IMAGINING DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY IN THE EARLY AMERICAN REPUBLIC by Sandra M. Gustafson, Reviewed by Brian Reed
 

IMAGINING DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY IN THE EARLY AMERICAN REPUBLIC
By Sandra M. Gustafson
(Chicago, 2011) x + 278pp.
Reviewed by Brian Reed on 2012-02-06.

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Sandra Gustafson believes that deliberation is a central but undervalued political concept. Her book identifies a lineage of thinkers--including Aristotle, John Madison, John Stuart Mill, Jürgen Habermas, James S. Fishkin, and Pierre Rosanvallon--who maintain that without "wisdom and stability" a democratic assembly remains "subject to the whims of a potentially gullible electorate" (2-3). While such arguments can sound "elitist or aristocratic" because they appear to infringe on the "democratic values of equality and participation," they actually address a fundamental problem with democracy, namely, how to prevent the despotic "centralization of power" in the hands of any one faction or individual (4). The long-term survival of a democratic polity depends on a commitment to "deliberative processes": there must be places where and occasions when antagonists are permitted, even encouraged, to engage in measured respectful debate, and they must be prepared to reach compromises in the name of the greater public good (5). Such debates, she quickly adds, must be (and must be perceived as) truly inclusive, and those who participate in them cannot subscribe categorically to absolute truths. If these two conditions are not fulfilled, the result can be, as it was in the United States during the nineteenth century, a stormy slide toward civil war.

To illustrate the value of deliberation, Gustafson highlights two antebellum decades--the 1820s and 1830s--which she calls "an age of robust political inventiveness and exploration in the United States and throughout the Atlantic world"; among the "most salient developments" of this age, she writes, "was the emergence of modern republicanism as an ideology distinct from its classical precursors" (5). She also highlights oratory, which she believes to be "the pre-eminent genre of republicanism" in the era. Public speaking, her second chapter explains, involved much more than a personal, direct, and once-off appeal to an audience to believe or act in a certain manner. Exemplary or rousing speeches were disseminated far beyond the original occasion of their delivery, "circulated in letters, newspaper accounts, and pamphlets reaching national and international audiences." When stepping up to a podium or lectern, master orators such as Daniel Webster, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Simón Bolívar knew that they commanded the attention of both the New and Old Worlds; through their speeches, they articulated "modern resistance to counterrevolution and imperialism" and established the "contours of modern Atlantic world republicanism" (42).

Democratic assemblies and public ceremonies might have provided the occasion for politicians to deliver substantive and stirring addresses, but where did they learn the art? A third chapter offers several possible inspirations for the "literary oratory" that thrived in the United States between the elections of James Monroe and James K. Polk. The study of Cicero's writings, especially his newly rediscovered De re publica (1822), taught aspiring republicans how to emulate Roman senatorial precedent, and periodicals such as the North American Review provided venues for debating what might constitute a living Ciceronian tradition. (Gustafson counts "roughly 170 references to Cicero during the journal's first twenty years," including "biographies that document the influence of Cicero's works," "historical essays," "reviews of works on and by modern orators" such as Henry Clay and Patrick Henry, and "reviews of general works on eloquence" [74-75].) Another popular option for novice orators was "elocutionary handbooks that prominently included speeches from Shakespeare," especially extracts from Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Henry VIII (82). Sermons too repaid careful study. The Second Great Awakening had prompted preachers to rely "more on extempore delivery," to develop "more flexible sermon structures," and employ "stylistic features such as narrative, direct address, and colloquial language." While avowals of faith and pronouncements of dogma have the potential--as Gustafson notes--to derail any deliberative process, an early nineteenth-century Ciceronian could still learn valuable lessons by analyzing "moving and heartfelt sermons that foster[ed] a sense of the common good" (88).

Daniel Webster is unquestionably the book's central figure. Discussions of the Massachusetts senator recur throughout, and Gustafson credits him with "espous[ing] a model of deliberative discourse that privileged civility and process and avoided rhetorical excess" and "sought . . . to foster a style of public discourse that focused on shared interests and concrete goals and avoided unnecessarily polarizing conflicts" (103). She extensively explicates many of his celebrated early speeches, including "his commemorative orations at Plymouth (1820) and Bunker Hill (1825), his eulogy for Presidents Adam and Jefferson (1826), and his deliberative orations on the Greek Revolution (1824) and the Congress of Panama (1826)" (102). During this phase of his career, she remarks, he "distinguished himself as a national figure through his engagement with international republican movements and his concern to place the history of the United States in the leading ranks of an Atlantic world transformation" (59). Among the many "aesthetic" qualities on display in his oratory, she praises especially "his sociability and humor," which served him as tools for "foster[ing] the good will from which consensus could be forged" (112). Unfortunately, this desire to keep conversations going at all costs also led to tragedy. His "1850 speech on the Compromise Measures" shows that he was ultimately more "concerned with the vulnerable state of the American republic" than with pressing for the abolition of slavery (59). This decision casts a shadow over the book, and over Gustafson's project as a whole. If republicanism's white knight--Webster himself--ended up defending slavery in the name of expediency, is deliberation morally salvageable?

The book's second half tries to redeem the Great Whig Orator by taking up a series of authors and texts that, while perhaps outwardly critical of national politics during the Jacksonian Era, nonetheless demonstrate a deeper commitment to republican democracy. Yes, Webster might have been fallible, and under his watch the United States might have lurched toward internecine warfare; but during the same years, Gustafson aims to show, others glimpsed or proposed meaningful alternative paths that today's readers ought to know about, not least because they might thereby learn how to avoid repeating past mistakes. Toward this end, she probes the work of writers who exposed "the effects of white prejudice and protest[ed] the exclusionary nature of official deliberations" and spotlighted "the mounting crisis of deliberation produced by the sharp disparity between [republican] ideals and the political realities of the early American republic" (6). A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (1834), for instance, employs a "humor that [is] both gently self-mocking and carnivalesque" and thus helped its author reach marginalized "frontier" voters and advocate on their behalf in Washington, DC, for equal treatment for everyone living "on the borderlands" (112-13). Taking a stand against what he considered to be Andrew Jackson's tyrannical grab for power, Crockett-the-comedian fought for squatters' rights and against the Indian Removal Act.

Individuals excluded from "mainstream civic life" because of "race-based nationalism" (125) had to pursue less chummy rhetorical strategies to make themselves heard. William Apess's "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man" (1833), Maria Stewart's "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality" (1831), and David Walker's Appeal (1829) all sought "to unite Christian and republican principles" in such a way as to shame white powerbrokers into granting the same rights and privileges to all Americans regardless of race (and to a lesser extent gender) (143). They self-consciously transformed the jeremiad, a "traditional genre of social critique" based on biblical precedent, into "a tool of deliberative reform, calling on their audiences to examine their prejudices and embrace more racially inclusive institutions and more fully democratic practices of deliberation" (125). The impact of their writing on American politics might have been less quantifiable than the impact of Webster's speeches, but in retrospect, Gustafson asserts, "these classics of American protest writing" are indispensable because they "make visible the deliberative crisis produced by racial prejudice and legal exclusion that needed to be remedied if the ideals of the multiracial republic were to be realized" (151).

Perhaps the best chapter in the book is "Deliberative Fictions," which compares two novels--Lydia Maria Child's Philothea (1836) and James Fenimore Cooper's The Bravo (1831)--that Gustafson reads as lightly veiled social commentary. Both fictions are set in far-off places and times--Periclean Athens and eighteenth-century Venice, respectively--and, in contrast to earlier, better-known novels such as Child's Hobomok (1824) and Cooper's The Pioneers (1823), they are pervasively melancholy books, lamenting the "corruption of democracy by demagoguery and materialism" (160). In place of Cicero's Rome, these authors self-consciously choose decayed democracies-in-name-only as historical parallels for Jacksonian America. Philothea depicts a tarnished Athens in thrall to "changeableness," a restless experimentation in mores and governance that seduces the city-state further and further away from the "absolute truth claims" that took precedence back in its glory days. Without "directly" attacking the United States, Gustafson maintains, Child seeks to dramatize its inability to face up to and resolve the evil of slavery (164-65). In contrast, The Bravo argues for transparency in legal and judicial proceedings and for close affective ties between legislators and the citizens they represent. It does so by "portray[ing] the misery that afflicts all members of all classes when republican values are corrupted, from the aristocratic Violetta to the lowly fisherman Antonio" (171-72). In both cases, oratory no longer guards and guarantees civic virtue. For Child, speechifying has been reduced to mere sophistry, a tool for factions to assert their flawed ideas and pursue their passing whims. Cooper is even less sanguine in The Bravo. The Venetian supreme authority, the Council of Three, conducts its proceedings while masked and concealed in shadow, and the accused who are brought before it are denied the right to speak on their own behalf. Indeed, to orate anywhere in Venice on an unsanctioned subject is, by definition, to commit "sedition" (173). As we read--or imagine reading--these novels, the zeal and hopefulness once associated with the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence (1821) seem a distant memory. Republicanism feels palpably in eclipse.

Yet Gustafson cannot rest there if she is to make a compelling argument about the ongoing importance of deliberation in our own day. To dispel the gloom hovering over Philothea and The Bravo, she must find a way to show that the nation's march toward Civil War represents more a preventable aberration than an unqualified disaster that fundamentally discredits the Second Party System (1828-1854). Accordingly, her book's final chapter skips more than a century and a half, jumping from the 1840s to the Barack Obama years, and she links the temper of the present age to the more optimistic varieties of republican politics during the 1820s and 30s. Unfortunately, she tries a bit too hard to forge that link. She is at her least persuasive when drawing parallels between Child's The Frugal Housewife (1829) and "today's microfinance programs" (201), between Crockett's speech on the Tennessee Vacant Land Bill and the "grassroots approach to property" advocated by the contemporary Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (203), and between Walker's Appeal and the "black liberation theology" espoused by Reverend Jeremiah Wright (216). Though her celebration of Obama as an apostle of deliberative democracy is well-supported by quotations from The Audacity of Hope (2006) and his speeches, her closing pages make the book sound strangely dated, as if it had been planned, written, and published in the immediate afterglow of the 2008 presidential inauguration. When, for instance, she writes, "The path from Webster's white Christian republic to Obama's multiracial, multifaith republic is the road of modernity" (219), she seems to present Obama's republic as an endpoint or culmination of a long historical process, whereas the violently partisan brawling and obdurate refusals to compromise that characterize his first term feel more like atavism than advance.

The relative weakness of the conclusion, however, should not distract us from Gustafson's overall achievement. She demonstrates that we can read across genres and across the centuries in the quest to shed light on urgent contemporary social and political issues. Moreover, she does not strain to do so, tossing out the names of ten Continental philosophers en route to a multilingual aperçu that requires years of study to appreciate or apply. Undergraduates would surely relish--and benefit from--such a clear, well-defined approach to studying nineteenth-century American literature. They would have ready-at-hand explanations for why the material they read truly matters, and they would know what to look for in any given text, namely, its participation in or representations of civic debate. Gustafson, like the orators that she lauds, models for her readers a mode of public address that is measured, eloquent, plain-spoken, intellectual, complex, and, thankfully, imitable.

Brian M. Reed is a professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle.


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