Book review – Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century. By Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). Pp. xii + 316.

 

It has been widely held that the 19th century was a golden age in American politics. But the idea seems debatable when one takes a closer a look into this time period. The Rude Republic thus presents a provocative view on the partisan electoral politics in the 19th century’s America. The authors attack the widely held image of a political “golden age” when Americans were highly engaged in political issues and affairs with massive voter turnouts. They argue that the participatory democracy in the 19th century was much more complex with widespread disinterestedness among voters. Politics were largely limited to a small number of activists trying to gain support from the detached mass citizens. A “rude republic” (p. 8) was therefore formed across the country on the coarseness of the new American politics.

The book follows a rough chronological order of antebellum period, Civil War, post-war, and the Gilded Age. Public participation in politics remained little during the 1830s, despite the stimulus of Jackson’s candidacy in 1828. However, voter turnout soared to 80 percent in 1840, marking the “annus mirabilis of American partisan democracy” (p. 18). Here the authors reveal a paradox in the political processes of local communities: on one hand, local caucuses and convention attracted poor participation from ordinary people who accepted the party men’s “package of candidates and resolutions” (p. 57) without actual interest; on the other hand, high voter turnout seemed to indicate a widespread public passion for politics. According to the authors, the explanation lies with the partisan activists who took pains to convey the appearance of their popularity with various techniques of mobilization, reward and maneuver. Torchlight parades, rallies, and campaign clubs were used to attract public attention. Meanwhile, humbug, treating, bribery, gambling and ballot “package” were under way to prop up the voting rates. Partisan newspapers also played an important role in portraying political events as spontaneous displays of popular enthusiasm. In this way, the political process in antebellum America was to some extent a “circus” that engaged many people who were only superficially interested in politics. The majority of Americans limited their political participation to the act of voting with little pervasion of politics into their daily lives.

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(Arguing the Point. by Arthur F. Tait’s, 1855)

The slavery issue and the following Civil War forcefully increased public attention to political affairs. Disputes over slavery, expressions of patriotism and affirmations of the war invoked public engagement of varying degrees in the political process. After the war, American political system was largely stabilized and many voters set their political preferences in the memory of each party’s past performance in the war, namely “retrospective voting” (p. 178). The post-Civil War era witnessed various changes mainly in campaign techniques and urbanization of political consciousness along with the continuities in the two-party system. A more practical form of campaign replaced the previous spectacular ones and partisan newspapers evolved from organs of parties to being advertiser-oriented. Notably, the rising of urban politics became the “emblem of the future American democracy” (p. 190) as the urban civilization was booming in the Gilded Age. The old-fashioned political techniques and spectacle in a rural and small-town world of the mid-nineteenth-century were preserved in big cities, which manifested an emerging urbanization of politics and social class. Public feelings toward politics, concurrent with these changes, however, generally became more negative, either being skeptical or hostile about political issues such as patronage and or simply being detached from political affairs.

Throughout the decades of American partisan system and practice in the 19th century, the majority of Americans were found to be indifferent toward politics. They “embraced the institutions and rituals of self-rule hesitantly, limiting their political engagement to brief periods, distancing themselves from the wire-pullers and office seekers…and resisting the intrusion of politics into the more sacred precincts of family, church, and community” (p. 270). The distinction between the party politicians and ordinary people has been reinforced. In its final conclusion, the book suggests that there was a dearth, rather than an excess, of democracy that marked the rude republic of the 19th century.

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(Election Day! by E.W. Gustin, circa 1909)

The book articulates its argument based on its greatly detailed documentation, including newspapers, diaries, novels, public images and testimony records, to present the social space politics occupied in the lives of nineteenth-century Americans in different dimensions. Readers will be amazed to find how deeply the authors explore each of these sources. For example, to reconstruct the social structures of political engagement in local communities, they record the names of every citizen from partisan newspapers. On the calculation of their frequencies and other information, the authors put them into different levels of political leaders, political activists, and non-activists and categorize them into different occupations. As mentioned in the book, many historians focus too much on the quantifiable evidence alone. The authors thus endeavor to look into the qualified evidence of public political engagement as well as the quantifiable one. In this aspect, they are quite original and persuasive.

Nevertheless, questions arose from the collection of evidence as well. As the book bases its assumption of political participation of local communities exclusively on the nine towns that mostly spread in the eastern and middle part of America, the typicality and universality of their cases are questionable. Meanwhile, we can also see the insufficient discussion of the urbanization in the post-war ear due to lack of related evidence from the authors’ sources. The book mentions more than once the emerging urban politics and the expansion of the party activities in cities. However, when going deeper into this topic, the authors return to the cases of the former towns, instead of larger cities, with only one example of Syracuse, New York, which is closer to the urban political world.