What democracy looks like

Guest Post by Jessica Choppin Roney

Jessica Choppin Roney’s Governed by a Spirit of Opposition, recipient of the The Athenaeum of Philadelphia Book Prize for 2014, will be among the new titles on display in JHUP’s exhibit at the Organization of American Historian’s annual meeting taking place in St. Louis from April 16 to 19. 

RoneypostedI’ve always been struck at political rallies by the chant, “This is what democracy looks like!” It moves the march beyond whatever cause the protesters espouse to connect it to the very fundamentals of participatory government. It reminds nay-sayers who might prefer that protesters remain silent that democracy is cacophonous, contested, messy.

In a similar spirit, this is what the origins of democracy look like:

1701: William Penn, his back to the Delaware River. One of the last captains willing to make the Atlantic crossing before the winter waits impatiently for him to board so they can cast off. Faced with a set of uncompromising Quakers, Penn hastily signs a document erecting the Philadelphia Corporation and giving a tiny fraction of its citizens a municipal charter.

1727: A leading Pennsylvania politician worries about a shadowy group of young men meeting in secret. He fears they are plotting against the government. In fact, journeyman printer Benjamin Franklin and his “most . . . ingenious Acquaintances” gather to drink and discuss natural philosophy and civic improvement projects. Their conversations lead them to found first a library, then a fire company. And then one day, a militia.

1747: French privateers are on the Delaware Bay raiding. Philadelphians fear their city will be next, but the pacifist government will do nothing to defend its own citizens. Benjamin Franklin organizes an extralegal militia; half the men of the Quaker City join. It is independent and has no ties to government.

1776: Nineteen days after voters at the polls have rejected independence-minded representatives, a crowd of four thousand meets in the pouring rain and declares this same government invalid. They decide to dissolve it and form a new state, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

1777: Twenty Philadelphia Quakers whose loyalty to the new government is suspect but who have committed no actual crime and who have had no charges brought against them, no trial, no opportunity to defend themselves, are jailed and then deported to Virginia.

I subtitled my book The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia. In the book, I use the rich, tangled stories of Philadelphia to explore how ordinary white men shaped their communities before the American Revolution. Most histories argue that only with the Revolution did middle- and lower-class men engage meaningfully in politics or governance. Before the Revolution, they talked, voted, and occasionally rioted—and these are all important avenues of participation. But my book argues that in urban, cosmopolitan Philadelphia, ordinary men did more.

They pioneered ongoing, concrete participation through voluntary associations ranging from libraries to militias, hospitals to diplomatic missions—all of them outside the bounds or control of formal government. In 1770, at least one in five adult white men participated in the more than sixty-five organizations active in the city; at mid-century, that number was closer to one in two. These organizations expanded the ways men could shape their community. At the same time they were predicated upon exclusion and ignoring nonmembers who might disagree. They came into direct tension and competed with imperial officials, municipal authorities, and popularly elected representatives. This origins story is far older than the Revolution, and it is rooted in diverse imperatives: public-spirited initiative and self-serving agendas; deliberative democracy and pragmatic shortcuts; inclusion and exclusion. This is what the origins of democracy looked like. It too was cacophonous, contested, messy.

Jessica Choppin Roney is an assistant professor of early American history at Temple University. She is the author of Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia, now available from Johns Hopkins.