Book Review: Triumph of Order- Democracy and Public Space in New York and London

Triumph of Order Front Cover

Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London by Lisa Keller

Lisa Keller. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. RRP £24.00 paperback.

Cities are incredibly complex systems, made up of hundreds of interconnecting networks. Sanitation, transportation, power, housing, local government, and public order, amongst others, all have to function successfully in order for a city to thrive. The larger the city, the more complicated and chaotic it gets, and by the end of the nineteenth century London and New York were the two largest cities in the world. The governments of these two cities, and their residents, had to strike a balance between order and liberty. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London traces the struggle to find a balance between these two, frequently conflicting, concepts in the nineteenth century.

Liberal democracies such as the US and the UK place a strong emphasis on liberty and individual freedom. However, the fact is that we are all willing to give up some of that liberty so that the government can maintain order and protect us and our property. Exactly how much of our individual freedoms we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe is a matter of constant debate. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller argues that in London and New York during the nineteenth century the balance between liberty and order tipped towards order. Using a combination of examples, archival sources, and analysis, Keller makes a convincing argument that liberty, particularly freedom of speech, was curtailed in favour of minimising the risk of disorder and violence on the streets of two of the world’s greatest cities.

The legacy of the nineteenth century was a new structure for public order, in which liberty was expendable. Great Britain and America retained a framework for free speech and assembly, but democracy as an ideal became tempered by realities of city life. The principles and practices established in the nineteenth century yielded long-lasting societal parameters affecting public space, free speech, and assembly.

Keller, 2009: p.223

Although I read academic books as part of my research and teaching, most of the books I review on Turbulent London are aimed at a more general audience. Triumph of Order is written for an academic audience, and is therefore less accessible than most ‘popular’ history books. This is not a criticism, however, just an observation; Triumph of Order is a good book, but if you are looking for something to take on holiday with you, I wouldn’t suggest this. A small criticism that I do have is that Keller is often careless with chronology. The book is structured chronologically, with the first half looking at London and the second focused on New York, but within individual chapters there is a tendency to jump back and forward between different events and time periods that can be confusing.

As someone who studies London and has visited New York, I have always been curious about how the history of the two compares. Triumph of Order highlights the parallels and differences between the two cities. Some of them are relatively obvious: London, for example, was the first major city in the world to have a professional civilian police force (1829), which had clear implications for the way free speech and protest was controlled (New York City followed suit in 1845). Other insights Keller provided are less familiar to me as a British reader, such as the idea that Americans have always been more tolerant of bodily violence and loss of life than British people. Many people have died during riots in London, but it is mostly due to accidents and the violent tactics of authorities; in New York, rioters themselves are more likely to kill people. In Triumph of Order, Keller does a good job of comparing the two cities in a way that also provides insight into them as individual metropolises.

The balance between liberty and order is a difficult issue. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller has produced a book that illuminates the historical structures that underpin that balance in two of the most significant cities in Western liberal democracies. That’s no mean feat.