The Materiality of Ideology: Cultural Consumption and Political Thought after the American Revolution


For most of the early modern period, books, newspapers, letters and magazines were the material referents of ideas, furnishing the intellectual resources for the assemblage of ideologies. This paper uses reading patterns of America’s earliest political and economic elites, including a significant portion of the founding fathers, who checked out books from the New York Society Library (NYSL), to evaluate the extent of political polarization in the years between the ratification of the Constitution and the War of 1812. The reading data come from two charging ledgers spanning two periods –1789 to 1792, and 1799 to 1806 – during which a new country was built, relations with foreign nations defined, and contestation over the character of a new democracy was intense. Using novel combinations of text and network analysis, I explore the political nature of reading and the extent to which social, economic, and political positions overlapped with what people read. In the process, I identify the key intellectual dimensions on which New York, and by extension, American, elite society was politically stratified in its early years.

Conditionally accepted at the American Journal of Sociology