Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The People's Choice - Winner, Non-Fiction, 1934

The People's Choice
By: Herbert Agar
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933

Herbert Agar's The People's Choice really took me by surprise. I haven't had the best experiences with the politically oriented non-fiction Pulitzer winners, but Agar's book really drew me in.

His point in the book is that the first twenty-nine presidents of the United States, from George Washington to Warren Harding, can be divided into three eras. He claims that the first six presidents, from Washington to J.Q. Adams, were not democratic at all - they created an oligarchy, or rule by the wealthy. Not only were each of these men of the upper class, but Agar thinks that each also felt that only the upper classes were fit to rule.

The election of Andrew Jackson issued in the next era of actual democratic rule. For the most part the presidents from Jackson to Lincoln (Agar also included Jefferson Davis) came from the lower or middle classes and worked their way up to the presidency from nothing. This represents a time of expansion and growth in actual rule of the people.

The third era that Agar identifies began during the years of discouragement after the Civil War and continued until the election of William McKinley. He characterizes it as a plutocracy, where the wealthy tended to have more political power and social mobility was limited.

While Agar's view of American history might be a little dated, it did cause me to consider the presidencies of these men different way. He also provides a really useful summary of the administrations and issues of each of our presidents until after the first World War. Agar lived until 1980 and I would be interested to see if, in his later works, he continued his evaluation of the trends in the American presidency.


Rebecca Reid said...

This sounds fascinating. I never thought of the first presidents were more "ruling the wealthy" but it sure makes sense, given the age.

Rose City Reader said...

I am so glad I found your blog through Rebecca Reads. I'm reading all the Pulitzer fiction winners, but I have a life-goal of reading the nom-fiction and history winners too, so I will definitely follow your progress!

One thing that holds me back from the non-fiction is the fear that the older books haven't aged well. Do you have a general impression so far?

AK said...

I'm not completely sure what you mean by "haven't aged well"... Do you mean physically or ideologically?

I do find that I have to stay on my toes when it comes to keeping in mind the era in which the book was written. It doesn't bother me too much because I love history, but it does keep me thinking. One thing I found fascinating was the era before World War I when the United States was only just emerging as a world power - this really affected their views of history. I also find it interesting to be reading between World War I & World War II - at this point in history Americans have only known one World War and still believed it to be "the war to end all wars."

If you were referring to the physical condition of the books, I've found that they are actually in better condition than the novels because they were so infrequently used. I have made great friends with my local Interlibrary Loan Librarian as some of the books are a little hard to find.