- Politics as Space, Class as Language: Problems of Synthesis
Even variously defined, class, community, and politics have provided American historians with essential interpretative frameworks for their investigations. To political historians, especially those who study nineteenth-century America, the political acts of voting and officeholding are to class as turpentine is to paint. To those who take class as their heuristic departure point, socioeconomic definitions of rank are to partisan choice intriguing, though often mistaken, explanatory factors. For both approaches community offers both a conceptual and a contextual background—the laboratory setting for research. But usually—and this is the case with the two books under review—research designs afford little opportunity to deal with the colligation of the three concepts.
Australian scholars Paul Bourke and Donald DeBats have written a finely textured study of Washington County, Oregon, which uses both community and politics as organizing devices. Class is irrelevant to this monograph because, according to Bourke and DeBats, the citizens of Washington County inhabited a preclass, preindustrial society. The latter conclusion, based on the familiar Marxist definition of classes, might surprise Martin Burke who in The Conundrum of Class: Public Discourse on the Social Order in America offers a history of the ubiquitous idea of class in the United States before the twentieth century. Indeed the notion that there were no classes would surprise mid-century Americans who recognized both socioeconomic and socioconstitutional groupings within their society. And certainly, as Washington County: Politics and Community in Antebellum America reveals, there was significant inequality in the distribution of wealth among Washington County’s 2,766 residents, [End Page 209] with the poorest 10 percent of the taxables owning 2.3 percent of the wealth and the richest 10 percent holding nearly 40 percent by 1860.
Spending less than 25 of 325 pages on the economic life of Washington County, instead in the grand tradition of the very best local histories that transcend their limited spatial boundaries, Bourke and DeBats illuminate the patterns of life and their meanings in one rural place in the Northwest during the 1850s. The authors focus their microscope on the institutions, demographic sources of the population, culture, and especially politics in a premodern society that might stand “in relation to the nineteenth-century American states and territories as the United States and Canada stood in relation to the newly emergent states of the Old World” (p. 3).
Consciously they avoid the straitjacket of the who-voted-for-whom-and-why design of much American political history in the last three decades, though they have the sources that earlier quantifiers would have relished. But it is a political source that encouraged the authors to undertake their exhaustive examination of Washington County in the first place. The extant poll books that recorded the viva-voce votes of the male community provide a matchless source of political information. The largely overlooked practice of oral voting had survived its colonial, British roots in several eastern states, including Virginia, and was adopted in Oregon in 1854. Bourke and DeBats speculate that, as form to function, open voting created “a perception of the political process as being intimately bound up with the places and the manner in which people acted out their whole lives—their marriages, funerals, churching, their public and private excitements of every kind” (p. 13). Thus the community of Washington County serves as “the generality of an imaginary place and the precision of an exact location” (p. 1).
Granted that Ronald Formisano has done much to explode ethnocultural interpretations of voting behavior and to encourage broader investigations of politics, still too much political history uses aggregate data to search for answers to individual voting behavior. 1 It is one of the significant contributions of this book that the research tool of...