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  • The Invisible Fence
  • Dana D. Nelson (bio)
Taming Democracy: "The People," the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution. By Terry Bouton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 332 pages. $29.95 (hardcover).
For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s. By Ronald P. Formisano. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. $35.00 (hardcover).
Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. By Woody Holton. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. $27.00 (hardcover). $15.00 (paper).

Most U.S. citizens proudly define our political system as a "democracy" and consider it a beacon for world freedom. But generally, academic depictions of the democratization effected by ordinary U.S. citizens have been more equivocal. Taken as a whole, their line of treatment could well be summarized by modifying Wynn Caitlyn's aphorism about diplomacy: Democracy "is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock." This is not to say that contributions of individual, "ordinary" citizens, and classes of citizens-like mechanics-to the Revolution and subsequent nation building have not been celebrated by Progressive and neoprogressive historians. But collectively, what ordinary citizens have done for democracy as a political system and a civic ethos has often been viewed-if sometimes reluctantly-as diminishing the high-minded arts of statesmanship that flourished briefly under the Republican founders.

In the consensus story, democracy begins as a glimmer of promise in the nation's Declaration of Independence, but is reined in-or seat-belted-by the framers, who created a constitutional republic because they distrusted "democratic excess": the impracticability, unpredictability, and economic inefficiency of popular democracy. Democracy thus makes its functional entrance beginning with President Jefferson, who unleashes the "power of the people" in his electoral triumph over the elitist Federalists. The political sway of the "common man" takes off under Jackson. But it is not an unmixed triumph. In [End Page 137] mainstream treatments by early national historians of the ideological synthesis and market culture schools alike, the practical-minded, money-making middling classes, whose way was opened by the social upheaval of the Revolution, are credited with actually undermining the new nation's equalitarian ideal by ushering in a political system that yoked democracy firmly to liberalism and capitalism. In this consensus account, the middling and working classes-ordinary people, not elite but perhaps aspiring to that status-instinctively bumped the question of equality out of the political realm. Seizing on Adam Smith's promise that the economy would be a more efficient manager of social order, they staked their hopes for equality to the market. Thus the noble ideal of political equality, of rights and perhaps condition-with all its moral resonance and ethical possibility-was unthinkingly, perhaps inevitably redefined in the crasser and competitive terms of the market's equality of opportunity.

This regretful, or "realistic" analysis of democratization proves for more than a few that democracy is not the boon for the people that they habitually believe it to be, and by the same token, that it is not a great idea to trust "the people" to run much of anything, let alone self-government (thank God for the economy's "invisible hand"!) Its regretful inevitability also makes it hard to conceptualize alternative democratic possibilities for the early nation. The ideological synthesizers' habit of regarding democracy as not guided by ideas but by workaday interest has delivered two important consequences. It has made it difficult to attend to and describe the alternative self-governing and equalitarian cultures, practices, and arguments developing in the colonies and early nation before the electoral triumph of Jeffersonian democratic republicans, and it has been nearly impossible to understand the democratic ideals and practices of the nonelite as fueled by ideas. And because both ideological synthesis and market culture historians have so solidly yoked the advent of democracy to the developing market economy in the early nineteenth century, and to its apparent solution for the difficult question of equality, it has been hard to remember those who resisted market forces well into the nineteenth century as exhibiting anything more than a doomed nostalgia for a bygone patriarchal order, or to see nineteenth...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 137-149
Launched on MUSE
2009-04-09
Open Access
No
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