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Era of Experimentation

American Political Practices in the Early Republic
Daniel Peart

BUY Cloth · 256 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813935607 · $42.50 · May 2014
BUY Ebook · 256 pp. · ISBN 9780813935614 · $42.50 · May 2014

In Era of Experimentation, Daniel Peart challenges the pervasive assumption that the present-day political system, organized around two competing parties, represents the logical fulfillment of participatory democracy. Recent accounts of "the rise of American democracy" between the Revolution and the Civil War applaud political parties for opening up public life to mass participation and making government responsive to the people. Yet this celebratory narrative tells only half of the story.

By exploring American political practices during the early 1820s, a period of particular flux in the young republic, Peart argues that while parties could serve as vehicles for mass participation, they could also be employed to channel, control, and even curb it. Far from equating democracy with the party system, Americans freely experimented with alternative forms of political organization and resisted efforts to confine their public presence to the polling place.

Era of Experimentation demonstrates the sheer variety of political practices that made up what subsequent scholars have labeled "democracy" in the early United States. Peart also highlights some overlooked consequences of the nationalization of competitive two-party politics during the antebellum period, particularly with regard to the closing of alternative avenues for popular participation.


One of the hallmarks of this book is the fact that Peart has chosen a period that earlier scholars have conveniently overlooked because it did not fit their model of democratization. Taking issue with two generations of political historians, the author forces us to take the disintegration of the first party system seriously into account and to reconsider how participatory politics could function in a period in which parties were either discredited or absent or both.

Andrew W. Robertson, City University of New York, author of The Language of Democracy: Political Rhetoric in the United States and Britain, 1790-1900

Era of Experimentation presents a bold and innovative reconsideration of the complex factional quality of American politics in the early 1820s. Challenging the "celebrated narrative" of the essential relationship between parties and democracy, Daniel Peart demonstrates that in these years Americans found different paths to policy outcomes in associations and the public sphere. In proposing a new framework for understanding the complex "non-partisan" politics of the early 1820s, he maps an alternative model for political action in a liberal democracy.

John L. Brooke, Ohio State University

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