Commons DemocracyReading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States

Commons DemocracyReading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States

Dana D. Nelson

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780823268382

Publisher: Fordham University Press


Commons Democracy presents an overlooked history of democracy in the United States. Like the familiar one, its story 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—this book uncovers the democratic spirit, ideals, and practices created by ordinary folk in the early nation: “commons democracy.”Commons customs and practices (by no means simply agricultural) across the colonies in the Revolutionary era offered non-elite actors a tangible and durable relationship to democratic power, one significantly different from the representative democracy institutionalized by the Framers in 1787. Commons democracy was experienced as the political power not just of the “many,” some abstract “majority,” but specifically of the common. Ordinary folk practiced a democracy that was participatory, insistently local, and roughly equalitarian. This book details how the nascent commons democracy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century challenged the liberal democratic state-building project that would triumph in the nineteenth-century United States. In part, it’s a story about the capture of “democracy” for the official purposes of state consolidation and expansion. But it is also a story about the ongoing vitality of commons democracy, to remind readers of its availability as part of our democratic history and contemporary toolkit.