Mary P. Ryan traces the fate of public life and the emergence of ethnic, class, and gender conflict in the nineteenth-century city in this ambitious retelling of a key period of American political and social history. Basing her analysis on three quite different cities—New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco—Ryan illustrates how city spaces were used, understood, and fought over by a dazzling variety of social groups and political forces. She finds that the democratic exuberance America enjoyed in the 1820s and 1840s was irrevocably damaged by the Civil War. Civic life rebounded after the War but was, in Ryan's words, "less public, less democratic, and more visibly scarred by racial bigotry."
Ryan's analysis is played out on three different levels—the spatial, the ceremonial, and the political. As she follows the decline of informal democracy from the age of Jackson to the heyday of industrial capitalism, she finds the roots of America's resilient democratic culture in the vigorous, often belligerent urban conflicts that found expression in the social movements, riots, celebrations, and other events that punctuated daily life in these urban centers. With its insightful comparisons, meticulous research, and graceful narrative, this study illustrates the ways in which American cities of the nineteenth century were as full of cultural differences and as fractured by social and economic changes as any metropolis today.
Mary P. Ryan is Professor of History and Women's Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (1981; winner of the Bancroft Prize) and Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880 (1990).
"Civic Wars is a great study of the American city. It combines history, anthropology, and politics to render the culture of American cities as a drama, full of conflict. Civic Wars is more than an academic study; Mary Ryan is passionately committed to cities as the necessary places of citizenship."—Richard Sennett, author of Flesh and Stone
"A bold, innovative study of nineteenth-century city people and their tumultuous politics. Ryan raises talk of 'the public sphere' to a new height by grounding it in the rough, evolving life of urban America. Anyone interested in the history of democracy should read this book."—Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History
"An eloquent and compelling narrative of the fate of public life in the nineteenth-century city. No one else has analyzed the robust democratic public culture of the antebellum years with such depth and subtlety; no one else has provided such a masterful combination of social and political history. Her important book will reshape not only our historical understanding of the nineteenth-century city but also contemporary debates about the fate of democratic public life."—Roy Rosenzweig, author of Eight Hours for What We Will
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