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What Makes Good Government? A Conversation with History Editor Nadine Zimmerli and Author Christopher Pearl
As the Editor for History, I am always gratified when UVA Press books illuminate the country’s past while also speaking to our present moment. A few months ago, Christopher Pearl’s Conceived in Crisis: The Revolutionary Creation of an American State appeared as part of our Early American Histories series, and his book’s insights into good governance appear deeply relevant as municipal, state, and national elections loom on the horizon and early voting is well underway. Prof. Pearl recently spoke to the History Channel’s podcast History This Week about the Stamp Act and its consequences, and I am happy to share the link to his engaging interview here:
I also interviewed Prof. Pearl for our own Press blog, trying to gain an insight into the making of his book and its larger lessons. Our exchange concluded with his probing insights into a question very much on my mind as election season draws to a conclusion: “What makes good government?”
--Nadine Zimmerli, Editor for History and Social Sciences
- How did you conceive of your topic? Did you happen upon an evocative primary source that made you rethink received wisdom? Or did a contemporary event want to make you investigate its antecedents?
I don’t think any contemporary event sparked my interest in what I wrote. If anything, I was just fascinated by the revolution, its causes, and how that shaped our futures. I remember reading the secondary literature when I started the project and wondering how the different colonial governments and the way they governed fit with our understanding of the impulse for independence and revolution. I started to answer that question by creating a database of petitions to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature from 1740 to 1775, trying to find common complaints and requests. Through that, I focused on public petitions, or, rather, petitions signed by multiple people asking for legislative action. Once there, it became readily apparent that there was a severe disconnect between how the government and the governed understood the basic elements of governance. Tracking the dialogue between “the people” and the government in other sources, such as court records, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and private papers framed the book as it now exists. I think it all came together when I started to see the same requests over and again demanding reform of the judicial system and regulatory policies. When those grievances started to make their way into the public political dialogue of the 1760s and 1770s and the same ideas for change cropped up in the state constitution and subsequent legislation by the state government, I knew I had a really interesting thread to track down and write about.
- You emphasize the importance of studying the "practice of governing" in Conceived in Crisis. What do you mean by the concept and why is it important for historians to do so?
I think it is really important to investigate the practice of governing rather than just the ideas behind governance. When we talk or write about governance in early America, we tend to focus on theoretical assumptions or the structure of a government rather than, say, what those things actually meant on the ground for people. I wanted to figure out what those ideas and structures meant for colonists’ everyday lives. For example, it became pretty clear through investigating petitions, court records, and newspapers/pamphlets that colonists understood government as actively upholding the public welfare rather than a government instituted for the benefit of a select few or class of people. That is all well and good, but how would that apply in normal situations? If you look at what petitioners asked for, that question is easily answered. They wanted the regulation of markets, fishing, hunting, consumer goods- a seemingly never-ending list of stuff, and they wanted new officers for enforcement, a reform of the courts based on population and logistics, and a host of issues that would have substantially altered the way the colonial governments actually governed. This was the stuff that defined their lives and the way they perceived any government and its effectiveness. More important still, those experiences entered into the popular dialogue about the efficacy and viability of the British empire in the 1760s and 1770s, and continued to shape how people responded to the state governments after American independence. If we ignore the practice of governing, then, we miss those clear connections, and, I think, we miss how early Americans understood the purpose of government and what motivated revolutionaries in creating the states.
- You have a great eye for evocative quotations. Do you have a favorite? If yes, what does it reveal to you?
This question made me laugh as I thought about some of the quotes I really enjoyed. Some I liked because they were spot on and just a little bawdy, such as a “Popular Song” in Northampton County, Pennsylvania that spelled “justice” in Pennsylvania “just-ass,” which was really amazing to find because it connected to the complaints of petitioners. I do have two favorites, though, both written as Pennsylvanians contemplated the destruction of the colonial government and the creation of a new independent state in the spring and summer of 1776. The first was published that June in the Pennsylvania Packet by someone calling themselves “The Watchman.” The author made it seem a forgone conclusion that Pennsylvania’s colonial government was “the worst in the world.” As I show in the book, that quote is a product of a divisive debate over the effectiveness and, ultimately, legitimacy of the colonial government that started in earnest in the 1760s. By “in earnest,” I mean that disparate complaints about governance started to inform public debates where people across the colony realized that they shared common grievances. A powerful moment. The second quote came from Thomas Smith writing about his experience in the state constitutional convention in the summer of 1776. Smith, a member of the state constitutional convention, understood that the job of the convention was “to clear every part of the old rubbish out of the way and begin upon a clear foundation.” That for me was an essential quote as it spoke to the idea that the colonial government and how it governed needed to be substantially altered. Even more important, he was not referencing the creation of a plural executive council or a unicameral assembly, but the reform of the judicial system, particularly the justices of the peace. I could trace the thread from colonial petitions since 1740 to this moment of change.
- Your story unfolds chronologically. Did you write chapters in order or not? Which one was your favorite to write?
Oddly enough, I wrote them in order. I mean, I did a lot of the research for all of the chapters and I mapped out a plan, but each chapter needed more research as I wrote, so I decided early on that I would start from the beginning. That is not how I normally write, honestly. I usually have an idea and start where I can, but with this book I knew I needed to start from the first chapter and move forward as any additional research would obviously change the trajectory and the argument. I wrote the introduction last, which was the hardest part to write. I remember sitting there looking at all of these pieces, a sort of jangled collection of ideas, and reading them again and again until I could clarify my thoughts in a way that made sense to everyone else. . . and then I had to go back through and revise it accordingly.
Sadly, I don’t have a favorite chapter. The writing phase was not my favorite part in any way, shape, or form. I loved the research, though. I really loved researching chapters 3, 4, and 5, especially since I did the bulk of research for those chapters at the William L. Clements Library, the American Philosophical Society, the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and the David Library of the American Revolution. I have never felt more focused in my life than when at those places, and the basic contours of the book came into view there.
- Based on your insights from Conceived in Crisis, what distinguishes ineffective from competent state government? What should citizens look for?
That is a really easy and hard question to answer. If the readers are still with me, I would like to provide a prolonged answer that is both modern and drawn from the past that I write about in my book.
I think, for me, an effective government is one that has the institutional wherewithal and political will to act on behalf of the entire public’s welfare. The colonial and revolutionary state governments had real issues in this respect, and it mostly had to do with their narrow definition of who should be included in “the public” when white (often male) colonists, politicians, and local government officials thought about institutions, policies, and law enforcement procedures.
Not only should a government represent “the people,” but government should consider and critically evaluate the way it defines “the people” it represents. The contradictory ways that the American public and the governments of the United States have defined “the people” through history has resulted in a powerful simplicity that has provided for an expansive rhetorical purpose that continues to animate fundamental and expansive ideas of governance. “All men are created equal” is an important revolutionary and aspirational ideal. The impact of such an expansive simplicity informs much. How Americans understand the “rule of law” as an objective and equalizing idea, for example, is directly related to that phrase. But, you really need to squint or close your eyes to actually believe in the reality of that equality. Therefore, the same historical contradictions that created an important rhetorical simplicity have also resulted in a narrowing of who is included in any construction of “the people.” What it comes down to, in many ways, is who has access to the levers of power and who doesn’t?
That is a question that matters for what I see as “practical governance” or “good governance.” Therefore, we clearly see that any government, enshrining as it does “public” opinion and calling as it does on a defined “public,” can be expansive or exceedingly narrow depending on the definition of who is included and who government serves, which necessarily shapes governance.
As I try to point out in my book, we can see that fundamental American divergence between exclusion and expansive ideas of inclusion during the revolutionary war. During that war, who was actually included in any definition of “the public” and who had the basic benefits of government fundamentally deviated from expansive ideals. Revolutionaries constantly referenced “the people” and “the public” when making critical decisions about governance that expanded the reach and remit of activist states, but the governments’ treatment of the disaffected, neutrals, or those who outwardly remained loyal to the British government clearly highlights limited possibilities, showcasing the coercive side of republican governance, a side that did not simply disappear with the end of the revolutionary war. Efforts to secure the boundaries of the states that forcibly displaced Native peoples, or efforts to regulate labor (particularly slavery) well into the nineteenth century if not beyond, drew on a clear effort to delineate the contours of belonging and who can and cannot receive the benefits of government.
If we understand that past, we are in a better position to grapple with something as simple as the term “Law and Order,” which has made its way back into our political lexicon. Although some modern uses of the term devolve into simplistic dichotomies of anarchy or law, often rooted in racial othering, I think, obviously, that simplicity is something Americans should and are resisting for a more satisfying understanding of the term which sees law as the cornerstone of liberty for all people- A basic premise that informs any definition of the “rule of law,” which is central to “law and order.”
I feel compelled to state that I see and continue to see the modern use of the term “law and order” as fabricating a political divide, even despite its uses by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon in the 1960s and then Donald Trump over forty years later. If we look back to the revolutionary period, never mind the 1960s, debate over that term was never about a dedication or not to law or order, especially in relationship to the government’s place in preserving the social obligations inherent in a community of people. Afterall, liberty and government were intertwined for revolutionaries- the one couldn’t exist without the other. Government, according to revolutionaries was “the choicest blessing Heaven ever has bestowed on the human race,” rather than a “necessary evil.” In short, nobody said- then as now- “give me anarchy.”
On the ground in the revolutionary era, the people who resisted government using violence or peaceful protest did not mobilize for “no government” or some kind of statelessness, although their opponents certainly painted them as such. We can see that destructive brushstroke when Massachusetts’ colonial governor, Francis Bernard, glibly stated that the cries of protestors for “Liberty and Property” during the Stamp Act riots in Boston were just a ruse by the “meaner sorts” to loot and destroy property. Yet, he also understood that the riots were more than that, they were, he conceded, dedicated to a “general leveling & taking away the distinction of rich and poor.” The riots evinced a growing feeling that “necessity will soon oblige and justify an insurrection of the poor against the rich, those who want the necessities of life against those who have them.” Government officials and government policy during the colonial period certainly made that feeling more real. Such popular actions, even as a royal governor saw them, then, were not about “Law and Order” in the modern evisceration of the term, but rather expressive of a growing sense that law and order as a theoretical assumption only works when broadly accessible and equitable. Like that colonial governor, Benjamin Franklin, a prominent politician in colonial Pennsylvania, saw the writing on the wall in the 1760s when he castigated that “wretched Rabble” who believed “themselves intitled to a vote.” A vote, moreover, that would allow people to direct the governance of their colonies and then, through American Independence, their states. These mobilizations were not movements against government, but for government. They were efforts to achieve the realization of a government with a far more encompassing, if still limited, vision of “the people” that serve in it and that it represents.
With all of that said, we often look to the Declaration of Independence as generating a vision of equality Americans continue to fight for, but that impulse was not divorced from these earlier moments of resistance over governance. It is too easy to see the exclusive nature of that resistance and use it as a justification for its continuance. Modern “three percenters” should give us pause and make us question that line of thought. Instead, we should see the generative side of resistance, its place in the development of American conceptions of the proper role, reach, and representativeness of government. It was and is fundamental to the continuance of a fight for basic human equality. Our modern political debate is steeped in this past. Let me be frank, there was no established settlement on these issues in the revolutionary era. The history of what came after the “founding” clearly proves that point and shatters its immutability, a significant fact we should all recognize and appreciate as each day passes. If history says anything, it is that resistance, emanating from a body of sovereign people, has immense potential to initiate necessary change. We therefore need to recognize that American colonists cum citizens who rioted against and questioned fundamental aspects of governance were not against “law and order.” Instead, they were part of a fundamental and ongoing debate over the methods to achieve it, who had a place in making decisions, and what that would mean for “the people” and how a government governs.
If we look to that past, we can clearly understand that when there is representative imbalance or inequality we should expect resistance. I don’t see what is more American than such a resistance if we really want to lionize the founding. And that belief is not radical, but something colonists cum revolutionaries understood as basic.
In some ways, though, we cannot get past the contradictory nature of the founding, how it was at once exclusive and inclusive. It is a conundrum that has muddied popular perceptions, again and again, especially as that past becomes more distant and perhaps more knowable through a shared belief in its uniformity and, well, its simplicity. But the contradictions are everywhere. And those contradictions- the unsettled nature of the revolution- are important, demonstrating clear paths forward.
The Paxton riots of the 1760s, something every American historian knows about, are a case in point. If we look at the “Paxton Boys,” a group that is important for understanding the context of popular mobilization against Pennsylvania’s colonial government in the 1760s and a group I write about, we see two informative if competing aspects of governance in revolutionary America. That group articulated an exclusive vision of who government serves. They conceptualized “the public” rather narrowly in relationship to race, which highlights fundamental flaws in how early Americans conceptualized government, “law and order,” and basic belonging. But because they did that, we can lose ideas that continue to animate reform efforts. For example, they also articulated a vision of “the public” that was more expansive than the what the colonial government saw in terms of the socioeconomic status of people. For sure, within that expansive idea there was a narrow and racialized categorization of belonging. But when they wrote about the purpose of government we can see ideals that remain central components of American governance, particularly the government’s active place in assuring and securing the public’s safety, prosperity, and welfare. That ideal governance for “the public” is fundamental, which I think we can all agree on, but it is the way they defined the beneficiaries of government that continues to divide and animate Americans.
Such a moment, then, demonstrates the contradictory nature of the founding- the paths taken and not taken. But, for me, it is the contested nature of the founding that carries through to this day, divorced as it should be from an inevitability or dichotomy. I see the American Revolution as one moment in a series of uncertain moments to achieve the basic elements of a grand principal that should and could represent the complexity and diversity of the American people. After the research for this book, I came to understand more clearly that the struggle against injustice in its many ugly forms is not an effort to create something “new,” but an effort to realize basic rights as articulated in America’s revolutionary moment. The majority of revolutionaries may not have meant what they said for all people, but, for many of Americans, the fact that it was said in such an encompassing way and that it was unsettled and contradictory only pushes them to achieve it.
I think that is an important point as we navigate our current political landscape. The use of term ‘patriotism,’ for example, has been consistently transmogrified by a failure to grasp that point, which, as an American, is irritating. Americans hear a lot about patriotism in a way that undermines the continued fight for basic rights, but, if we look to our past, the question remains, what is more patriotic than that fight?
In sum, I would answer your question by stating that if we have public interest at heart, we must understand the basic premise, as Pennsylvania’s revolutionaries articulated, that government is “instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are a part only of that community.” That may have been a radical sentiment in 1776, and one not many live(d) up to, but now it should be basic. Do we have equal access and treatment before the law? Is the government acting on behalf of the public or a “particular class or set of men”? Does it seek inclusion in its policies or exclusion? We should answer these questions with basic empathy and with an understanding of historical context. If we do that, it should be clear that government should act without partiality and without injustice, anything less is ineffective.