The Public Sphere and Early American Democracy

Das Lesekabinett (1843), Johann Peter HasencleverHow did the particular formation of democratic politics, a rambunctious public sphere, and capitalist social relations come about in the early American republic? I began to talk about this question last month when I asked, ‘how did democracy become a good thing?‘ I argued that the crucial factor was an unprecedented separation between economic and political power, which made democractic politics incapable of seriously interfering with capital accumulation. Today I want to show how Jürgen Habermas’ account of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere helps us see what went on in this crucial separation, and how his account relates to the American case in particular.

What Habermas described was the process of “privatized individuals coming together to form a public” (51)—the “privatized” element of that formulation is just as important as the “public”. Habermas’s account of the transformation of privacy was derived from Marx’s understanding of the transition from feudalism to capitalism: “In Germany [for example], manorial authority… was transformed into private landed property only in the eighteenth century” (5), moving production (i.e. farming, in this case) out of the realm of manorial (political/juridical) authority and into the new private realm.[1] This private realm also became, of course, the intimate sphere of personal feeling and belief—the intimate world that was, ironically, given shape by the new public medium of the printed novel.

But there’s an enormous tension in this notion of privacy. Clearly, the distribution of material stuff—ownership and access to property—affects everyone in a direct causal relation: if you own that field, I don’t own it, and nor does our neighbour. It’s a matter of public interest. So what on earth makes property “private”?[2] Precisely this tension, I’d argue, is what drives the historical change—the structural transformation—in Habermas’s account.

To see how this tension played out we have to look at the distinction between the public and the state. The public sphere is the embodiment of this distinction, an embodiment of the power that existed beyond that of the state after the dissolution of feudalism: the power of merchants, financiers, and private landowners, or in other words, Habermas’s bourgeoisie. Structural Transformation describes the emergence of networks of information and exchange within the bourgeoisie through new mediums and venues of communication, from letters to coffee-houses to newspapers. But more importantly, it describes the way these networks transformed into what Habermas calls “the public sphere in the political realm,” the mechanism of organised bourgeois power.

Thus, Habermas argued that the political nature of the public sphere lies squarely in its opposition to the controlling efforts of the state, in the field of the economy, and specifically in commerce. In this sense, the political logic of the bourgeois public sphere is to keep property private, i.e. beyond the reach of the state. Although it was not the aim of his project, then, Habermas has given us an account of the very process I was describing earlier: the process of separation between economic and political power that allowed for the rise of political democracy without posing a threat to capital.

Once we have these processes clear, it’s easy to see how they operated in the specific context of early America. Habermas’s account of how commercial information networks developed into modes of political organisation—or in other words, how economic complaints became political ones—needs no major adjustment to fit the story of the imperial crisis and American Revolution. The implications for the way we understand the new republic are radical. “The constitution of the liberal constitutional state,” Habermas wrote, “was from the beginning meant to order not only the state as such and in relation to society but the system of coexistence in society as a whole.” As we have come increasingly to recognise in the half-century since Habermas published Structural Transformation, the empire of liberty was very much an empire.


[1] For Marx himself on this, as quoted by Habermas, see p.123. We should be quite clear that Structural Transformation is a biting and sardonic critique of capitalism and liberalism (as well as the later social-welfare state) in the Marxist tradition. It is nothing nearly so boring as “a story about new uses of texts” (Michael Warner, Letters of the Republic, 1990, p.x). If my remarks here do anything, I hope they might help rescue the book’s abiding interest in power and social forces from the crushing dullness of the history of print, to which most Americanist scholars seem to have consigned it.

[2] Or let’s take another very salient example: religion. By the nineteenth century it was possible to describe religion as a private matter; now it’s hard not to describe it thus. But to men and women in the fifteenth century that proposition would have been absurd. Worship, faith, and the structures of clerical authority were public, social, and also—often violently—political. As Habermas showed, there’s nothing natural or fixed, or even really very boundary-like, about the public/private boundary.

11 responses

  1. This is a provocative post, Tom, and I’m glad you’re highlighting Habermas’s argument as it relates to politics. Having provoked me, I spent much of yesterday thinking about your post and what bothered me about it and, more importantly, how to articulate it coherently.

    What I want to push back on, as may come as no surprise, is your easy dismissal of all scholarship on print culture and book history as it relates to Habermas. As someone with a vested interest in the intersection of print and politics in the eighteenth century, I think it’s a mistake to disaggregate the two, and particularly in the case of Habermas. Because the power structures to which you refer and the separation of the economic and the political don’t occur in some abstract way for Habermas. They occur through mechanisms of communication, that is, through public houses and publications. Those are not, for Habermas, merely window-dressing. They are at the core of his argument. You can’t understand the differentiated response in European polities of public life without understanding the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, the strict publishing regime in France, and so on.

    This becomes even clearer in considering not just the eighteenth century but also the twentieth, where Habermas is headed with a declension narrative. His idealized eighteenth-century world focuses on communication practices and structures because his argument about his present day (i.e., the 1960s) is that the media environment of television and radio corroded popular participation in public life and thus marked a return to the representational politics of the court.

    In any case, to make a long story short (and to reduce much of my thinking over the past decade to a blog comment), it’s exceedingly difficult to separate out the politics from the media structures.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Joe — I was hoping a genuine media historian like yourself would come along to tell me what I’m missing. I couldn’t possibly disagree with your concluding point: “it’s exceedingly difficult to separate out the politics from the media structures.”

    That said, I think it’s important to conceptually “disagregate” the political and social change Habermas is discussing from the changes in media practice, if only to clarify issues that often seem to be muddled in the media-focused historiography. The crux of the issue for me is this: changes in media practice didn’t cause social and political change; it was the other way around. To me, that’s pretty clear in Habermas, and it’s actually there in Warner as well, except it’s a bit disguised by the odd way he frames his work (which, as people have noted, is because he’s a professor of literature, not history).

    The real clue (in Habermas) is in the title: the *structural* transformation of the public sphere. In Marxist historiography, there’s a pretty clear sense of what is meant by “structural” — it’s a question of the social relations of production.

    You’re right to mention his contemporary argument, though, because that does support your contention that media can be a *causal* factor. Habermas strongly implies that if only we could somehow revive something like an 18th-century public sphere, that would help bring about political transformation. But that reads a lot like wishful thinking against the rest of the book, which shows how the development his own present social-welfare state *caused* the decline of the public sphere. What I think he wanted was a way out of the classic Marxist impasse — a voluntarist response to historical materialism. In that sense, the end of Structural Transformation also marked the beginning of his long slide away from Marxism and into a tepid, Europhilic social liberalism.

  3. Sorry for this belated response, I just read your post and found it very intriguing. It is certainly nice to see early Americanists seriously engaging with Intellectual history, as it seems that Early US historians have neglected that engagement for the most part in recent decades.
    However, I would like to apply some pressure on your use of Habermas’s conceptualization of the public sphere, as they relate to the specific case of early America.
    It seems to me that as much as the idea of the public sphere, as conceptualized by Habermas, as well as Hannah Arendt for that matter, has proven useful for understanding the emergence of American civic society, recent research has show that it is much too narrow. Historians such as Alan Taylor, Al Young, Woody Holton, Terry Bouton and Ray Raphael to name those who I can think of off the top of my head, have I think made a very persuasive case for an existence of a very different kind of public sphere in this period, with an underlying dynamic that is at odds with that examined by Habermas.
    While you might argue that a bourgeois public sphere operated, for instance, in Philadelphia and explains the actions of the likes of Robert Morris and other Pennsylvania anti-constitutionalists and Federalists, in rural Pennsylvania and across the U.S. back country, where the majority of the white population lived, a very different type of public sphere fueled political mobilization. Many white American commoners, who subscribed to this political persuasion, demonstrated their conviction that politics and the economy are closely entwined, as they launched various forms of resistance to the authority of eastern seaboard elites. I would also argue that they did not subscribe to liberal articulations of “the private” or “privacy.”
    The Whiskey Rebellion, of course, is the best example of this, as Western Pennsylvanians disagreed with the latest fiscal, as well as monetary, policies propagated by Eastern seaboard elites.

  4. Hi Eran, thanks for commenting. I think we’d all agree that the idea of the public sphere is “too narrow” to encompass all the things that were going on in the early republic. But that’s not really what historical concepts are meant to do. It’s also true that there was plenty of resistance to the processes described here–resistance that partly shaped the way those processes unfolded. In fact my own doctoral thesis is mainly about the ways American elites like Robert Morris built their political project through their responses to populist movements in the 1780s. However, I think one of the really interesting things in the early American example is just how committed *everyone* was to the concept of private property, whatever side they were on. I think that probably made a big difference to the development of American democracy–and of the public sphere.

    • Thanks for responding. I find your angle very interesting and useful to think through.
      Don’t you think, though, that both sides were committed to the concept of private property only in as much as it was expedient for their economic and political agenda?
      I mean, folks like Robert Morris sought to wrest money from Americans–by taxing them–in order to pay off public debts to private people. On the other hand, back country folks refused to give up their privately made money in taxes, but had little qualms with squatting on what folks like Morris would regard as private property.
      In other words, I think that both sides, regardless of what they said, sought to entwine the public and the private in ways that benefited them–that gave them more power, be it culturally, economically or otherwise. Which of course is what politics are ultimately all about.

      • Interesting point about squatting. I think the difference there comes down to different notions of what legitimately counts as private property–but it’s a really interesting problem. I suspect Alan Taylor has something to say on this in Liberty Men and Great Proprietors.

  5. Pingback: Putting “Republicanism” in Its Place « The Junto

  6. Pingback: Blog Post #5: Feminism & Mediated Public Sphere – Ernest Wong


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