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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 388-392

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Postmodern Political Science

Daniel Feller

Kimberly K. Smith. The Dominion of Voice: Riot, Reason, and Romance in Antebellum Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999. viii + 318 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $40.00.

According to the preamble of its constitution, the United States government exists "in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." This is a broad mandate. Justice, tranquility, welfare, and liberty are expansive concepts, potentially embracing nearly the whole range of human needs and aspirations. It is no surprise then that the practice of democratic politics combines goals and strategies, values and interests, principles and personalities, in an inextricable mix. It involves deliberation, harangue, festivity, ceremony; it appeals to both reason and emotion, selfishness and sympathy, hope and fear. We see this in our politics every day. It is all rather obvious, except perhaps to a political scientist.

Kimberly Smith is a political scientist, and her object in The Dominion of Voice, simply put, is to remind her colleagues of what the rest of us knew all along: that politics is a messy and complex business, whose historical workings cannot be brought within the narrow compass of what a theory of reasoned deliberation says they should be. Taking antebellum America and especially Philadelphia as her subject, Smith matches up the way politics have actually worked against the way some social scientists think they work. The results are illuminating.

According to Smith, today's ideal of rational public debate is not a timeless concept, but a deracinated descendant of an "Enlightenment model" first propounded around the time of the Revolution as an alternative to the colonial politics of deference. In a deferential world, where the political power structure reinforced and replicated the social hierarchy, the people at large had no place in normal decisionmaking. Their only recourse was to extralegal activity, especially rioting. The "language of governance" condemned riots as fatal to social order, but Whig opposition rhetoric justified them as a means of voicing grievances. Nonetheless, after the Revolution, elites intent upon vindicating democracy as an orderly form of government stigmatized riots as [End Page 388] passionate and violent, having no place in a politics of calm, reasoned debate. Smith sees nothing self-evident or even desirable in this. Drawing on historians of the crowd (Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, Pauline Maier), she depicts mobs as restrained, purposeful, and generally harmless. Their exclusion from political legitimacy was an exercise in "hegemony"--though not, in Smith's view, so much a triumph of one class over another as a privileging of "discursive rationality" over the "instrumental rationality" of the crowd (pp. 83, 46-47). Talk was in, action was out. Reason was good, passion was bad. Riots might continue, but they were no longer respectably defensible as political instruments.

All this is intriguing, if overdrawn. Whig defenses of crowd action were more qualified than Smith lets on. And post-Revolutionary proponents of reasoned debate--Smith cites the Federalist Papers as an example--did not seek to proscribe passion simply out of fear it would lead to violence. They also believed that in the heat of emotion people made bad decisions. Were they so wrong to think so, or for that matter to try to exclude violence itself from the political arena? In challenging the line they drew, Smith presents a remarkably sunny view of mobs, suggesting that she may have read that literature on crowds a little too well. In her riots nobody ever gets hurt. To prove that they were "frequently orderly and deliberate," she cites an 1834 New York "'mob'" (she puts the word in quotes) that stopped an abolition meeting, disrupted a play, and sacked the home of abolitionist Arthur Tappan. (This is Smith's version, taken from a Philadelphia paper. It was actually Lewis Tappan's house, not Arthur's. Rioters also wrecked a dozen black homes, a church, and a school.) "Was this a 'brutal and violent' mob?" asks Smith...


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