Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Permeable Public: Rituals of Citizenship in Antebellum Men's Debating Clubs

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Permeable Public: Rituals of Citizenship in Antebellum Men's Debating Clubs

Article excerpt

The antebellum era often is understood as a period of "democratic transition": changes in family life, patterns of work and leisure, religious practices, educational possibilities, print journalism, and political organization contributed to increased expectations of widespread democratic participation, particularly among white men (Schudson, 1998, chap. 3). States had altered or were altering voting rights, expanding the franchise for non-property-owning white men, although often restricting it for women, African Americans, and Native Americans (Keyssar, 2000). Many white men were, or could imagine themselves to be, beneficiaries of a new political identity: the citizen who accesses power by participating in "the being of the sovereign," the people (Warner, 2002, p. 69). These men sought sites in which participation could be practiced and enacted. In local settings, they made both literal and figurative spaces in which to produce discourses for circulation and reflection. They made space to perform as publics.

This essay considers the antebellum voluntary association, specifically the nonsectarian, nonpartisan men's debating club, as an instantiation of an emergent public. It argues that antebellum men's debating clubs were places where participatory citizenship was produced rhetorically, through word and ritual, through repetition of patterned, formal, rule-governed action. Describing a debating club as an emergent public--or, in Rosa Eberly's terms, as a kind of "protopublic" (2000, pp. 168-170)--is not meant to convey only that a specific group of men who gathered on a particular Wednesday night spoke before a "public" (that is, to assembled spectators). It also is meant to convey that the ubiquitous debating clubs, as a site of quotidian practice, discursively constructed an imagined national "public" (see Warner, 2002, chap. 2). In producing and reproducing the discourses of publicity, antebellum men developed a form of localized public opinion (see Herbst, 1995, p. 96). The construction of public opinion, however, required the creation of a prior entity that could propound collective opinions. Rituals of debating marked the imagined public as deliberating, rational, and fair-minded. The repetition and sharing of this social imaginary could establish it as a normative and even foundational model that later would provide argumentative justification for further debate or public action.

So part of this essay is a history of one neglected site of emerging dominant norms. The history of antebellum men's debating clubs is largely one of the production of discourses manifesting the power of elites. Yet there is more. If "all publics are particular," as Melissa Deem notes (2002, p. 451), then reading the particularities of instantiations of publics enables a more complex account. The history of the formation even of the bourgeois public sphere resists a totalizing narrative. The story of antebellum men's debating clubs is not one of univocality or consensus, and not simply because club members engaged in debate. Indeed, responding to Robert Asen's suggestion that "persons, places," and "topics" create "constellations" of meaning (2000, p. 426), this essay identifies the interrelationships among various elements of the practices of debating clubs. Especially, a reading of vernacular discourse as it adapts dominant norms evinces fissures in the rhetoric of consensus that dominant discourse overtly promotes. Thus, the history of the antebellum men's debating clubs also is a history of permeability, a demonstration of interrelationships among the discourses of dominance and challenge, at moments of their emergence in everyday ritual.

To demonstrate the complex permeability of multiple discourses, of private behavior and public action, this essay reads the practices of several antebellum men's debating clubs, focusing especially on the ritualistic creation of the participating member of the public, the citizen. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.