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Democracies in America

Keywords for the 19th Century and Today

Edited by D. Berton Emerson and Gregory Laski

Publication Date - 15 March 2023

ISBN: 9780192871879

336 pages
9.2 x 6.1 inches

In Stock


Ask someone their thoughts about "democracy" and you'll get many different responses. Some may presume it a thing once established yet now under threat. Others may believe that democracy has always been compromised by the empowered few. In the contemporary United States, marked by constituencies across the political spectrum believing that their voices have gone unheard, "democracy" gets wielded in so many divergent directions as to be rendered nearly incoherent.

Democracies in America reminds us that this reality is nothing new. Focusing on the various meanings of "democracy" that circulated in the long nineteenth century, the book collects twenty-five essays, each taking up a keyword in the language we use to talk about democracy. Penned by a group of diverse intellectuals, the entries tackle terms both commonplace (citizenship and representation) and paradigm-stretching (disgust and sham). The essays thus consider the relationship between "America" and "democracy" from multiple disciplinary angles and from different moments in a major historical period-amidst the vitality of the revolutionary epoch, in the contentious lead-up to the Civil War, and through the triumphs and failures of Reconstruction and the early reforms of the Progressive Era-while making both forward and backward glances in time.

The book frames its keywords around a series of enduring democratic dilemmas and questions, and provides extensive resources for further study. Ultimately the volume cultivates, for students and teachers in classrooms, as well as citizens in libraries and cafés, a language to deliberate about the possibilities and problems of democracy in America.


  • Features twenty-five essays written by a diverse group of leading intellectuals in history, literature, religious studies, political philosophy, rhetoric, and other disciplines
  • Tackles terms both commonplace (citizenship and representation) and paradigm-stretching (disgust and sham)
  • Focuses on a formative historical era in US democracy, covering the vitality of the revolutionary epoch, the contentious lead-up to the Civil War, the triumphs and failures of Reconstruction, and the early reforms of the Progressive Era
  • Organizes the keywords around a series of fundamental democratic dilemmas and questions that endure across history
  • Provides extensive bibliographic resources to support further study and additional research
  • Written in an accessible style that is suitable for classroom teaching and community reading groups

About the Author(s)

D. Berton Emerson, Associate Professor of English, Whitworth University, Gregory Laski, Civilian Associate Professor of English, United States Air Force Academy

D. Berton Emerson is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. His writing has appeared in American Literature, ESQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has participated at various levels with the work of the Commission on Democratic Citizenship, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he is currently working on a book manuscript titled American Literary Misfits: Vernacular Aesthetics and Alternative Democracies, 1830-1860.

Gregory Laski is the author of Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery (OUP 2017), which won the American Literature Association's 2019 Pauline E. Hopkins Society Scholarship Award. Formerly a visiting faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University, he is currently a civilian associate professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy, where he co-founded the American Studies program. He was a Mellon Fellow at the Newberry Library in 2021-22 and is at work on an intellectual history of revenge in the Reconstruction era. He holds a PhD in English from Northwestern University.


"Engaging, conversational, tangible and accessible for readers." -- , Center for PoliticsPolitics is Everything Podcast

"Assembling a diverse array of humanists and social scientists, Emerson and Laski have produced an impressive volume that refines key terms related to democracy in the nineteenth century. Defining concepts from tyranny, disfranchisement, and moderation to equality, citizenship, and public opinion, Democracies in America helps us better understand the struggles the United States continues to face in the 2020s." -- Keri Leigh Merritt, Author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slaveryin the Antebellum South

"The moral and political topography of the United States is rich, varied, and intricate. This volume of key terms is an extraordinary guide through the thicket of American democratic culture. In moving through the vocabulary one discovers more than words—one discovers a way of living, defined as much by common aspirations as by deep differences. Democracies in America is a civic lesson born from what I can only describe as civic affection. An essential text!" -- Melvin Rogers, Department of Political Science, Brown University

"This elegant and timely volume explores the historical roots of our current political moment, anchoring the present in the past to open up meaningful conversations about what democratic government means to us today. The essays are engaging, accessible, and challenging. It is a remarkable combination and a remarkable read." -- Laura F. Edwards, Department of History, Princeton University

"Democracies in America offers a powerful challenge as well as resources to meet it. In the years leading up to the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, observers the world over discussed how little Americans agree about goals, values, and even about facts. As dissension intensifies, ordinary people (including those who normally declare a lack of interest in politics) see the need to do something, after witnessing not only the violence at the Capitol but also claims that it was a simple 'dust up.' Bringing together rigorous investigations of 25 keywords, editors Bert Emerson and Greg Laski have done a tremendous service. After all, 'language is a crucial, if often neglected, component of civics education.'" -- Koritha Mitchell, Department of English, Ohio State University

Table of Contents

    Foreword, Louise Dubé
    About the Editors and Contributors
    Democracies in America: A User's Guide, D. Berton Emerson and Gregory Laski
    I. Preamble
    1. Democracy vs. Republic, Danielle Allen
    2. Personal Liberty, Kyle G. Volk
    3. Equality, Edlie Wong
    4. Scale (or, Democracy in las Américas), James Sanders
    II. Institutions and Arrangements
    5. Constitution, Jack Jackson
    6. Representation, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon
    7. Citizenship, Padraig Riley
    8. Anti-Black Violence, Ariel Elizabeth Seay-Howard
    9. Women's Suffrage, David Gold
    10. The Town Hall Meeting, Sandra M. Gustafson
    III. Feelings, Attitudes, and Interdependence
    11. Belief, Christopher Castiglia
    12. Public Opinion, Mark Schmeller
    13. Charisma, Vincent Lloyd
    14. Partisan, John Funchion
    15. Disgust, Jason Frank
    16. Moderation, Jean Ferguson Carr
    17. Comfort, Michelle Sizemore
    IV. Ambitions and Distortions
    18. The Commons, Dana D. Nelson
    19. Tyranny, Angélica María Bernal
    20. Sham, Derrick Spires
    21. Disfranchisement, Tess Chakkalakal
    22. Security, Russ Castronovo
    23. Settlement, Alaina E. Roberts
    24. Doubt, William Duffy and John Pell
    25. Neighbors, Nancy Rosenblum
    Further Reading and Additional Resources

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