The Public and Its Possibilities

Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City

John Fairfield
Book Cover

PB: $28.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-0211-0
Publication: Jan 12

HC: $76.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-0210-3
Publication: Mar 10

Ebook: $28.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-0212-7

368 pages

Throughout U.S. history, our unrealized civic aspirations provide the essential counterpoint to an excessive focus on private interests

Read the Introduction (pdf).


"A sustained argument about the repeated and resilient assertion of public democracy in American cities, and the forces that inhibited and subverted its full expression." - Mary Ryan, John Martin Vincent Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University

"As long ago as the 1920s Frederick Jackson Turner suggested an urban interpretation of American history; John Fairfield takes up that challenge. A hope long since abandoned to monographic specialization in the field has been happily realized in the powerful work of synthesis crafted by John Fairfield. The Public and Its Possibilities is a smart, imaginatively conceived and researched, well written, and passionately told history of the challenges and possibilities of a lively urban democratic public." —Thomas Bender, New York University

"A work of historical synthesis and political criticism, John Fairfield’s book is a powerful reminder of the indispensable role of American cities in fostering a more expansive civic culture. Fairfield writes in the tradition of Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, and Jane Jacobs—alert to the ever-changing landscape of streets and plazas, public institutions, and informal associations that have enabled city residents of different backgrounds to imagine themselves as citizens and act accordingly. And like those urbanist critics, Fairfield is acutely aware that the market fundamentalism that has devastated many American cities has had equally devastating consequences for our capacity for democratic self-government. His concluding call for a new ‘ecology of the city’ could not be more timely." —Casey Nelson Blake, Columbia University

"One of the many overarching themes Fairfield addresses, the one that most effectively conveys the evolution of the US city is civic activism. The author connects this theme to virtually every other historical topic, such as women's rights, labor, economics, and ultimately, urban ecology, in a most convincing manner. Although this is a scholarly work, general readers will find the prose accessible and stimulating. Summing Up: Recommended." —CHOICE

"John Fairfield is concerned about the health of the American body politic and the state of our national conversation.... (His) book opens up this conversation. We have a lot to talk about." —The Cutting Edge

"Fairfield's writing is excellent throughout. He has somehow managed to condense entire book-shelves of work into seamless, quote-rich prose. ... The city comes into true focus only in his superb last chapter, which pegs twentieth century civic decline to the relative post-WWII fortunes of cities and suburbs. Fairfield's chronicle of post-war urban decay is the best short summary I have seen." —Contemporary Sociology

"John Fairfield offers a passionate reading of American political history that tries to reinvigorate democratic traditions in the face of neoliberal capitalism....It is thickly argued, deeply embedded in 40 years of historical scholarship, and filled with references to people, organizations, and events.... (He) has provided a valuable book that will stimulate and inspire its readers—perhaps to argument and hopefully to action." —The Journal of Urban Affairs

"The book narrates a rise and fall of public democracy.... The last section...offers Fairfield’s argument at its strongest, demonstrating the massive resource mobilization that solidified the postwar transformation of America — from highway construction and suburban mortgage subsidies to industrial decentralization, the rise of 'homeowner populism and the fragmentation of metropolitan government,' and urban dispossession through 'redevelopment and renewal.'" —The Journal of American History

"The Public and Its Possibilities is a highly readable book that covers a great deal of ground and successfully delineates the resurgent efforts by various groups to reinvigorate American democracy. Its picture of the transformation of the Republican Party from defender of abolition to bulwark of propertied conservativism is perhaps its most compelling part....(T)his is a book well worth reading and assigning." —Perspectives on Politics

"In The Public and its Possibilities , John D Fairfield synthesizes the work of a multitude of scholars to give a detailed overview of the trajectory of the public throughout American history. It is an impressive survey of American social, political and labour history as seen through the lens of a civic public created through deliberation and engaged with political questions.... The Public and Its Possibilities is a wonderful resource for understanding how a democratic public has been imagined, promoted and repressed throughout the history of the USA. It chronicles the centrality of the urban to the democratic public and makes a significant argument for the importance of cities to our social and political health." —Urban Studies

"(A) sweeping account of democracy in urban America...Fairfield’s impressive synthesis brings together decades of secondary literature covering American urban and political history in a narrative that locates the city as the testing ground for more expansive definitions of citizenship and national belonging." —Journal of Urban History

Table of Contents

Preface: The Public and Its Possibilities Introduction: Liberalism and the Civic Strand in the American Past Civic Aspirations and Liberal Values An Urban Thesis Part I. Civic Aspirations and Market Development in a Long Age of Revolution 1.Democratizing the Republican Ideal of Citizenship: Virtue, Interests, and the Citizen-Proprietor in the Revolutionary Era Seaport Cities: Crucibles of Market and Public The People Out of Doors and the Imperial Crisis A More Democratic Public: Consumer Boycotts Politicize the Household The Threat of Enslavement and the Need for Virtue: The Unifying Myth of the American Revolution Virtue and Vice in an Overheated Market Redeeming the Revolution: Virtues or Mechanisms? Citizen-Proprietors and the Democratization of Competence Revolutionary Legacies, Democratic Futures 2. Creating Citizens in a Commercial Republic: Market 33 Transformation and the Free Labor Ideal, 1812–1873 The Origins of the Free Labor Ideal The Market Revolution and the Public Purpose Labor Politics in the Jacksonian City: Unjust Government and a Conspiracy to Enslave A Crippled Democracy: Jacksonian Fears and Whig Paternalism The Free Labor Ideology and the Transformation of Northern Whiggery Positive Liberty: Turning Slaves into Citizens The Limits of Radical Republicanism 3. The Short, Strange Career of Laissez-Faire: Liberal Reformers and Genteel Culture in the Gilded Age Big Business and Small Politics in the Gilded Age Liberal Reformers and Genteel Culture The Liberal Reformers’ Encounter with the City Civic Murder: Liberal Reformers and Public Opinion “This Word Culture”: An Industrial Tragedy at Pullman Part II. Popular Culture, Political Culture: Building a Democratic Public 4. The Democratic Public in City and Nation: The Jacksonian City and the Limits of Antislavery Constructing a Public Realm In the Streets: Law and the Public Realm To the Park: The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Jacksonian Public Popular Culture, Political Culture Young America and Democratic Culture The Republic of the Streets and Fields The Astor Place Riot Fatal Flaw: Young America and Negrophobia Cultural Laissez-Faire versus the Evangelical United Front Antislavery: Passion and Rationality in the Antebellum Public Lincoln’s Rhetorical Revolution 5. The Democratic Public Discredited: The New York City Draft Riots and Urban Reconstruction, 1850–1872 “The Most Radical City in America” Nativism and the Erosion of Municipal Autonomy The New York City Draft Riots Draconian Justice: Reconstructing New York City The Spectacular Rise and Precipitous Fall of Boss Tweed Postwar Republicanism: Labor Revolt and Metropolitan Capital Retrenchment and Reform 6. Cultural Hierarchy and Good Government: The Democratic Public in Eclipse Highbrow/Lowbrow and an Incompetent Citizenry Don’t Get Out the Vote Municipal Counterrevolution: Dillon’s Rule and the Benevolent Expert Domesticating the City Civic Vertigo: The City Biological and Pathological The Degeneration of Popular Politics Mob Mind, Befuddled Public Part III. The Public in Progressivism and War 7. The Republican Moment: The Rediscovery of the Public in the Progressive Era The City Beautiful and Intelligent The Georgists and the City Republic Democracy as Cooperative Inquiry: The Social Centers Movement Mass Media and the Socialization of Intelligence Nickel Madness or the Academy of the Working Man? The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and the Mutual Decision The Rise of Hollywood and the Incorporation of Movie Culture 8. The Public Goes to War but Does Not Come Back: Requiem for a Participatory Democracy The War Intellectuals and The New Republic The War for the American Mind From Mastery to Drift Trusting the Public Too Much or Too Little? A Democrat on the Defensive Participatory Democracy and Urban Culture: From Public Opinion to Public Relations Part IV. A Democracy of Consumers 9. From Economic Democracy to Social Security: The Labor Movement and the Rise of the Welfare/Warfare State Industrial Democracy, Industrial Discipline The Syndicalist Moment From the New Freedom to the New Nationalism: War and the Triumph of the Corporate State Labor’s War From Welfare Capitalism to Moral Capitalism Democratic Unions, Labor Party The Second New Deal: Consumerist Democracy and the End of Antimonopoly From New Deal to New War: Liberals and Labor Abandon Reform Taming Labor in the Welfare/Warfare State 10. Constructing a Consumer Culture: Redirecting Leisure from Civic Engagement to Insatiable Desire The Popular Demand for Leisure and the Rise of the Saloon The Leisure Question and Cheap Amusements The Discovery of Play Captains of Consciousness, Land of Desire Exit the Saloon, Enter the Bijou Shaping Character, Inculcating Values The Incorporation of the Consumer Culture Mass Culture, Mass Media, and the Consumerization of Politics 11. Private Vision, Public Resources: Mass Suburbanization and the Decline of the City New Deal Urban Policy and the Suburban-Industrial Complex The Origins of the Urban Crisis I: Eroding the Tax and Employment Base The Origins of the Urban Crisis II: Homeowner Pop u lism and the Fragmentation of Metropolitan Government Central City Housing: The Racial Time Bomb Dispossession: Urban Redevelopment and Urban Renewal Confronting the Reverse Welfare State: From Civil Rights to Black Power Two Societies, Separate and Unequal Suburban Secession and Farewell to the Public Realm Conclusion: The Future of the City: Civic Renewal and Environmental Politics The Great Unfinished Tasks of American Civilization Private City, Public Crisis Visions of Fear and Hope Toward an Ecology of the City Acknowledgments Notes Index

About the Author(s)

John D. Fairfield is Professor of History and Academic Director of the Institute for Politics and Public Life at Xavier University and the author of The Mysteries of the Great City: The Politics of Urban Design, 1877-1937.


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