Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic by Robert W. T. Martin (review)
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Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic. By Robert W. T. Martin. (New York: New York University Press, 2013. Pp. 273. $49.00 cloth)

Revolutionary-era Americans, Robert W. T. Martin asserts, would be perplexed that “we modern Americans” do not centralize popular disorder, even “forcible destruction,” in our democratic practice (p. 1). Indeed, in Government by Dissent, Martin argues that ever since John Locke’s renowned Second Treatise of Government (1689), “consent” has been assumed while “dissent” marginalized or, if acknowledged at all by political philosophers, treated as individual expression and not a core of our nation’s democratic political theory. In order to uncover how theories and expressions of dissent have informed American politics, Martin employs the analytical construct of “dissentient democracy,” that is, “a democracy that values dissent as an essential core element” (p. 2). By focusing on the late-eighteenth-century United States, Martin demonstrates individuals from different social ranks grappling with the meaning of political legitimacy and the place, or even need, of dissent in the new republican order.

Martin’s opening chapters examine the roots of popular disorder in revolutionary America. Beginning briefly with ideological reformulations that legitimized the colonists’ split from Britain, Martin moves to the “regulator” movements of the 1780s and 1790s. Shays’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, as well as the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries Rebellion in Pennsylvania, are analyzed through the lens of dissentient democracy. The first two movements utilized various forms of popular disorder, including violent protest, whereas the last, Fries, did not engender such force, and, Martin concludes, proved a turning point “from popular to democratic dissent” (p. 45). Amidst these uprisings, Martin looks to the debates over ratification of the [End Page 108] Constitution. Anti-federalists’ writings demonstrated the importance of dissent in the public sphere while pointing out a need for a communication network for oppositional views. Furthermore, the democratic societies, which gained a wide membership from middling lawyers and farmers during the early 1790s, were the first step towards the institutionalization of dissent in American political life. Although the popularity of these “counterpublics” faded after President Washington implicated them in the violence of the Whiskey Rebellion, Martin asserts the clubs “had begun to conceptualize a new mode of leveraging dissent” against the advantages of the elite’s status quo (p. 89).

James Madison receives sustained attention in chapter five, as Martin examines the founder’s experience with religious minorities in revolutionary Virginia, his contributions to the Federalist Papers, and his Virginia Resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Whereas historians have often noted a philosophic shift in Madison’s writings after the Federalist Papers, Martin charts a continuity of thought, especially in the statesman’s “commitment to popular sovereignty and the centrality of public opinion,” even if the latter were informed by dissent (p. 116). Martin also introduces his readers to a number of lesser-known theorists, including William Manning and Thomas Cooper. Each, in their own way, questioned the status quo and argued that dissent, even if false, was advantageous to a democratic society.

The federalists’ counteroffensive—denigrating the democratic societies and passing the Alien and Sedition Acts—against all forms of dissent eventually worked against them in the electoral sphere as Democratic-Republicans gained ascendency in the “Revolution of 1800.” Yet, Martin is quick to point out that this is not a story of progress for the place of dissent in American politics. Appeals to the direct sovereignty of the people (such as personal nullification of laws deemed tyrannical) were funneled into state assemblies, and in less than a generation, a country that came into being by legitimating expressions of the popular will “had accepted the notion that political change must go through established channels” (p. 52). Increasingly, [End Page 109] dissent was institutionalized through top-down political party organizations, and, by the turn of the century, notions of “democratic disorder came to be seen as mere disorder” (p. 53).

Martin perhaps overly relies on quotations from secondary sources, which necessitates a careful reading and at times takes away from the book’s narrative thrust. Yet his incorporation of political...


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