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Response to Review of Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States

I first want to thank Dr. Boonshoft for his careful reading of and response to my book. Everyone hopes for readers who engage a book thoughtfully on its own terms, and I’m most grateful to have my work reviewed in that spirit.

Above all, I thank Dr. Boonshoft for his willingness to accept the premise I hazard, that political fiction from the early nation might actually help us limn a clearer picture of the historical practices of commons or vernacular democracy than archives have thus far enabled us to see. I accept his point that in chapter five, I reach the limit of my fictional sources by using Cooper’s Littlepage trilogy to suggest if not persuasively to argue that civic and resource communing were still manifest closer to the metropole. The Upper Hudson region of upstate New York was, as Boonschoft rightly observes, anomalous, where as he puts it ‘the fabric of representative political institutions was remarkably thin precisely because of the continued power of the manors’, leaving this neighborhood more like the frontier than the districts that bordered it. My accompanying gesture toward the Dorr’s Rebellion was insufficient to suffice in this respect.

There’s probably a project left undone in every book, and just so, there’s often a vestigial trace of what got left on the cutting board. I can trace the very gesture Boonshoft highlights as inadequate, my attempt to get readers to think about how vernacular practices of civic communing lived on past the advance of the frontier and the imposition of state and federal law and representative institutions, exactly to my early sense that there could be many ways – and locales from which –to trace the historical evaporation of significant vernacular sensibilities and practices from our collective historical memory. As I was reading books like Andrew Shankman’s Crucible of American Democracy, which compellingly describes how ordinary folk in Philadelphia understood democracy through terms of both economic and political equalitarianism, and how developing practices of capitalism ultimately pressured and squeezed out those the egalitarian principles, I realized there could surely be ways trace the evolution and fate of commons democracy in urban centers.  I spent no small amount of time thinking my way down urban paths. And I pursued questions about how these practices might have been manifested, borrowed or adopted in the various strains of utopian communities (like Nashoba, the Ruskins, Brook Farm, Oneida, etc.), informed by various political and religious idealisms.  But ultimately I decided that what I was trying to flesh out here was dicey enough without overcomplicating things by trying to show my readers the various paths by which vernacular ideals of equalitarianism were changed into and/or borrowed by other modes of practice (and retained in other forms). In other words, since I was attempting to, as Boonshoft puts it, both bring ‘conceptual coherence to a wide-ranging and still developing picture’ and to advance a larger argument about that picture, I concluded it would be most strategic to start with the simplest, most coherent account of commons democracy. So I decided to focus readers on what I thought was probably its most distinct genealogical and geographic trajectory and modes of practice.

For those reasons, I heartily agree with Boonshaft that it would make sense to look for other variants, both urban and rural, and to think about ideological fellow-travellers that might have informed and hybridized these energies – developing modes of capitalism, religious enthusiasms and also, as Boonshoft suggests, of 18th-century European radicalism, which had particular impact in urban centers in the early republic, as well as 19th-century European political idealism which moved from cities across rural areas in the 19th century. I hope others will try to tell these stories with commons democracy and its vernacular modes of expression in mind.

Finally, a quick note about Boonshoft’s point that we ‘seldom see commoners contributing to “wise administration” … [or] the “middle way” in action, which makes it difficult to envision how to achieve it’. But my novels do show at least the “wise administration” part of the equation: over and again in these novels, writers show us how local communities did self-administrate – often wisely. Because these novels by and large stage the show-down between state-administered systems and local practices, the drama of the novel depends more generally on the conflict and not the cooperation of those two scales of self-government. Still, it’s not as though we can’t see such a middle way in history and today, as the work of Elinor Ostrom and her scholarly fellow-travellers have shown – we just have to look across yet another disciplinary divide to see abundant examples of successful commons studied by political economists. As Ostrom and her teams have amply demonstrated, it’s exactly by finding that middle way in practice, where local actors and governing institutions at state, regional and federal levels, find ways to cooperate, that civic and resource commons have succeeded historically and do succeed today.  There is a long record of such achievement in these accounts. Finding more ways to investigate at that scale – the in-between as opposed to the top-down or bottom-up (and here I would hazard that books like Bethel Saler’s The Settlers’ Empire point us in that direction) will be key for those invested in US history.