By the mid-nineteenth-century, 'public opinion' emerged as a new form of authority in Upper Canada. Contemporaries came to believe that the best answer to common questions arose from deliberation among private individuals. Older conceptions of government, sociability and the relationship between knowledge and power were jettisoned for a new image of Upper Canada as a deliberative democracy.
The Capacity to Judge asks what made widespread public debate about common issues possible; why it came to be seen as desirable, even essential; and how it was integrated into Upper Canada's constitutional and social self-image. Drawing on an international body of literature indebted to Jürgen Habermas and based on extensive research in period newspapers, Jeffrey L. McNairn argues that voluntary associations and the press created a reading public capable of reasoning on matters of state, and that the dynamics of political conflict invested that public with final authority. He traces how contemporaries grappled with the consequences as they scrutinized parliamentary, republican and radical options for institutionalizing public opinion. The Capacity to Judge concludes with a case study of deliberative democracy in action that serves as a sustained defense of the type of intellectual history the book as a whole exemplifies.