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.