How is political contention constituted as an intelligible political practice, distinct from mere social disorders? This article gets at the question by analysing the relation between protests and riots at the turn of the 19th century in England. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s discussion of visibilities and post-foundational political theory, it contrasts the 1760s Wilkes and Liberty agitations with that of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s. It articulates two ways of configuring the relation and constituting political contention in the self-governing practices of contentious actors. In the first case, political contention is an exercise of public spirit that may include riots and is opposed to passivity or factional interest. In the second, it is a process of public inquiry premised on a constitutive exclusion of riots. The comparison reveals how the emergence of protest politics also resulted in a new way of delineating and constituting political contention. In this way, it offers a new perspective on the contemporary constitution of political contention.