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This essay reads Billy Budd, Sailor as an exploration of democracy itself understood as a material, pragmatic, and regulated practice. Language is adrift in Billy Budd, and the "vagrancy" of the novella's "verbal reverberations" (Royle) are not mere testimony to Melville's poetic talent. The murmur and rumor that disseminate across the Bellipotent are so many signs that run up against the ship's institutional and legal structure and call into question the groundwork of an American state. Shifting the locus of Billy Budd's politics from plot and character to the materiality of language, this essay shows how the practice of grappling with matter, be it the materiality of bodies, letters, or the phenomenality of politics, is the site of Melville's aesthetic practice of democracy. In this pragmatic engagement with forms, Melville challenges the opposition between democratic life and democratic government through a self-reflexive evolutive handling of forms by those who constitute themselves as a demos. Melville's democracy, in that sense, not unlike Melville's text, is not fugitive but critical, grounded in its capacity to consistently transform itself.