Review of Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg by Kay J. Carr

Kay Carr’s book, Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg: Community and Democracy on the Illinois Frontier, considers the differing political cultures of the three towns mentioned in her title. By examining the decision-making processes of each of these towns, she discovers much about the ways in which these seemingly similar communities differed. All three of the towns were approximately the same size during the middle of the nineteenth century, the time frame that the book considers. Carr calls these three towns “regional centers,” towns which were mid-sized, larger than nearby villages, yet smaller than neighboring cities.

Carr compares and contrasts these three communities in order to gain a greater understanding of the ways in which communities throughout the United States came to make decisions. She states: “I contend that there is a link between frontier community building and the acceptance of particular types of democratic political processes in the United States.” (p. 6) Through her study of this phenomenon, Carr is able to discern that not only did individual communities play a role in national political development, they were also keenly affected by the subsequent national politics. In the end, she is able to conclude that a fairly complicated process took place as American political decision making shifted from deferential to competitive.

Carr isolates three aspects of frontier communities that can be used, in conjunction with one another, to describe how a community will handle political matters. The first of these aspects is the role that the community plays within the regional economy. The second is whether the population can be considered a homogenous or heterogeneous group. The third is the factionalism or cohesiveness among the elites of the community. When considering the communities in this way, there is only one category in which Belleville and Ottawa differ: Belleville has a heterogenous population, while Ottawa has a homogenous population. Yet Belleville is credited with having a competitive political structure, while Ottawa has a competitive and cooperative structure. Based on the three communities that are studied in this book, a case could be made that this factor weighs more heavily in the decision-making process of a community, a point that was probably not intended.

There are a number of possibilities of community types, based on these three factors appearing in different combinations, which are not examined in this book. It would have been difficult to fully consider enough additional communities to fully test this model. However, it would have been useful if Carr had included a speculation as to how a community that was not tied to the regional economy, with a heterogeneous population in which the elites did not agree, for example, would have handled their politics. In doing this, other authors could then test the hypothesis and help to further solidify Carr’s assertions about frontier communities and politics.

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