This book explores the struggle to define self-government in the critical years following the Declaration of Independence, when Americans throughout the country looked to the Keystone State of Pennsylvania for guidance on political mobilization and the best ways to create a stable arrangement that could balance liberty with order. In 1776 radicals mobilized the people to overthrow the Colonial Assembly and adopt a new constitution, one that asserted average citizens’ rights to exercise their sovereignty directly not only through elections but also through town meeting, petitions, speeches, parades, and even political violence. Although highly democratic, this system proved unwieldy and chaotic.

David Houpt finds that over the course of the 1780s, a relatively small group of middling and elite Pennsylvanians learned to harness these various forms of "popular" mobilization to establish themselves as the legitimate spokesmen of the entire citizenry. In examining this process, he provides a granular account of how the meaning of democracy changed, solidifying around party politics and elections, and how a small group of white men succeeded in setting the framework for what self-government means in the United States to this day.

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