Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic

Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic

Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic

Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic

Synopsis

Simon P. Newman vividly evokes the celebrations of America's first national holidays in the years between the ratification of the Constitution and the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson. He demonstrates how, by taking part in the festive culture of the streets, ordinary American men and women were able to play a significant role in forging the political culture of the young nation. The creation of many of the patriotic holidays we still celebrate coincided with the emergence of the first two-party system. With the political songs they sang, the liberty poles they raised, and the partisan badges they wore, Americans of many walks of life helped shape a new national politics destined to replace the regional practices of the colonial era.

Excerpt

Historians have written a great deal about the political history of the revolutionary and early national periods of United States history. For two centuries the political beliefs and partisan conflicts of Americans in the late eighteenth century have fascinated us, and scholars have explored this field in far greater depth, perhaps, than have those working in any other era in the political history of the United States.

Yet something is missing from this voluminous literature. Armed with an apparent assumption that government and politics were an elite affair, many of these historians have devoted themselves to the philosophies and policies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and other early national leaders. In the process, however, they have all but ignored those who were ruled, apparently regarding these Americans as essentially powerless spectators who were outside of and thus in some sense apart from the political process. As a result these political histories are dominated by the words and actions of the ruling elite, the great owners of land, material goods, and enslaved people.

A few historians, including Alfred Young, Jesse Lemisch, Gary Nash, Rhys Isaac, and Linda Kerber, have sought to broaden this narrow conception of political history by exploring the political lives of ordinary Americans. Yet in their published work and in their classrooms many historians persist in privileging the words and actions of the ruling elite, and writing as if poor, lower, and even middling sort Americans had no political existence or none worthy of mention. Moreover, the myriad accounts of popular political belief and practice that filled early national newspapers have been all but ignored by most of those who study the political history of the early republic.

The work of a generation of English historians underscores the folly of such an omission. E. P. Thompson is of seminal importance here, with his extraordinary sensitivity to the agency of common English folk within their political world. Arguing that they would take to the streets in defense of traditional rights and customs, Thompson argued that one can . . .

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