Constituent Moments

Enacting the People in Postrevolutionary America

Constituent Moments

Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 2 illustrations Published: January 2010

Author: Jason Frank

American Studies, History > U.S. History, Politics > Political Theory

Since the American Revolution, there has been broad cultural consensus that “the people” are the only legitimate ground of public authority in the United States. For just as long, there has been disagreement over who the people are and how they should be represented or institutionally embodied. In Constituent Moments, Jason Frank explores this dilemma of authorization: the grounding of democratic legitimacy in an elusive notion of the people. Frank argues that the people are not a coherent or sanctioned collective. Instead, the people exist as an effect of successful claims to speak on their behalf; the power to speak in their name can be vindicated only retrospectively. The people, and democratic politics more broadly, emerge from the dynamic tension between popular politics and representation. They spring from what Frank calls “constituent moments,” moments when claims to speak in the people’s name are politically felicitous, even though those making such claims break from established rules and procedures for representing popular voice.

Elaborating his theory of constituent moments, Frank focuses on specific historical instances when under-authorized individuals or associations seized the mantle of authority, and, by doing so, changed the inherited rules of authorization and produced new spaces and conditions for political representation. He looks at crowd actions such as parades, riots, and protests; the Democratic-Republican Societies of the 1790s; and the writings of Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass. Frank demonstrates that the revolutionary establishment of the people is not a solitary event, but rather a series of micropolitical enactments, small dramas of self-authorization that take place in the informal contexts of crowd actions, political oratory, and literature as well as in the more formal settings of constitutional conventions and political associations.


Constituent Moments does offer yet another version of how historical experience might be understood as shot through with aesthetic- in this case, largely performative - dimensions.” — Jonathan Elmer, Early American Literature

“[]egant and rich exploration of postrevolutionary dilemmas of popular authorization. . . . Masterful and confident work. . .” — Vicki Hsueh, Theory & Event

“[S]ignificant and exciting. . .offer[s] compelling readings of important texts and thinkers, and suggest[s] whole new trajectories of research linking the American past and present to an evolving American future.” — Andrew R. Murphy, Perspectives on Politics

Constituent Moments is the best book on the founding of the United States to have been written in several generations. Jason Frank goes beyond American political history, opening an old question from the Leviathan: ‘The People: What?’ This question is at the heart of democratic sovereignty. Jason Frank's careful attention to canonical political theory and his attentive study of those who acted in the name of the people enables him to follow, as few could, in the footsteps of Thomas Hobbes. This is a genuinely brilliant book.” — Anne Norton, author of Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire

“Jason Frank has written an essential work of scholarship, a book that is destined to become a primary resource for democratic theorists, scholars of American political thought, historians of the postrevolutionary era, and anyone else who is interested in seeing the politics of democratic revolution in a new light.” — Thomas Dumm, author of A Politics of the Ordinary

”’The people is a political claim,’ says Jason Frank in this magnificent book. If that claim has power that is because American democracy is the beneficiary of a ‘constitutive surplus inherited from the revolutionary era.’ Frank adds to the surplus by tracking, mobilizing, enhancing the slippage between the people as fact and aspiration, fragmentation and ideal. Attentive to imagination, representation, and voice, he finds new resources for democratic theory in both Hannah Arendt and the crowds she mistrusted, in Whitman's homoerotic poetry but also in its (re)production, in the gothic conundra of voice and representation explored by Brown novelistically and by Rancière theoretically. Cutting across genres usually segmented by disciplinary division, Frank's text is rich in historical detail and theoretical nuance. A must-read for anyone interested in democratic theory, sexuality studies, racial politics, political theology and new realist approaches to the politics of citizenship.” — Bonnie Honig, author of Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jason Frank is the Gary S. Davis Assistant Professor in the History of Political Thought at Cornell University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Constituent Moments 1

1. Revolution and Reiteration: Hannah Arendt's Critique of Constituent Power 41

2. Crowds and Communication: Representation and Voice in Postrevolutionary America 67

3. Sympathy and Separation: Benjamin Rush and the Contagious Public 101

4. Spaces of Insurgent Citizenship: Theorizing the Democratic-Republican Societies 128

5. Hearing Voices: Imagination and Authority in Wieland 156

6. Aesthetic Democracy: Walt Whitman and the Poetry of the People 182

7. Staging Dissensus: Frederick Douglass and "We the People" 209

Conclusion: Prospective Time 237

Notes 255

Bibliography 301

Index 331
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4675-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4663-0
Publicity material