Public sphere, Columbia County, Upstate New York, Public culture, Hudson Valley
In the last two decades, the concept of the public sphere has become one of the major interpretive frameworks in the history of the early republic. A large part of its appeal lies in its potential to integrate political and social history, two fields that had long flourished in parallel universes. Locating the origins of partisan politics within an expansive notion of power and highlighting questions of membership (i.e., citizenship), historians have developed a middle ground between political history far removed from the ordinary experience of Americans, especially those who were neither male nor white, and a social history divorced from institutions and policy. “More an experience than a space,” writes John L. Brooke in his masterful synthesis of a generation of this scholarship, “the public space mediates between private life in all its forms and the governing polity.” It was “an arena” of both “deliberation” and “informal persuasion” (5).
Brooke’s narrative of life in the early republic is every bit as grand as recent works by Daniel Walker Howe and Gordon S. Wood. But instead of a sweeping attempt to encompass the whole of a dynamic and diverse new nation, Brooke gives us an account of life in Columbia County, New York. The only thing more impressive than Brooke’s encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s history is the sheer number of important issues he engages in the space of five hundred pages. I know no more successful example of local history as national history than Columbia Rising. [End Page 127] Brooke is right to insist that we need to “remember that the national narrative is lived in the host of localities where Americans embody and enact their collective society” (11).
A vital place in the late eighteenth century—it encompassed Livingston Manor, tenant families, independent farmers, and a growing number of villagers still smarting from the civil war that was the American War for Independence—Columbia County became a relatively stagnant backwater in the middle of the nineteenth century. Its principal claim to national renown, and Brooke’s organizing conceit, is that it produced Martin Van Buren, the guru of the Jacksonian Democratic Party, whose legacy would be a “conception of political parties in perpetual civil struggle” (171). Sketching the parameters of the world that shaped Van Buren, Brooke details the emergence of civil society by narrating the origins of its characteristic institutions (voluntary associations, churches, schools, libraries, and political parties) and processes (regular commerce in ideas, commodities, and emotions). He emphasizes the contradictions that complicated the workings of the public sphere. If, on the one hand, it was a place of deliberation among white men over the granting of informed consent to their leaders, it was also a site of cultural persuasion in which peoples excluded from state power by class, gender, and race demanded inclusion, or at least protested their exclusion.
Like all important books, Columbia Rising does not completely succeed in meeting its author’s ambitious agenda. Indeed, it raises questions about the limitations of Brooke’s model, many of which follow from an overly schematic approach. We learn an enormous amount about what people did and which categories they fell into politically, religiously, and socially. We do not learn as much about what they thought or felt. Too often Brooke deploys ideas from other scholars (sensibility is a good example) and absorbs his characters within those interpretive paradigms. He might have done more to help us to see individuals experiencing the instability of personal identity as well as civic identity, to work from within individuals outward, rather than the other way round. Brooke is at his best in his re-creation of the structures of public culture. He is equally adept in his discussion of partisan politics. Less successful, indeed less developed, is the third part of Brooke’s tripod of state, public sphere, and private life. Because we only know people...