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Fall 2015, 45.4, pages 324-345

Developing Democratic Dispositions: Eighteenth-Century Public Debating Societies and the Generative Capacity of Decorum

Abstract: This essay argues that public debating societies that emerged in Britain in the later eighteenth century functioned as sites of invention where citizens could develop dispositions associated with a more inclusive form of democracy. I locate the generative aspects of these forums in the principle of decorum. I argue that this principle functioned as a means for participants to negotiate traditional codes of conduct and standards of speech that constrained interactions among various constituents of the body politic. To illustrate this claim, I focus on the clash of codes exemplified in an encounter between a Quaker woman and a member of Parliament in a public debating forum. By highlighting these discursive interactions, this essay extends current conversations in public sphere theory that call for a focus on the processes and forms of rhetorical engagement among diverse publics.

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