The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America

The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America

The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America

The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America


Ranging from Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania to the backcountry regions of the South, the Mid-Atlantic, and northern New England, this work offers an overview of political life in pre-Revolutionary America. It offers an account of the way politics worked in this formative time for American political culture.


Some fifteen years ago Edmund S. Morgan began his study of the origins of democracy in England and America with a quote from that remarkable Scottish sage, David Hume. “Nothing is more surprising …,” marveled Hume in 1758, “than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few…. When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. ‘Tis therefore on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and military governments, as well as the most free and most popular.”

I have been powerfully impressed by the wisdom in Hume’s observation ever since encountering it in Professor Morgan’s excellent study, and if his book was intended as a history of the evolution of ideas about democracy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this one is intended as a history of the political behavior that led to that democratic result.

As my study of eighteenth-century American political behavior has progressed, it has become increasingly clear to me that the journey to a democratic America was neither inevitable nor did it unfold along a single, straight path. As the election commentaries in the epigraph suggest, there existed across eighteenth-century America an extraordinary diversity of belief and practice in respect to the relationship between political leaders and ordinary citizens. It is hardly surprising, given the variety of attitudes and expectations implicit in those commentaries, that historians of eighteenthcentury America have used widely diverse descriptions of their own in their reconstruction of the political world of the eighteenth century—descriptions that run the gamut from authoritarian oligarchy to egalitarian democracy. And, indeed, even when confronted with a single description— Robert Munford’s evocations of election-day behavior in The Candidates being perhaps the most widely cited example—historians have often constructed radically different interpretations of its meaning.

While some of our confusion about the character of eighteenth-century American political life may be the result of our failure as students of history to make sense of the evidence before us, it also may be that the eighteenthcentury world that we are seeking to comprehend was an inherently confusing and contradictory one. In spite of some of the sources of unity . . .

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