- Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic by Sandra M. Gustafson
Civic culture, Deliberation, Deliberative tradition, Rhetoric
Michael Sandel has advanced a cogent critique of the liberal ideal of the "unencumbered self "—the fiction that citizens can bracket certain fundamental differences and participate in civic life on terms of abstract equality.1 In her important new book Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, Sandra Gustafson offers a rich and provocative account of what we might call the "encumbered selves" who fashioned practices of deliberation in the early nineteenth-century United States. Her interest is in precisely those moments when the deliberative ideal seems to have reached its limits: both when such "encumbrances" as religious conviction or habits of discrimination would seem to preclude compromise, and when such legislation as the Compromise of 1850 seems to reveal the inadequacy of compromise as a means of civic resolution. Gustafson's prior work has already established her reputation as a broadly interdisciplinary scholar of early America with a talent for bringing literary and archival material together in surprising and original ways. Imagining Deliberative Democracy enhances that reputation and expands her reach further into the field of American civic culture.
One of the fundamental questions underlying theories of public discourse—from Plato's critique of the sophists to American Pragmatism to Jürgen Habermas—is whether truth is imagined intersubjectively or as existing independently. Rather than approach it as a theoretical question, Gustafson examines the effects of a belief in transcendent truth both on the process of civic deliberation and on particular rhetorical forms. For one thing, the belief in a truth that transcends deliberation gives rise to suspicion of silver-tongued orators and the powers of eloquence—a suspicion that Gustafson describes in rich detail, from Edward Tyrrel Channing's 1817 essay warning of the "dangers of false excitement and corrupt eloquence," to Daniel Webster's sophisticated critique of [End Page 356] "extravagant" or "excessive" language, to the anti-intellectualism of David Crockett's frontier style (23, 104). And, in an illuminating discussion of twentieth-century accounts of U. S. deliberative democracy, she suggests that such critics as Walter Lippmann and Noam Chomsky can usefully be situated in this longer tradition of anxiety that the deliberative process can be manipulated.
But if a belief in transcendent truth can cast doubt on the deliberative model of civic engagement, it can also give rise to particularly powerful rhetorical forms. One such form is what Gustafson calls "prophetic rhetoric," or the rhetoric of the jeremiad, frequently appropriated by abolitionists. David Walker's Appeal, for example, "engaged the deliberative practices of Walker's contemporaries while putting forward a position that embodied metaphysical truth claims that challenged deliberative ideals" (141). In Gustafson's reading, Walker rejected deliberative exchange in part because of the inability of the deliberative model to address the continued existence of slavery. And it is Webster who most strikingly embodies that inability. "Webster," writes Gustafson, "espoused a model of deliberative discourse that privileged civility and process and avoided rhetorical excess. Legislators should embrace these ideals, he believed, because they fostered good legislation and helped build consensus" (103). Whether one saw Webster's support of the Compromise of 1850 as consensus-building or apostasy revealed much about one's conception of the nature and viability of the deliberative process.
In her discussion of William Apess, Gustafson widens the scope of her inquiry to address the extent to which the deliberative model of civic exchange can accommodate non-Western participants and, alternatively, the extent to which deliberation as it developed in the early American republic incorporated Native American practices. She reads Apess's 1836 Eulogy on King Philip as a "counterhistory" of such celebratory accounts of the Pilgrim fathers as Webster's Plymouth oration, and an effort to allow his largely white audience to see that history from a Native American perspective (148). Thus Apess both challenges a ritual of white, Protestant American oratory and engages in civic deliberation by articulating his community's...