Guiding Timid Reason: The Politics of Revolution and the Public Sphere in Late Eighteenth-Century America
Haverford College. Department of History
Place of Publication
Table of Contents
The American, French, and Haitian revolutions would not have been possible without the force of public opinion. Wrought by Enlightenment notions of the rational individual citizen, natural rights, and liberty, both rational political deliberation and the "passionate" (or emotional) mob contributed to the overthrow of the ancient regime. Yet even as public opinion presented a vehicle for change, it also threatened the very revolutions predicated upon it. While under the proper conditions public opinion could topple despots, it was also fragile, potentially irrational, and open to manipulation. Americans were forced to confront these potential insecurities with public opinion during both the French and Haitian revolutions. Their responses to domestic political agitation and unrest during the revolutionary 1790s reveal a young republic grappling with how to balance freedom of opinion and democracy with political stability. The pressure of the two revolutions, and the fissures which they drove deep into the American political arena, created an atmosphere in which Americans competed to define their own revolution. With exploding literacy rates and the advent of political factions, newspapers provided the playing field for these debates over the Atlantic revolutions. This thesis will examine how, during revolutionary times, early American political commentators dealt with how to balance reason and the passions in their discourse, guiding a public sphere that could be open yet resistant to emotion and the instability that it could bring.