From the viewpoint of political economy and environmental studies, Commons Democracy offers one more critique of Hardin’s famed “tragedy of the commons” thesis.1 From the perspective of political science, it contributes to debates about American democracy and poses “new questions about democratic possibilities not just in history but also in our own time (23).” For historians, it traces the prolonged contest between the “vernacular democracy” and popular “regulation” that helped to animate the Revolution, and the formal, representative democracy that emerged under the Constitution. Nelson bases her argument on key literary works published between the 1780s and the 1840s. Conventional, “consensus” accounts, she suggests, have insufficiently acknowledged the friction entailed in the imposition of democratic liberalism on the informal, self-organized practices of early Americans, and readings of period literature have obscured the memory and significance of a robust, if sometimes unruly, popular politics.

Liberalism, capitalism, and the law, Nelson...

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