Mark Guenther Schmeller is Associate Professor of History at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. This interview is based on his new book, Invisible Sovereign: Imagining Public Opinion from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Invisible Sovereign?
MS: When I began this project I was interested in the origins of public opinion polling and the larger changes wrought upon the concept of public opinion by advertising, marketing, and modernist social science in the early twentieth century. But one chapter into that project, I realized that I had no idea what “public opinion” meant before the twentieth century. So I went back to the late eighteenth century, when the term “public opinion” worked its way into common usage. From there, I began to look around for contexts in which the meaning of the concept seemed especially important and contested. For example, I found that political controversies over public credit in the 1790s compelled Federalists and Jeffersonian Democrats to articulate sharply different conceptions of public opinion. Disputes over what one might call the ethics of mass persuasion – the methods devised by political parties to win votes, or the measures employed by revivalists to gain converts – also generated new ideas about public opinion. In some contexts, public opinion could be synonymous with the code of honor, especially when the honor of a public man had been impugned in the press. And the concept also played an increasingly significant and divisive role in controversies over slavery and abolitionism.
In the end, I came to see that the meaning of public opinion was more a product of political contestation than some neutral ground on which politics was contested. Invisible Sovereign is about this politics of public opinion – a politics in which contestants sought to persuade public opinion by defining what it was and was not.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Invisible Sovereign?
MS: The book 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. And this was a significant shift, because the revolutionary settlement was in many respects built upon the former, and the growing divide between North and South had much to do with the latter.
JF: Why do we need to read Invisible Sovereign?
MS: Because claims to measure, persuade, or represent public opinion are such a common feature of our present political discourse, we can easily fall into the trap of presuming to know what “public opinion” means, and that it has always meant what we presume it to mean. For example, the ubiquity of polling might lead us to think that public opinion has always been understood as an aggregate of individual opinions. But if we trace the concept back to its eighteenth-century origins, the opposite view appears to have been prevalent: public opinion was thought to precede individual opinions. Similarly, our present-day conceptions of public opinion tend to be very “media-centric”: we assume that communications media shape public opinion. But in some important respects, antebellum Americans assumed the opposite: that “public opinion” would police what newspapers printed, with violence if need be.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MS: There must have been an exact moment when I made that decision, but I honestly cannot recall it or the reasoning involved. My father is a professor of European history, so I always had some interest in the study of history, but he never really pushed me towards an academic career. After college, I worked in politics for several years, and developed something of an obsession with public opinion polling. Those experiences also led me to become much more interested in United States history. So when I wound up in graduate school, I gravitated towards public opinion, despite my best intentions to study something else.
JF: What is your next project?
MS: I’m looking into the 1826 abduction and (likely) murder of William Morgan, an upstate New York laborer who had threatened to publish a book revealing the secret rites of the Freemasons. It is common knowledge that outrage over the kidnapping, and the subsequent efforts of Freemasons to shield fellow members from prosecution, led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party. But surprisingly little has been written on the crime itself and the ensuing trials. I think they will make for an interesting micro-history that touches on a number of things that fascinate me: the perceived operation and dangers of secret societies, conspiracies, and oaths, the proliferation and power of rumor, the political significance of religion in the “burned-over district,” and the importance of courts, juries, and ad hoc investigative committees in enforcing community justice and maintaining the “people’s peace.”
JF: Thanks, Mark!