61: Alexander Saxton’s Rise and Fall of the White Republic

In The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, Alexander Saxton investigates a key question for historians of the antebellum era in America: how and why did a nation founded on principles of equality and democracy become so fraught with racial inequality?  To answer this question, he takes an “ideological” approach  to 19th century American history, in which he connects political ideas, economic and social practices, and cultural production and consumption into an emergent American worldview.  And by analyzing a variety of texts, from high political discourse to popular forms like blackface, dime novels, and American folk heroes, he shows that the development of a dominant capitalist ideology in nineteenth-century America was intimately tied to white racism.

Rise and Fall is framed around the rise and fall of different political parties in a three-stage dialectical process: the National Republicans or Whigs, whose emphasis on business-friendly hierarchy and racial hierarchy created a kind of structural “soft” racism; the Jacksonians, who combined active racism with the language of equal opportunity to create white populism; and the “Republican synthesis,” which supported both white populism and business-friendly tariffs, infrastructural development, and expansion policies.  Thus, the ideology of white racism developed out of elites’ need to vindicate themselves for profiting from the slave trade and slave labor within the new Republic’s democratic ideals.

Unlike Roediger, who argues that working class whites created racism as a way to feel better about their reduced economic and political power in early industrialization, Saxton argues that racism has a large top-down component: the populists use it to unite poor and rich whites into a single, popular class that erases white guilt for profiting off slavery.  Sean Wilentz hammers this difference home when he argues that Saxton never quite explains why white workers would act against their own class interests and participate in a Populist ideological project.  However, despite this very valid critique, Saxton’s book compliments Roediger’s by examining the process of racialization from an upper-class instead of a working-class position, and by showing that racism continued to operate in the US long after the need to justify slavery had been met because it helped solidify the power of various class coalitions.

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