Founding Fictions

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Part political history, part rhetorical criticism, Founding Fictions is an extended analysis of how Americans imagined themselves as citizens between 1764 and 1845. It critically re-interrogates our fundamental assumptions about a government based upon the will of the people, with profound implications for our ability to assess democracy today.

Founding Fictions develops the concept of a “political fiction,” or a narrative that people tell about their own political theories, and analyzes how republican and democratic fictions positioned American citizens as either romantic heroes, tragic victims, or ironic partisans.  By re-telling the stories that Americans have told themselves about citizenship, Mercieca highlights an important contradiction in American political theory and practice: that national stability and active citizen participation are perceived as fundamentally at odds.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“…a historical study that speaks to the current issue of what kind of political culture and system of governance we have, and why and how our governing discourse marginalizes the citizenry even as it claims to advance the cause of democracy. Rhetorical scholars and students alike will find Founding Fictions’ careful distinction between republican and democratic forms to be insightful and helpful.”
—Robert L. Ivie, professor in the Department of Communication & Culture at Indiana University

“In this provocative, challenging study, Mercieca explores the relationship between American political theory and the stories told about American government. This is a book for those interested in political science, public policy, and citizen participation.”—CHOICE

“Rhetorical historians and political theorists can learn a lot from this volume. . . . Mercieca’s central thesis—that political theories are fictions, and that these fictions exert considerable influence on texts in any given historical context—is a concept worthy of further explication in future rhetorical histories.”—Journal of Communication

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817316907
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/2010
  • Series: Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer R. Mercieca is an associate professor of Communication at Texas A&M University.

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Read an Excerpt

Founding Fictions



Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1690-7

Chapter One

"Republicanism was an indefinite term"

Political Fictions as Critical Tools for Citizenship

Almost five years after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush discussed the relationship between terrorism and democracy in his weekly radio address: "Terrorists and their sponsors recognize that the Middle East is at a pivotal moment in its history. Freedom has brought hope to millions, and it's helped foster the development of young democracies from Baghdad to Beirut. Yet these young democracies are still fragile, and the forces of terror are seeking to stop liberty's advance and steer newly free nations to the path of radicalism. The terrorists fear the rise of democracy because they know what it means for the future of their hateful ideology." Note the narrative explicit in the president's address: when freedom brings hope to millions, liberty will advance and democracy will rise to defeat radicalism and hateful ideology. Note also who or what has the power of action in this narrative: freedom brings hope; liberty advances; democracy rises; and terrorists recognize, seek, steer, fear, know, and hate. Meanwhile, the millions of newly hopeful citizens-those who should, according to President Bush's logic, now be capable of advancing liberty-are merely passive receivers of freedom's hope and incapable of acting to defend their own democracy. Thus rendered inactive victims of terror, the president's democratic citizens must rely upon the benevolence of powerful others or suffer the consequences of radicalism and ideology. This passage from President Bush's radio address highlights several important aspects of how we talk about the relationship between democracy and citizenship: note which words are used as "god terms"-as unquestionably good things-freedom, hope, liberty, and democracy; note also which are used as "devil terms"-as unquestionably bad things-radicalism, ideology, and terrorism. The terms President Bush singles out as positive or negative take on a central role in his narrative; indeed, because they are so important, we should hazard war and death to preserve or prevent them. Once again citizens are left out, are rendered passive and inactive by the president's failure to characterize them in either god or devil terms. Though ignored and underestimated, President Bush's democratic citizens still motivate his avowed purpose: they are the reason why we need to act to protect freedom and liberty and stop terrorism. Crucial, yet negligible; at the center, but on the margins of power; the president's democratic citizens occupy a fragile liminal space somewhere between liberty and radicalism.

I do not mean to suggest that there was something unique about this particular radio address; indeed, President Bush's choice of words was largely unremarkable for his era. His use of words like "democracy" and "liberty" seems so ordinary, so commonplace, so much in line with the well-known and currently accepted vocabulary of American political discourse that it is natural and uncontroversial. In fact, the United States has not had a legitimate politician argue against democracy-and for, say, aristocracy or monarchy- for generations. It therefore would have sounded rather odd for the president to have defined and defended his view of democracy at all, for whom would he be arguing with? With any memory of the once vibrant debates over its meaning lost, it simply did not occur to him or, probably, to his audience, that the merits of democracy could be debated. In current political discourse, only terrorists argue against democracy, never Americans.

Such was not always the case. In 1805, Federalist Fisher Ames believed that "in democracies the people are the depositories of political power," but that it was "impossible they should exercise it themselves." Indeed, said Ames, "we know from history ... that every democracy, in the very infancy of its vicious and troubled life, is delivered bound hand and foot into the keeping of ambitious demagogues." And, therefore, that "our sages in the great Convention ... intended our government should be a republic, which differs more widely from a democracy than a democracy from a despotism." "Democracy" and the "demagogues" who flattered the people into believing they had more power than they actually did were devil terms in Ames's 1805 essay; therefore Ames would have certainly found President Bush's use of "democracy" in his 2006 radio address puzzling, if not downright treasonous. Yet, despite the manifest differences in how Bush and Ames valued the word "democracy" itself, there is a fundamental similarity between the two views: neither Bush nor Ames believed that citizens had the power to act to defend their own freedom and liberty, and both argued that benevolent and powerful others must act on citizens' behalf. Therefore, while current political discourse has embraced the term "democracy" as an unquestionable positive good that should, and must, be fought for, the way that some of America's political elite view the capability of democratic citizens to act within the government has not changed dramatically in the last two hundred years.

Yet it is striking that President Bush portrayed democratic citizens as incapable and passive victims, for what is a democracy if not a political community characterized by citizens who capably and actively defend their own freedom and liberty? Political theorists such as Aristotle, John Dewey, Benjamin Barber, Robert Dahl, and Hannah Arendt have argued that the defining characteristic of democratic citizens is that they are active. Yet, the liminal space within which President Bush's democratic citizens reside is one in which action is impossible-quite simply, citizens are not empowered to act in this narrative of democracy. The president's radio address therefore highlights a conundrum: What do Americans mean when they call their government a democracy? As Ames argued, the founding generation believed that they had created a republic, not a democracy; does this difference in terminology have any meaning for Americans today? And, if the differences between republicanism and democracy are meaningful, what can the founders' debates over republicanism and democracy teach us about how the average citizen is able to act in the American government today? How do the narratives we tell about citizenship help to define the possibilities of democracy?

By analyzing the rise of America's republican and democratic political fictions, Founding Fictions critically interrogates how, why, and to what effect Americans began to think of their government as a democracy rather than as a republic. I tell the story of how American republicanism and democracy were invented and debated between 1764 and 1845 and how these debates influenced how citizens were imagined to act. This book has three major arguments. First, there are important differences between what Founding Fictions calls republican and democratic political fictions, that is, between political narratives based upon republican or democratic theories of government. Second, scholars and citizens can judge their political fiction based upon the degree to which it can be characterized as dialogic, authored, debated, circulated, ratified, and open, and such judgment can help us to determine whether or not the political fiction has citizen consent. Third, there are important differences between romantic and tragic views of citizenship, that is, views of citizenship that seek either to empower or suppress citizen action. This analysis of America's republican and democratic fictions results in a new perspective on a familiar story and in new critical tools for analyzing American political discourse. Further, Founding Fictions demonstrates that if America is going to have anything like an active democratic citizenry, we need to recover and implement romantic citizenship. In other words, Founding Fictions is a sustained discussion of how the founders' republican fiction turned into America's democratic fiction and what that transformation teaches us about the nature of American citizenship and democracy.

Why Does Founding Fictions Use an Interdisciplinary Approach to Study American Citizenship?

At first it may appear odd to propose to study American citizenship through a rhetorical and historical analysis of political fictions, but I hope to make a convincing case that this interdisciplinary approach allows us to learn something about American political discourse that we otherwise would not. Scholars traditionally have made convenient, if false, distinctions between poetical, dialectical, and rhetorical language; these rigid classifications prevent us from conceiving of political theory as at least partially both poetical and rhetorical. Poetical language-drama, poetry, prose-has often been thought to be the "expression of beauty," and it has been judged based upon its degree of beauty or how well it entertains or pleases an audience, but not overtly upon how well it corresponds to "reality" or persuades; dialectical language-philosophy, science, news reports, and so forth-has often been thought to be the "expression of truth," and it has been judged based upon how well it "provides accurate information," but not explicitly upon how well it pleases or persuades; rhetorical language-epideictic, deliberative, forensic-has often been thought to be the "expression of power," and it has been judged based upon how well it adapts its form and content to specific situations and audiences to achieve its goals, but not necessarily upon how well it conforms to "reality" or pleases. In short, language has been divided into poetic, dialectic, and rhetoric based upon its purposes, and it has been judged according to how well it fulfilled those purposes. Within this view of language, political theory would be classified as dialectic, and the best political theory would be one that provides the most accurate assessment of the possibilities and pitfalls associated with managing institutions, people, and power in a political community. Hence, to try to assess political theory based upon how well it adapts to audiences and contexts or to place it within the realm of language that does not seek to describe political "reality" as accurately as possible would seem to be antithetical to its form and function.

Putting aside the question of the wisdom of such rigid distinctions between poetic, dialectic, and rhetoric, the view of political theory as strictly dialectical language does not bear scrutiny. First, political theory is utopian; it literally describes "no place," and in that sense it is always a kind of fiction. For example, Plato's Republic is considered one of the great works of political theory, but it is also fiction-in it Plato imagined how the just state could be formed, but he did not describe any actually existing political regime. What is true of Plato's Republic is true of all political theory. Indeed, what would a non- fictional, non-invented political theory look like? Such a theory would not be an act of human creation, but would have existed prior to any human invention. If this were true, all political theory would have to be considered a part of divine law or would have to be a Platonic form, which would mean that there could only be one best theory for all peoples and all political communities. The fact that people and political theorists have created and argued for various kinds of government-monarchy, aristocracy, meritocracy, democracy, and so forth-demonstrates that there is not one ideal form of government, but rather a plurality of political theories that must be adapted to the particular people and circumstances of a particular political community. Therefore political theory could be judged based upon the standards of poetics because it is always an act of human imagination and does not necessarily describe "reality."

The second reason why political theory is not strictly dialectical language is because, as James Arnt Aune has written, it "strives for advantage over its opponents," and so it is always a kind of persuasion. Because political theory is neither divine law or Platonic form-because it is always an act of human imagination-it must compete in the marketplace of ideas with other views of the best kind of government. Mostly, these debates over the best kind of government occur within the sphere of expert political theorists. The highly technical language used in these debates, coupled with the need to devote years of study to examining the best and worst regimes in world political history, prohibits all but the most interested from throwing their oar into the conversation, as Kenneth Burke would have said. There have been remarkable instances when the merits of a particular political theory were openly debated-the years between 1787 and 1789 when Americans debated the proposed constitution springs to mind-but these open discussions of political theory have been few and far between. Nonetheless, whether elite expert discourse communities are debating political theory or whether average citizens are included in the discussion, the fact remains that political theory can be debated. If something can be debated, it is inherently rhetorical, because when there is no a priori decision rule for how to judge the merits of the proposed political system, then both how to judge and the judgment itself are open to persuasion. Therefore political theory could be judged based upon the standards of rhetoric because it attempts to influence how political communities are constructed and maintained.

But, just because political theory could be judged based upon these standards, does that mean it is useful to do so? In other words, what benefits might accrue from an analysis of political theory as a blend of poetic, dialectic, and rhetoric? Taking political theory out of the category of dialectic and admitting that it shares the attributes of poetical and rhetorical language is not only a more accurate description of actually existing political theory, but it also allows us to ask questions about how, why, and to what effect political theory carries the appearance of truth and an accurate description of reality when it is just as poetical and rhetorical as other forms of discourse that are overtly recognized as attempts to imagine and persuade. Political theory is a simulacrum of dialectic: it is a rhetorical fiction that appears faithfully to describe political reality while it is also used to create political realities. Recognizing political theory's poetical and rhetorical functions opens it up to analysis, because it takes it out of the realm of unquestionable elite and expert discourse and re-places it in the realm of the public. After all, since political theory's telos is to manage the public, it seems fair that the public would have some say in how it would be managed. Therefore, reconceiving political theory as political fiction is a radically egalitarian attempt-radical in that it proposes a systemic paradigm shift, and egalitarian in that such a shift would allow all citizens to judge-to wrest the control of American political theory from the few and open it up to debate by the many.


Excerpted from Founding Fictions by JENNIFER R. MERCIECA Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. "Republicanism was an indefinite term": Political Fictions as Critical Tools for Citizenship....................9
2. "The Revolution was in the minds of the people": Citizens as Romantic Heroes, 1764-1776....................42
3. "The American Constitution is that little article of HOPE, left at the bottom of Pandora's box of evils": Citizens as Tragic Victims, 1783-1789....................83
4. "Who would not have been willing to have died such a death?": Citizens as Reified Patriot Heroes, July 4, 1826....................120
5. "I will not look up to the weather-cock of popularity, to see which way the gale is blowing": Citizens as Ironic Partisans, 1816-1845....................147
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