How Representation Worked


Review of The Right of Instruction and Representation in American Legislatures, 1778 to 1900, by Peverill Squire

Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2021


It has become a chilling truism that the health of representative government in the United States depends on democratic habits and conventions. These are mediating political norms and practices that written constitutions do not reduce to clear commands. They grow and erode, are hollowed out and change meaning over time. Their acute contingency for good or for ill—e.g., the role of vote certification or the sanctity of the filibuster—now occasions daily professions of dread as the corrosive poison of the Trump Cause spreads. Peverill Squire’s The Right of Instruction and Representation in American Legislatures, 1778 to 1900 helps us see these dynamics in historical perspective by recovering a vanished cluster of principles and unofficial procedures that guided political representation across the nineteenth century. Through research far-reaching in temporal and geographical scope, this book shows a lost world of governance that revolved around instructions and requests sent by collectivities of constituents to their federal and state legislators. 

By doggedly asking when, where, and how popular instruction of elected officials worked on the ground, Squire charts a wider, more enduring career of “actionable communications” than has any previous scholar (5). The Right of Instruction tells a largely happy story about how a vibrant commitment to formal constituent communication organized the experience of being represented and the work of representing in an expanding polity. Assuming democracy over the period, Squire suggests in closing that “even without modern communications technologies or scientific public opinion surveys, lawmakers in the nineteenth century were better informed about their voters’ priorities than are their modern counterparts” (113). 

Through the questions he does not ask, however, Squire also shows how the comfort of democratic forms can obscure the absence of democratic substance in the stories we tell of American political history. The book’s scope of vision focuses narrowly on locating the existence of the right of instruction at the expense of accounting for differences in the underlying issues fought over, frameworks of disenfranchisement affecting racial minorities, women, and Indigenous non-citizens, and ruptures in political culture and the composition of the electorate during the nineteenth century. The Right of Instruction presents a truly invaluable body of information on the historical relationship between electors and elected; but I believe that the meaning of those findings remains open to other interpretations and more critical analysis than Squire allows.

In the United States, post-independence predicaments of representation reared up in theory and practicability. How ought citizens, or perhaps only voters, communicate their interests and preferences to lawmakers? One answer was the right of instruction. Primary assemblies of “the people,” or the people who mattered in formal politics, could convene and tell their representatives what to do—a practice with roots in colonial New England town meetings that newly resonated with republican principles. Further uncertainties followed, though: What gatherings counted as primary assemblies? What force should these directions have on lawmaking activities? To what extent were state and federal representatives bound to heed instructions, and were federal senators similarly bound to take directions from the legislatures that chose them? These are among the questions that crop up as Squire examines public debates and tallies invocations of the right of instruction.

After introductory remarks, Squire opens The Right of Instruction with a succinct account of the status of that right during the founding era and early national period. No consensus prevailed on its recognition or propriety, he concludes, but the antebellum generation that followed more readily embraced instruction. Interestingly, Squire notices that a number of state constitutions incorporated some recognition of the right with varying clarity and intensity over the long span he covers.

An important ambiguity soon arises that recurs throughout the book: It is quite difficult to understand what any historical actor or set of voices that Squire arrays actually thought the right of instruction encompassed. Was it a right to be heard or also to be obeyed? Or perhaps it was something in between—a strong request that a representative ought to follow or risk a heightened measure of voter discontent? Does seemingly imperative language in one instance or terms admitting discretion in another signify a clear, categorical difference across a century? And what any particular historical voice said about instruction, whether arguing in the abstract about a particularly contentious instruction or in the course of arguing about other matters entirely, was inevitably situational—as several instances of politician reversals documented by Squire tend to show.

Squire gamely tries to make sense of some of these issues. He distinguishes instructions from requests and sets forth a tripartite division of instructional relationships between constituents and representatives: pure trustee, pure delegate, and conditional delegate. The conditional position, in which constitutional objections provided the valid basis for deviating from instructions, potentially raises a fresh question about popular constitutionalism in the nineteenth century. Scholars have studied disputes over whether officials in different government departments had an equal authority to interpret the U.S. Constitution as well as whether “the people themselves” retained such a right; but the matter of senators privileging their constitutional judgments over that of their instructors, potentially in consonance or conflict with judicial and executive views, brings these themes together in an unexpected way. 

Squire’s research on conversations around instruction yields several conclusions. They include: that “there was broad agreement that a primary assembly of the people enjoyed the right to instruct its elected representatives” (18); that opposition to instruction “came to dominate” elite opinion (21); that the “general public also engaged in the debate on instructions, but unlike what transpired with elites, it never converged on an agreed position” (25); and that in “most places it was thought state legislators would always obey” (34). 

Making these generalizations is a challenge, as Squire forthrightly offers plenty of conflicting testimony. And it is a task made more challenging still by the nagging ambiguity of what the right of instruction meant in different times, places and minds, especially when measured in terms of what remedy, if any, should exist for disobedience. Common answers appear to have included nothing, guilt, loss of popularity, non-reelection, and resignation. In cases where electoral losses occurred, it seems difficult to disentangle the role of violated principle from unpopular policy and performance. For understanding these debates, I think that the distinction between elites and general public is less than illuminating. These terms go undefined and, based on the sources and examples that Squire discusses, they primarily map onto partisan divisions. 

On the whole, however, scholars should appreciate how Squire has woven together several chapters containing historical voices expressing every conceivable rationale for and against instruction and the disputed contours of such a right. Hundreds of examples abound, such as when Squire finds the Brooklyn municipal government apparently attempting to instruct a state representative in 1857, which provoked the cutting response that “I am not (one) of the representatives of the Common Council of Brooklyn. The inhabitants of Kings county are my constituents and to them I hold myself accountable.—The Aldermen of Brooklyn are not my masters” (57). One can disagree with specific generalizations or interpretations—which perhaps tend towards ascribing greater importance and good faith to instructions than is warranted—but the net effect is to convey a rich sense of how enfranchised and entitled citizens thought about their control or influence over representatives and how representatives spoke about being controlled or influenced. 

But the evidentiary heart and great contribution of this book is not in the public conversations it analyzes. Rather, it is the mountain of actionable communications that Squire has compiled and categorized from “town records and histories, county records and histories, state legislative journals, state records, and newspaper reports,” as well as from official U.S. Senate records (43). These communications are the basis of separate chapters on how instructions and requests to state lawmakers and to congressional delegations were created and received. 

The scale of the sources consulted requires the endnotes to fill nearly as many pages as the text itself. Squire’s data set comprises 5,039 actionable communications sent to state legislators and 6,691 actionable communications sent to Congress. It was “straightforward” to classify communications as either instructions or requests based on whether they contained equivocal language concerning a representative’s duty (43). Squire paints an edifying series of pictures with these datasets: they illustrate separate flows of instructions and requests over time, show differences by state or region, and break down the subject of communications into dozens of categories. All of this affords a more sustained and systematic view of the currents of demands reaching representatives from various constituent bodies, each imbued with different authority and stakes.

From this evidence, The Right of Instruction offers four revisions to what Squire designates the “conventional wisdom” of constituent instructions. First, he finds that “constituent instructions were an integral part of the American representational system” for the period he surveys with state legislative instructions to U.S. senators only one facet of the right in action (110). Second, he counts many more instructions issued over a longer period than has been recognized previously. The stream of instructions to state lawmakers was “remarkably stable,” while those directed from state legislatures to congressional delegations declined in the last two decades of the nineteenth century (111). These findings are blunted in part by data showing, as Squire notes, that instructions were produced at a “low but constant rate” over the nineteenth century while requests burgeoned after the Civil War (44). According to Squire, this profusion of requests reflected demands for legislative action from bodies that could not plausibly claim to be primary bodies capable of issuing instructions. But changes in political culture and language as well as the salience and conceptual coherence of institutions cannot be discounted. 

Third, because past scholarship on instruction has focused on specific controversies in southern states, Squire emphasizes that instruction was a decidedly national representational norm, one embraced especially by California and several midwestern states. The fourth and “most significant” intervention is that the right of instruction was primarily exercised to signal voters’ priorities about economic development policies, and they were almost always obeyed by representatives (111). In keeping with this finding, most instructions came from newer states seeking material benefits from Congress. Squire explains that contrary to the impression given by prior scholarship, instructions were only rarely meant to compel votes on contentious issues. 

This fourth intervention is indeed an important empirical insight. Yet this finding rests upon an unexamined interpretive choice: to treat instructions as a single, fixed category over a century without regard for their underlying content or the shifting political meaning of instructions in a given moment; that is, it assumes that “actionable communications” are alike for purposes of comparison because each utters the shibboleth of “instruct.” 

Analysis frequently unfolds through deliberate jumping between time, place and issue. In a jarring juxtaposition that exemplifies this lumping tendency, Squire supports the argument that, “Calls for instructions came from virtually every quarter of society,” by placing examples of Louisiana slaveholders convening a meeting to instruct legislators to more thoroughly police Black people alongside a public meeting in Nevada to instruct a lawmaker to present a bill allowing Washoe County to levy a tax for an experimental station farm (35). The word “instruct” appears in each, but a gulf separates their politics, political culture, and human dimensions. In short, the book adopts a methodology of decontextualization in which the existence of an instruction obscures the particular field in which it originates and operates. While the rewards of this choice are a clear revisionary story of functional democracy—of representation “working”—I am concerned that what is lost is a history that matters to the subject at hand. 

It may be useful to consider how two unasked questions about the context of instructions could bear heavily upon their meaning as a norm of democratic practice. The first is about partisanship. The second is about the exclusive character of instruction.

Prior literature on instruction has focused on the antebellum U.S. Senate and has emphasized its partisan cast. Reviewing this history, Squire writes: 

It is, therefore, easy to assume that state legislative instructions were inextricably entangled with partisan politics. They clearly were on the high-profile cases that captured public attention. Looking beyond them, however, the relationship between party and instructions was complicated. The Whigs, for example, were befuddled by instructions, and their inconsistent approach to them left the party open to charges of hypocrisy, particularly when state legislatures they controlled chose to issue instructions to senators placed in office by the Democrats. (74-75)

The approach indicated here understates how instruction was a long-running weapon for producing political difference. It leads to the omission of important information about sources. Various ardent statements addressing instructions taken from meetings, speeches, and writings are presented independent of their partisan context. One must often consult endnotes for dates and look up newspapers, debates, and biographical information to discover that language emanated not from settled descriptions of how representation worked but from efforts to rally voters, fueled by the bonfire of ideological divisions that are not primarily about instruction itself. 

For example, in depicting a Founding without a consensus on instruction, First Congress Representative Thomas Tudor Tucker is quoted to demonstrate the pro-instruction understanding. But his affiliations and ideological position are unstated. It matters that Tucker had opposed the Constitution and creation of a robust national government, would stand at the vanguard of Jeffersonian-Republicans, and that his opinions were pitted against the dominant Federalist Party and much stronger opposition to instruction. 

I think it would be fair to say that the subsequent rise of senatorial instruction is part of the fall of the Founders’ Constitution, as told by Saul Cornell and Gerald Leonard. More importantly, however, instructions became a cudgel for Jacksonian Democrat state legislatures to purge senators and enforce party discipline; in the party’s hands, instructions took on great ideological weight. In turn, Whig lawmakers, who generally opposed instruction, sometimes sought to turn the tables on Democratic lawmakers by issuing instructions. They were not “befuddled” by the doctrine of instruction but rather were navigating a political environment in which the opposing party had honed a potent rhetorical weapon. In my view, Squire’s ambition to cabin partisanship while treating more than a century of instructions as a single, coherent object of study invites unnecessary tensions. 

But this hardly condemns the essential interventions of The Right of Instruction. Squire writes that senatorial instruction “can only be fully fathomed when that relationship is placed in the broader context of all constituent instructions” (110). I would suggest that he shows the value of separating these stories. To my mind, Squire gives ample evidence that there may have broadly been two kinds of instructions: the kind that has received most scholarly attention and a more routine convention of representation, focused on economic development priorities, that was conducted through the language of instruction. The former drove the conversation then and now about instruction; the latter comprised far more of the actual instruction.

There is another significant issue of decontextualization that I think deserves reflection. What is lost by assuming that instruction is democratic in form and substance? Both in its high-profile face as a weapon of the antebellum Democracy and in its routine face as a means of economic policymaking, instruction was actually a privilege, not a right. It was reserved for the enfranchised—a minority of the population over the period covered—and thus was an instrument of governance wielded by a large minority. As Squire shows, only town meetings and mass meetings of voters could claim the authority to instruct lawmakers. One learns this only by inference and careful reading. Squire does not study these boundaries or even state them clearly. The lone mention of women in the entire text comes in noting that instructions were sometimes discussed at state constitutional conventions. In Ohio’s 1873-74 convention, “it was pointed out that without the right to vote, women could only petition and not instruct their representatives” (13). Indigenous people do not figure into the book at all, except that “American Indian Policies” were the ninth most common subject of senatorial instructions (84). In view of federal Indian policy across the nineteenth century, one can certainly imagine what sort of “actionable communications” were arriving at the Capitol. 

Finally, through references to the subject of slavery and the free people of color, Black Americans appear only as the target of regulation. The only exception comes in this passage: 

Instructions from organized groups became such an accepted part of American politics that in regard to a “colored meeting” in Memphis, Tennessee, a local newspaper commented, “These same colored voters helped to elect two of their own number as well as the entire Shelby [County] delegation now in the legislature, and whether they are large tax payers or not, they have as much right to instruct their representatives as any other class of citizens.” (64)

I am surprised that the sole mention of Black political activity should characterize this gathering as a fringe example of an organized group rather than a profound effort to assert the authority of a local primary assembly, particularly given the report’s account of these Black voters’ electoral power. Nonetheless, it is fascinating moment. I think that it gives great support for Squire’s overarching point that instruction should be seen as a central feature of representation in the United States: In this fleeting era in the sun, Tennessee Black men deployed the norms and practices that had long been used by white men to produce the laws under which they lived. 

Yet even in this instance, the boundaries of instruction deserve critical inspection. Going to the endnotes, we find that this meeting took place in 1881. And then by looking up the original source (thank you, Chronicling America!) we find that the cited newspaper was responding to another Tennessee paper that had mocked the notion of Black instruction. This exchange was not in a vacuum. At immediate issue was a bill on taxes and debt in which the newspapers seem to have stood on opposite sides. Nor did the quoted defense of Black instruction document a permanent or expanding availability of that right or privilege. Instructions from “organized groups” may well have been an accepted part of American politics, as Squire contends; but how much longer could Black Americans in Memphis or the South continue to participate before violence, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow cancelled this meaningful form of assembly and speech? Not long, I suspect. 

Decontextualization obscures how instruction in general provided a tool for a large minority to distribute formal political power and close the door to those who could not cross the threshold of belonging. Squire gives an illuminating study of the internal life of constituent communications in the nineteenth century and suggests ways in which they contributed to better representative government; but it is unfortunate that this account silently endogenizes the exclusion, struggles, victories, and defeats of those who lived under American government but could not instruct.

A vital contextual dimension is the historical role of the petition. Squire briefly notes that petitioning was the alternative form of conveying public preferences, but that instructions were seen as more “potent” (19). He quotes U.S. Representative Charles Ingersoll (D-PA) explaining: “that while minorities may petition, majorities enjoy the higher right of instruction. In short, instruction is the major, petition the minor right. Instruction is the right of a majority, petition that of a minority, or of a single individual” (19). In fact, this extract comes not from a discussion about instruction per se but from an argument in favor of the House gag rule on antislavery petitions. Elsewhere in this speech, Ingersoll strove to diminish the scope of the petition and cast doubt on its place under the Constitution in a democratic republic. The representative contended: “What right has a minority of the people in Pennsylvania to complain to Congress of a grievance they suffer from the majority of the people of Virginia maintaining slavery as one of the establishments of that State? The Federal Constitution certainly does not give the right in terms; nor I believe is it even pretended to be a constructive right.” 

Here we can see that petitioning, with its possibilities of mass expression by non-voters across the country, did not respect the jurisdictional and participatory limits of instruction. Instruction was a conservative rival, wielded by Ingersoll to delegitimize antislavery organizing. This story, too, I would argue, is part of the historical significance of instructions and should be part of Squire’s “comprehensive analysis of the role constituent instructions played in American politics” (xi). Alongside The Right of Instruction, I would recommend reading Maggie Blackhawk’s revelatory work on the power of petitioning for Indigenous peoples living within the United States and Daniel Carpenter’s astonishing new book on how petitioning remade North American democracy. Knowing the story that Squire relates enhances these works; and Squire’s story gains valuable context.

As I hope this review attests, The Right of Instruction is a rich, layered, and broadly successful book. It convincingly recovers “instruction” as a key idiom and institution in nineteenth century democratic life. In the voluminous evidence and host of arguments that Squire offers, there are many threads for readers to pull and follow. I would only caution that it is not the full story. The language of democracy can paper over deficits in substance, and it is crucial to watch what words are doing in the context in which they are uttered. In a present beset by democratic backsliding, this care seems all the more necessary.



Posted on 17 June 2021

AARON HALL is a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University and an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.