Book studies the evolving idea of public opinion

Historian Mark Schmeller’s new book, Invisible Sovereign, describes how, over two centuries, public opinion has gained a larger role in political discourse.

Schmeller,-Mark.jpgOver the course of more than 200 years, American political sentiment has developed into an integral facet of our democracy, though it was not always as robust as it is today. The advent and growth of public opinion in the American political sphere is the subject of Mark G. Schmeller’s new book, Invisible Sovereign (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). Schmeller lays out the progression of public opinion in the United States over more than a century, from its revolutionary roots to the Gilded Age, and asserts that its rapid growth cultivated both our national identity as well as civic and social movements during this time.

Today, numerous channels for public opinion — from ‘letters to the editor’ to social media — are at the public’s disposal. In revolutionary America however, the nascent concept of political opinion was just beginning to take shape. The idea that the public could help to mold the direction and scope of government was new and puzzling to many. In his book, Schmeller explains that public opinion was first used by the government establishment to bolster the political status quo, but it eventually came to serve as a mouthpiece for larger social movements in the United States. As it grew, more and more voices joined in, creating the groundwork for the vast range of discourse that we see today.

Mark Schmeller is an associate professor of history at the Maxwell School, focusing on American political thought and communications history in the 18th and 19th centuries. His past work has covered the role of newspapers in early American political life and how political actors utilized both oral and written forms of communication to spread revolutionary sentiment throughout the colonies. 02/19/16