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Invisible Sovereign

, 256 pages

2 b&w illus., 3 charts

January 2016



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Invisible Sovereign

Imagining Public Opinion from the Revolution to Reconstruction


In the early American republic, the concept of public opinion was a recent—and ambiguous—invention. While appearing to promise a new style and system of democratic and deliberative politics, the concept was also invoked to limit self-rule, cement traditional prejudices and hierarchies, forestall deliberation, and marginalize dissent. As Americans contested the meaning of this essentially contestable idea, they expanded and contracted the horizons of political possibility and renegotiated the terms of political legitimacy.

Tracing the notion of public opinion from its late eighteenth-century origins to the Gilded Age, Mark G. Schmeller’s Invisible Sovereign argues that public opinion is a central catalyst in the history of American political thought. Schmeller treats it as a contagious idea that infected a broad range of discourses and practices in powerful, occasionally ironic, and increasingly contentious ways.

Ranging across a wide variety of historical fields, Invisible Sovereign traces a shift over time from early "political-constitutional" concepts, which identified public opinion with a sovereign people and wrapped it in the language of constitutionalism, to more modern, "social-psychological" concepts, which defined public opinion as a product of social action and mass communication.

Mark G. Schmeller is an associate professor of history at Syracuse University.

"An impressive and edifying contribution to the history of early national and antebellum American political thought. Invisible Sovereign is eloquent, witty, deeply researched, and attuned to the significant and interesting features of the many sources it analyzes and the issues it raises."

"This is an extremely important contribution... He has written a fine book. It will be an essential point of departure for future explorations of public opinion in the American past"

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