Kimberly K. Smith. The Dominion of Violence: Riot, Reason & Romance in Antebellum Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999. viii + 318 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-0957-4.
Reviewed by Johanna Shields (Humanities Center, University of Alabama in Huntsville)
Published on H-SHEAR (July, 2000)
Written by a political scientist, The Dominion of Voice probes familiar historical texts in fresh and challenging ways. Although Kimberly Smith modifies Juergen Habermas's interpretation of the "bourgeois" public sphere, she attacks more thoroughly the current theory of deliberative democracy. She contends that theorists who place rational debate at the center of American politics neglect "the positive role that interest, passion, compassion, or even violence might play in the political life of the nation" (p. viii). To make her point, she analyzes rhetoric, focusing upon Philadelphia and the urban northeast and upon texts ranging from textbooks of rhetoric to novels and slave narratives.
Smith's approach differs in other ways than its presentist thesis from the ways historians study antebellum politics. She explains that she uses history to show how the deliberative ideal developed in specific contexts that render it suspect. In that sense she offers the history of an idea, but hers is not a conventional intellectual history. What interests her are "social practices and the public use of language" (p. 5). Her method of reading texts is pragmatic but her writing is Socratic, requiring the reader to engage in an extended dialogue about the meanings behind words. Writing frequently in the first person, Smith constantly interrogates historical texts, exposing the strengths and weaknesses of every rhetorical claim she examines. This strategy produces wonderful insights, though it makes the book a slow read. It also means that any summary, including the one that follows, flattens the intricate argument.
Smith divides her argument into three main sections that correspond to the elements in her subtitle. Part I, "Mob Action" considers the effects of rioting upon early American theories of political participation. Qualifying Habermas, she emphasizes that late colonial and Revolutionary leaders responded as much to the negative model of rioting as to the positive role of coffeehouses and newspapers. At first, they emphasized the reasonable character of revolutionary riots, but over time they privileged reasonable discourse and put mob action in a prohibited "category of violence (p. 50).
Smith next explores how antebellum elites tried to legitimize democracy through an "impersonal legal order" (p. 55). They used a language of inclusion and exclusion to distinguish rational participants from passionate people whose character they questioned. It proved difficult to separate argument and violence, however, when the former provoked the latter, as for example in the case of nativist agitation and riots. Turning to the state's police power to draw the line made it seem a matter of law, but this turn was "less a rejection than an organization of force, defining its proper limits and functions in the political system" (p. 76).
Part II, "Political Debate," reveals strains within the antebellum consensus about the primacy of rational argument. The opening chapter examines popular speaking practices like those of Frances Wright, showing how people separated their admiration of her dramatic style from their dislike of her ideas. Smith argues that women and black people accepted the ideal of reasoned debate because they could use it to assert their rights as political actors. While she agrees that what Kenneth Cmiel calls the "middling" rhetorical style originated partly to prevent upper-class domination of the public sphere, here as elsewhere she downplays class motivations.
Competition between two rhetorical styles -- neoclassical and Enlightenment -- exposed problems with both. Neoclassical theory dominated the teaching of rhetoric. It stressed the character and talent of the orator, sanctioning ethos and passion as ways to motivate an audience and making speech "an exercise of power" (p. 109). Politicians of both parties decried the potential for demagoguery implicit in "the dominion of voice," and proponents of the "cult of domesticity" (p. 112) feared the neoclassical model because it sanctioned masculine passion and conflict. Exploring the Enlightenment model that displaced neoclassicism, Smith agrees with Habermas that rationalism substituted universal rules of argument for arbitrary power; but it did not work as he presumed because partisanship infected both speeches and newspapers. The rational model claimed to rest on objective truth that ordinary people could reach through disinterested reason, but it did not account for the facts that parties were not disinterested and seemed filled with corruption. Moreover, in espousing rationality as a sine qua non for debate, political elites narrowed the range of dissent. In the end, Smith asserts, "the Enlightenment model, with its hostility to passion, prejudice, and interest, had difficulty endorsing any popular politics at all" (p. 160).
In Part III, "Narrative Testimony," Smith explains how antislavery activists created a new theory that empowered outsiders. Why, Smith asks, did these men and women tell emotional stories to combat the power of slaveholders? She explores three possible answers, drawing especially upon Frederick Douglass's Narrative and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Using the Enlightenment model, abolitionists first claimed that slave narratives were a form of judicial testimony. Critics, however, attacked the credibility of the witnesses, so "instead of producing a consensus about the facts of slavery, the narratives became mired in epistemological uncertainty, prompting apparently endless and irresolvable disputes over the truth of slavery" (p. 196). Abolitionists continued to use narratives for another reason: they thought that sympathy would motivate action against slavery where reason had failed. Abolitionists like Douglass and Stowe thought that by cultivating sympathy for slaves, they could reasonably attack the immorality of slaveholders, but critics responded that they just demonized their opponents.
Finally, antislavery advocates shifted to a new rhetoric of sympathy, compassion, and violence. Convinced of widespread immorality, they argued that people had to be cleansed by a "particularly powerful, transformative kind of truth" (p. 219) before they could participate in public debate. They based their new approach on a liberal interpretation of sin, conversion, and moral progress, and they used a rhetorical method borrowed from Calvinist conversion narratives. Smith insists, then, that both the epistemology and hermeneutics of their rhetoric derived from religion. As Christian saints inspired faith, heroic slaves could create a new vision of freedom and convince people to act on moral truth rather than a corrupted rationality. Although heroism implied violence, Smith insists that violence, after all, was built into the theory of rational deliberation--on the side of slaveholders and other elites.
Smith's analysis ranges so broadly over an impressive range of topics--too many to describe here -- that historians will undoubtedly both agree and disagree with her interpretations. I, for example, think that her emphasis on common rhetorical strategies suggests rather too much unity among abolitionists, but she offers new understanding about slaveholders' objections to antislavery rhetoric -- and they surely did not see great differences among the people who attacked them. I also think she overstates the similarities between the ways Democrats and Whigs feared the demagogic implications of neoclassical theory, but she illuminates their antiparty rhetoric with her fresh perspective. Whatever one's view on particular matters, Smith's theoretical base and her unusual strategy force a reader to reconsider a host of important issues.
Given Smith's fundamental thesis, I suspect that readers' responses to this book may hinge on how they view democracy in today's world as much as in antebellum America. Smith has chosen sympathetic characters to advocate a purified "dominion of voice," and readers will appreciate the Christian claims of Douglass and Stowe against slaveholders. But, as Smith observes, their position rested on a common faith in moral progress. In a world filled with unholy alliances between religion and force, will a rhetoric of sympathy and compassion based on Christian ideas of sin and regeneration work? Or does democracy need a philosophy that merges contemporary, rather than eighteenth-century, conceptions of reason with a moral perspective grounded in universal human belief?
. Juergen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (orig. pub. in German, 1962; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989).
. Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: the Fight over Popular Speech in nineteenth-century America (New York: William Morrow, 1990).
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Johanna Shields. Review of Smith, Kimberly K., The Dominion of Violence: Riot, Reason & Romance in Antebellum Politics.
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