Government by Dissent

Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic

273 pages

July, 2013

ISBN: 9780814738245

$50

Cloth

Also available in

Author

Robert W.T. Martin is Professor of Government and Chair of the Government Department at Hamilton College. His works include The Free and Open Press: The Founding of American Democratic Press Liberty, 1640-1800 (2001), and The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton (co-edited with Douglas Ambrose, 2006), both from NYU Press. 

All books by Robert W.T. Martin

"The most thorough examination we have of how early Americans wrestled with what types of political dissent should be permitted, even promoted, in the new republic they were forming. Martin shows the modern relevance of their debates in ways that all will find valuable—even those who dissent from his views!"—Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania  
 
Democracy is the rule of the people. But what exactly does it mean for a people to rule? Which practices and behaviors are legitimate, and which are democratically suspect?  
 
We generally think of democracy as government by consent; a government of, by, and for the people. This has been true from Locke through Lincoln to the present day. Yet in understandably stressing the importance—indeed, the monumental achievement—of popular consent, we commonly downplay or even denigrate the role of dissent in democratic governments. But in Government by Dissent, Robert W.T. Martin explores the idea that the people most important in a flourishing democracy are those who challenge the status quo. 
 
The American political radicals of the 1790s understood, articulated, and defended the crucial necessity of dissent to democracy. By returning to their struggles, successes, and setbacks, and analyzing their imaginative arguments, Martin recovers a more robust approach to popular politics, one centered on the ever-present need to challenge the status quo and the powerful institutions that both support it and profit from it. Dissent has rarely been the mainstream of democratic politics. But the figures explored here—forgotten farmers as well as revered framers—understood that dissent is always the essential undercurrent of democracy and is often the critical crosscurrent. Only by returning to their political insights can we hope to reinvigorate our own popular politics.

Reviews

  • "The most thorough examination we have of how early Americans wrestled with what types of political dissent should be permitted, even promoted, in the new republic they were forming.  Martin shows the modern relevance of their debates in ways that all will find valuableeven those who dissent from his views!"

    —Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

  • "Martin has given us a gift—a timely reminder that ours is a nation born in dissent and nourished on disagreement. With a wealth of illustrative cases he reminds us that we Americans are and always have been a fractious people, and our democracy all the more vital for that."

    —Terence Ball, Arizona State University

  • “[Martin] dissolves myths about the era of the American Revolution, showing that the years following it were anything but peaceful...Those with interests in the early national period will find Martin's research a must.  Essential."

    —P.D. Travis , Choice

  • “Government by Dissent is an engaging meditation on one of America’s founding fantasies – the fantasy of democratic self-government. […]  Martin’s work makes a strong case for the continuing relevance of the founding era’s democrats, most of whom have long passed from the nation’s political memory.  In an era when many of our most vocal dissenters are reactionary cynics – Glenn Beck, another contemporary fan of Thomas Paine, comes to mind here – Martin reminds us that democratic dissent is not just an end in itself, but, in its best forms, an aspiration toward a political culture and political system that values a diversity of perspectives, especially those perspectives that have been formed out of a history of exclusion.”

    Common-Place