Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic by Robert W. T. Martin (review)
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Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic. By Robert W. T. Martin. (New York: New York University Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 262. Cloth, $49.00.)

According to political theorist Robert W. T. Martin, Lockean consent gets all the attention, yet dissent is equally important to democracy. It is important not because dissenters usually obtain what they want, but rather because it “oblige[s] people to rethink their views” (3). Although dissent encompasses the idea of “the opposition,” it is “more than” simple opposition in that it “need not be, and occasionally is not, unquestioningly loyal” (3). In the end, Martin’s primary goal—one that he, for the most part, achieves—is to chart the late-eighteenth-century emergence and contours of theories of dissentient democracy, of political propositions that justify dissent as a necessary, beneficial component of democratic life.

Martin’s first chapter argues that rough music (enforcement of communal norms through ritualistic intimidation and violence), quasi-legitimate populist disorder, and backcountry regulation were increasingly de-legitimized in the late eighteenth century. Considering the persistence—or better yet, the democratic apotheosis—of mobs in the nineteenth century, Martin’s assertion that the “movement that sought to justify the notion of popular nullification as a more democratic instrument than mere representation” was “unsuccessful” is overstated (53). Still, the idea that various supporters of extra-legal versions of protest were put in an awkward position by elites’ insistence that the founding of a representative republic rendered unnecessary the resort to populist disorder is spot-on. For example, the author astutely demonstrates that William Findley struggled to respond to attacks on the Whiskey Rebellion and ultimately tried “to navigate a middle course between the people’s active insistence on their rights and actual resistance to an elected government” (42). Martin thus buttresses the work of scholars Todd Estes and Seth Cotlar, both of whom usefully highlight the rhetorical [End Page 327] and political potency of conservative efforts to channel “expression of the popular will” into elections alone (52).1

If intensified criticism caused some persons to defend uncomfortably the role of extra-legal populist disorder, the Federalist–Antifederalist debate, the author claims, occasioned the “first sustained effort to conceptualize and practice a ‘democratic dissent’ ” (57). Once again, the author overstates things; the examples provided in Chapter 3 point to haphazardness rather than a “sustained” attempt to theorize democratic dissent. Nevertheless, there is good reason to view the Federalist– Antifederalist controversy as an important moment in the development of dissentient democracy notions. For one thing, Martin shows, the anonymous author of the pamphlet Candid Considerations on Libels (1789) suggested that “contestation can encourage genius” (77). John Francis Mercer went “even further” by advocating for “institutions of public education that will empower dissenting voices” (77). Innovative as these arguments were, there were limits. No one “asked the question of whether dissent is productive when it is false” and Antifederalists’ ingrained belief in the unity and timelessness of truth precluded the possibility of “multiple political truths” in a “diverse country” (81).

Even before the Federalist–Antifederalist debate, James Madison began conceptualizing public opinion as a beneficial dissenting force. As Martin explains, Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” (1785) struck a blow not only for liberty of conscience but also for the idea that “the public’s power of elective representation cannot be the crux of popular sovereignty” (122). In this regard, the author’s comparison of Madison’s “Memorial” with contemporaneous religious liberty petitions in Virginia is particularly instructive. For while most of those other petitions operated in a deferential tone and pleaded with the state legislature merely to reconsider the assessment bill, the “Memorial” boldly articulated an “explicitly activist theory of popular sovereignty” wherein public opinion would both “correct elites and previous unthinking majorities” and serve as “a positive, proposing force that could point toward new, better policies” (124, 125, [End Page 328] 123). Madison developed these ideas still further while writing his Federalist essays and while criticizing the Washington and Adams administrations, and by the end of the 1790s he was “among the few theorists insisting that only...


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