The Peculiarity of American Democracy


Democracy in the Age of Jefferson: America’s Other ‘Peculiar Institution’


JMC fellow Andrew Robertson will give a talk on democracy in the Jeffersonian era at Missouri’s Kinder Institute, a JMC partner program.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018 • 5:30PM
Jesse Hall 410 • The University of Missouri

This talk is Kinder Institute’s inaugural Distinguished Research Fellow lecture.

Learn more about the talk here >>





In describing American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville often used the word “particulier,” an adjective that can be translated as “unique,” “particular,” or “peculiar.” All three of these English words apply to American democracy in the age of Jefferson. From 1800 onwards, the United States was in many respects a functioning democracy. Universal male suffrage, voter turnout sometimes as high as 70 percent, mass-based political parties, and mass deliberation based on an expanding network of newspapers, all of these hallmarks of a democratic polity were accepted as legitimate features of American political practice.

American democracy in the age of Jefferson was certainly “unique.” Alone among the states that had undergone a revolution in the eighteenth century, the American republic had retained its revolutionary ideology and some democratic features. When democratic revolutions came to Latin America in the 1820s and again to Europe in the 1840s, the American form of democracy seemed idiosyncratic and not altogether worthy of imitation.

The last word, “peculiar,” appears many times in standard English translations of Tocqueville. In describing American democracy from 1787 to 1824, “peculiar” seems most apt. Jeffersonian democracy flourished under a Constitution which was framed by men who were fearful of democracy and hostile to political parties. The democratic institutions and practices that emerged from this inhospitable framework were different, unusual, and oftentimes downright odd. My purpose is to recover the uniqueness and the oddity of American democracy as it was first invented and practiced.




Andrew RobertsonAndrew W. Robertson teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center and Lehman College, CUNY.  He received his D.Phil. from Oxford University. His research and teaching interests include political, cultural, and intellectual history in the early American republic. He has written about political language, electioneering, and voting and violence, and how they relate to political history, broadly defined. He has also sought to define political history in a transnational context, including through scholarship on political language in Britain and the U.S. as well as on contentious elections in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to Argentina and Chile in the nineteenth century. He is the author of The Language of Democracy: Political Rhetoric in the United States and Britain, 1790-1900, and he is the co-editor, with Jeffrey Pasley and David Waldstreicher, of Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to Political History in the Early American Republic. He is presently at work on a new book, Democracy in the Early Republic: America’s Other ‘Peculiar Institution,’ 1776-1860. He is also the co-editor, with Eduardo Posada-Carbó, of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Revolutionary Elections in the Americas, 1800-1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

His recent research includes extensive collaboration on voting behavior with Philip Lampi of the American Antiquarian Society and the New Nation Votes website, which features the most extensive collection of early national voting records, and attempts to explore “the Lost Atlantis of American Politics”: the era of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century political culture that is unfamiliar to many scholars and to most of the public at large.

At the CUNY Graduate Center, Robertson teaches a seminar on public history for PhD students.  This seminar intends to orient the next generation of research scholars to think of their careers in history not only as scholars and teachers in the academy but also as writers, lecturers and curators for a larger public audience.  Professor Robertson has also offered more than a score of seminars through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, including a summer seminar for teachers on the American Revolution and an M.A. course on Democracy in the Early American Republic.

Learn more about Andrew Robertson here >>




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