The Strange Fruit of the Tree of Liberty: Lynch Law and Popular Sovereignty in the United States

The Strange Fruit of the Tree of Liberty: Lynch Law and Popular Sovereignty in the United States

By Michael Gorup, New College of Florida

Lynch mobs regularly called on the language of popular sovereignty in their efforts to authorize lynchings, arguing that, as representatives of the people, they retained the right to wield public violence against persons they deemed beyond the protections of due process. Despite political theorists’ renewed interest in popular sovereignty, scholars have not accounted for this sordid history in their genealogies of modern democracy and popular constituent power. I remedy this omission, arguing that spectacle lynchings—ones that occurred in front of large crowds, sometimes numbering in the thousands—operated as public rituals of racialized people-making. In the wake of Reconstruction, when the boundaries of the polity were deeply contested, spectacle lynchings played a constitutive role in affirming and circulating the notion that the sovereign people were white, and that African Americans were their social subordinates.

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