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Kyle G. Volk
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Majority rule, minority rights: The Christian Sabbath, liquor, racial amalgamation, and democracy in antebellum AmericaKyle G. Volk
The University of Chicago
Is majority rule the essence of democracy? This dissertation explores how Americans debated this question in the formative four decades before the Civil War. Scholars examining democracy in this period focus on suffrage expansion, partisan politics, and divisive national issues like banking and the extension of slavery. This dissertation reorients investigation to social, political, and constitutional conflicts that exploded over state and local moral regulations. It focuses on three areas that drew national attention after being targeted by moral reform crusades: Sunday laws that prohibited work and recreation on the Christian Sabbath; restrictive liquor regulations; and northern race regulations in marriage, transportation, and public schools. This dissertation reveals how conflicts in these arenas created a series of legal, political, and constitutional quagmires that forced a wide array of Americans to wrestle with fundamental problems of popular sovereignty. Most centrally, as advocates mustered the Jacksonian ideological imperatives of majority rule, public opinion, and popular empowerment to legitimate moral regulations, detractors sought out alternative foundations of political authority. Northern free blacks, abolitionists, immigrants, liquor dealers, religious groups who worshipped on Saturdays, and other moral minorities turned to state constitutions to limit public power. They also embraced the tradition of fearing majority rule begun by Aristotle and continued by Americans like James Madison and John Calhoun. Critically, though, antebellum moral minorities revolutionized this tradition by democratizing and reframing it. No longer would the fear of majority rule be the sole province of intellectuals, constitution-makers, and propertied elites, and no longer would it be strictly an anti-democratic concern. Instead, antebellum moral minorities articulated a vision of democracy that rejected majority rule as the unquestioned source of political authority, identified fear of majority tyranny as a valid democratic concern, and included the protection of minority rights as an obligation of democratic governance. This intellectual reformulation, combined with moral minorities' cultivation of new political and legal tactics to defend their interests, comprised a vital first minority rights revolution in American History. This overlooked era of democratic transformation provided vital foundations for the (second) minority rights revolution of the twentieth century.
Social sciences; American democracy; Antebellum; Antebellum American politics; Christian Sabbath; Democracy; Liquor; Majority rule; Minority rights; Moral reform; Racial amalgamation; Black studies; American history; 0337:American history; 0325:Black studies
A. D. N. Stanley, William J.
The University of Chicago
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