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Smith's method is to interpret, in light of such popular discourse as newspapers and novels, several key texts in nineteenth-century American political thought: Frederick Douglass's Fourth of July speech and Narrative, Angelina Grimke's debate with Catharine Beecher, Frances Wright's lectures, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Such texts, Smith finds, highlight many of the then-current ideas about the extremes of political expression. Her readings support the conclusions that the value of rational argument itself was contested, that the emergent Enlightenment rationalism may have helped to sterilize political debate, and that storytelling or testimony posed an important challenge to the norm of political rationality.
Smith explores facets of the political culture in ways that make sense of traditions from Whiggish resistance to Protestant narrative testimony. She helps us to understand such puzzles as the point of mob action and other ritualistic disruptions of the political process, our simultaneous attraction to and suspicion of political debates, and the appeal of stories by and about victims of injustice. Also found in her book are keen analyses of the antebellum press and the importance of oratory and public speaking.
Smith shows that alternatives to reasoned deliberation-like protest, resistance, and storytelling-have a place in politics. Such alternatives underscore the positive role that interest, passion, compassion, and even violence might play in the political life of America. Her book, therefore, is a cautionary analysis of how rationality came to dominate our thinking about politics and why its hegemony should concern us. Ultimately Smith reminds the reader that democracy and reasoned public debate are not synonymous and that the linkage is not necessarily a good thing.
Part I. Mob Action
1. Eighteenth-Century Riots
2. Rioting in the Antebellum Era
Part II. Public Debate
3. Neoclassical Rhetoric and Political Oratory
4. Enlightenment Rationalism and Political Debate
Part III. Narrative Testimony