The Paradox of Popular Sovereignty

If Inventing The People is a work of consensus history, it is not one that seeks to celebrate blindly the development of an Anglo-American tradition of popular sovereignty. “The popular governments of Britain or the United States rest on fictions as much as the governments of Russia and China” (13). Indeed, many of Morgan’s most important conclusions in the book are remarkably radical—reminding us that all power is at some level arbitrary, and that appeals to rationality alone cannot justify any single system of government. Indeed, governments that try and conform to the letter of their appeals to the people could not long hope to survive. “The fiction must approach the fact but never reach it” (91). Thus, while Morgan unquestionably concludes there is a coalescence of ideas of popular sovereignty, it is not a reassuring consensus. The consensus on the dominance of popular sovereignty is necessary, for else a community can never be made fit to govern.

Without question, though, this is one of Morgan’s most ambitious (and underrated) works. At times it is not really a work of history, but more a study in political philosophy grounded in historical context. It raises uncomfortable questions about the ways in which societal elites will be able to bend notions of popular power to serve their own purpose. Perhaps most importantly, it serves as an important reminder that ideas matter; that the arguments revolutionaries make in overthrowing old structures necessarily constrain and direct the formation of the new structures the community chooses to erect.

Morgan’s examination of the fictions through which society is governed places a welcome emphasis on the operations of governmental power—or, at least, the ideology through which government justifies its power. If much of the New New Political History concentrated on expanding historians’ notions of who served as political actors in the early republic, Inventing the People reminds us that the significance of such participation must always be measured against the change that can be attributed to such participation. One of Morgan’s most provocative conclusions—that the notion of popular sovereignty has lasted so long because it has justified elite control of power more effectively than philosophies of monarchy or divinity—might provide an important way through which neo-Progressive historiography can productively engage with works that concentrate more closely on the Revolution as a political or ideological event.

Part One, which details the decline of the notion of the divine right of kings in England throughout the seventeenth century, is the most convincing part of Morgan’s argument. It recognizes that the ideology of popular sovereignty could have traveled in many directions, especially in the 1640s and 1650s, but the necessity of actually wielding power limited the ways in which it did actually developed. It vividly portrays the way that successive “popular” institutions of the English Civil War could only wield power in the name of the people as they came to define the people themselves increasingly narrowly. It shows, effectively, that the cautious nature of reform of the English state in the late 17th century owed much to the fact that popular sovereignty was too dangerous an idea to provide the governmental stability necessary to fully achieve the promise of government by the people.

That paradox of popular government—familiar to historians of the later 18th century as the struggle between “liberty” and “order”—did not always lead to positive outcomes for the people. “The new fictions, by placing authority and subjection, superiority and inferiority in the same hands, could deprive people, who were actually subjects, of effective control over a government that pretended to speak for them—a form of tyranny that popular sovereignty continues to bring to peoples all over the world” (83). With such strong words, Morgan’s portrayal of the rise of popular sovereignty necessarily has to change gear and demonstrate how the people themselves could come to accept a fiction cruel enough to deprive them of the power that was supposedly self-evident in their hands. It is at this point that Morgan’s argument begins to weaken somewhat.

Other contributors to this roundtable have pointed out the elegance of Morgan’s writing style. In re-reading Inventing the People, I found myself pausing on many occasions to marvel at the simplicity with which he explained some very tricky concepts. For a work that primarily deals with abstract ideas, Morgan managed to keep a narrative thrust to his argument and give a clear sense of development for the ideas he identified.

At least, that is, for the most part. In Part Two, “Useful Ambiguities,” Morgan’s elegance as a writer obscures the fact that he is moving away from the chronological, more solidly-footnoted argument of Part One. In seeking to identify the aspects of popular sovereignty that transformed government by the people from a radical to a conservative idea, the chapters on the militia, elections, and popular associations seem to flounder a little. Comparing elections to the early modern Carnival, for example, are certainly provocative and could be used to inspire all sorts of fascinating projects on the political culture of the 18th century (202-208). Indeed, I might lament that more of these studies haven’t yet been undertaken. But the chapter suffers from a lack of precision – his examples of election culture spring decades into the future or hundreds of miles across the American continent, implying a unity and a constancy of political culture that doesn’t square easily with other treatments of contemporaneous political life. [1]

Ambiguities are by their very nature difficult to pin down, of course. I did wonder, though, whether it would be possible to falsify some of Morgan’s claims about the utility of the militia, popular associations, or electioneering. After all, by Morgan’s own admission, the centrality of the first two constituent parts of the myth of popular sovereignty diminish significantly in importance in the 1790s and early 19th century. Yet the notion of popular sovereignty scarcely diminished in Anglo-American culture at this time. Was that simply a result of the fact that the militia’s utility remained untested in the 1700s? In the absence of any direct events through which these claims can be tested, there is a certain slippery quality to Morgan’s insistence that the “fictions” of popular control allowed governmental action to acquire a legitimacy through force of habit.  I wonder whether those who lived through election riots would have been quite so happy to dismiss violence as “having something of a ritual quality about it… not to be held against a man when the election was over” (201).

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Morgan’s discussion of “Useful Ambiguities” came in his comparison of English attitudes to those of the American colonists. There was an implicit notion, though under-explored, that the fictions of popular sovereignty had more weight in North America than in England because colonial governments, by their very structure, did not have the pretensions to ultimate power that Parliament possessed. As I read, I wondered if the “safety valves” provided to the imperial government by the Privy Council, Board of Trade and royal Governors allowed a safe space in which the facts of colonial political participation were allowed to approach the fiction of popular sovereignty far more closely than they ever could in the mother country.

In any case, Morgan’s use of forms and fictions gives a real power to his ideological interpretation of the coming of the American Revolution. While the principle of taxation being the free gift of the people “may have appeared to most Englishmen as simply one of those forms from the past which had been emptied of meaning . . . it was a respected form . . . into which the old meaning could easily be read back” (239). But the use of the fictions of popular sovereignty to justify rebellion against the King caused the same problems for Americans they had caused the commonwealthmen of the seventeenth century. Governments that tried to implement seriously extensive mechanisms of popular control became too quickly bogged down by petty rivalries. Yet Morgan demonstrates clearly the constraining power of revolutionary ideology; Americans had to find new solutions to these paradoxes because they could not turn back to monarchy in the way Restoration England had.

At this point, the book becomes perhaps a bit too celebratory of the development of American ideology. The acceptance of wider electoral districts, for example, or of the Madisonian notion of the extended republic, was by no means as uncontentious as Morgan’s concluding chapters may indicate. At the very least, Morgan suggests America transformed notions of popular sovereignty from radical to conservative in a manner both faster and less contentious than England in the 17th century. It does, however, highlight one of the underappreciated innovations of the Constitutional settlement of 1787; that by bringing executive and judicial branches explicitly into the hands of the people, it became considerably harder, ideologically, to identify the popular will as residing in the legislature—thus depriving popular sovereignty of some of its more radical potential uses.

The conclusions, though, still seem to me a little disconnected from the careful attention to political structures of Part One. Though Morgan details carefully the ways in which Americans sought to place constitutional limitations on governmental power, his treatment of “The American Way” almost completely ignores the role of electioneering, the militia, or of popular associations—the very institutions that in Part Two were so fundamental to maintaining the utility of governmental fictions. All these institutions were crucial in giving people a direct sense of ownership of their own government; exploring the ideology of those who participated in these structures and the way in which they interacted with more formal governmental bodies would have added considerable weight to Morgan’s conclusions.

Despite some of these misgivings, though, it seems churlish to throw too much criticism at such an ambitious and thought-provoking book. One of Morgan’s primary strengths as a historian was his willingness to seek out the broad narrative; to answer questions that were wide-ranging in scope. The conclusions of Inventing the People pay testament to this—that all governments rely on make-believe; that the ideas that provide cohesion to a community can simultaneously be applied to radical and conservative purposes; and that, consequently, we must pay greater attention to the fictions through which rulers justify their power. If Morgan’s conclusions end up providing too much of a sheen to the revolutionary settlement, no-one could read this book without also being aware of the very real dangers of the fiction of popular sovereignty.

One final consideration: while the much of the power of Morgan’s analysis remains, Inventing the People is clearly a book written by a historian of a preceding generation, and there was much in this approach to commend itself. The book was framed through important analytical questions rather than through historiography. Similarly, the footnotes relied more heavily on primary material than I would expect in a contemporary book. Secondary sources certainly appeared but as supplemental to the main argumentative thrust of each chapter. To my mind, this made the conclusions seem all the more powerful, framed not as part of an ongoing conversation but as a serious interrogation of the paradoxes identified in the introduction. Morgan’s key question is important enough to justify the book.

There has been much discussion on this blog around the question of how historians can bring their research findings to a wider audience. Morgan was not a historian who struggled with this. When I first developed my interest in the Revolution, The Birth of the Republic still remained one of the most easily accessible introductions to the subject. My mother, a history teacher but not a specialist in American history, has a copy of The Puritan Family on her bookshelves. After reading Inventing the People, I wonder if Morgan’s confidence in his own questions and his willingness to explore them over wide-ranging and challenging territory might be approaches that we could fruitfully adopt ourselves.


[1] For example, Richard R. Beeman, The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth Century America. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Jack P. Greene, The Quest for Power: The Lower Houses of Assembly in the Southern Royal Colonies, 1689-1776 (New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 1972)

11 responses

  1. Ken – I should really have more to say on this (I should read the damn book!), but for now, it’s interesting that you also pick up on the way “Morgan’s elegance as a writer obscures the fact that he is moving away from the chronological, more solidly-footnoted argument of Part One.” Which is the same point picked up in Roy’s post and the comments there.

    • I agree. I think it was one of the more interesting points made in the roundtable, i.e., the notion that the reader should keep in mind that Morgan’s writing ability not only allows him to artfully illuminate but also to artfully obscure.

      • Rereading Morgan has really hammered home for me that good writing can be a double-edged sword. Historians who are master stylists can use their skills to obscure analytic slippage and we are willing to forgive them because, goddamn!, they write like a dream. We tend to much more harsh about analytic problems with historians whose prose is poor (relatively speaking).

        This makes me extremely skeptical that “good writing” may not be the magic bullet that many people believe it to be our the problems of our profession and the humanities more broadly.

        • Although, again with the dichotomies – since analysis does not exist outside of writing, we might ask what it is that we actually want from historians. I guess what we’re saying is kind of, Morgan’s writing fools us into thinking it makes sense, but only temporarily – a really perfect history would make us think it makes sense forever.

  2. Excellent piece, Ken. And congratulations to all the contributors for a roundtable that has turned out to be worthy of its subject. Let me try to offer a summation of this week’s roundtable, if I may.

    I think the two major themes we’ve all hit on in Morgan’s historical thinking is: a) ideas matter, whether it’s ideas about theology or familial relations, constitutional thought, racial ideology, or popular sovereignty and b) the role of consensus. Morgan consistently went big-game fishing throughout his career and thinking about huge issues and ideas almost means, by necessity, that consensus would be key to his work. That said, his is not a vulgar or docile consensus. Rather, it is a consensus that often arises out of conflict and is often a minority consensus. One could also think of necessary fictions as playing a large role in that consensus if we were to also consider the colonial understanding of the British Constitution and racial ideology in colonial Virginia as necessary fictions aimed at creating minority consensus.

    In addition to the two main themes of Morgan’s work, I think perhaps the question that the roundtable has raised as a whole has to do with classifying Morgan’s work. We’ve all found consensus to be fundamental to Morgan’s work and yet not all of us seem to agree whether it is accurate (or fair) to call him a consensus historian, as the term relates to the consensus school.

    After digesting this week’s roundtable a bit, I think I stand by my original assertion that Morgan did not necessarily fit into any historical “school.” His Stamp Act work predated both the peak of the “consensus school” and the rise of the neo-Whig/ideological school. Historians are much like musicians in that they often feel that definitive labels such as these are restrictive and misleading. That was never more the case than with Morgan.

    If anything, I am more convinced after this roundtable that Morgan was less a member of a single school than an influence and inspiration for multiple schools. Such was the power of his analytical abilities and the force of his historical interpretations. That is the mark of a truly great historian. Looking back from a time when it is hard enough to make an impact on a single sub-field, Morgan changed the way we thought about Puritanism, the American Revolution, and race and slavery in the colonial period. And that, along with the fact that, here in the year 2013, the way we think broadly about early American history remains, to a significant extent, informed by Morgan’s work–some of which is well over half-a-century old–only confirms the notion that he will rightly be remembered for many generations to come as one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century.

    • Great summary & analysis, Michael.

      I still think there is value in describing Morgan as a “consensus historian” but you are absolutely right that he is one of the greatest of the 20th century and more often than not transcends any historiographical school.

    • Michael, I’m wondering what consensus might mean once it becomes “minority consensus.” What makes you say that consensus must “by necessity” be key to work that deals with “huge issues and ideas”? I think you mean something like, Morgan wants to understand the American mind and so he has to assume that there *was* an American mind out there to understand. But once that becomes a minority, don’t we have to wonder if we’re still talking about consensus?

      Again, I haven’t read the book, but to judge from Ken’s review here, it sounds a lot like Morgan is talking about an elite consensus: in other words, a hegemony. So to my eye, what that points towards is that there *is* conflict going on here, but Morgan’s only interested in one side of it. I think you can tell a story about the construction of hegemonic thought without obscuring or minimising the conflict involved – that’s what I’m trying to do in my work. American Slavery American Freedom might be an interesting comparator here; it’s obviously Morgan’s most dialectical book. Yet of course, he’s mainly just giving us the white side of the equation: so it can look a lot like a consensus.

    • Yes, the idea of a minority consensus can seem a bit oxymoronic, but I think it is useful and Tom is right about the idea of hegemony. Morgan’s consensuses (whether in favor of slavery or government structure) are strongly embraced by a powerful elite but a majority of political actors at least acquiesced. Again, Morgan did not celebrate consensus, but he argued that it shaped (often in negative ways) the topics he studied more than conflict did.

  3. Pingback: Roundtable: The Legacy of Edmund S. Morgan « The Junto


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