Friday, January 27, 2006


Defining politics

I have been unable to keep up with blogs for the past couple of weeks, but I did notice an interesting discussion over at Cliopatria about what we mean by "political history." As Tim Burke's post suggests, defining "political history" raises the more basic question of how we define "political." That's a problem I have been mulling recently, although for narrower reasons than the ones raised in the Cliopatria debate.

In modern historiography on the American antislavery movement--my primary field of study--it is conventional to divide abolitionists into two broad categories: abolitionists who were "political" and abolitionists who were not. In making that distinction, historians mean that there were some antebellum abolitionists who were willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in formal "politics," whether by organizing antislavery parties, running candidates for local and national office, or forging cross-party coalitions. On the other hand, some abolitionists refused even to vote. For a variety of reasons, acolytes of William Lloyd Garrison believed that such formal participation in politics was sinful or unprincipled. As a result, radical Garrisonians are generally seen as the apolitical antitheses of abolitionists who joined the Liberty Party, the Free Soil movement, or the Republican Party.

Distinguishing Garrisonians from "political abolitionists" usually works as a heuristic device: historians need broad terms whose meanings can be at least temporarily bracketed, or else our subjects of discussion will always be moving targets. But debates among antislavery scholars still break out over just who counts as a "political" abolitionist and who counts as a "radical" abolitionist. (A really interesting debate along these lines took place on the H-SHEAR discussion list in November. Click here, scroll down to the bottom, and work up.) And sometimes it's important to point out how arbitrary and potentially misleading a designation like "political" can be.

For example, the dichotomy I have outlined above depends on defining a "political" strategy solely on the basis of whether it is an "electoral" strategy to win votes, gain office, and thereby shape policy. By this standard, to be sure, Garrisonians were not "political," since they would not vote or join parties. But why should the concept of "politics" be restricted to "electoral politics"?

That's one of the questions that animates Steven Hahn's A Nation Under Our Feet, which won a bucket full of awards in 2004, and which I finally had a chance to read last month. One of Hahn's central--and most provocative--points is that enslaved and recently emancipated people in the South "constituted themselves as political actors" and created a "distinctive African-American politics," and that they did so long before being declared legally free or obtaining the right to vote (p. 1). To call people who lacked legal citizenship "political" actors, Hahn argues, requires "a broad understanding of politics and the political ... that encompasses collective struggles for what might be termed socially meaningful power" (p. 3). This broad understanding does not exclude the traditional definition of the political arena as having to do with the electoral arena; Hahn's book follows his "political actors" from slavery through emancipation and into partisan politics during Reconstruction, so he does not mean to diminish the importance of electoral politics by arguing for the existence of what he calls "slave politics" (p. 3). But Hahn does argue that viewing "slaves, who had no standing in the official arenas of civil and political society, as nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical" prevents historians from understanding the kinds of political choices that freedpeople made once they were enfranchised and endowed with citizenship rights. The transition from slavery to freedom did not transform formerly apolitical slaves into political agents, but rather transposed struggles over power from one political arena into another.

It isn't possible to do justice to Hahn's broad understanding of politics here, but the main thing I want to point out is this: his broadening of the term "politics" is made possible by the fact that his subjects--enslaved people--had no access no electoral power. By definition, to call them "political" required shaking free of the idea that all politics are formal, electoral politics. And once free of that restrictive idea, Hahn is actually able to shed more light on the twists and turns of formal, electoral politics. As Hahn writes, the nature of his subject required him to "think much more deeply about the nature of politics and political practice, about how unfranchised and disfranchised people might conduct politics" (p. 2). The disfranchisement of his subjects required him to displace the centrality of "the vote" from his definition of politics.

But all of this prompted a (still poorly formed) question in my mind about the abolitionists: Why does the broadening of "politics" to include activities other than voting have to be limited to histories of the "disfranchised" or the "unfranchised"? Why can't we use Hahn's same basic insight to consider those abolitionists who voluntarily refused the franchise as fully political actors, not as "nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical"? And might that recasting of "politics" help us explain "antebellum politics" better, just as Hahn used his broadened understanding of politics to better explain the formal political history of Reconstruction?

If the answer is that non-voting abolitionists were not "political" because they could have voted but didn't, we are essentially reinstating the centrality of "voting" to politics and reading the unfranchised back out of our definition of "politics." If historical subjects can be fully "political actors" even though legally excluded from formal arenas of politics, then we should also be able to consider historical subjects who withdraw from electoral politics as "political actors," even though they are not legally required to do so.

In this post I can't fully develop why I think it might be useful to see Garrisonians as "political" abolitionists, too, even if they were "political" in a different sense from Liberty Party members and voting abolitionists. That's something I want to develop further in my own thinking about the Garrisonians. But it could be that the fruits of such a redefinition would be similar to the fruits of Hahn's approach--a richer explanation of formal political events that pivots on the complex relationship between political arenas.

To be sure, if we tried to think about Garrisonians as "political actors" as seriously as Hahn has thought about slaves and freedpeople as "political actors," we might still end up concluding that Garrisonians, unlike Hahn's subjects, had little impact on the twists and turns of formal politics. But at least that conclusion would be a synthetic proposition, rather than a tautological conclusion forced on us by an anemic definition of "politics." To presume, by definition, that Garrisonians had no impact on the political history of the Civil War era because they did not vote would be to make the same mistake as presuming that, by definition, slaves had no impact on the political history of the Civil War era because they did not vote--a presumption that Hahn has soundly challenged.

This post, I guess, is a long and round-about way of agreeing with something that I heard James Brewer Stewart say in his presidential address at the annual meeting of SHEAR this past summer. Stewart pointed out that historians of the antebellum period who consider themselves "political" historians rarely engage with those who consider themselves historians of abolitionism and reform, or vice versa. Michael F. Holt's recent brief book of the coming of the Civil War, for example, presents itself as a case for why a "dismissive view of political history is egregiously wrongheaded" (p. xii). But it, in turn, takes a dismissive view of the influence of abolitionists on politics. The book contains not a single reference to William Lloyd Garrison. It would be one thing if this sharp separation of "political history" from any history that would include Garrison was the result of a carefully reasoned case that Garrisonians had no influence on the actions of formal politicians. But I suspect the separation can be traced instead to an a priori distinction between "political" and "non-political" that settles arbitrarily on "electoral" activity as the defining feature of all "political" arenas.

I don't mean to single Holt out here; abolitionist historians are often guilty of taking for granted the same kind of definition, and then allowing it to constrict the kinds of questions they ask about the political history of the antebellum period. The lesson of all this musing, at least to me, is to aspire to a flexible and expansive definition of politics (a la Hahn) that would somehow be able to place Garrisonian abolitionists and Liberty Party operatives within the same frame of reference. The political actions of both might be better illumined by an analysis of the relationship between their different spheres of action. In other words, defining politics broadly might help us understand politics (as narrowly and traditionally defined) better.

It's important to end on that note, given the fact that I started by linking to that debate over at Cliopatria. Sometimes it seems like the defenders of traditional "political history" think any attempt to shift attention from electoral politics or redefine "politics" to include actors "from below" is a threat to or lack of respect for traditional political history. Take Holt, for instance. In the preface to the aforementioned book, he writes that
among my fellow academic historians ... American political history has become an object of scorn. Eager to celebrate the "agency" of those without formal governmental power, they denigrate the significance of past public policies, deny that everyday Americans paid serious attention to politics, and deride historical analysis of the actions of governmental officeholders as decidedly old hat, elitist, and inconsequential compared with more faddish interests in seemingly any group except the white male politicians who exercised formal political power in our past.
I know there is a long history of professional politics (!) that stands behind a paragraph like this, and which causes Holt to identify certain analytical concepts like "agency" with "faddish" interests. No doubt there have been some historians in the past who have "deride[d]" analysis of "white male politicians" or looked down their noses at historians of "formal political power." But books like Hahn's make me hopeful that we can begin to forget those old wounds. If "American political history" has been made an "object of scorn" by some in the past, the solution now is not to dig deeper trenches between "political history" and the history of "those without formal governmental power." Instead, the solution is to begin to put those two histories together, as I think Hahn has done and as I think historians of abolitionism should begin to do.

And as historians begin to move towards a consensus that that is the solution to the slights (real or perceived) that "political historians" have received in the past, hopefully we will also approach a point where the celebration of the political "agency" of actors like slaves or Garrisonians does not immediately send a signal of scorn for the importance of "formal" political actors. As Hahn shows so well, expanding the definition of politics can actually be seen as an expansion of the hegemony of "political history," newly defined, rather than as an attempt to reduce its importance or deride its practicioners.

Collective Improvisation:
Great post.

Let my focus on your comments above about voting, politics, and being a full citizen. This is a question I have been grappling with in my work on antebellum state constitutions and the attempts of people who cannot vote to influence the proceedings. My answers, admittedly tentative are these:

1. The distinction between people who have full political rights and those who do not is real and important. It marks social boundaries that influence political discourse and other social and intellectually interactions. Thus the right to vote is central both in itself and in what it reveals about Jacksonian society.

2. In Jacksonian political culture social and political equality are supposed to be identical.

3. People denied the right to vote cannot be "fully 'political actors.'" They can be political actors and they can be fully committed to political action. They may even have an impact and even create a subculture within the political culture. (It sounds like I've got to read the Hahn book.)

But they are not full citizens, and the reasons that they are not full citizens--or even citizens at all--resonate throughout their actions and their reception by people who truly are full citizens.
4. By publicly setting themselves outside political action, Garrison and other white males like him are of their own free will are challenging Jacksonian society. That challenge is made all the greater--and in many ways all the more insulting--by their status as white males.
5. Certainly Garrison had a political impact. Although I do not know his writings well enough to be certain of this, I am pretty sure that he thought the stance of moral suasion, of speaking the truth and of being, like cities on that hill, exemplars of truth was the more likely way to change society and, in the process, to redeem politics from its covenant with hell.

That's certainly not electoral politics, but I would not call it an absence of political action.

Posted by Blogger Oscar Chamberlain on 1/30/2006 09:57:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comments, Oscar. You've given me some good things to think about here.

I agree completely that there is a crucial difference between being coercively disfranchised and choosing voluntarily not to use one's franchise. The difference marks not just social boundaries, as you suggest, but also real imbalances of power that should not be set aside lightly. (The Garrisonians themselves were aware of the difference, by the way. That's why Garrison advocated universal suffrage while simultaneously arguing that he could not conscientiously vote. He wanted everyone to have the right not to vote, which the disfranchised could not reasonably be said to have possessed.)

I also really like your point in #4: that the refusal of the vote is a direct challenge to the existing Jacksonian order. I would add, though, that not all Garrisonians--maybe not even most--were males. One of the things that distinguished Garrisonians from "formal" political abolitionists was a greater openness to the participation of women in antislavery associations and activism, and maybe that's one of the reasons they had a more expansive view of politics as extending beyond the ballot box.

Your points about Jacksonian society more generally make me think of another question I could have raised about the Garrisonians: in what ways did the movement culture of radical abolitionists resemble the political culture of the Jacksonian parties they shunned? Anti-slavery societies, after all, were organized and run according to the same kinds of parliamentary rules as party organizations. They had presidents, secretaries, and treasurers; they passed resolutions, held meetings, and published newspapers, in which they often published excerpts from the Congressional Globe and news about the major parties. From that perspective, the line between "political" abolitionists and non-political abolitionists is blurrier than it seems, yet another reason why the question of whether the Garrisonians were "political" should not simply be conflated with the question of whether or not they voted and ran candidates for office.

Thanks again for the comments!

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 1/30/2006 11:22:00 PM : Permalink  

Very satisfying, and underscoring precisely some of the discussions I'd like to see come into the long-running impasse at Cliopatria on these issues.

In my own field, for example, I see a lot of these questions in terms of the return of "liberalism" as a concept and a presence in colonial government and society--a discussion that I think is flatly unintelligible if one attempts to have it in terms of conventional "political history" that confines itself to the actions of state leaders, but equally it's a topic that conventional Africanist social history is barely even aware of, so intent is it on an attempt to return modern African history to racially-defined "African" subjects--you *have* to be interested in the the state as an institution in and of itself, in the way local colonial administrations interacted with electoral and bureaucratic politics in the metropole, in international relations between states and so on.

T. Burke

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/02/2006 02:00:00 PM : Permalink  

A book by Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States touches on some of these issues. An economist, he was writing in 1970 or so, in the time of Nader and GM and the Vietnam controversies. He observes that "voice", by which he means both political activity in politics and complaining to the dealer in economics, varies over time. People who are mostly satisfied tend to keep quiet, until the organization no longer provides the goods or services the customer/citizen expects. Then they can either raise their voice, meaning you have lots of political activism, often involving new organizations or forms of activity ("sit-ins", etc.) or they "exit" the organization. Garrison might be an example of "exit", just as the people who emigrated to Canada or Europe over the Vietnam war were exiting. Or people can switch from GM to Ford to VW and eventually Toyota.

On a subnational scale, the flow of people from the original thirteen colonies west seems to have included a lot of people moving from Georgia and the Carolinas to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and some of the movement may have been partially motivated by anti-slavery sentiments.

Posted by Blogger Bill Harshaw on 2/16/2006 04:23:00 PM : Permalink  

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