men could vote, basically, which was, from the standpoint of people in 1840, a big advance—80 percent of the eligible electorate voted. Politics entered into everything in people’s lives. Politics was relevant to people’s lives. Even silly campaigns like [William Henry Harrison’s] Log Cabin Campaign meant something to people. Now if we get 50 percent of the people voting—

RB: We don’t.

SW: If we do, we consider it a great event.

RB: Which breaks down to barely 25 percent of the voters electing a president.

SW: That’s correct. Barely 25 percent.

RB: So it’s pure rhetoric for a president to say that he has a mandate.

SW: Well, you remember back in 2000, between 2000 and the inaugural, that with all the anger and the bitterness, everybody felt sure that this guy [Bush] was going to govern from the middle. That he had no choice but to govern from the middle. That he was a uniter not a divider. So he was going to tell all his right-wing friends—

RB: Compassionate conservative, so-called.

SW: Right, he had found a new synthesis. Well, we turned out to be wrong. And he claimed a mandate when he had none. He claimed the last election was a mandate.

RB: He was appointed in 2000, not elected.

SW: Exactly right. But he took it for vindication for his policies and then he took 2004 when he was elected, although there are all sorts of people thinking that there were shenanigans. I think he probably was [elected], but nevertheless, he wasn’t elected by that much. But he is walking around like he is Ronald Reagan or Lyndon Johnson. But the reason is because he can control Congress and he can get anything he wants. So he can manufacture a mandate. Because he had control of all three branches of government.

RB: Do the poll numbers mean anything?

SW: Sure, they mean what people are thinking at the moment.

RB: Do they?

SW: Yeah, depends on what questions are being asked, but they are indicative of things. But like any set of numbers—it’s all in the interpretation. So they tell you things, but they are more like Delphic oracles than they are like anything else. You have to divine exactly what they mean.

RB: You need to stir the entrails.

SW: Like Teresias figuring it out. So that’s what it is. And political consultants who are paid a lot of money are the ones that can figure that out better for their candidate.

RB: You have done some traveling for this book? What’s your sense of the response to the book—has it even been read?

SW: Oh, yeah. Not really. I am just beginning to hear people say that they finally finished it. [laughs] People are enjoying it. There is this strange thing that has gone out about the book that it’s this long, long, long thing. Well, it’s a long book, but one of the early reviews that warmed my heart [one of the trades] said, “This is a long book, but it doesn’t waste any words. And it’s concise.” And Bill Grimes said in the New York Times, “For a long book, this really is concise.” That meant the world to me. I think it’s a book that is fairly easy to read. You are not being thrown into something that is difficult. Which I think would put people off from reading it.

RB: Oh, sure.

SW: So I’ve been delighted to hear people saying, “I really enjoyed this part or that.” “What’d you like about it?” “I was just so well written.” That means a lot to me.

RB: In the conclusion, the last picture you use is of the jury empanelled, though never used, to try Jefferson Davis—blacks and—

SW: That’s right. Seven blacks and five whites.

RB: Any thought of putting that photograph on the book’s cover?

SW: You know a good friend of mine designed a cover with that photo on it. And so I thought about it.

RB: It’s a resonant picture.

SW: I know. Which is why I didn’t put it on the cover. I wanted that to hit you like a hammer. And if it does, it’s great. It’s a picture I only discovered two years ago. And when I saw it, it grabbed me by the throat.

RB: It would have been amazing if there had been a trial.

SW: Well, you see, he wanted a trial. Which is interesting, because he wanted to justify secession. But imagine him trying to justify secession looking over at that jury. [laughs] It would have been pretty wild. Especially because the jury was real citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. But when I saw it, it grabbed me in such a way that I had my ending. This is it. When you see it, when I saw it, it was amazing because it seemed so incongruous. You couldn’t imagine such an assembly of men—

RB: Could you find another picture of a black and white jury?

SW: Under any circumstance—a mixed club, a mixed club going to the ball game. Nothing! So here they were and they were supposed to decide the fate of the man who had led the Confederacy. This to me was amazing. Not only because it seemed, it was inconceivable five years before. It would be inconceivable 20 years later. And now it’s almost as inconceivable. It’s not inconceivable for petty juries and so forth. But for that kind of crime? Of course it’s inconceivable. We are a different America. But we are still an America that’s rent by race. The most touching thing about it—you see one of the guys, I forget if it was a white guy or a black guy—has his hand on another guy’s shoulder. Not in a false, forced way. It’s almost tender. So it’s a photograph of both the culmination of a process that I talk about in the book, and something that was going to be destroyed. It was a lost moment, a lost opportunity for the country. Not just for Virginia.

RB: Tell me about the book you did with Greil Marcus.

SW: The Rose and the Briar—well, Greil, who is a musical cultural critic who started off at Rolling Stone many years ago, and I are friends. And I have this whole other life, you know.

RB: You have a band? [laughs]

SW: No, I am the historian-in-residence at I worked for those guys—for “Dylan Central,” as I call it. And I have written liner notes for a couple of his albums. So I have this whole music life. Greil is—he’s the real thing. I’m just moonlighting; this is his day job. When he was at Princeton, he was a fellow in a program that I helped to run and then he came back a second year and we were at a conference about field recording in the ‘20s and ‘30s and very recondite stuff, but it was very cool to hear some of these guys, and we heard some amazing music and we—

RB: Like the Lomax and Don Law stuff?

SW: Sure we talk about Lomax but going all the way back to Howard Odom in the way, way old days and Don Law and guys most people hadn’t heard of. John Fahey, the guitarist—this is before he died—had established something called Revenant Records. Revenant has been releasing some of the most incredible recordings of stuff that haven’t seen the light of day since they were [originally] released. So we were interested in those guys, too.

RB: Does the digital enhancement make those recordings listenable now?

SW: Yeah, sure. It’s easier to hear. Better to hear, but there are limits, At any rate, here we are this conference—the conference was kind of touching because it was the last public performance of the trio of Koerner, Ray, and Glover. Dave Ray died three days later. And I don’t know how we got started, but we have the idea that the ballad form was universal, or certainly in the western world you hear it all over the place. Everything from calypso to Anglo-Irish ballads, and the French have their version of chanson, and so forth.

RB: The Portuguese have fado, yes?

SW: In America, it took on a very special life, as a way that Americans explained each other to each other. More than just heroism or telling the news, they were about people who could not say certain things and they say it in song. About themselves about the country, about whatever. So we thought, “That’s great, let’s do a book about this.” Typical writers.

RB: [both laugh]

SW: Like Andy Hardy says, “Let’s put on a show.” These days, it’s, “Lets make a movie,” but we can’t do that. [We said] “Let’s write a book” “ I don’t want to write a book.” We [each] had too much to do—I was writing this honker and he had his other projects. The cop-out was to get other people to write the book. We decided to ask musicians and writers and critic friends of ours to pick any ballad they wanted and to do whatever they wanted with it. They could write a critical piece. They could write alternative lyrics, update it. They could do a cartoon. If they wanted to, they could draw what they had, they could write a short story, or make up something completely fictional. So we sent it out to 23 or 24 people. We got 22 or 23 responses, yes. And it ranged from writer Joyce Carol Oates, poet Paul Muldoon, John Langford from the Mekons, David Thomas from Pere Ubu—

RB: You had fun.

SW: It was fun project and I got to pick the pictures that went along with the pieces, which was a lot of fun. We didn’t know what we were going to get back. We weren’t even picking the ballads. We made it clear, “You do what you want to do.”