From Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (YaleUniversity) Newsletter 29 September.
By Daniel Carpenter
September 22, Washington Post
Democracy needs activists, gadflies and, yes, “community organizers” both left and right. Ours is a democratic republic, one in which most lawmaking and policy are in the hands of elected officials. But those officials are elected or appointed by citizens, and citizens communicate actively with those who hold power. As political thinkers have known since at least the Roman Republic, however, this requires an active citizenry. Alexis DeTocqueville warned his readers about “individualism,” that “calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.” If everyone isolates, if everyone is content to stay a great “family man” or “family woman,” DeTocqueville worried, then who will keep tabs on the powers that be, not least the government itself?
DeTocqueville’s worry raises another problem: If a society needs activists, whatever their political persuasion, how does it grow them? Where do they come from? It turns out that petitioning – the most common form of engagement with government at all levels in early America – was very effective at doing just this. When anti-slavery activists began to send dozens of petitions into Congress in the 1830s, they could not have predicted the immense, nationwide transformation that ensued.