The Good Citizen; A History of American CIVIC Life, by Michael Schudson
- ISBN: 9780684827292 | 0684827298
- Cover: Hardcover
- Copyright: 9/20/1998
|Introduction: Election Day||1||(10)|
|Entr' Acte I The Public World of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates||133||(11)|
|Entr' Acte II The Second Great Debate||233||(61)|
|Conclusion: A Gathering of Citizens||294||(21)|
Colonial Origins of American Political Practice
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 hisPublick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestickto 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, theBoston 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 famousLetters 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:
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 theNew-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 1710Bonifacius: 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
Excerpted from The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life by Michael Schudson
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