How Did Democracy Become a Good Thing?

Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of RevolutionsI spent yesterday afternoon at “a celebration and critical evaluation” of the work of political theorist and historian Mark Philp. My role was to talk about his involvement in a big, ongoing project being done here at Oxford—and around the world—called Re-imagining Democracy. That project has already produced one book, Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850 (OUP, 2013), with contributions on the early American republic by Seth Cotlar, Adam I. P. Smith, and Laura Edwards. It’s a book that may not yet be well known among American historians, but it should be, because the question it’s trying to answer is a very interesting and difficult one: how did “democracy” go from something feared and reviled even as late as the 1780s, to something very different by the mid-nineteenth century, and even to become the quintessential value of American politics that we know today?

A recording of the event is going to come online soon, and I’ll link to it here when it does, but for now I thought I’d share some snippets from my own talk. So:

In the chapters which focus on Britain, Philp and Innes give a somewhat counter-intuitive explanation for this change: “democracy” was primarily redefined not in the process of supporting democratic institutional reform, but in opposition to it. Hoping to leverage the word’s status as a bugbear, opponents used it to smear efforts like the Great Reform Act of 1832. As they put it, “By denouncing the Whigs’ plans as ‘democratic’ (not how the Whigs themselves presented them), the Tories… ensured that the implementation of Reform was widely seen as, for better or worse, a move towards democracy.” For supporters of Reform, especially the radical Chartists, the lesson was clear: if this is democracy, then democracy is something worth fighting for, and perhaps a label worth adopting. Later Chartists turned their attention increasingly to universal manhood suffrage, at least partly on the basis that “so long as political rights and power were unevenly distributed, those with privileged access to power would have the means of advantaging themselves. Without political justice, no social justice.”

The transformation of democracy and its triumph in the modern North Atlantic world have involved a particular kind of re-imagining of the political, and a new demarcation of its limits. As Laura Edwards puts it, for example, “The extension of democracy for some [in the United States] not only came at the expense of others, but also constrained the Revolutionary era’s most expansive notions of democracy.” In other words, it wasn’t only women and non-whites whose power was dramatically limited by the American notion of democracy in the nineteenth century. “Democratic principles,” she continues, “did not extend to governing institutions in an easy, direct way. In practice, state and national leaders’ vision of democracy did not include fundamental changes in the economic or social structure that would put all white men on an equal footing.”

This recognition, I think, puts some serious pressure on the formulation, “Without political justice, no social justice.” The truth is, it could just as well have been the other way around. We know full well, in our own time, that universal adult suffrage hasn’t broken down the enormous barriers to social justice, the structural inequalities, or the twisted social relations that continue to exist, and which, of course, affect voting patterns and politics in all sorts of complex ways. How, then, did democracy come to mean “political justice” and not “social justice,” universal manhood suffrage and not collective ownership of assets or egalitarian redistribution of wealth and power? The latter had certainly been possibilities within the eighteenth-century meaning of the word, passed down from ancient Greece and Rome. The story of modern democracy is one in which democracy lost its social and economic content at the very moment it gained political ascendancy.

What happened was the separation of the “economic” and the “political” into separate spheres. It was only under the conditions of this separation that a widely dispersed political power, through the universal suffrage, began to appear possible. Power relations, which had hitherto been fundamentally political issues, of lordship and so on—like who owed what to whom, and who could do what to whom, and who could make whom do what they wanted—were transformed into fundamentally economic issues, having to to do with ownership and contract. So if you want to know why democracy—defined basically as a diffusion of formal political power among the people—went from being bad to good, from being not only impossible but undesirable to not only desirable but possible, one way of answering the question is actually extremely straightforward: the real power wasn’t in politics any more; it was somewhere else, in the newly separate sphere of the economy.

If we wanted to chart this transition historically, we would need to look at not only the transformation in the use of the word democracy, as Innes and Philp have done, but also at how propertied classes in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries worked to put their property beyond the reach of politics, to create legal and discursive structures that insulated the real source of their power from any potential democratic threat. We’d have to look, for example, as Morton Horwitz has done in the American case, at the development of contract law and other aspects of private law which place the coercive power of the state at the disposal of private property. We’d have to look at how the U.S. Constitution neutered state governments, and how banks and corporations became private, not public institutions. In short, I don’t think we can consider the question of democracy separately from that of political economy. We can’t take for granted the idea that politics was where the power was, and that democracy really meant dispersing power to the people. The history of the United States simply won’t bear that out—and it may be worth remembering in our own time, too.

“Barbarities, Extortions and Monopolies”

American colonists’ protest against the 1773 Tea Act involved more than just the Boston Tea Party; and it was provoked by more than just a tax. What sharpened the edge of colonial frustration was the short shrift given to American business interests in the balancing-act of imperial administration—and the triumph, by contrast, of the East India Company. American merchants and smugglers were the big losers in a larger effort to bail out the struggling corporation. As John Dickinson put it in his second “Letter from the Country,” the British policy aimed “not only to enforce the Revenue Act but to establish a monopoly for the East India Company, who have espoused the cause of the ministry; and hope to repair their broken fortunes by the ruin of American freedom and liberty!”[1] Continue reading

Articles of Note: Spring and Summer 2013

Many months ago, I posted the first of what I hoped to be a quarterly series highlighting recent articles I enjoyed, and inviting readers to do the same. Sadly, life got in the way, and so I have a bit to make up. As a recap for this roundup’s purpose: there are so many journals publishing quality articles in the field of early American history that it is difficult, if not impossible, to keep up. So this list serves as a reminder that you need to catch up on new issues, a identify articles I found especially important, as well as a chance to highlight the work of young scholars and friends. Just because an article doesn’t make the list doesn’t mean I didn’t like it—in fact, I am way behind on my own reading—but it is an invitation to list your own favorite recent articles in the comments below.

The following articles were published between March and September, and obviously reflect my own interests and background. Also, remember the fantastic articles in the special WMQ issue on families and the Atlantic world that I highlighted a few months ago. Continue reading

Policy and Constitutional Principle

As a Brit teaching early American history in the US, I’m often asked how I came to be fascinated by the American Revolution. My answer is generally some version of the following: I’m fascinated by the American Revolution because there are so many reasons why it shouldn’t have ended with the creation of an American republic. Not only was the notion of independence from Britain a daring and risky move, but there were many reasons why the North American colonies could not cohere once they had broken with the mother country. Investigating the ways in which Americans tried to bridge the many gaps between themselves to create powerful and lasting governmental structures is one of the key themes of my research.

A large part of the answer to that conundrum, at least once historical focus shifts to the early republic, is the Constitution. Though, as I have written elsewhere, the mechanics of writing and ratifying the Constitution were scarcely the pristine and perfect process of popular imagination, the longevity of the Constitution must rank as one of the most significant achievements of the revolutionary era. Yet a close look at pretty much any period of American history sees the Constitution wielded as a partisan weapon as often as it is venerated as a ligature holding the separate states together. That is a curious paradox, for there is an implicit and serious criticism in describing a governmental act as “unconstitutional.” It suggests a lack of patriotism and a lack of common feeling; it implies mistrust, rather than emphasizing shared responsibility. Continue reading

After Democratization?

democratizationofamericanchristianityNext year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Nathan Hatch’s seminal The Democratization of American Christianity.[1] Few books have had as wide an influence and impact in my field of the cultural and political history of religiosity in the early American republic. In his masterwork Hatch achieves what most scholars yearn for throughout their entire careers. Democratization crystallized an interpretative scheme (the “democratization thesis”) and shoved its rival interpretation into the historiographical abyss. Continue reading

Primary Sources in the Classroom: Politics and Pedagogy

This is my first “real” blog post for The Junto, though I’ve been a spectral presence each Sunday with a gathering of links on early American history (which the past month or so has revolved a great deal around Lincoln and Django Unchained). One of my aspirations in agreeing to contribute, and one of my hopes for a developing conversation, centered on the opportunity to discuss teaching early American history, from the 100-level survey to upper-level courses. So I offered for this post to write something about teaching primary sources, without at the time knowing quite what I would say.

Then, last week, the National Association of Scholars released a report assailing colleges in Texas (the flagships – UT-Austin and A&M) for teaching too much “race, class, and gender,” and not enough political, diplomatic, and economic history. I wrote about a few of the report’s shortcomings at Publick Occurrences 2.0 on Friday. You can read the substance over there, but as I was writing I realized that I want to extend my thoughts to think more deeply about what we do in the classroom. Continue reading

National Identity and the American Revolution

In his recent review of Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, Jack Rakove argues that in tackling the causes of independence, “Phillips deals with political loyalties more fundamental than the mere matter of party allegiance.” The inference is clear—deciding to be a member or an activist for a political party is one thing; but your nationality is something that defines you in perpetuity. Once revolutionaries chose to take on the label ‘American’, there was no turning back. It was who they were; while that American identity might be complex and multifaceted, there is something about ‘national character’ that stands above the rough and tumble of party politics. Continue reading

The Agonies of “Christian Republicans”

This is not, sadly, a post about the troubled relationship between the modern Republican Party and politicized Christianity. I’d like to discuss, rather, a powerful and provocative synthesis of American political, theological, and religious history published a decade ago – Mark Noll’s America’s God. Noll’s magisterial tome brings together over a generation of scholarship on the relationship between American politics and religion (the “democratization thesis”), civic humanism (the “republican thesis”), and Scottish commonsense philosophy in the early national and antebellum United States.[1] America’s God is in many ways a capstone to Noll’s truly outstanding career as a great historian and public intellectual. Continue reading