Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States

Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States

Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States

Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States


Commons Democracy highlights a poorly understood dimension of democracy in the early United States. It tells a story that, like the familiar one, begins in the Revolutionary era. But instead of the tale of the Founders’ high-minded ideals and their careful crafting of the safe framework for democracy—a representative republican government—Commons Democracy examines the power of the democratic spirit, the ideals and practices of everyday people in the early nation. As Dana D. Nelson reveals in this illuminating work, the sensibility of participatory democratic activity fueled the involvement of ordinary folk in resistance, revolution, state constitution-making, and early national civic dissent. The rich variety of commoning customs and practices in the late colonies offered non-elite actors a tangible and durable relationship to democratic power, one significantly different from the representative democracy that would be institutionalized by the Framers in 1787. This democracy understood political power and liberties as communal, not individual. Ordinary folk practiced a democracy that was robustly participatory and insistently local. To help tell this story, Nelson turns to early American authors—Hugh Henry Brackenridge, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Montgomery Bird, and Caroline Kirkland—who were engaged with conflicts that emerged from competing ideals of democracy in the early republic, such as the Whiskey Rebellion and the Anti-Rent War as well as the enclosure of the legal commons, anxieties about popular suffrage, and practices of frontier equalitarianism. While Commons Democracy is about the capture of “democracy” for the official purposes of state consolidation and expansion, it is also a story about the ongoing (if occluded) vitality of commons democracy, of its power as part of our shared democratic history and its usefulness in the contemporary toolkit of citizenship.


“What, then, is the American, this new man?” Crèvecoeur famously questions in a preamble to what is surely one of the most anthologized passages in American literature:

Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men,
whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the
world. Americans are the western pilgrims who are carrying along
with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour and industry which
began long since in the East; they will finish the great circle … Here
the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his
labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can
it want a stronger allurement? … the American is a new man, who
acts on new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and
form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence,
penury and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different
nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an American. (69–70)

Downplaying the fact that the citizenship Crèvecoeur celebrates is British and not American, anthologists have long loved this passage for the way it celebrates two familiar signposts of U.S. democratic belonging: the ethnic melting pot and the self-interested individual who in America encounters conditions that enable economic self-making and self-advancement.

But the selective anthologizing of this passage, which comes from the opening of the long third letter from the eponymous Farmer James to his European interlocutor, Abbé Raynal, arguably (as is often the case in . . .

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