Academic journal article American Studies

THE PUBLIC AND ITS POSSIBILITIES: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City

Academic journal article American Studies

THE PUBLIC AND ITS POSSIBILITIES: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City

Article excerpt

THE PUBLIC AND ITS POSSIBILITIES: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City. By John D. Fairfield. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 2010.

"American cities," asserts John Fairfield, "have been the crucial arena for the cultivation of an active citizenry attentive to the public good and suspicious of those who put self-interest above the welfare of the whole" (4). Surveying the past 250 years of American history, he finds that urban society has kept alive a commitment to civic life in a nation devoted to private wealth.

An ambitious work of scholarly synthesis, The Public and its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City braids together descriptions of socioeconomic trends, cultural conflicts and political philosophy from the late colonial era to the present. The story gets underway with the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, when political mobilization arose from the taverns, wharfs and streets of the major seaports. Drawing the participation of merchants and laborers alike, the colonial crisis and ensuing Revolution produced a faith in "civic republicanism" that continued to animate public debate for much of the nineteenth century. Throughout this narrative, those who speak out for a greater public good find themselves opposed by defenders of private property rights. Fairfield traces this tension through the creation of the Constitution, the conflicts between Federalists and Republicans, and workingmen's activism in 1830s New York. He notes the complexity of the conflicts in the Jacksonian era, when the advocates of participatory democracy seemed to be at odds with elitists who nonetheless advocated public improvements. He admires the early Republican Party for its promotion of rational public discourse and its "defense of civic equality over ethnic, racial or religious prejudices" (96).

The New York DraftRiot of 1863, unfortunately, discredited the rationality of the public in the eyes of Republican leaders. …

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