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Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City During the Nineteenth Century.

By Mary P. Ryan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xii plus 376pp. $27.50).

Civic Wars extends Mary Ryan's effort to understand changing conceptions of the public sphere that she explored in Women and Public. Representations of women and the place of actual women in public life figure into her most recent book, but Civic Wars has an even more ambitious agenda. Focusing again on New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco, Ryan seeks not only to map the erratic contours of public life in nineteenth-century America, but to "acquire some sharpened perception, even some ideas, about how to exercise citizenship in these shifting times."(p. 2)

Ryan divides the history of nineteenth-century public life into three phases. The first (and the happiest) ran from 1825 to 1849. These were the years of the people parading and deliberating: many (but not all) groups peacefully celebrated their identities in parades that brought city residents together, many new groups assembled to discuss civic issues at the ward level and created a "meeting hall democracy," and the newly expanded (but still exclusionary) suffrage allowed most white men to express their differences in exuberant, representative partisan politics. Although laissez-faire economics, she claims, worked against the creation of true public sphere, democracy prospered and conflicts among citizens remained civil. By mid century, the parades had morphed into civil war. Before a shot was fired at Fort Sumner, Ryan claims, city residents staged a pre-enactment in their streets. Vigilantes hanged their enemies in San Francisco; ethnic and religious (and later, racial) animosities sparked riots in New York; and whites attacked African Americans in New Orleans. Urban leaders both responded to the turmoil and exacerbated it by stepping up efforts to police their cities: professional police and state militia units lent a military presence to urban life even before the Civil War. The prospects for democracy and a vibrant public life grew dimmer still after the Civil War. City leaders practiced parsimony in deference to taxpayers (a new category of citizen, Ryan argues), and they cut back on new public projects. Urban life now featured more police, more vocal elite misgivings about the expansion of suffrage, and more explosive incidents of urban strife than earlier in the century. City people still organized themselves, but their associations were more narrow and exclusionary than in the past: the new groups amounted to social movements more than antebellum democratic meetings. Nineteenth-century democracy and urban life had been funneled into dualisms - male/female, black/white, sunlight/shadows, and rich/poor.

In the course of her survey of the fate of a "democratic" public life, Ryan provides intriguing insights into the meanings and bases of urban conflicts and the changing relevance of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion in public life. The strengths and ambition of Civic Wars makes it exasperating at some points as well. It is difficult to know why civic culture changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Ryan suggests that sociological and demographic changes (immigration and the like) and contradictions within urban life produced increasingly less democratic cities. Yet the book does not firmly tie the sociological and ideological changes to urban public life or to the aspirations of city residents. Ryan's sources - mostly newspapers and public pronouncements - allow her to describe the contours of urban life as editors saw it, but not to explore very deeply the aspirations of citizens. So while the book charts bloody crises, there is an odd lack of conflict: the authors of changing ideas about the relations between groups remain murky. The cities seem strangely empty of people, since it is difficult to know what residents believed about public culture. Did antebellum city residents want what Ryan describes as a democratic city? If so, why did they give it up? Some sources that Ryan uses on city politics and finance might have been mined further for what they might have said about the aspirations of urban residents: if urban residents were unwilling to pay for (often mismanaged) public structures and services, then what was their commitment to an urban public? Were there problems with city tax structures that made their apparent chintziness understandable?

Ryan's interpretation of the decline of public life and democratic possibilities in the nineteenth century will give historians concerned with the city and the public sphere much to debate. Knowing more about why public life changed and what a democratic public might be, however, might have deepened our understanding of both the nineteenth century and the prospects for a democratic public life today.

Paula Baker University of Pittsburgh
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Baker, Paula
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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