Joanna Innes, Mark Philp, eds. Re-Imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland, 1750-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. x + 240 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-966915-8.
Reviewed by Micah Alpaugh (University of Central Missouri)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
How well do we understand the origins and early development of modern democracy? Joanna Innes and Mark Philip’s edited volume Re-Imagining Democracy is the outgrowth of a nearly decade-long collective project at Oxford University. This work makes a rich enquiry across four of the most prominent centers of the Age of Revolution--describing how “democracy” between 1750 and 1850 went from being an ancient anachronism or term of disdain for popular anarchy into becoming a broadly cherished ideal and central descriptor of modern government.
Dividing the book into four nationally themed sections and a synthetic conclusion, the authors succeed in demonstrating how, as Innes and Philip declare in the introduction, there is “no one history of the re-imagining of democracy” but also that the concept advanced out of an overlapping transatlantic ferment (p. 7).
The editors in the introduction briefly trace the preceding intellectual history of the term “democracy” in early modern Western history. Circa 1750, it was largely used by the educated to refer to the unstable ancient Greek city-states of antiquity, usually connoting the “tumult and instability” of that era (p. 1). Though from the mid-seventeenth century onwards the British referred to “democracy” as an element of their “mixed government,” the anarchistic elements seen as inherent in popular rule stopped reformers from identifying with the epithet “democratic” (pp. 1- 2).
“Democracy” would acquire its positive modern meaning only through the political fluctuations of the Age of Revolution. Re-Imagining Democracy begins with the case of the United States, where during the American Revolution “democracy” remained a term of abuse to be avoided by even the most ardent radicals. As Thomas Paine scholar Seth Cotlar notes, no variation of the term was used in Common Sense. Elbridge Gerry at the 1787 Constitutional Convention successfully denounced troubles of the Articles of Confederation system as resulting from an “excess of democracy” (p. 18). Yet during the early Federal era, in reaction to the concentration of power under the Constitution and the example of the French Revolution abroad, a self-defined “Democratic” oppositional party took shape. By the election of 1800, which brought Thomas Jefferson and the Democrats to the presidency, the “democratic” nature of the United States had acquired “respectability” across the political spectrum (p. 27).
Adam I. P. Smith explores the very different subsequent case of antebellum America. “Democracy” soon came to have a “legitimizing function” similar to what “civilization” had for Europeans--and would be endlessly contested across the political spectrum (p. 28). A broad spectrum of politicians, from southern Democrats to northern abolitionists, would claim that their movements and positions typified “democracy”--while believing their democratic ideology would serve as a “bulwark of stability” against the new challengers of socialism and communism (p. 36).
Of course, “democratic” rhetoric often served to hide the much slower real pace of reforms. Laura F. Edwards, in “The Contradictions of Democracy in American Institutions and Practices,” turns a sharp eye to “the tension between efforts to limit and to expand the people’s participation in government” between the Revolution and Civil War. Even in the most radical of the early state constitutions offering general manhood suffrage, much of the population remained excluded through “status relationships” of bondage and gender (p. 43). Even after the constitutional-era contraction, the re-expansion of suffrage across the early to mid-nineteenth century created a system that was “simultaneously expansive and constrained for all the people (p. 54).” The growth of democracy led to fewer status changes than its enthusiasts had prognosticated.
Section 2 chronicles the tortured path of France--which like colonial America before it, largely avoided “democracy” early in the Revolution. Ruth Scurr documents how between 1789 and 1791, “democracy was widely considered an outmoded, undesirable and dangerous form of government” (p. 62). The establishment of universal manhood suffrage in 1792 did lead to increased discussions of “democracy”--but also linked political participation to “representation and surveillance,” making the concept co-exist uneasily with Jacobins’ emphasis on the general will (p. 65).
Michel Drolet brings French conceptualizations of democracy through the mid-nineteenth century, seeing as central the problematic between the growing emphasis on the individual “self” and how this coexisted with a continued focus on the “general will” and “common good” (pp. 69-70). Alexis de Tocqueville had feared social equality would give rise to greater “self-interest,” and was seconded by liberals such as François Guizot who saw “idolatry of democracy” as the factionalism, division, and “anarchy itself” (pp. 70, 72). Early French socialists like Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon also equated “bourgeois democracy” with the modern individualism they opposed (p. 80). Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as the French voting franchise oscillated between elite and full suffrage, the desirability and practicability of “democracy” remained uncertain.
Malcolm Crook provides a useful overview of the distinctiveness of “French electoral culture” between 1789 and 1848 (p. 86). “Representation” in France under the Old Regime was a term claimed by a broad array of nonelected groups who saw their duty as “re-presenting” the views of other subjects--and became commonly used to refer to the judicial Parlements. The Estates General of 1789 eschewed direct voting in favor of a two- or three-tiered process, and only three million of France’s population of more than twenty million participated at any stage (p. 88). Universal suffrage would be established in 1793 only to be repealed in 1795, with the Thermidorians seeing the preceding period (much like their American counterparts in 1787) as an “excess of ‘democracy’” (p. 91). Under Napoleon, however, the French created a new tradition of plebiscites. The franchise would be strictly limited under the Restoration and July Monarchy, before universal suffrage would be reestablished by the Revolution of 1848--only to abet the reestablishment of an illiberal Bonapartist dictatorship. Yet despite the “disappointing” reversals of the revolutionary era, and the “tendency of democracy to threaten anarchy, then mutate into despotism,” nevertheless the era did “enshrine the principle of universal suffrage,” and which became permanent after France again became a republic in 1870 (p. 97). As opposed to the relatively smooth democratizing transitions in Britain and America, France provided a model of oscillation and experimentation.
Part 3 turns attention to Britain, displacing its usual place at the front of similar volumes to show how “democracy” itself would be increasingly discussed by the British only after the example and inspiration of the American and French Revolutions. As Philip describes, only in the early 1790s would “democrat” become a “badge of identity” and also a “fighting word” (p. 113). During this time, it became a term of identification for reformers and “English Jacobins,” though still one of denunciation for their opponents. Edmund Burke declared “despotic democracy” would not respect the rights of minorities, an assertion many found to be validated by the French Revolutionary Terror (p. 105). Following the coming of war with France in 1793, the “democrats” would be largely suppressed and excluded from British politics.
As Innes, Philip, and Robert Saunders combine to explore in “The Rise of Democratic Discourse in the Reform Era,” only in response to Chartism and the transnational waves of revolution in 1830 and 1848 did “democratization” slowly become a phrase utilized across the political spectrum. The Chartists of 1837-48 made “democracy” central to their message, as a way of showing the limitations of the 1832 Parliamentary reforms. Yet “democracy” lacked a fixed usage--and would be co-opted by Benjamin Disraeli’s Tories as a term for the supposed meritocracy instituted in 1832. The international reaction against the 1848 revolutions also helped elites continue to castigate democracy as--using ancient categories--“vulgar, tumultuous, whipped on by demagogues, and despotic in its pretensions” (p. 128).
Innes thereafter (somewhat belatedly in the volume) addresses the broader British development of democratic practices between the 1770s and 1850s, examining voting, petitioning, and club uses. Innes begins by usefully complicating the minimized definition of “democracy” utilized elsewhere in the volume, describing how educated Britons across the era would have “understood democracy relationally [her emphasis], as a form of political culture in which politicians vied for power as self-proclaimed champions of the people” (p. 129). Voting, directly incorporating only a small percentage of males and additionally subject to many anomalies, could not have been sufficient by itself. Petitioning--until the 1780s usually directed by bodies of electors but increasingly used to display broader public opinion--became also nearly as highly valued as voting. Clubs, meanwhile, functioned as important bodies for cultivating opinion across the eighteenth century, and fostered broad reformist upsurges in the 1790s and 1830s-40s. The methods which would typify modern democracy flourished across this period even as the British remained distrustful of “democracy” as a concept.
Part 4 turns attention to the less well known territory of Ireland. Ultan Gillen’s “Constructing Democratic Thought in Ireland in the Age of Revolution, 1775-1800” looks at the rise of reform movements in Ireland following the start of the American Revolution, which led to legislative independence in 1782--but with suffrage still confined to propertied Anglicans. The French Revolution and the broader “language of revolutionary internationalism” would see the spread of broader calls for democratization, with the United Irishmen becoming a prominent voice for religious equality and broader representative government over the 1790s (p. 154). Democracy, Gillen concludes, during the era “created a genuinely radical, secular and novel ideology” offering “a path to a better world, and ... a vision worth fighting for” (p. 161).
With the suppression of the United Irishmen in 1798 and the Act of Union abolishing the Irish Parliament of 1800, democratization in Ireland slumbered like its European counterparts until the 1830s and 1840s. Laurent Colantonio examines “‘Democracy’ and the Irish People, 1830-48,” looking at the Irish participation in the second revolutionary era. He pays particular attention to the Catholic leader Daniel O’Connell, who would synthesize Irish, British, and European elements to develop a distinctive “democratic liberty” coming from “popular expression, mass participation, ‘moral force,’ liberty” in calling for Catholic Emancipation and the restoration of an Irish Parliament (p. 164). Colantonio especially highlights the close “relationship between democracy and nationalism” in the Irish dissident tradition (p. 173). S. J. Connolly seconds Colantonio in seeing “democracy” for O’Connell as not primarily “a principle of representation, but a spirit of opposition to oligarchy or privilege” (p. 179). The principle of popular representation, rather than the electoral mechanism, remained the most important element in “democracy.”
Innes and Philip close the volume with a chapter looking at “synergies” across the North Atlantic, judiciously utilizing both transnational and comparative perspectives. The cross-movement influences in each case appear clear, in which “not only did texts and people move,” but also took place “against the background of a commonly shared culture” (p. 193). Even as national traditions diverged over the first half of the nineteenth century, transnational waves of protest continued. Comparatively, each of the four nations saw the rise of “public accountability” to “the people” rise as a central political trope, along with a growing emphasis on “equality,” even if conceptualizations of how these principles would be expressed varied greatly (p. 211).
Re-Imagining Democracy provides a fresh overview of the intellectual history of democracy around the North Atlantic across the revolutionary era. It usefully problematizes the central theme of R. R. Palmer’s famous Age of Democratic Revolution (1959-64) and will make historians think harder about which phenomena they choose to classify as “democratic.”
The volume’s essays are largely synthetic in style, and tend to avoid direct historiographical debates. Nevertheless, they beg the question of the extent to which we should classify the advent of modern “democracy” with its arrival as a discursively accepted term. Should we not be discussing postclassical “democracy” until the 1790s (if even yet then)? Or, is it rather more helpful to see democracy’s development as a longer-term process? Were the pejorative connotations of “democracy” problematic for eighteenth-century actors, or did more commonly accepted descriptors such as “popular sovereignty” and “liberty” serve many of the same functions?
Particularly with the rise of interest in the interconnected nature of the Atlantic Revolutions over the past decade, Re-Imagining Democracy merits close reading for scholars of the history of democracy and general revolutionary era. The many contradictions of the most pliable form of politics continue to demand further study both historically and conceptually.
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Micah Alpaugh. Review of Innes, Joanna; Philp, Mark, eds., Re-Imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland, 1750-1850.
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