Political Stability

views updated May 29 2018

Political Stability


Virginia. Debate among colonial historians has often centered around the question of political stability in the British American colonies. This question has been especially pertinent to Virginias history. Historians disagree, for instance, over the period from settlement to the 1730s whether the Chesapeake region was socially and politically unstable or relatively well established. Historian John Kukla has argued that early-seventeenth-century Virginia had a stable political structure exemplified by a fully established civil government by 1646. After this time, Kukla asserted, political stability continued to progress. Taking an opposite view, historian Timothy Breen has argued that early Virginia was characterized by the inherently unstable mentality of looking out for number one. Due to the early tobacco boom in the colony the strong lure of wealth attracted the rogue type, who Breen called an unusual group of Jacobeans. Largely because of these inhabitants, early Virginia was unable to develop into a stable society.

Sound Structure. Whatever the differences and merits of these positions concerning early Virginia, evidence is strong that by mid eighteenth century that colony had developed into a coherent social and political structure. Especially between the 1730s and 1750s strong standards of virtue and duty, a well-adjusted religious tolerance, and a strong economy all led to an unparalleled political stability in Virginia. Part of this later stability, it has been argued, can be attributed to slavery and so emerged not so much due to a rise in virtue as to more effective forms of human exploitation. Once slaves replaced the rogue Jacobeans as the dominant labor force, Virginia transformed into a province of personal liberty, a cult of manhood, and an uncompromising loyalty to family. It should be added that the stability began to decline after 1760. Economic debt due to falling tobacco prices and soil exhaustion, problems associated with slavery, the Seven Years War, and the overt attention to gaining wealth all led to this pre-Revolutionary social and political decline.

New York. Between the years 1665 (just after the English takeover) and 1688 New York experienced a series of politically unsettling events. For most of this period there was no provincial assembly in New York. Not until 1683 did the instructions for the new royal governor, Thomas Dongan, make provision for an elected assembly. The first assembly convened in October of that year. An early accomplishment was the drafting of the Charter of Libertyes and Priviledges, which outlined a new government structure with a strong emphasis on individual liberties. This document drew from two early English documents, the Magna Carta and the Petition of

Right. The lengthiest segment of the charter insured freedom of Christian conscience. It also gave the assembly a strong enough hand in the governing process that that body assumed the right of appropriations (originator of money bills). The governor, council, and Duke of York (later James II) approved the Charter of Libertyes and Priviledges and sent it on for Crown approval; due to Charles IIs desire for closer scrutiny of his holdings, however, approval never came. New York was back to square one. Even when the duke himself became king of England (1685) he did not reinstate the charter but rather forced New York to go under the Dominion of New England. With this change the governor and council assumed the right to initiate taxation. Many inhabitants feared the prospect of being taxed by a nonrepre-sentative body.


The following was taken from a 1725 North Carolina court deposition. The plaintiff in the trial was the colonys governor, Richard Everard, and the defendant, James Burrington, had been the previous governor. The brash exchange revealed in this document may not be representative of the normal relationship between a former and sitting governor. Yet the depositions do show the earthy and often one-on-one personal encounter that typified many political disputes of that day. The following are depositions taken from the governor, his son (also named Richard Everard), and a resident named Susanna Parris.

The information of the Honorable Sir Richard Everard, Baronet, Governor, and Commander in Chief, etc, taken upon oath before us, Christopher Gale, Esq., Chief Justice, and John Lovick and Henry Clayton, Esqrs., Justices of the Peace, this third day of December, Anno Domini 1725. [He] sayeth that on the second of this instant December, about three or four of the clock in the morning, Mr. Burrington, the late Governor, with several ruffians in company, came to the back door of his house; and having made a violent knocking for some time, he called out, open the doorwhich he repeated several times. But Sir Richard, knowing his voice, as did his servant who told him it was Mr. Burrington, Sir Richard advised him to go about his business or it would be worse for him; upon which Mr. Burrington replied after a rude and threatening manner, come out; I want satisfaction of you for saying you would send me to England in irons. Therefore come out and give it [to] me, you Everard, you a Knight, you a Baronet, you a Governor. You are a Sancho Panza, and III take care of you, numbskull head, And upon Sir Richards threatening him that if he offered to break into the house he would shoot him, or that if he did not go away quietly he would have him punished, he replied, you have not an officer [who would] dare speak to me or look me in the face. And so, defying Sir Richard and his authority, he went away, calling Sir Richard scoundrel and several other abusive names.

The sons deposition reads as follows:

The examination of Richard Everard, Esq., aged about sixteen years, taken upon oath this third day of December, 1725.

The examinant sayeth that on the second of this instant December about three or four of the clock in the morning, [he] being in bed was wakened by his fathers servant. And as he came downstairs he heard Mr. Burrington scurrilously abusing the Governor, Sir Richard Everard, saying, you send me to England in irons, you be damned. I will make your heart ache before I have done with you. And then Mr. Burrington demanded whether the Governor would send him home to England or no; upon which the Governor desired him to go home, adding that he should see all things done in time, at which Mr. Burrington made a jest crying, ah! ah! ah! I am come to turn up my Cape Fairto you, before it goes to take its leave of you, Dick D, you, you a sorry fellow. Ill scalp your damned thick skull. Whereupon the Governor again bid him depart, and soon after he went away, drumming against the window-shutters and weather-boards of the house.

Susanna Parris stated that former Governor Burrington on one occasion said, are all you country men such fools as Sir Richard Everard? He is a noodle, an ape.... Parris also reported that further [he] said that he... was not more fit to be a governor than a hog in the woods.

Source: John Demos, ed., Remarkable Providences: Readings on Early American History, revised edition (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991).

Unrest. Two short-lived protests at Staten Island and Jamaica demonstrated the growing unrest. Other factors, such as a slow-growth economy, land disputes, and safety concerns (close proximity to French rivals), led to considerable political instability in New York. As much or more than any of these, however, was the undercurrent of religious unrest. Since the duke of York was Roman Catholic, it is not surprising that during the 1680s New York received a considerable number of Catholic inhabitants. Their establishment in the colonys trade particularly alarmed the long-entrenched Dutch Calvinist merchants. By the time New Yorks government transferred to Boston in 1688, rumors of a Catholic conspiracy were swirling. One particular German merchant and ardent Calvinist, Jacob Leisler, determined to bring the perceived papal conspiracy to a halt. Once he learned that William and Mary had dethroned James II and that Bos-tonians had risen up against Gov. Edmund Andros and the Dominion of New England (April 1689), Leisler, in

the absence of Lt. Gov. Francis Nicholson (who Leisler believed was in on the Catholic conspiracy), took control of the government through his position in the New York militia, which had seized New York Citys Fort James. Leislers regime ended in March 1691 when the newly arrived governor (appointed by William III), Henry Sloughter, demanded surrender of the fort. Leisler finally did surrender (after three refusals) and was summarily arrested, tried, and hanged.

Factions. New Yorks politics quickly factionalized into Leislerians and anti-Leislerians even though with time the original event and its causes became less and less relevant. Although there were times when stability seemed to be on the rise (such as 1709-1710 when the assembly held dominant control), problems of ethnic and religious factionalism remained a considerable source of political flux. Even with substantial economic growth (especially between 1713 and 1728), it was not until the 1740s that signs of sustainable political stability became evident. Key to the eventual rise in New Yorks political viability were the constitutional clarifications that were forthcoming by 1740. In 1735 the English Crown lessened the New York governors role in legislative deliberations. Consequently, in 1736 the assembly began to reassert its authority of power of the purse. Gov. George Clintons repeated attempts to gain control over the assembly in the 1740s and early 1750s were not successful.

Rival. James De Lancey, possibly the most powerful New York politician from the 1730s through the 1750s, became Clintons principal opposition as council member and chief justice. Even if for less than ideological reasons (De Lancey was an opportunist who delivered favors to assemblymen with landed interests), once he became lieutenant governor after Clintons departure in 1753, he successfully wrested the royal prerogatives from the governor and council to the assembly, resulting in a more provincially focused agenda. If one judges political stability by the lack of conflict between the executive and legislative bodies, then New York had little. Yet the very fact that by the mid eighteenth century elected representatives, even if for their own benefits more than their constituent base, had effectively taken the royal prerogative into their own sphere was a large leap toward a more unified and stable government in New York. At least New York freemen perceived that their interests, more than the Crowns, were being served.

South Carolina. A most interesting case study of political stability is South Carolina. As noted earlier in this chapter, by the 1720s South Carolina had experienced considerable instability under its proprietary government. That dominant political factions demanded and received a royal government is evidence of South Carolinas prior lack of an efficient political structure. By the 1730s signs of political maturity and harmony were evident. A major contributor to this more civil state was the growing prominence of country ideology. Country ideology was a body of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English political and social thought that emphasized among other things a mutually limiting role for both the populace and the government. A primary function of government was to restrain human passion (or nonrational action), and a primary function of the populace was to limit governmental power. The practical result that emanated from country ideology was a strong inclination to work for the commonweal rather than individual self-interest.

Harmony. In South Carolina a unique working out of country ideologys balancing influence led to a stability through unprecedented harmony. Within the context of this ideal several factors played key roles in the evolution of political stability. The wide distribution of wealth by the 1730s led to a less divisive and competitive elite class. A pronounced toleration of religious differences helped to lessen political and social tensions and led to a growing sense of community. The reality of shared internal and external threats also forced cooperation. South Carolina experienced within a five-year period (1738 1742) a series of potentially devastating emergencies, including a major slave revolt in 1739 and the immediate threat of Spanish and Indian attack. These realities led to an unprecedented willingness by local leaders to compromise and cooperate with each other. Two other factors emerged that contributed to continued stability. The significant growth in literary influences, particularly from works such as Catos Letters and The Independent Whig, buttressed the already-growing allegiance to country ideology. Finally, albeit closer to the Revolution, the growth of the local assemblys power with the decline of the royal council led to an increased attention to the wishes of the populace. The more irresponsible the Council seemed to become, the more members of the Commons [assembly] felt their responsibility for the public welfare, because they alone appeared to have it at heart.

Pennsylvania. The Middle Colonies are often portrayed as being politically and socially disjointed due to the diversity in ethnic makeup and, in Pennsylvanias case, the late arrival of English dominance. This position has not gone unchallenged. Recent studies have shown that Pennsylvania, at least by the early eighteenth century, does not so easily fit into a political declension model. It is true that the early Holy Experiment (William Penns name for his religious-political ideal) did not produce the desired stability, partly due to Penns absence. It was not until 1701 that Pennsylvanias assembly achieved dominant control over local affairs. Also around this same time the increase in English control over proprietary concerns helped to bring relative stability to what had been a troublesome experience for Penn, who struggled to run the colony from afar. The role of the Quakers in Pennsylvanias political structure by the 1720s, rather than disjointed and ineffective, as some have maintained, was neither, but was substantial and stabilizing. Between 1726 and 1755 there were only three short-lived periods of substantial political conflict. Thus, as with the rest of colonial America, Pennsylvania, even with its diverse populace, was experiencing, if more subtly than most, anglicization, and with it, stabilization.

Assessment. From the early decades of the eighteenth century to around 1750 a considerable increase in political stability occurred. There are various general factors that help us to understand this trend. First, from around 1650 to 1710 British officials sought relatively stringent control. After that period Britain demonstrated a casual posture toward the colonies. Second, after 1710 there was a marked growth in population and with it an overall increase in economic viability and therefore a more stable economy. Third, an increase in population, which on the surface might seem to have the opposite effect, was actually an asset to political stability by providing a greater number of quality leaders. Population growth also resulted in a greater strength of community overall. And fourth, of the reflectors of increased political stability, possibly none are clearer than that of a decrease in political elections. From the beginning of the eighteenth century to around 1750 there was a consistent trend of less and less electorate involvement. Such may seem unusual in light of the fact that parallel with this trend was an increase in the assemblys representative role in directing colonial policy. Paradoxically, this reflects freeholders increased confidence and contentment with their political leaders. And with this level of trust freeholders naturally approved even greater degrees of representative authority.


Timothy Breen, Looking Out for Number One: Conflicting Cultural Values in Early Seventeenth-Century Virginia, South Atlantic Quarterly,78 (1979): 342-360;

Douglas Greenberg, Middle Colonies in Recent American Historiography, William and Mary Quarterly,36 (1979): 396427;

Jack P. Greene, The Growth of Political Stability: An Interpretation of Political Development in the Anglo-American Colonies, 1660-1760, and Society, Ideology, and Politics: An Analysis of the Political Culture of Mid-Eighteenth-Century Virginia, in his Negotiated Authorities: Essays in Colonial Political and Constitutional History (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994); 131-162,259-318;

Joseph E. Illick, Colonial Pennsylvania: A History (New York: Scribners, 1976);

Michael Kammen, Colonial New York: A History (New York: Scribners, 1975);

John Kukla, Order and Chaos in Early America: Politics and Social Stability in Pre-Restoration Virginia, American Historical Review,90 (April 1985): 275-298;

John Murrin, Political Development, in Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era, edited by Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984);

Alan Tully, William Penns Legacy: Politics and Social Structure in Provincial Pennsylvania, 1726-1755 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977);

Robert M. Weir, Colonial South Carolina: A History (Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1983);

Weir, The Harmony We Were Famous For: An Interpretation of Pre-Revolutionary South Carolina Politics, William and Mary Quarterly, 26 (1969): 473501.

Stability, Political

views updated May 17 2018

Stability, Political


Political stability can be defined as the reproduction of the status quo in political life. The term and its mirror imagepolitical instability have a decidedly behavioral connotation in most contemporary social science research. As seen by many scholars, political stability is the outcome of interactions by relevant political actors that reproduce the status quo in political life. Conversely, political instability results from interactions that challenge the status quo. To be empirically useful, however, the character of political behavior and whose values or expectations it fulfills (or violates) have to be specified.

The earliest theories of political stability concerned themselves with its societal prerequisites. The prominent sociologist Talcott Parsons (19021979) equated political stability with collective legitimacy and the systemic support it afforded. According to Parsons, legitimacy is the higher normative defense against the breakdown of a system of social order (Parsons 1963, p. 57). Parsons argued that if citizens did not view the political system as legitimate, they would be particularly prone to support political protest and other forms of antigovernment action. David Easton (b. 1917) further broadened the meaning of legitimacy to include citizens perceptions of government institutions as fair, responsive, and valuable.

The difference between citizens who viewed the government as illegitimate but did not join in collective action and those who took part in political protest did not figure prominently in Parsonss work. For Parsons, the potential for disorder increased with the loss of public confidence in the government. Likewise, Easton argued, only diffuse support through the population gives the system political stability. In their concern with mass political attitudes, these social scientists went beyond a narrow focus on mass political behavior. Their theories, however, were judged as status quooriented and suffused with expectations of political behavior and functional roles characteristic of advanced industrialized democracies.

Beginning in the 1970s, social scientists turned their attention to political institutions and the patterns of political behavior they generate. Work on political stability has linked the durability and survival of political regimes with patterns of political behavior. The literature emphasizes institutional consistency and how it affects the behavior of political elites, but mass political attitudes can be used to explain the choices elites make given particular institutional configurations.

Scholars of political institutions have classified polities based on three attributes: (1) procedures for selecting the chief executive; (2) constraints on executive decision-making authority; and (3) extent of political participation. This classification results in three basic types of political systems: autocracies, anocracies, and democracies. Autocracies are politics where authority is concentrated and unchecked, whereas democracies are politics where power is diffused. According to scholars of political conflict, anocracies are institutional hybrids combining characteristics of both democracy and autocracy.

Fully autocratic and democratic regimes exhibit the greatest stability. This stability results from the compatibility of their institutions with the behavior of politically relevant actors. Institutionally inconsistent regimes (those exhibiting characteristics of both democracy and autocracy) lack these self-enforcing characteristics. Accordingly, the least stable political systems are autocracies with highly regularized procedures for selecting the chief executive but with high levels of political participation. The most unstable configuration for polities with an elected executive is one where the executive is highly constrained, but the electorate is very small.

The conclusions of institutional scholars can be summarized by a curve with an inverted-U shape: low and high levels of institutional development result in political stability; intermediate levels stimulate political instability. Institutions affect the cost-benefit analysis associated with challenges to authority. The interaction of political actors, in other words, is conducive or detrimental to the distribution of authority in a system of governance.

The work of institutional scholars highlights elite interests and behavior. Mass political behavior, as Parsons and Easton demonstrated, is also necessary to understand patterns of political stability. As the expectation that elites will respect the outcomes of democracy increases, the rewards for compliance with the rules of democracy also increase. This is another way of saying that what is important for a political system is whether institutional continuity is in the interest of the relevant political elites. By raising the cost of noncompliance with the democratic rules of the game, the public has a role to play in the cost-benefit analysis of elites.

One question that was not addressed in studies of political stability until the early twenty-first century is the compatibility of leadership survival with regime stability. Scholars have noted the apparent paradox that while democratic polities are durable forms of government, democratic leaders exhibit a high turnover rate. At the same time, autocratic leaders remain in office for remarkably long periods. The puzzle then is why autocrats tend to remain in power longer than democratic leaders even though autocracies as a group are not more stable than democracies.

According to the selectorate theory of political survival, elites and their supporters in stable democracies have more to lose in the long run by clinging on to power and suppressing their political opponents than by waiting for their turn to be (re)elected to office. Consequently, they choose democracy instrumentally and in the process help increase its legitimacy as a form of government. Autocrats, on the other hand, depend on a narrow coalition to win and remain in power and are widely perceived as illegitimate. As a result, democracies constitute a remarkably stable form of regime even though their leaders last half as long as autocrats.

The selectorate theory explains why protest is prevalent in democracies and rebellion predominates in authoritarian regimes. Because democracies are seen as more legitimate forms of government than autocracies, political protest does not level off as a country democratizes. Yet democracies do not have a demonstrable need to repress peaceful or routine protest. By reducing levels of socioeconomic and political inequality, democracies dampen the temptation to engage in rebellion, which is prevalent in authoritarian settings. Finally, democratization creates political opportunities to engage in more conventional forms of collective action, a point the selectorate theory is well equipped to explain.

SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Autocracy; Cold War; Democracy; Elections; Parsons, Talcott; Participation, Political; Political Instability, Indices of; Political Science; Political Science, Behavioral; Protest; Revolution


Boix, Carles. 2003. Democracy and Redistribution. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, and James D. Morrow. 2003. The Logic of Political Survival. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Easton, David. 1965. A Systems Analysis of Political Life. New York: Wiley.

Eckstein, Harry. 1973. Authority Patterns: A Structural Pattern for Inquiry. American Political Science Review 47 (December): 11421161.

Gates, Scott, Håvard Hegre, Mark P. Jones, and Håvard Strand. 2006. Institutional Inconsistency and Political Instability: Polity Duration, 18002000. American Journal of Political Science 50 (4): 893908.

Gurr, Ted Robert. 1974. Persistence and Change in Political Systems, 18001971. American Political Science Review 68 (December): 14821504.

Parsons, Talcott. 1963. Some Reflections on the Place of Force in the Social Process. In Internal War: Problems and Approaches, ed. Harry Eckstein. New York: Free Press.

José A. Alemán

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