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Democracy's Spectacle

Sovereignty and Public Life in Antebellum American Writing

Jennifer Greiman

Publication Year: 2010

What is the hangman but a servant of law? And what is that law but an expression of public opinion? And if public opinion be brutal and thou a component part thereof, art thou not the hangman's accomplice?Writing in 1842, Lydia Maria Child articulates a crisis in the relationship of democracy to sovereign power that continues to occupy political theory today. Is sovereignty, with its reliance on singular and exceptional power, fundamentally inimical to democracy? Or might a more fully realized democracy distribute, share, and popularize sovereignty, thus blunting its exceptional character and its basic violence? In Democracy's Spectacle, Jennifer Greiman looks to an earlier moment in the history of American democracy's vexed interpretation of sovereignty to argue that such questions about the popularization of sovereign power shaped debates about political belonging and public life in the antebellum United States. In an emergent democracy that was also an expansionist slave society, Greiman argues, the problems that sovereignty posed were less concerned with a singular and exceptional power lodged in the state than with a power over life and death that involved all Americans intimately.Drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville's analysis of the sovereignty of the people in Democracy in America, along with work by Gustave de Beaumont, Lydia Maria Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, Greiman tracks the crises of sovereign power as it migrates out of the state to become a constitutive feature of the public sphere. Greiman brings together literature and political theory, as well as materials on antebellum performance culture, antislavery activism, and penitentiary reform, to argue that the antebellum public sphere, transformed by its empowerment, emerges as a spectacle with investments in both punishment and entertainment.

Published by: Fordham University Press


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Title page, copyright, dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

The University at Albany, State University of New York, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the United University Professions provided research support for travel to libraries and archives during the summers of 2006 and 2007. I was able to complete the majority...

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pp. 1-35

“Could the kind reader have been quietly riding along the main road to or from Easton, that morning, his eyes would have met a painful sight.” Midway through My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass longs for an impossible spectator: a witness to the daily abominations of slavery who is in no way implicated...

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1. “The thing is new”: Sovereignty and Slavery in Democracy in America

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pp. 36-74

In a long footnote appended to Democracy in America’s most famous chapter, “Tyranny of the Majority,” Tocqueville offers two anecdotes whose relationship to each other appears, at first, to lie in the illustration of his claim that democratic government in the United States is by no means too weak, “as many Europeans make...

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2. Color, Race, and the Spectacle of Opinion in Beaumont’s Marie

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pp. 75-120

If Tocqueville struggled to name the new thing that haunted him about U.S. political and social life, it would seem that his traveling companion had no such trouble. Gustave de Beaumont’s novel, Marie; or, Slavery in the United States, opens with the frank admission...

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3. “The Hangman’s Accomplice”: Spectacle and Complicity in Lydia Maria Child’s New York

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pp. 121-156

In an 18 August 1842 column written for the National Anti-Slavery Standard during her two-year tenure as the paper’s editor, Lydia Maria Child recalled the anti-abolitionist riots of the 1830s as a specter that had haunted the antislavery movement for...

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4. The Spectacle of Reform: Theater and Prison in Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance

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pp. 157-191

Pursued by a “deep sadness” from Blackwell’s Island to Barnum’s Museum—from prison to theater, as it were—Lydia Maria Child offers one of her era’s more haunting accounts of democracy’s melancholy. As she dissects the affective consequences of participating...

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5. Theatricality, Strangeness, and Democracy in Melville’s Confidence-Man

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pp. 192-222

In an unpublished manuscript fragment composed sometime in 1856, which may or may not have been intended as a chapter for The Confidence-Man, Melville offers a brief sketch of a shifting, discontinuous, and very strange subject that, whatever...


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pp. 223-254

Select Bibliography

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pp. 255-270


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pp. 271-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780823247684
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823230990
Print-ISBN-10: 0823230996

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 757486932
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Democracy's Spectacle

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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Democracy in literature.
  • Sovereignty in literature.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Democracy -- Psychological aspects.
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