michelle sizemore on the whiskey rebellion and popular sovereignty in the early united states of america


Michelle R. Sizemore, ‘When are the People?: Temporality, Popular Sovereignty, and the U.S. Settler State’, South Central Review 30, 1, (2013).

This essay examines the subject of anti-imperialism through the lens of settler postcolonial studies, an approach that immediately confounds sure distinctions between pro- and anti- imperialism. In the mid-1790s, during the Whiskey Rebellion, farmers in western Pennsylvania revolted against a federal government that used them to advance the course of empire while simultaneously treating them as colonists within the empire they labored and risked to create.Even the briefest sketch of this historical episode hints at the complexity of settler subjects’ imperial affiliations and attitudes. Technically, the whiskey rebels were both: in favor of those policies and customs that sanctioned the appropriation of Indian lands and against those that positioned white settlers as subalterns. My contention is that this popular uprising against the imperialist dictates of the U.S. government clarifies two competing visions of empire much more than it reveals opposing stances for and against.

In this article I suggest that these competing visions of empire play out in the widespread debate over popular sovereignty, and my primary concern is how traditional notions of sovereignty were re-negotiated within the context of settler rights. Looking at the Whiskey Rebellion, including George Washington’s actual and symbolic role in suppressing the revolt, I argue that the last decade of the eighteenth century witnessed an uncomfortable shift from unitary to plural sovereignty. Made clear by documentary evidence from the rebellion, republican political culture shifted away from authority concentrated in a single individual to its anonymous dispersal far and wide. With this shift comes the dislocation of sovereign power, the diffusion of sovereignty in time as well as in space. This model of sovereignty, on which the decentralized settler model of empire thrived, would severely weaken the centralized federal model of empire.

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