In 1996 less than half of all eligible voters even bothered to vote. Fewer citizens each year follow government and public affairs regularly or even think they should. Is popular sovereignty a failure?
Not necessarily, argues Michael Schudson in this provocative and unprecedented history of citizenship in America. Measuring voter turnout or attitudes is a poor approximation of citizenship. The meaning of voting and what counts as politics has changed dramatically over the course of our history. We have passed through three distinct eras in the definition and demonstration of good citizenship, and we are now struggling to find a footing in a fourth.
When the nation was founded, being a citizen meant little more than for property-owning white males to delegate authority to a local gentleman and accept his complimentary glass of rum on election day. This "politics of assent" gave way early in the nineteenth century to a "politics of parties." Parties conducted elaborate campaigns of torchlight processions and monster meetings; voting day was filled with banter, banners, fighting, and drinking. Party ticket peddlers handed voters preprinted tickets to place in the ballot box before stepping over to the tavern for a few dollars' reward from the party. We now call this corruption. At the time, it was called loyalty.
The third model of citizenship, ushered in by Progressive reformers, was a "politics of information." Campaigning became less emotional and more educational. Voting was by secret ballot. With civil-service reform, parties were limited in the rewards they could bestow. This was the era of the "informed voter." Under this scheme, the twentieth century has been ruled by everyone, and no one, all at once.
Today, after the rights revolution, political participation takes place in schools, at home, at work, and in the courts. We have made "informed citizenship" an overwhelming task. Schudson argues that it is time for a new model, in which we stop expecting everyone to do everything. The new citizenship must rest on citizens who are monitors of political danger rather than walking encyclopedias of governmental news. This fascinating tour of the past makes it possible to imagine a very different and much more satisfying future.
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About the Author
Michael Schudson is Professor of Communication and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of California at San Diego. He is the author of several highly acclaimed books on the media, including Discovering the News and Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion. He lives in San Diego.
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Consensus and Community: The Mythic Town Meeting
Deference: Gentlemen Take the Lead
How Republicans Could Love a King
Republican Virtue and a Theory of Voting
The Blur of Politics and Society
The Media of Public Life
After 1765: A Farmer and a Staymaker
A deferential society in the classical that is, eighteenth-century English and American sense is usually conceived of as consisting of an elite and a nonelite, in which the nonelite regard the elite, without too much resentment, as being of a superior status and culture to their own and consider elite leadership in political matters to be something normal and natural.
On September 25, 1690, Benjamin Harris published a newspaper. This Boston coffeehouse proprietor, formerly a politically controversial publisher and bookseller in London, intended his Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick to appear monthly or more often "if any Glut Of Occurrences happen." Harris planned to give an account "of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice." This would include "Memorable Occurents of Divine Providence" and other items to help people everywhere "better understand the Circumstances of Publique Affairs, both abroad and at home."
These lofty ambitions notwithstanding, Harris made a serious miscalculation: he neglected to get governmental approval for his publication. Military news in the first issue included criticism of the Iroquois Indians, England's allies against the French in King William's War.Harris attacked these "miserable Salvages [sic]" and hoped that the military effort to take Canada might triumph without Indian assistance so that with an all-Christian force "God alone will have all the Glory." Most likely it was this article that led authorities to kill the paper, and it never saw a second issue. This was an inauspicious inauguration for American journalism. No other newspaper appeared in the American colonies until John Campbell, Boston's postmaster, began the first sustained newspaper in 1704, the Boston News-Letter.
The year 1690 is a somewhat arbitrary starting point for the history of American journalism and more arbitrary still if the beginnings of the newspaper are to symbolize the opening of an American public sphere. A "public sphere," as current academic discourse uses the term, refers both to a public forum independent of government and to private associations beyond the household where people come together to discuss public affairs. A public sphere may come to life in verbal give-and-take at a tavern, in a public square, on the courthouse steps or in the pages of a newspaper or pamphlet. It is the playing field for citizenship; democratic citizenship may bear fruit in the formal acts of voting or legislating, but it germinates in the soil of a free public life.
In Britain's North American colonies in the 1600s, written public communication about politics was scant. Elections were the exception, not the rule, and where there were elections it was taken for granted that results should be unanimous. Early elections in Virginia and in Plymouth Colony were uncontested. New York did not even have a colonywide elective assembly until 1683. The first seventy years of elections in America, one historian concludes, "Produced few real encounters and generated little sustained interest among the populace." Government was a modest enterprise; it operated in accord with and as an extension of social hierarchy, not as an expression of popular interests or passions. Public discussion of governmental affairs barely existed.
So the last decade of the seventeenth century is not too late a time to begin a history of a distinctly public political life for America. Is it too early? Governmental functions were few, governmental resources scant, political participation severely limited, and popular interest in government generally slight. Still, the 1690s saw not only the beginning of the American newspaper, abortive as it was, but the first stirring of an inter-colonial post office. Thomas Neale received a royal patent for an intercolonial post in 1691 and by 1693 began service between New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. There was also significantly increased electoral activity in a number of the colonies in these years and the representative assembly was becoming "a fixed feature" of colonial government.
Moreover, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that deposed the Catholic James II, brought William of Orange to the throne, and brought forth the British Declaration of Rights, cheered the Protestant colonies, and brought to England and its territories a solidified faith in parliamentary government. It encouraged political thought that defined a place for representative institutions. Popular involvement in government increased at this time in dramatic episodes, including the ouster of the royal governor of New England in Boston and a bloody rebellion in New York. At the same time, the new regime in England integrated the colonies more tightly into the empire. Colonists were increasingly drawn into England's political affairs in King William's War (1689-97) and Queen Anne's War (1702-13). England gained greater control over colonial affairs, but this enlarged as much as it constricted public life. A new charter for Massachusetts in 1691 reduced that colony's political autonomy, reserving to the king the right to appoint the governor, to veto laws, and to select the governor's council from a slate provided by the House. At the same time the new charter enforced greater secularism, providing voting rights andliberty of conscience to all Protestants, not just the Calvinist faithful. Voting was tied to property rights, not to church membership. Citizens ofMassachusetts began to show greater interest in political participation and greater skepticism of constituted authority.
The thirteen colonies, which began as a set of very different religious, commercial, and social experiments, became more alike in the eighteenth century and more English. Urbanization, the spread of print, the development of professions, professional associations, colleges, and other institutions promoted a common culture more uniformly anglicized across the colonies. Maryland, for instance, founded as a haven for Roman Catholics, disenfranchised the Catholics and established the Church of England after the Glorious Revolution. Political aspirations and ideals throughout the colonies were anglicized as colonials increasingly praised the British constitution as the great political instrument of the age. They took the Revolution of 1688 as the fount of the British political heritage and the modern summit of human political experience. In 1767, when John Dickinson wrote his famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, he chose November 5 as the date for the first letter, the seventy-ninth anniversary of William's triumphant landing on the English coast.
By the early 1700s, despite continuing differences among the New England colonies, the middle colonies, and the Southern colonies, the political culture of colonial America, as a whole, differed from British or other political cultures of the day and from the political culture of the United States after 1776. A number of central features were common to all:
- Consensus: The political and social ideals of early colonial leaders stressed consensus and community.
- Deference: Colonial politics and society operated by a practical ethic of deference and an assumption of social hierarchy.
- Monarchy: Colonial societies took monarchy for granted, including both loyalty to the king and identification with the rights of Englishmen they believed it the king's obligation to protect.
- Property, Virtue, and Independence: The colonies were, by English standards, relatively egalitarian and the franchise widely extended, but the colonists' political philosophy stressed the importance of economic independence as a qualification for the franchise and took some forms of inequality for granted (the subordination of women and slaves).
- Limited Government: Colonial governments retained the right to regulate all kinds of behaviors and even beliefs far beyond what would be acceptable today, but they reached affirmatively in only limited ways into people's everyday lives; they simply did not do much. The content of political dispute was rarely elevated, the ambition for political life was not differentiated from more general ambitions for advancement, and general interest in politics was low.
- Oral, Dramatistic, and Print Culture: Colonial politics was conducted in oral and dramatistic modes as well as print, but print came to have a growing place that helped transform the very idea of politics.
As we examine these relatively enduring features of political culture for the period from 1690 to the 1760s, you will also see elements of social change, particularly those that moved toward the enlargement of a public sphere. In this three quarters of a century, there was significant growth in the number and power of representative institutions; expansion of print media and published reports of politics; growth of civil society non-governmental associations for the expression of political opinion, including the press, spurred especially by opposition to British colonial policy; and democratization of family, church, and social relations.
Not all of the social change was onward and upward. The movement toward representative institutions came in fits and starts. Competitiveness in Virginia elections was more common from 1720 to 1750 than in the 1760s and 1770s. Representative government was in some respects more autonomous in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century than in the eighteenth century after the reincorporation of the colony as a royal province. The level of popular political interest and political participation grew with economic woes and military involvements only to die off again to lethargic levels in calmer times. Had it not been for the anticolonial struggles after 1765 and the Revolution that consolidated republican tendencies and catapulted people into a new world where republican values were vigorously promoted, the gradual social transformation of the early eighteenth century might not be seen retrospectively as leading up to something. But, as events took the turn they did, it is now hard to view them otherwise.
Consensus and Community: The Mythic Town Meeting
The New England Town is one of the myths out of which Americans' conception of their history has been constructed, along with such others as The Liberty Bell, George Washington, and The Frontier.
The Edenic quality of the town meeting myth makes it the inevitable starting point for anyone who thinks about political life in the colonial era. Colonial history is not New England history writ large, but whether or not we are genealogically children of the Puritans, we are ideological kin. The New England town as the fountainhead of modern democracy remains a potent ideal of how a democratic political system should function. In the late nineteenth century, critics of the party-dominated political system looked to the town meeting and a resurgence of direct democracy as a likely solution to political ills. As recently as the 1992 election, Americans borrowed the notion of the town meeting to speak of electronic town meetings and electronic town halls to justify the experiment of presidential candidates appearing to listen to the public on televised talk shows.
Yet the actual colonial New England town meetings were a far cry from the myth they inspired. Town meetings were open only to property-owning adult males of the community and, early on, only those who were church members. In Dedham, Massachusetts, the requirement of property ownership for at least some periods in the seventeenth century disenfranchised about half of the male taxpayers. Besides restrictions on the franchise, there were limitations on the powers of the town meeting itself by the prerogatives routinely granted to the selectmen. Selectmen were invariably older, richer members of the church, regularly returned to office. They called the town meetings, but not often, and led discussion of an agenda they set themselves.
The town meeting not only failed to include everyone but failed to govern everything. Towns in Rhode Island were practically autonomous republics early on, but in Massachusetts they were more closely supervised by the state government and in Connecticut the General Court of the state exercised even more control, legislating what officers the town meetings should elect and what functions they should serve. The General Court intervened directly in disputes between towns, whether the towns wanted such aid or not.
Within the Connecticut towns, the militia was not an arm of the town meeting but an independent institution answerable only to the General Court. Churches operated outside the town meeting, too. Church societies were empowered by the colony to levy taxes, build meetinghouses, and run primary schools. The town meetings were not even constituted to select representatives to the colony-wide government; the "freemen" of a town met twice a year for the purpose of electing deputies to the General Assembly.
Further, not all of those eligible to vote in town meetings did so. Political scientist Jane Mansbridge concludes that voter turnout in eighteenth-century Massachusetts ranged from 20 to 60 percent of eligible voters for town elections. (Only 10 to 30 percent of adult males voted in colony-wide contests.) As she puts it, using the example of Dedham, Massachusetts: "Even though no more than fifty-eight men were eligible to come to the Dedham town meeting and to make the decisions for the town, even though the decisions to which they addressed themselves were vital to their existence, even though every inhabitant was required to live within one mile of the meeting place, even though each absence from the meeting brought a fine, and even though a town crier personally visited the house of every latecomer half an hour after the meeting had begun, only 74 percent of those eligible actually showed up at the typical town meeting between 1636 and 1644. For most of the eighteenth century, only 15 to 25 percent of adult male Bostonians went to the polls. In New England generally, turnout ranged from 10 to 25 percent. Turnout in the middle colonies was higher, 20 to 40 percent in New York and Pennsylvania. Later in the century, where more records for more towns are available, attendance was rarely as high as 50 percent. In Connecticut, levels of attendance at both town meetings and freemen's meetings were generally under 50 percent. Many generations later, in the Concord where Ralph Waldo Emerson boasted of "the whole population of the town having a voice in the affair," attendance averaged 42 percent.
The most telling point against the picture of the New England town meeting as the model democratic institution is not the limited participation in decision-making but the normative presumption that open discussion of differences was to be avoided at all costs. The object of the meeting was order, not representation. There was nothing in the town meeting to show special respect to the individual or to honor and respect differences of opinion. The New England town fathers praised "harmony, conformity, and consensus. Real freedom (though they would not have formulated it precisely in this way) was possible only within a community of like-minded men."
The town meetings did change over time. In some cases, they became more participatory and more inclusive. In Massachusetts in 1691, the General Court reduced the property qualification for voting from 80 pounds to 20 pounds of taxable estate; in Dedham, this increased the percentage of males eligible to vote from 40 to over 70 percent. In Dedham and Watertown, meetings became more powerful relative to the selectmen after 1680. There were more of them (three or four a year instead of only one), they grew more contentious, and selectmen were returned to office less and less regularly. In other cases, as in Connecticut, the number of town meetings declined steadily during the 1700s (until the increasingly contentious political activity leading up to the Revolution revived them) and selectmen were steadily granted greater discretionary power by their towns. Still, the emphasis on consensus was fundamental, even in voting. Voting was not an act of individual expression but "a sign of...collective union with the established interpreters and custodians of God's eternal law."
The New England insistence on consensus remained high throughout the colonial period. The term "liberty" was most often applied to the liberty of the town against outside influence rather than liberties of the individual against the town. In contrast, in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, the elite cohesion that obtained in New England (and in the Southern colonies) was elusive. The middle colonies were by ethnicity and ethos the most diverse, and they experienced hard-fought political contention much earlier than the other colonies. There was even some defense of party rivalry. An essay in the New-York Gazette (in 1734) proclaimed that "Some Opposition, tho' it proceed not entirely from a public Spirit, is not only necessary in free Governments, but of great Service to the Public." But this remained until well into the nineteenth century a minority view in American political life. Long after the "community" of the New England towns weakened or dissolved (for good as well as ill), the idea of a covenant, entered into by political equals, remained a potent emblem of political community in American life.
Deference: Gentlemen Take the Lead
In the American colonies, gentlemen called their social inferiors by their first names and expected to be addressed as "Mister" or "Your Honor" in return. The gentry could be very familiar with their inferiors, joking or teasing with them, but they were marked off by speech, dress, manners, and a presumption of gentility even if their learning and character did not live up to the presumption. Social hierarchy was less pronounced than in England, and the distance between ranks less steep, but colonists took for granted a natural hierarchy of people of different degrees. In Massachusetts, for instance, when the Puritans entered church for Sunday service, they found their seats assigned by a church committee according to their social rank in the community. Such signs of hierarchy were powerfully reinforced by systems of patronage; deference, as historian Gordon Wood puts it, "was not a mere habit of mind; it had real economic and social force behind it." Men of property were not customers for artisans so much as their patrons, and not employers so much as masters. Society was small, it was conducted by personal relations, and these relations invariably served to reassert the naturalness of social distinction.
This certainly pertained to political relations. Even in politically volatile Boston, the most important offices in town government were filled by a small set of leaders of the highest social standing, men to whom others instinctively deferred. American political democracy owes much to the Pilgrim fathers, to be sure, but there is as much separation as continuity between them and the founding fathers. New England shared with Western civilization generally the assumption of hierarchy, not the premise of political or social equality.
Deference influenced not only a conception of who was fit for leadership but what was owed leaders in office. One obligation was to trust leaders to make wise decisions. In Massachusetts, the House began publishing a journal of proceedings in 1715. From the journal an attentive reader could learn about the basic disputes between the governor and the House, but could not have established his own representative's position. A roll call vote would have made these views public, but the House rarely employed it. The confidentiality of the proceedings reflected not only the legislature's fear of monarchical interference but its assumption that voters did not need to know just what their leaders were up to.
Deference affected every element in the political process. In nominating people for office, it helped support the norm of the noncompetitive election. In Virginia from 1728 to 1775, only a third of elections to the House of Burgesses were contested, and it is likely that this was higher than in most of the colonies." Compared to some other colonies, Virginia had few elections of any sort, contested or otherwise. Before 1776 the only elections in the Commonwealth were for the House of Burgesses, and these were relatively rare. When the freeholders gathered on election day in Virginia, they were generally asked only to affirm the candidates who ran unopposed. Colonial Virginians did not see representative government and aristocracy as incompatible but interpenetrating. The franchise was widely distributed among freeholders, but all candidates for office were chosen from a small set of gentlemen. In New England, many offices at both the local and state level were elective and elections were held frequently, but patterns of deference persisted there, too.
Elections in Virginia were rituals for the reinforcement of gentry rule. Gentlemen were distinguished by family name, dress, the possession of a carriage, a large house, and ample holdings of land and slaves. They were invariably Episcopalian by religion and frequently held public office. Even though the outcome of an election was not normally in doubt, election day was exciting. Since there was only one polling place in each county, people came from miles away to vote. Elections were usually scheduled for court days, when people would come to the county seat to transact business in land or slaves, or to do other business in the court. (Do not let the term "court" conjure up magnificent Georgian architecture; civic buildings in the colonies were few and "courts" frequently met in taverns.) Voters would proclaim their vote orally when the clerk called their names. As the clerk wrote down the freeholder's vote, the candidate for whom he had voted would often rise, bow, and thank him.
The election was conducted in a very personal way and was understood in terms of personal loyalties to community notables. The county was the largest constituency in Virginia, and most counties had less than a thousand voters. In an election at Frederick Court House in 1758, once the sheriff, clerks, and four candidates for two seats in the House of Burgesses were assembled, the first voter to approach was Thomas Lord Fairfax, the leading figure in county affairs. The next voter, William Meldrum, was the chief clergyman in the area and, like Fairfax, he voted for George Washington and Fairfax's nephew, Colonel Thomas Bryan Martin. The next several voters were also local leaders. It was not difficult for those who followed them to know which way the wind was blowing.
There was still more to the influence of the gentry. For one thing, gentlemen were entitled to vote in any county where their land ownership could meet the freehold requirement and therefore voted, if they chose, in several counties. A gentleman could stand for office in any county where he was eligible to vote and so could select the county where he had the best chance. As for influencing the votes of others, gentlemen not only voted early and audibly but "treated" other voters to liquor. Rum punch, sometimes cookies and cakes, and occasionally a barbecue were part of the festivities. George Washington paid for dinner and a ball during one election for the House of Burgesses; in another his agent provided 391 voters and various others with 160 gallons of rum, rum punch, wine, and beer. This was not a bribe but a ritual of deference the freeholder offered a vote to the gentleman, the gentleman acknowledged the favor with "treating." Gentlemen would often treat all voters, regardless of their votes, to confirm their character as liberal and magnanimous.
Elections, then, reaffirmed the leading gentlemen's right to govern. Symbolic gestures earn their social keep not so much by their clarity but by their capacity to combine in persuasive ways apparently disparate or even contradictory cultural features. In this case, the same ritual that reconfirmed social hierarchy also reminded citizens that legitimate government must operate by consent. If people willingly agreed to defer, they strenuously objected to any signs of coercion or, as they called it, influence. Leaders would be willingly selected from the group of natural leaders offered to the community, but they were themselves subject to common understandings of what kinds of power governmental officers should restrain themselves from exercising.
In New England, voting took place in town meetings by voice vote, by raising hands, by a "division of the house" in which people bodily moved to one side or another of the meetinghouse to indicate their preference, or sometimes by paper ballot. The ritual of treating was not common, although in elections for militia officers treating and electioneering were usual. The difference in voting method did not mean a difference, however, in the general practice of electing men of wealth, prominent social standing, and family connection.
While election day could be festive, little in the system of elections anywhere in the colonies encouraged political interest or political attention as opposed to routine voting. Voter turnout was not high. Apathy was common throughout the colonies, as Bernard Bailyn suggests, "in part because of lack of real alternatives in a society dominated by the sense that the natural social leaders of society should be the political leaders...."
The voting process itself was in most colonies open and public, although a secret ballot existed in South Carolina and North Carolina during the first half of the eighteenth century while Pennsylvania and Connecticut law permitted secrecy. Secrecy was not supported by the rationale that twentieth-century citizens would see as self-evident: that it protects the autonomy of the voter and the integrity of the vote. In fact, notable authorities judged secrecy in voting a danger to sound government. Montesquieu, a favorite political philosopher in the colonies, judged public voting a "fundamental law of democracy." He held that the lower class "ought to be directed by those of higher rank, and restrained within bounds by the gravity of eminent personages."
Deferential though colonial society was, it was not an aristocracy. If England was unusually republican compared to the Continent, the colonies were unusually egalitarian compared to England. There was no legal support in the colonies for aristocratic titles or privileges, nor a branch of the colonial legislatures to specifically represent aristocratic interests. The better elements in colonial society did not have a clearly delineated function or even a sharply focused identity. In America, it was always possible to rise, Benjamin Franklin style, from obscurity to honored position.
So compared to England, the colonies were renegade, individualistic, and distrustful of authority. The Americans were a special breed. Well before the Revolution, they were said to possess a characteristic individualism, optimism, and enterprise. Even among the stern Puritans, belief in the primacy of self-control and self-mastery led to a form of child-rearing that emphasized the internalization of social norms rather than deference to external authority. Cotton Mather's 1710 Bonifacius: Or Essays to Do Good, borrowing directly from John Locke's writings on education, urged discipline of children based on the withdrawal of affection rather than on physical punishment. He wanted a practice of childrearing so that children "shall fear to offend me, and yet heartily love to see me."
The question of an aristocratic house in the legislature would later occasion debate in the Constitutional Convention. There was great support for a legislature of two branches but confusion over what the rationale for the second house should be. The classical view of balanced government, stated especially by Montesquieu, was that the best government was organized to represent the monarch, the aristocracy, and the general population each in a different institution within the government. The English model was, of course, the obvious one to adapt executive, House of Lords, and House of Commons. But without an aristocracy or any interest in establishing one, what justified the upper house of the legislature? The best answer, although it is not clear that the founding fathers ever agreed on any answer, seems to have been that a representative assembly itself could be a source of tyranny and that it was best to provide two houses as brakes upon the presumption of either. Even if the upper house had roots in a deferential society, this rationale brought it into alignment with the fundamental moral and civil equality of persons that democratic citizenship would one day presume.
How Republicans Could Love a King
Colonial Americans took great pride in their liberty and in their rights within the structure of royal government. They assumed that a degree of self-government was their rightful British heritage. This, indeed, was the source of the secrecy of legislative proceedings. In England, the House of Commons was very protective of its right to deliberate in secret without kings or lords overlooking and this pattern was borrowed in the colonies. When the founding fathers referred to freedom of speech, they were more likely to mean the freedom of legislatures to deliberate than freedom of citizens to speak their minds.
Notions of popular sovereignty or republicanism as such did not have to arise for a view of popular representation and popular rights to take hold. British conventions of monarchy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were consistent with popular representation and popular protest. Monarchy had been "republicanized" long before the colonists gave any thought to throwing over monarchy altogether. In the political culture of the British monarchy, the "king" and the "people" were both legitimate entities whose voices should be balanced within government the jury for the people, the judge for the king; elected representatives for the people, a governor for the king. As the colonists understood this system, the king was obliged to be solicitous of the people's welfare because God had raised him up above the people to protect and serve them. In Virginia, William Stith, chaplain to the House of Burgesses, expressed this view in a sermon in 1745. He explained that the saying "The King can do no wrong" meant that the character of the British monarchy prevented him from doing wrong: "This is to say, his Prerogative can never extend so far, as to injure and oppress his People."
Faith in the monarchy, then, did not preclude popular rebellion, nor did belief in popular rule preclude accommodation to royalty. As late as 1768, in Charleston, South Carolina, the king's birthday was widely celebrated, although the practice of illuminating houses for the occasion disappeared in the next two years. Almost until the outbreak of
What People are Saying About This
An astonishing tour de force that provides a fresh way of thinking about the changing trajectory and dynamics of political culture in the United States. It should be required reading for every American citizenabove all for cynics and skeptics who assume that meaningful participation in the polity is now beyond our ken.
(Michael Kammen, author of People of Paradox: An Inquiry Considering the Origins of American Civilization)
In his characteristically countercyclical way, Michael Schudson gives us a lucid, shrewd argument that democracy is not in freefall, that its Golden Age (whenever that was) has not been irrevocably sealed within cathoderay tubes. No sociologist writing today is more toughminded, refreshing, or original, and The Good Citizen is his most ambitious book yet.
(Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage)
Michael Kammen Author of People Of Paradox The Good Citizen is an astonishing tour de force that provides a fresh way of thinking about the changing trajectory and dynamics of political culture in the United States. It should be required reading for every American citizen above all for cynics and skeptics who assume that meaningful participation in the polity is now beyond our ken.
Todd Gitlin Author of The Sixties: Years Of Hope, Days Of Rage In his characteristically countercyclical way, Michael Schudson gives us a lucid, shrewd argument that democracy is not in free-fall, that its Golden Age (whenever that was) has not drowned in a tidal wave of rights talk, and that American citizenship has not been irrevocably sealed within cathode-ray tubes. No sociologist writing today is more tough-minded, refreshing, or original, and The Good Citizen is his most ambitious and valuable book yet.
The newspapers advanced a public discourse also because they were connected to one another; they helped promote a colonies-wide consciousness. Newspapers constituted a powerful network of communications. Interconnections among newspapers grew not only because the papers' continual need for items to fill their space led them to borrow from one another's pages, but also because relations of kinship and friendship bound printers from distant places into a kind of extended family. Franklin, a master at the conventional political art of patronage, upon becoming deputy postmaster general for North America in 1753, appointed his son postmaster in Philadelphia, a brother postmaster in Boston (and later the brother's stepson), a nephew in New Haven, the son of a friend in Charleston, and another friend as controller in New York. Franklin's kin, former apprentices, or business partners ran newspapers in New York, South Carolina, and Rhode Island. Along with the Bradford family (whose members printed newspapers in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey and whose former apprentices included John Peter Zenger) and the Green family of Boston (whose family members operated printing establishments in Annapolis, New London, New Haven, and Philadelphia), the Franklins were a dominant force in colonial printing. There were frequent interconnections, through the mobility of apprentices, among the Green, Bradford, and Franklin clans.
The newspaper created a public forum in yet another respect: it was available in taverns and suitable for reading aloud there. It may be that more people read newspapers at taverns or coffeehouses than at home, and many others could hear them read aloud or discussed. In the social locations of its reading, as well as in the periodical form of its publication, the newspaper seemed well suited to accommodating and advancing public discourse.
This is certainly not to suggest that political discourse grew more elevated. On the contrary, it seems the press lived up to and exceeded the worst fears of elites as political discourse shifted from attacks on the opposition's policies to assaults on the opposition's leaders, and each salvo in a political skirmish would then bring an "increase in the brutality of language" from the other side.
As for the redoubtable Benjamin Franklin, he developed a position in Philadelphia society that no other printer matched anywhere. Though he took printing to be a business and the newspaper to be a relatively nonpartisan instrument of both business and enlightenment, he also made use of it to promote civic betterment. A one-man band of civic pride, he was full of ideas for community improvement. When he came up with an idea, he would first discuss it with the Junto, the reading and discussion group he had organized with other tradesmen and artisans of the town. He read a paper about the night watch to the Junto (and to other, similarly constituted clubs). He read his ideas on fire prevention to the Junto, publishing them only later. Alternatively, or sometimes subsequently, he wrote and printed a pamphlet proposing his views on a subject. He did this on the question of paper currency and on his ideas regarding the militia. But he might also write in the newspapers, as he did with an idea for establishing a public hospital in Philadelphia, holding in his Autobiography that it was his "usual custom" to "prepare the minds of the people" in this way. At that point, not resting on published laurels, he used his contacts and his political muscle in the Assembly to advance his cause.
The newspaper was thus continuous with a variety of other communication devices in assisting his efforts at social change. Franklin neither neglected the newspaper's possibilities nor expected too much of them. The newspaper's job was not to persuade but to publicize, to "prepare the minds of the people," to plant seeds that other forms of persuasion and pressure would then have to supplement. As an operator in Philadelphia's public sphere, Franklin sought to pursue his goals while putting himself "as much as I could out of sight" and offering his various projects as the proposals of a group of people rather than a single man.
Print thus enlarged Franklin's political arsenal, but it also had a political influence far beyond Franklin's intentions. The very impersonality of print encouraged a faith in norms of rational discourse. The reproducibility of print and its impersonal address made the audience potentially and in conception unlimited. This new audience, the republican public, was not the traditional face-to-face gathering of the church assembly or town meeting. It was an imagined rather than territorially concrete community. As it was more abstract, it was also more dangerous to traditional social relations, less bound to the subtle self-abnegations of daily life in a hierarchical society. It was difficult to control who would see something in print and it was difficult to contain the meanings to which print could give rise when read, as it increasingly was, in private and for secular rather than religious purposes. Print was inherently scandalous; Governor William Berkeley of Virginia had recognized this in 1671 when he wrote, "I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!" God did not long cooperate.
After 1765: A Farmer and a Staymaker
John Dickinson first published his "Farmer's Letters" in Philadelphia on December 2, 1767. The first of the letters began with an affecting and ingratiating self-characterization: "I am a Farmer, settled, after a variety of fortunes, near the banks of the river Delaware....I received a liberal education, and have been engaged in the busy scenes of life; but am now convinced, that a man may be as happy without bustle, as with it. My farm is small; my servants are few, and good; I have a little money at interest; I wish for no more...."
While Dickinson could have printed his letters in pamphlet form (they were later republished in seven different pamphlet editions) the decision to publish first in the weekly press enabled him to reach a wider and less sophisticated audience than a pamphlet by itself would have allowed. Dickinson was among a new brand of popular party leaders who used the press to become "public figures." They appealed to a wider public through the public prints, not only to the Assembly through petitions, speeches, and letters. Dickinson's series of "letters" spread rapidly throughout the colonies, appearing in nineteen of the twenty-three existing English-language newspapers by the end of January 1768.
"Farmer's Letters" were distributed more widely than any prior political writing in the colonies, even though newspapers probably reached no more than 5 percent of the population even incidentally. Because events seemed to many people at a point of crisis, the papers felt an obligation to print. Indeed, papers that failed to run the letters were pressured to do so in both Boston and Philadelphia and perhaps elsewhere. Clearly, Dickinson was a propagandist of no mean skill. He developed an important idea in the letters about taxation that came to influence political discussion for years to come. He made use of the most popular Whig ideas. Not least important was his choice of the yeoman farmer as his pseudonym. For all the attribution of virtue to the farmer, Dickinson was the first American political writer to identify himself as one.
The printing history of Dickinson's essays indicates a growing politicization of printers. As recently as 1765, printers had failed to resist the Stamp Act, even when it directly impeded their businesses. David Hall, Benjamin Franklin's partner and his successor at the Pennsylvania Gazette, complained later to Franklin that he should have opposed the Stamp Act more vigorously; the truth is that he tagged behind the outrage of public opinion. The printers were reluctant partisans. As politics grew more intense and as printers engaged in it themselves, there was also a multiplication of printing establishments. In 1764, twenty-three newspapers were published in fifteen locations; by 1775, forty-four papers in twenty-four communities and by 1783, fifty-eight papers in twenty-six places.
The newspaper press was by 1765 a large enough and well enough established institution to provide significant continuity to political discussion even beyond the specific outbursts of political protest. Nothing that a newspaper could do was as forceful for mobilization as actual participation in an uprising or dumping of tea in the harbor. But because the newspapers had space to fill on a weekly basis, at a time when more and more minds were aflame with political talk, they recurrently gave vent to political discussion.
With a political crisis looming, the colonists made use of their various means of communication, of which newspapers were only the most visible. Colonial elites knew one another through trade; businessmen in one colony might buy real estate in another. They knew one another through college experience; Yale attracted many students from New York and Massachusetts as well as Connecticut, and a scattering of students from Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, too. Students who went off to Yale did not necessarily return to their home colonies but chose to settle elsewhere. In the 1760s, religious connections crossed colonies, too. Out of fears that the Anglican Church might establish an American bishop, Presbyterian and Congregationalist ministers representing most of the colonies banded together with annual meetings and committees of correspondence. The bishop was the "ultimate symbol" of religious oppression for dissenters; their intercolonial organization contributed its ideas and its leadership to the more general political struggle. A wide variety of social, economic, educational, and religious contacts transcended colonial borders, and so did common interests in science, medicine, or the arts.
By 1774, leading figures in the Continental Congress were widely known by reputation through the colonies. Many members of the Congress had never met before, but the Congress provided a reunion for William Livingston of New Jersey with his old Yale classmate Eliphalet Dyer of Connecticut, while Silas Deane of Connecticut, lawyer and merchant, encountered New Yorkers he knew well. Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania had met John Adams of Massachusetts a year before when he visited relatives in Boston, and in Boston Adams had also met socially Thomas Lynch of South Carolina.
As for communication within a colony, formal and informal organizations operated as well as newspapers. Boston's social clubs and Masonic lodges became centers where people could come together to talk politics (among other things). A caucus system coordinated Boston artisans and prepared them to vote as a bloc at town meetings. While New York had no similarly focused system, its taverns were a regular site for political talk.
Meanwhile, printer William Goddard proposed and organized a colonial postal system as alternative to and in opposition to the royal post. In March 1774, he received the support of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, which then solicited other committees to support the plan. "When we consider the Importance of a Post," declared a letter from the Boston Committee, most likely written by Samuel Adams, "by which not only private Letters of Friendship and Commerce but publick Intelligence is conveyd from Colony to Colony, it seems at once proper & necessary that such an one should be established as shall be under the Direction of the Colonies...."
In a subsequent broadside urging subscription to the new private postal system, proponents pointed to the dangers of continued dependence on the royal postal system. "It is not only our Letters that are liable to be stopt and opened by a Ministerial Mandate, and their Contents construed into treasonable Conspiracies, but our News-Papers, those necessary & important Alarms in Time of public Danger, may be rendered of little Consequence for want of Circulation." The colonial post office was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 26, 1775; a year before the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution began to be institutionalized.
Dickinson's public, assembled through the newspapers, represents one arena of public communications; Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense constitutes another. Between 1764 and 1776, political pamphlets were printed in the colonies, 150 of them in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York alone. Much has been claimed for Common Sense, not least of all by Paine himself. But historians believe he was not immodest when he wrote in 1779 that 150,000 copies had been printed and sold in America. The success was international, with seventeen printings in London in 1776 and French and German editions as well. Common Sense was very important in making the unthinkable -- independence and a republican government without a monarch -- thinkable. As its title suggests, it turned heresy into common sense. Paine turned assumptions about American life that the colonists took to be evidence of colonial inferiority into signs of America's special mission. Paine saw the newness, the raw and rustic quality of colonial life not to be faults but virtues. If Americans were inexperienced, at least they were not corrupted by the ways of the Old World; indeed, he wrote, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now."
Common Sense, which went through twenty-five American editions in 1776 alone, was an amazing literary success. And a literary success of a sort with powerful political implications. In it, Paine pioneered a plain style of political writing: "As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet." There was little conceptually new in Common Sense. John Adams grumbled that it was no more than "a tolerable summary of the arguments which I had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months." But to make such arguments available to a wider readership, in a new popular idiom, woven together into a single coherent narrative, was a major contribution to the quickening of American public life.
Paine himself had been an artisan -- a staymaker, making corsets for wealthy women; unlike almost all earlier pamphleteers, he did not come from the elite of lawyers, ministers, and merchants. He was of, and wrote for, the ordinary person. Dickinson posed as a common man; Paine, like Franklin, actually was one. Again like Franklin, he counted among his friends the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He was in this sense part of a newly emerging class of professionals, the intellectuals, divorced from narrow class allegiances and free to think of themselves as speakers bound by no loyalties of class or party.
In the American Revolution, thirteen separate political entities, tied to London and without formal political ties to one another, came together with political and military unity of purpose. The leadership that effected this unity did so while retaining the loyalty of the vast majority of the citizenry at large, even though relatively few of the leaders and few of the citizens generally had contemplated, let alone intended, a break from British rule.
The American Revolution transformed colonial political culture. The emphasis on a consensual politics did not die, but increasingly, with the thirteen disparate post-colonial states banded together, the governing image was James Madison's of an orchestration of competing interests. Madison would guide the Constitutional Convention toward political institutions designed to withstand, and even profit from, the pitting of interest against interest. No longer was it easy to imagine that deliberation might lead to consensus.
Likewise, the Revolution did not mark the end of deference or of hierarchical social relations, but it was the beginning of the end. In the new nation, the rationale for an upper house in the legislatures was more than ever in dispute. What reason could an upper house have if there was no "aristocratic principle" for it to embody? When the states after the Revolution instituted two-house legislatures (except for unicameral Georgia), there were sometimes higher property qualifications for voters for the upper house or for membership in it. Clearly there was some sort of view that the upper house was more like the Lords than the Commons, but the weight placed on popular sovereignty and the power soon to be vested in the "we the people" formulation of the Constitution marked a decisive shift.
As for the assumption of monarchy, it disappeared with astonishing speed and finality. Even the Declaration of Independence, historian Richard Bushman has observed, was a document of monarchical culture: "It was a bill of treason, indicting the king for assaulting his people rather than protecting them. The Lockean language in the Declaration simply stated explicitly the right to revolt which was always implicit in the monarchical covenant." Yet as the colonies, now become independent states, wrote constitutions in wartime America and joined together in the Articles of Confederation, republican principles were taken for granted.
One of the most reliable lessons of political history is that new and explosive movements build on the framework of old institutions. Republicanism, if that means a faith in and the practice of representative institutions, was something the colonists had experience with. And when they moved from petitions and remonstrances in their assemblies to demonstrations in the streets, they did even this within the framework of established practices. The difference between authorized exercises of power within duly constituted bodies and unauthorized exercises of power by mobs in the streets was not sharp. In colonial America, the police power was not exercised by any permanent or professional corps of officials; law enforcement was often in the hands of posses. The power of government was exercised by the sheriff's calling together able-bodied men of the community, the same people who between 1765 and 1775 assembled in extra-legal protests. The "mobs" who protested the Stamp Act and other British initiatives could understand themselves as a quasilegal force. Indeed, the experience of the participants in the militia and in a posse commitatus gave to their protests a kind of enforced restraint and moderation. The popular uprisings that became the Revolution built on a heritage of quasi-legitimacy.
Popular protest and military mobilization notwithstanding, the revolutionary leadership did not seek to involve the general public in political debate. The Continental Congress swore members to secrecy at first, and of course there was military justification for doing so. The Congress that met under the Articles of Confederation understood itself to be a council of states, not a popular assembly, so it made its actions public only through communiqués to state governments. Occasional efforts to make congressional debate public were unsuccessful. Still, by 1779 the Continental Congress authorized weekly publication of its proceedings. New York and Pennsylvania required in their new constitutions that legislative sessions be public.
Should we judge the glass of public life by the 1780s half empty or half full? The important point is to recognize that it was half a world away from our own. Certainly representation became more and more a cardinal principle. Every state except South Carolina required annual election of the lower house. "Where ANNUAL ELECTION ends, TYRANNY begins" was a maxim of the radical Whigs, and the new state constitutions made it a practice of government, too. State constitutions generally enlarged the size of the legislature, reducing the size of the local constituency that elected each representative.
The suffrage was extended, too. In part, this was a by-product of the depreciation of paper money, a factor great enough in several states to all but nullify the property qualifications for voting. But it also came from a shift in a number of states from a property-owning to a taxpaying qualification for the suffrage -- in Pennsylvania (1776), New Hampshire (1784), Delaware (1791), Georgia (1775), and North Carolina (1776). Because of nominal poll taxes, the taxpaying qualification was very close to universal white manhood suffrage although, technically, only Vermont adopted manhood suffrage (in 1777), establishing neither taxpaying nor property-owning as a requirement for the vote. Apart from Vermont, some form of financial requirement for voting survived, but the movement was clearly toward liberalizing the franchise. Liberalization took other forms, too. New Jersey and New York made provision for an increase in the number of polling places at elections, and that may have made a great deal of difference when travel even over short distances could be arduous.
On the other hand, the voting public was not encouraged to take a strong interest in government. On the eve of the new nation, politics remained in the hands of gentlemen. The gentry ruled, notwithstanding representative institutions and a relatively broad electorate; printed accounts of political affairs were occasional, notwithstanding the growth of newspapers; the expectations of what government should undertake were low as were the resources of state power for what it could undertake, notwithstanding the rhetorical assault on the tyranny of the monarchy. Looking back from beyond the democratic transition, colonial political practice still appears an extension of the social life and comfortable consensus of a gentlemanly elite.
Copyright © 1998 by Michael Schudson