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American Democrat and Other Political Writings

The American Democrat and Other Political Writings - Bradley J. Birzer, James Fenimore Cooper, John Willson This is a review only of The American Democrat. I read a different edition, but can't find it on Goodreads.

I read The American Democrat mostly because I had just read an excellent book on the long-dead American Whig Party--which, in James Fenimore Cooper's time, was one of the two major political parties in America and the Democrat Party's chief opponent--and hoped that The American Democrat would prove similarly helpful in explaining the 19th-century Democrats.

I was wrong. The fact that "Democrat" is capitalized in the title prevented me from realizing that Cooper meant "democrat," not "Democrat," and by "democrat," he meant nothing more than a supporter of democracy. The book has nothing at all to say about any specific party, and only occasionally discusses political parties in general (negatively).

The American Democrat is two things: an attempt to explain the American political system as it was originally designed, with comparisons of representative democracy to monarchy, aristocracy and mob rule (which, at the time of the book's writing, American democracy was degenerating into); and a relatively scattershot collection of Cooper's observations on American society at that point. I understand that the book was meant to be a primer on American democracy.

The first half of the book, being the analysis of democracy in America, is interesting but unnecessarily long-winded and somewhat boring at times; Cooper does not write with great focus or succinctness, at least in this book. If the book was indeed meant as a primer, the first half does sound like one.

The second half, being Cooper's critique of Americans and the shortcomings of how they practice(d) democracy, is far more interesting; it alone is why you should want to own the book. American democracy was degenerating into mob rule (exactly what the Founding Fathers feared), with insufficient regard for the virtue and wisdom necessary to make democracy successful, and with demagogues manipulating the passions of the common man in order to gain power and prestige. (Cooper does not name any names.)

The edition of The American Democrat that I read--and this edition, according to other reviewers, contains two introductions, one by H.L. Mencken. Mencken's introduction is arguably as valuable as the book itself and is written more succinctly to boot. Mencken bluntly and cynically makes some of the same points Fenimore makes, as well as offering some thoughts of his own, such as the haunting "The Civil War blew the Old Republic to pieces."