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Practicing Democracy

Practicing Democracy: Popular Politics in the United States from the Constitution to the Civil War

Daniel Peart
Adam I. P. Smith
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Practicing Democracy
    Book Description:

    InPracticing Democracy,eleven historians challenge conventional narratives of democratization in the early United States, offering new perspectives on the period between the ratification of the Constitution and the outbreak of the Civil War. The essays in this collection address critical themes such as the origins, evolution, and disintegration of party competition, the relationship between political parties and popular participation, and the place that parties occupied within the wider world of United States politics.

    In recent years, historians of the early republic have demolished old assumptions about low rates of political participation and shallow popular partisanship in the age of Jefferson-raising the question of how, if at all, Jacksonian politics departed from earlier norms. This book reaffirms the significance of a transition in political practices during the 1820s and 1830s but casts the transformation in a new light. Whereas the traditional narrative is one of a party-driven democratic awakening, the contributors to this volume challenge the correlation of party with democracy. They both critique constricting definitions of legitimate democratic practices in the decades following the ratification of the Constitution and emphasize the proliferation of competing public voices in the buildup to the Civil War. Taken together, these essays offer a new way of thinking about American politics across the traditional dividing line of 1828 and suggest a novel approach to the long-standing question of what it meant to be part of "We the People."

    Contributors:Tyler Anbinder, George Washington University · Douglas Bradburn, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon · John L. Brooke, The Ohio State University · Andrew Heath, University of Sheffield · Reeve Huston, Duke University · Johann N. Neem, Western Washington University · Kenneth Owen, University of Illinois, Springfield · Graham A. Peck, Saint Xavier University · Andrew W. Robertson, Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Lehman College, CUNY

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3771-7
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    We have frequently printed the word democracy,” wrote Walt Whitman in 1871, “yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the gist of which still sleeps.”¹ Indeed, the frequency with which “democracy” is invoked in descriptions of the early United States, both by Whitman’s contemporaries and by subsequent scholars, is one of the main reasons why its meaning remains so difficult to capture. Delegates to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 viewed democracy as an antique, and imperfect, form of government, and believed that their task was to check its influence in the nation’s new constitution. By the...

  5. PART ONE Party Development

    • “Parties Are Unavoidable”: Path Dependence and the Origins of Party Politics in the United States
      (pp. 23-45)

      In 1804, the U.S. Congress approved a constitutional amendment to fix the rules of presidential selection. The electoral tie in 1800 spooked the people, and the redesigned process was intended to limit the potential for usurpation.¹ The change was necessary. The original mode of selection assumed that the electors would act alone, without collusion—that they would not combine their support for two candidates for the highest office, thus creating an unwanted tie between two candidates who were really intended for different positions. The new amendment, on the other hand, assumed that the electors would operate as a party, to...

    • Rethinking the Origins of Partisan Democracy in the United States, 1795–1840
      (pp. 46-71)

      Since the publication of Ronald P. Formisano’sThe Transformation of Political Culturein 1983, two interpretations have dominated writing about the origins of partisan democracy. One school, dating back to Arthur M. chlesinger Jr.’sAge of Jackson, holds that partisan democracy first began during the late 1820s and 1830s.¹ Formisano, on the other hand, argues that partisan politics began during the 1790s. Before the 1830s and 1840s, he argues, partisanship was a half-hearted affair: partisan organizations were unstable “proto-parties”; voter loyalty was ephemeral; voters and political leaders were ambivalent partisans, practicing party warfare while denouncing parties. In this earlier period,...

    • Party, Nation, and Cultural Rupture: The Crisis of the American Civil War
      (pp. 72-96)

      The causes of the Civil War stand as a central question in American history, and the debate has generated an enormous and contentious literature. Very broadly, the battle is drawn between fundamentalists and revisionists. Fundamentalists see slavery as the obvious and long-term cause, with the war grounded in deep-running structural tensions between a free North and a slave South. Revisionists focus on the play of contingent events in national party politics and the explosion of ethno-religious conflict in the early 1850s, arguing that internal rifts both North and South marginalized sectional extremists, who might have been suppressed and war avoided....

  6. PART TWO Parties and Participation

    • Jeffersonian Parties, Politics, and Participation: The Tortuous Trajectory of American Democracy
      (pp. 99-122)

      Since Alexis de Tocqueville published his famous work, the idea of American democracy has often seemed inextricably bound up with the notion of American exceptionalism. The scholarship of the past twenty years, however, especially among colonial historians, has called this exceptionalism into question. Atlantic historians, global historians, and early modern European historians working in a comparative context have all contributed to a far more complicated understanding of the ideological, institutional, and culturaloriginsof American democracy. Historians of the eighteenth-century United States now generally accept the idea that the ideology, discourses, and practices of a larger world intruded on and...

    • An “Era of No Feelings”?: Rethinking the Relationship between Political Parties and Popular Participation in the Early United States
      (pp. 123-144)

      Democracy isunworkablesave in terms of parties.”¹ This bold statement, by political scientist John H. Aldrich, echoes an assumption that has shaped much of what has been written on the politics of the early United States. Recent syntheses by Sean Wilentz and Daniel Walker Howe speak of “the rise of American Democracy” and “the democratization of American life” during the first half of the nineteenth century, and both place political parties at the forefront of this tale.² These works reflect a broad consensus that the gradual establishment of nationwide two-party competition between the revolution and Civil War opened up...

    • Was There a Second Party System?: Illinois as a Case Study in Antebellum Politics
      (pp. 145-170)

      Over the past fifty years, the concept of the second party system has come to exercise a powerful influence on antebellum historiography. That a party system existed is rarely questioned, and the Second Party System is a familiar, proper noun in monographs and textbooks. The concept even shapes the defining debate in antebellum politics—explaining the origins of the Civil War—because the triumph of the antislavery Republican Party and the consequent secession of southern states required the prior or concurrent collapse of the party system. Historians, therefore, began debating why the party system failed nearly fifty years ago, only...

  7. PART THREE The Place of Parties in American Politics

    • Legitimacy, Localism, and the First Party System
      (pp. 173-195)

      For a party that supposedly laid the essential foundations of the American republic, the Federalists were tremendously insecure about their record. George Washington’s Farewell Address—delivered at the end of what presidential experts routinely rank as one of the most successful presidencies in history—contained bleak warnings of the destruction awaiting the American republic were it not given “a fair and full experiment.”¹

      Federalists greeted any sign of political dissent during the 1790s not only as politically misguided but also as fundamentally unpatriotic and anti-republican. While Federalist denunciation of the Democratic-Republican societies was most famously expressed in Washington’s derisive dismissal...

    • “Peaceably If We Can, Forcibly If We Must”: Immigrants and Popular Politics in Pre–Civil War New York
      (pp. 196-221)

      The politics of the 1850s have probably been studied in more detail than that of any other decade in American history. It is surprising, then, that even though immigrants made up a larger portion of the electorate in this period than in any other in U.S. history, immigrants’ political activity in these crucial years is not well understood. The impact of the Know-Nothing Party on the destruction of the so-called second party system, the place of nativism in the new Republican Party, and the Democrats’ success at courting immigrant voters have all been thoroughly examined. But while immigration as a...

    • Small Men, Best Men, and the Big City: Reconstructing Political Culture in Antebellum Philadelphia
      (pp. 222-244)

      In September 1851, municipal reformers gathered in Philadelphia to review the progress of their campaign to consolidate the 2-square-mile city proper and its burgeoning suburbs under one government. The charter revision, first proposed after two huge riots in 1844, had gradually won the backing of merchants, manufacturers, and professionals; these self-styled “best men” made up the officers at the meeting, and having secured pledges from both the Whig and Democratic parties to back the scheme in the state legislature the previous fall, they had expected success. As the Evening Bulletin declared after the elections, “the question of the union of...

  8. PART FOUR A Fresh Perspective

    • Two Approaches to Democratization: Engagement versus Capability
      (pp. 247-280)

      The nineteenth century is often thought of as a golden age for American politics. There is no doubt that voter turnout in the antebellum era was astounding. Historians have documented a time when ordinary citizens actively followed politics and cared so deeply that their identities were shaped by parties.¹ Women, too, were part of this partisan world.² InSelf-Rule, Robert H. Wiebe expressed his amazement: “Not only dideverybodyparticipate, but everybodyparticipated.”³ InThe Partisan Imperative, Joel H. Silbey argued that parties were the central organizing principle of American political life.⁴ William Gienapp concurred: “Perhaps at no time ....

  9. Afterword
    (pp. 281-286)

    Political history, once ascendant then deeply unfashionable, has undergone a resurgence in recent years. It has reinvented itself in part by reflecting the concerns of today’s historical profession with language and identity, and in part by restating the obvious truth that we cannot understand a society that was self-consciously founded on the principle of popular sovereignty without understanding formal as well as informal power relations. The challenge now for political historians, exemplified by this volume, is to understand the interactions between, on the one hand, people, policies, and institutions, and, on the other, less tangible elements of politics like culture,...

  10. List of Contributors
    (pp. 287-288)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 289-296)