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  • Democracy and Disgust
  • Jason Frank (bio)

In a 1794 letter to Thomas Dwight, Fisher Ames expressed disgust at the proliferating "cancer" of the Democratic-Republican Societies. Ames characterized the societies as the "root of an extracted cancer, which will soon eat again and destroy. Any taint of that poison, left behind, will infect the seemingly cured body; therefore the knife should now be used to cut off the tubercles."1 This was not the only time that Ames employed metaphors of ulcers, cancers, and open wounds to describe popular enactment within the body politic, and he was not alone among Federalists in recurring to metaphors of bodily disfiguration to describe the radical democratizing undercurrents of the 1790s. "Our disease is democracy," Ames wrote, "it is not the skin that festers—our very bones are carious and their marrow blackens with gangrene."2

Edmund Burke mobilized a similar host of metaphors in his antirevolutionary writings. For Burke, the French Revolution was about more than the replacement of royal political authority with democratic republicanism. It initiated "a system which is by its essence inimical to all other governments," not just the legal institutions of the state but the manifold subordination of human conduct to "the discipline of social life." 3 This democratic disorder was felt "throughout all the relations of life . . . [It] inverted the natural order in all things, setting up high in the air what is required to be low on the ground." 4 Like Ames, Burke invoked natural disgust to defend the inherited social order from the incursions of the "swinish multitude." Their widely shared depiction of democracy as a monstrous violation of the order, proportion, and norms dictated by God or nature suggests an inner entailment between democracy and disgust in the conservative writing from this revolutionary era and beyond. [End Page 396]

The conservative pairing of democracy with disgust often drew on the canonical association of political order with health and popular politics with disease in Western political thought and its governing metaphor of the body politic, a metaphor "which assigned a proper place to each person and group so that all could perform functions in maintaining the whole."5 According to Livy, Agrippa Menenius Lanatus invoked the fable of the body politic to bring the seceding plebs of Aventine back into the reigning order of Rome. Thomas Hobbes mobilized it during the English Civil War when he analogized the powers that tend to "weaken" or "dissolve" the "Common-wealth" with "diseases of a natural body," "biles and scabs," "Worms," "Wounds," and "Wens." 6 During the constitutional ratifying debates, Alexander Hamilton described "seditions and insurrections" as "unhappy maladies as inseparable from the body politic, as tumours and eruptions from the natural body."7 Antidemocratic writers tapped into this long history of conceptualizing insurgent egalitarian politics through the grotesque figure of the disorganized and deterritorialized body.

Body metaphors, in this sense, offer a compelling historical index to the naturalization of social and political relations democratic movements sought to contest. Disgust has an uncomfortably symbiotic relationship with democracy because the latter is so closely associated with defiling or contaminating powers, with those who speak when they are not to speak, who "part-take" in what they have no part in, who through enacting displacements refigure the authoritative "allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying."8 We may learn something important about democracy itself, in other words, if we listen to the eloquent hatred of democracy's critics—figures such as Ames, Burke, and, as we will see below, William Cobbett—because they suggest that democracy was rightly understood to threaten the hierarchical unity anchored in the God-given naturalness of the body, a unity in which every part had its proper place. The relationship between democracy and disgust in a period of radical democratic transition corroborates democracy's close historical association with the absence of the proper qualification for rule enacted by "subjects that do not coincide with the parties of the state or of society, floating subjects that deregulate all representation of places and portions."9

Nothing can more reliably elicit disgust than a body whose parts are no longer found in their proper...


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pp. 396-403
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