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The Transformation of Popular Politics in Europe’s Long Nineteenth Century

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Beyond the ballot: how ordinary people invented modern democracy

From petitions to picket lines, the tools for exerting political pressure in modern society had to be developed from scratch. The TRANSPOP project investigated how these technologies evolved.

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The road to democracy is long, and required the development of tools and procedures that allow citizens to effect change within such a political system. The TRANSPOP project, which was supported by the European Research Council, sought to shed light on how ordinary people developed the forms of collective action that European citizens are familiar with today. “We set out to discover the history of popular political participation in Europe, in the long 19th century,” says project coordinator Peter Stamatov. “We were motivated by a richness there that isn’t captured by existing research.” A key theme was the long transition from monarchical to democratic governance. “You can go back in time and see events like the Revolt of the Comuneros in Spain in the 16th century, which was a quasi-democratic revolution in the midst of the Hapsburg monarchy,” adds Stamatov. “You see how people were experimenting with different ways of doing politics.”

Pushing the envelope

Delving into historical records – newspapers, pamphlets and minutes from political pressure groups from across Europe – Stamatov and his colleagues at Carlos III University of Madrid realised that much of the advance in democratic technology came from those who were excluded from existing political processes. “In 1829, women in Britain and the United States for the first time started producing their own petitions to Parliament and Congress, that were signed and organised by women exclusively,” notes Stamatov. “This was highly unusual, it was considered inappropriate for women to petition, politics was the realm of men.” What made this change possible was the fact that, for decades, women had been active in charitable and mission organisations, and could apply those skills and their reputation as activists to the political arena. These petitions included calls to stamp out sati – the ritual self-immolation of widows in British-controlled India – and end the forced removal of the Cherokee people by United States president Andrew Jackson. “Women didn’t rise as a political force to get women’s right to vote, but found space to express political opinion on issues that were humanitarian in nature,” adds Stamatov. Another pattern the team noticed was the redefinition of central concepts to draw attention to issues. “You can see how the meaning of the word slavery was changed. The word was cavalierly used to denote a lack of political rights, but activists refocused it to express the suffering of enslaved people in the colonies,” explains Stamatov.

Democratic fragility

While the United States and the United Kingdom preserved the right to petition in their laws, this was not the case in continental Europe. Innovations such as this had to be developed and disseminated throughout Europe to become entrenched in the political process. Throughout the 19th century, people continued to look to the Anglo-American world for democratic techniques to adopt for their own purposes. These ideas converged and became standardised as forms of political expression in the 19th century. Stamatov and his colleagues are now preparing a monograph to share their findings. He says the research has made it apparent how fragile our democracies are: “We generations after the Second World War are spoiled. We are accustomed to democratic governance, we think this is how the world functions.” “But look at the past, and you realise what we take for granted is the result of so many protracted struggles. It makes me appreciate even more the achievement of democratic participation.”


TRANSPOP, democracy, participation, petition, slavery, sati, political, innovation, citizens, revolt, monarchy

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