David Houpt is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. This interview is based on his new book, To Organize the Sovereign People: Political Mobilization in Revolutionary Pennsylvania (University of Virginia Press, 2023).
JF: What led you to write To Organize the Sovereign People?
DH: The origin of this project grew out of my experiences being in New York City in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street movement. For a period of about two months, the protestors occupied the national stage. Using various forms of popular political mobilization (public meetings; sit-ins; parades; street performance), the protestors hoped to lead a movement to overthrow the existing financial institutions and create a more equitable distribution of wealth. For a few weeks it seemed as though the protestors might succeed in bringing about real reform. Notably, however, the movement lacked any coherent structure or organization. The participants also rejected outright any partnership with mainstream political parties. As a result, the movement fizzled and nothing much changed. Watching this process unfold lead me to think about how and why the first generation of Americans made the decision to form political parties. What drove them to transition away from a more democratic form of street politics that characterized the Revolution, to a more formal, controlled one that became the norm in the early nineteenth century? What, if anything, was gained by this change and what, if anything, was lost? As I began exploring the answers to these questions, I was struck by a clear divide between historians who portrayed the emergence of parties as part of the larger story of the “rise of American democracy” and scholars who argued that parties represented a counterrevolution of sort designed to prevent “the people” from bringing about any real change. I saw this dichotomy as overly simplistic, and tracing the evolution of specific forms of mobilization, I believed, offered a way to move beyond the democratization/declension debate that has defined the literature.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of To Organize the Sovereign People?
DH: I argue that, in the years following the Declaration of Independence, a relatively small group of white men learned to harness the power of popular forms of political mobilization to present themselves as the champions of “the people.” While this process resulted in average citizens losing the ability to directly assert their will over the deliberative process, the tradeoff was that the emergence of political parties ultimately provided a stable and effective means of translating the theory of popular sovereignty into practices and institutions that balanced the need to preserve order with the desire to protect liberty.
JF: Why do we need to read To Organize the Sovereign People?
DH: The book offers an important corrective to existing scholarship that portrays the decades following the American Revolution as either a slow march toward greater freedom and liberty or as a steady retreat from a more democratic style of politics. The reality is that the post-Revolutionary period was both an expansion and a retrenchment of democracy. Looking at how specific forms of mobilization evolved provides a window into this process and helps clarify how, and why, Americans in the 1780s and 1790s decided to embrace elections and political parties as the primary means for the expression of the people’s sovereignty. Considering today’s ongoing and unprecedented threats to American democracy, this is a particularly salient topic, and the book provides an important reminder about what it takes to build and sustain a functioning democracy that balances liberty with order.
JF: Why and when did you become an American historian?
DH: Although I have always been interested in history, it was not until I had the opportunity to intern with the First Federal Congress Project while an undergraduate at George Washington University that I decided being an American historian would be my career. I became fascinated by the politics of the 1790s and found the process of conducting primary source research in the Library of Congress and National Archives exhilarating and intellectually stimulating. (I should also add that my interest in Political Science began to wane at the same time when I learned that I would need to take statistics classes.) Given how difficult it is to succeed in the profession, however, I took a year off after receiving my undergraduate degree to make sure that grad school was what I really wanted to do. Obviously, I decided that it was.
JF: What is your next project?
DH: My current research is focused on the writings of newspaper editor William Cobbett with the goal of making sense of his transition from aligning with the High Federalists in America to becoming a leading Radical upon his return to England. I argue that this apparent ideological shift begins to make more sense when Cobbett is viewed as being part of the longer reactionary populist tradition. The project will serve (likely) as a bridge next book project: a reinterpretation of the Federalist Party. The existing narrative presents the Federalists as an out-of-touch elite with aristocratic sensibilities and a general disdain for the common person. The problem with this perspective is that a majority of American voters preferred Federalist candidates throughout the 1790s. To the extent that existing scholarship confronts this dilemma, it is seen as evidence that Americans still practiced a form of deferential politics in which voters understood that elite should lead. While this may have been the case for some voters, it does not fully explain the depth of Federalists’ support.
JF: Thanks, David!