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The Public and Its Possibilities

Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City

John D. Fairfield

Publication Year: 2010

In his compelling reinterpretation of American history, The Public and Its Possibilities, John Fairfield argues that our unrealized civic aspirations provide the essential counterpoint to an excessive focus on private interests. Inspired by the revolutionary generation, nineteenth-century Americans struggled to build an economy and a culture to complement their republican institutions. But over the course of the twentieth century, a corporate economy and consumer culture undercut civic values, conflating consumer and citizen.


Fairfield places the city at the center of American experience, describing how a resilient demand for an urban participatory democracy has bumped up against the fog of war, the allure of the marketplace, and persistent prejudices of race, class, and gender.  In chronicling and synthesizing centuries of U.S. history—including the struggles of the antislavery, labor, women’s rights movements—Fairfield explores the ebb and flow of civic participation, activism, and democracy. He revisits what the public has done for civic activism, and the possibility of taking a greater role.


In this age where there has been a move towards greater participation in America's public life from its citizens, Fairfield’s book—written in an accessible, jargon-free style and addressed to general readers—is especially topical.

Published by: Temple University Press

Title Page

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pp. v-viii

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Preface: The Public and Its Possibilities

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pp. ix-xii

Half a century ago, the consensus school of historians argued that the values of the market always reigned supreme in the United States. “Capitalism came in the first ships,” announced a 1959 survey of “the forces which shaped modern America.” Challenging the progressive historians who placed economic conflict between the people and the interests at the center ...

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Introduction: Liberalism and the Civic Strand in the American Past

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pp. 1-4

We find civic aspirations everywhere we turn in the American past, even in the most unlikely places. Civic aspirations arose from conservative and radical perspectives, from theological and secular foundations, from a bleak view of human nature and a hopeful one, and from the determination to either overcome the depravity of human nature ...

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pp. 5-8

Two powerful revolutions remade Western societies in the eighteenth and mid- nineteenth centuries. Economic revolution expanded the range of the market, quickened the pace of commerce, laid the foundation for industrialization, and introduced capitalist methods and attitudes. ...

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1. Democratizing the Republican Ideal of Citizenship: Virtue, Interests, and the Citizen-Proprietor in the Revolutionary Era

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pp. 9-32

The market and the public grew in tandem during the colonial era, generating the tension between liberal rights and republican virtue that shaped Anglo-American debate in the revolutionary era. In protesting Britain’s new imperial regulations imposed after the Seven Years’ War (1756– 1763), American patriots invoked a liberal vision of the emerging market society ...

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2. Creating Citizens in a Commercial Republic: Market Transformation and the Free Labor Ideal, 1812– 1873

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pp. 33-52

Defying the lessons of history, Americans built a commercial republic of continental proportions in sixty years after the War of 1812. But even as they pursued their interests, Americans expected economic development to support their republican institutions. Alexis de Tocqueville found the tension between material interest and civic aspiration to be central to the ...

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3. The Short, Strange Career of Laissez-Faire: Liberal Reformers and Genteel Culture in the Gilded Age

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pp. 53-68

Through the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, Americans believed they could build an economy that supported their civic aspirations. But in the Gilded Age, even as the economy reached astounding heights of productivity, powerful elites rejected all political efforts to guide economic and social development as “by nature wasteful, corrupt, and dangerous.” ...

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In 1863, the editor George William Curtis took a friend to New York City’s plebeian Niblo’s Gardens to see the American actor Edwin Forrest. Curtis described Forrest’s acting as of “the muscular school; the brawny art; the biceps aesthetics; the tragic calves; the bovine drama; rant, roar and rigamarole,” ...

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4. The Democratic Public in City and Nation: The Jacksonian City and the Limits of Antislavery

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pp. 71-97

As the cultural, physical, and legal infrastructure for a democratic public took shape in the first third of the nineteenth century, the republic’s largest cities produced an engaged, intelligent citizenry. City parks, civic spaces, and public meetings provided the places and occasions for political discussion and debate, while post offices, telegraph systems, and newspapers distributed it outward to every corner of the republic. ...

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5. The Democratic Public Discredited: The New York City Draft Riots and Urban Reconstruction, 1850– 1872

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pp. 98-119

In 1852, Walt Whitman wrote an antislavery leader about the prospects of converting New York City’s workers to the cause. “In all of them burns,” Whitman wrote, “almost with a fierceness, the divine fire which more or less, during all the ages, has only waited a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants, hunkers, and all their tribe. ...

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6. Cultural Hierarchy and Good Government: The Democratic Public in Eclipse

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pp. 120-142

As a cultural hierarchy of highbrow and lowbrow emerged in the Gilded Age, elite skepticism about the cultural competence of the people reinforced the discrediting of the democratic public. Genteel critics defined popular culture as lowbrow— lacking in intellectual or artistic distinction and exerting a corrosive force that threatened to tear down civilization— and simultaneously ...

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pp. 143-146

In 1901, the investment banker J. P. Morgan created U.S. Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation. In the great merger wave between 1895 and 1904, compliant legislatures and courts facilitated the creation of similar corporate giants. Combining production with distribution, eliminating competitors and disciplining suppliers, corporations accounted ...

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7. The Republican Moment: The Rediscovery of the Public in the Progressive Era

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pp. 147-169

As the Progressive Era began, the civic values and republican institutions of the United States suffered from thirty years of decay. Now the growing centralization of power in economic and political institutions threatened to eradicate them completely. Unless Americans reformulated a participatory conception of democracy ...

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8. The Public Goes to War but Does Not Come Back: Requiem for a Participatory Democracy

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pp. 170-190

On the eve of the American intervention into World War I, promising experiments in creating a deliberative public raised democratic hopes. Reviewing the latest study of the mob mind in 1915, Walter Weyl, editor of The New Republic, admitted that “the crowd-like actions of ignorant and irresponsible constituencies” cast doubts on democracy. ...

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Progressive Era Americans recaptured the nineteenth-century ambition to create an economy and culture based on democratic participation and popular abilities. The struggle for industrial democracy, which lasted into the early 1920s, represented the last stage of that effort. But by the end of the Progressive Era, ...

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9. From Economic Democracy to Social Security: The Labor Movement and the Rise of the Welfare/Warfare State

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pp. 193-214

Complementing Progressive Era experiments in deliberative democracy, an antitrust movement and a drive for industrial democracy identified the hierarchical corporation as an obstacle to a participatory democracy. The antitrust movement sought to break up the great corporations and preserve an economy of citizen- proprietors. ...

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10. Constructing a Consumer Culture: Redirecting Leisure from Civic Engagement to Insatiable Desire

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pp. 215-237

In 1902, Marshall Field’s opened its new, twelve-story department store on State Street in Chicago. “We have built this great institution for the people,” Field’s announced, “to be their store, their downtown home, their buying headquarters.” For opening day, Field’s adorned its one million square feet of retail space with “cut flowers on every counter, shelf, showcase, and desk,” ...

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11. Private Vision, Public Resources: Mass Suburbanization and the Decline of the City

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pp. 238-267

During World War II, with the cities of Europe under siege, the American city carried the hopes of democratic civilization. “In the great world drama involving the destiny of civilization which is moving toward a climax,” a city planner wrote in 1943, “New York has become the center— the core— of the democratic system." ...

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Conclusion: The Future of the City: Civic Renewal and Environmental Politics

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pp. 268-280

The results of the 2008 elections suggested we might be on the verge of dramatic political changes. During the campaign, political commentators described a stalemate between “the irresistible force of secular belief in public investment set against the immovable object of faith- based laissez-fairism.” But polls showed that since 1999, ...

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pp. 281-282

This work is immeasurably indebted to the painstaking labors of historians over the past fifty years. There are a hundred monographs I have read that should have found their way into this narrative and hundreds more I have not read that I should have. But I could not even have begun this book without the stubborn devotion of historians to their craft. ...


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pp. 283-342


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pp. 343-356

E-ISBN-13: 9781439902127
Print-ISBN-13: 9781439902110

Publication Year: 2010