Voluntariness as Political Practice

The Emerging United States and American Citizenship

The County Election, 1854
The County Election, 1854
by George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879)

The emerging United States is widely regarded as the cradle of liberalism. This “new form of political life,” to quote philosopher Anthony Appiah, took off in the American republic and spawned the “American citizen” as the ideal of the liberal subject. This subproject examines the significance of voluntariness in this process and shows how liberty took on concrete form in the new republic, pointing up the voluntary forms of thinking and acting demanded by “American citizenship.”

The subproject first maps out the role of voluntariness in the American political project. Breaking away from the constraints imposed by the British was constitutive of American citizenship, while the voluntary nature of political and social action became a prerequisite for recognition as an American citizen. Second, we show how the political principle of voluntary self-management and civic engagement helped establish differences between people on the basis of class, gender, and race, which were associated with varying capacities for voluntary participation and citizenship. Third, the subproject shifts across the Atlantic to examine the perspectives of contemporaries on the new order in America and the voluntary action associated with it.

In methodological terms, the subproject is inspired by studies of governmentality. At a first level, we deploy historical discourse analysis to reveal how voluntariness took hold as a core message of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century liberal discourse. The main source materials here are the “Early American Imprints,” which are available online, supplemented by European Enlightenment-era periodicals. At a second level, the subproject examines sociopolitical practice in the shape of voluntary civic engagement, which was intended to guide the lower classes into the voluntary embrace of an industrious and virtuous life. Here, the project focuses on the case of Philadelphia and its civic reform associations and institutions. The sources are relevant archival material and these bodies’ regularly published reports.

Team

Tags

Revolutionary America and Early Republic   |   Liberalism   |   Political Participation   |   Difference

Research Field

North American History

Affiliation

University of Erfurt

Department of History

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