THE FRENCH REVOLUTION &
AMERICAN RADICAL DEMOCRACY
John P. Clark
Revolution, Violence, and Equality (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), pp. 79-118.
Mesechabe 2 (Winter 88-89): 6-12 and Mesechabe 3 (Spring 1989): 21-30.
All revolutions are imaginary. Of course, there are the revolutionary events. There are the speeches made, the shots fired, the surging crowds, the fortresses besieged. There are the elements of history. Yet "the Revolution" goes beyond any of these. It is a creative synthesis on the part of the social imagination.
To begin with, the historical phenomena subsumed under the rubric of "The Revolution" are preceded by a revolutionary movement. In the course of its development, and through its historical and ideological struggles, this movement gives rise to an image of Revolution. It is an image which is in part a reactive reflection of the conditions of oppression, in part a creative expression of the utopian hopes, dreams and aspirations of the people. Through the development of new social forms of organization and new ideological forms of consciousness, and through the complex dialectical interaction between the two, events are shaped to a significant degree according to this image.
Next, the revolutionary events condition this image of revolution, as they are themselves immediately shaped--through both action and interpretation-- according to the preexisting image. Indeed, it is not unusual that at even the earliest stages events begin to take on a mythic significance, as they are codified in relation to the imaginary Revolution. Revolutionaries are impelled to make the greatest sacrifices, perform the most heroic deeds, and commit the greatest atrocities, for a cause which is interpreted, with varying degrees of plausibility, as the historical embodiment of the imaginary ideal. On the other hand, reactionaries are moved to heroic feats of resistance and the most monumental acts of brutality in reaction to events that are attributed all the demonic qualities fantasized in their nightmarish dreams of Revolution.
Finally, the events of history are shaped and given meaning as later interpreters look back at them. Once again, these events take on a meaning in relation to the imaginary Revolution. With the passing of time, this comes to mean an increasingly elaborated and complex image, as it continually acquires new layers of meaning in relation to the evolving history of revolution and counterrevolution, and, in a larger sense, to the history of ideology in which historians and political theorists necessarily situate themselves.
We are now going to investigate the effect of a particular imaginary Revolution on a particular political movement. In the America of the 1790's, one external historical reality had an extraordinary influence on political debate, and, indeed, on the entire dynamic of the political culture. No such influence has been exerted again in American politics. This is a striking fact. For the first and last time in American history, the major political cleavage was significantly determined as a response to the course of history elsewhere in the world. This "elsewhere" was, of course, France, and the decisive issue was the significance of the French Revolution.
In America, perhaps as much as anywhere, the Revolution caused an intense polarization of the political spectrum. Despite the fact that it was the travail of revolution that had only recently given birth to the American Republic, the ruling Federalist Party lost little time in developing a fierce hostility toward the Revolution. Siding with Britain and reaction, the Federalists soon came to identify France and the Revolution with the worst of political iniquities. The anti-Federalists, on the other hand, found in the Revolution only the greatest inspiration for their democratic and republican ideals, and encouragement for their desire to rid the Republic of vestiges of aristocracy and privilege. It was on the basis of such feelings that they were led to establish throughout the states organizations that went under a variety of names, but are most widely known as the Democratic-Republican Societies. During the few years that these Societies flourished in the radiant, if reflected, light of triumphant Revolution, American democratic ideology made astounding advances. (1)
The Democratic-Republican Societies
While American reactions to the Revolution were immediate, it was not until 1792 that the establishment of the Societies was proposed, and until 1793 that they began to appear. Eugene Link, one of the most careful students of the movement, notes that within a short period of time, the societies emerged, town meetings proliferated, and public participation in political discussion increased dramatically. (2) He emphasizes the continuity between this developing democratic movement and forerunners in American history like the Regulators of North Carolina, the Associators in Pennsylvania, and, especially, the Sons of Liberty. While Philip Foner, another leading commentator on the Societies, concedes the importance of these predecessors and of precedent domestic developments, he argues that "the reverberations of events abroad were mainly responsible for their appearance. It was the French Revolution that rekindled democratic enthusiasms," so that when Genet, the first Minister sent by the French Republic, arrived in America, he could "fan into flame the spark of '76 and tie America into a world revolutionary movement, which the country itself had inaugurated." (3) As we will see, the documents of the Societies attest powerfully to the depth of this influence.
During the 1790's nearly 50 such Societies were established, with memberships ranging from a few dozen to three or four hundred members. (4) The Societies drew their members from diverse economic, social, and religious backgrounds. According to Foner, they were "a coalition of merchants, political leaders, landowners, slave-owners, professionals, small mechanics, seamen, and laborers," in which "mechanics supplied the bulk of the membership while the political leaders and professionals supplied the bulk of the leadership." (5) The economic diversity evident in this list explains some of the tensions that will be noted later, such as the obvious opposition between an anti-slavery faction and those who had a stake in the slaveholding economy.
Membership in the Societies had, of course, a strong ideological basis. Link notes the inclusion of intellectuals such as "scientists, doctors, authors, professional men," many of whom also belonged to the American Philosophical Society. (6) This indicates the importance of that radical intelligentsia that had come under the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, an influence that is abundantly testified to in the published records of the Societies. In addition, they received strong support from seamen and militiamen, both of which groups were strongly committed to democratic ideology and were particularly hostile to the British. Finally, many former members of American revolutionary organizations were attracted by the democratic and patriotic ideals of the Societies, and their alliance with the French revolutionary movement.
The "French Frenzy"
The proclamation of the Republic and abolition of the monarchy in late 1792 provoked strong though disparate reactions in America. While Federalists and the conservative strata reacted with alarm, the more democratic and egalitarian factions were elated. According to historian Alexander DeConde, as word spread of the events in France, "a French frenzy rolled over the land. America became hysterical." (7)
Though this colorful depiction may be an overstatement, the enthusiasm of many was genuine. In Boston, a celebration of the French victory at Valmy was held on January 24, 1793. It was reported that French Revolutionary cockades were worn, cannon were fired, and a parade was assembled in which a barbecued ox on a wagon with:
twelve citizens in white frocks and armed with cleavers, made its way through the streets of Boston. Behind it came 800 loaves of bread followed by hogsheads of rum punch. The celebrators set themselves up on State Street and distributed their Republican bounty to the citizens of the city. The ox on which the crowd fed was Aristocracy being offered up on the altar of Democracy in praise of Liberty, Equality and the Rights of Man. The remnants of the feast were sent to the almshouse. Some of the crowd marched off and released the prisoners in jail for debts. Schoolchildren were lined up on State Street and presented with sweet biscuits stamped with the words 'Liberty and Equality.' (8)
This same fervor for the Revolution and its ideals is expressed in a letter of the same month by Jefferson, who was to emerge as the leading political figure of the democratic faction. Jefferson expresses his regret not only that innocent lives were lost in the turmoil of revolution, but also that guilty ones were taken without the due formalities of trial. Yet, he continues:
the liberty of the whole world was depending on the issue of the contest and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. (9)
The Democratic-Republican Societies expressed the same kind of vehement support for France and for the Revolution in many of their toasts and resolutions. The Democratic Society of Pennsylania held a "Civic Festival" on May Day, 1794, to commemorate the successes of "their Republican French Brethern" (sic). Exuberant toasts were proposed: to "The Republic of France; one and indivisible:--May her triumphs multiply, until every day in the year be rendered a Festival in the Calendar of Liberty, and a fast in the Calendar of Courts"; to "The Mountain:--May tyranny be chained at its foot, and may the light of Liberty from its summit cheer and illuminate the whole world"; and to "The Armies of the French Republic:--May they be invincible and unshaken, till, by their glorious efforts, Liberty and Peace exalted in the same Triumphal Car shall be drawn to the temple of Janus by the humbled Tyrants who have dared to molest them." (10) The same Society, at its Independence Day celebration that year toasted "Our allies and brethren, the Sans Culottes of France; May the temple of liberty which they are erecting have the whole earth for its area, and the arch of heaven for its dome." (11) The Democratic Society of the City of New York celebrated the recapture of Toulon with energetic denunciations of the "venal," "corrupt," "insidious," and "persecuting" British government, and rousing praises for the French, including the wish that the event being celebrated might "be the prelude to the final extermination of traitors and tyrants throughout the world." (12) This was the most popular toast of the day, receiving 13 cheers from the assembled "French and American patriots." But it was, without doubt, the citizens of Ulster County, New York (soon to form their own "Republican Society") who expressed the significance of the Revolution in the strongest terms. It is, they contended, "the proper touch-stone to discriminate the friends of liberty," so that "every man who is opposed to the regeneration of France, is, in principle, opposed to the constitution of the United States, and would, were it in his power, saddle us with a monarchy or aristocracy." (13)
The Societies expressed their support for the Revolution not only in brief toasts and resolutions, but also in longer statements in which their underlying rationale becomes more apparent. For example, the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania adopted a long resolution in which support for the French Republic is defended on three grounds: gratitude to the French people for their support for the establishment of the American Republic; affinity based on the similarity of the two republics in form and principles; and a "powerful motive of self-interest" stemming from the belief that if "despotism" succeeds in overpowering France, it will be encouraged to "exterminate liberty" whereever it exists. (14) The Massachusetts Constitutional Society also expressed the latter idea in a "Circular Letter to All Republican Societies." In its view, the defeat of the French would mean that "our children yet unborn would be arrayed in the garb of slavery, and forced to drag out a pitiful existence as Vassale to a banditti of tyrants." (15) The Democratic Society of Pennsylvania stressed the healthy effect of the Revolution on American domestic conditions. In endorsing a long "Address to the Citizens of the United States," the Society credited the Revolution with saving the Republic from a "lethargic calm" which would "presage convulsion & destruction to its frame." (16)
The significance of France for the American Left of the period cannot be overestimated. They saw their own Revolution--a revolution in which many of them had only recently fought and in which numerous of their compatriots had died—as the first successful democratic and republican revolution in the history of the world. Furthermore, they knew it to be a revolution in which the populace was deeply divided: a significant segment had opposed the Revolution, many others were lukewarm in their support, and some had fought for independence without a commitment to many of the fundamental ideals of the Revolution. In the view of many democrats, the result was an ironic one. The Revolution was won and the Republic established, but it was a Republic controlled neither by revolutionaries nor by republicans. Indeed, under the Federalist regime, the Republic teetered dangerously on the brink of the abyss of aristocracy and despotism. In this context, the French Republic had enormous significance: it was the first revolutionary regime in which revolutionaries and republicans had managed to maintain control. So long as this interpretation could plausibly be entertained, France would remain both an embodiment of the ideals of the American democrats and an encouragement to their aspirations to democratize their own Republic.
Indeed, so strongly did many democrats feel that the French cause was their own, that they volunteered to fight for it. Hundreds of American seamen, one of the most radical segments of the population, applied to Ambassador Genet to join the French revolutionary army. (17) It was for this reason that the issue of expatriation rights became an important one for the Societies. As "The Franklin or Republican Society of Pendleton County" argued, there exists no power "to enact laws to arrest, confine and punish a citizen of America who may incline to remove out of the limits of the United States, because it is contrary to the law of nature, and in direct violation of the law of the land.--Man is born free." (18) Statements like this were made in response to the arrest of democrats recruiting Americans to fight for the French Republic. The effort to protect the right to expatriate without penalty was successful. (19)
Needless to say, a "French Frenzy" that was capable of going to such lengths for the cause of a revolutionary regime was greeted with alarm by conservatives. In fact, considering the relative restraint of the Societies in practice (none of them supported the one significant revolt of the decade, the Whiskey Rebellion) the reaction of the Right seems almost insanely hysterical. In a letter to a Virginia newspaper, a conservative lady vilified the Kentucky Democratic Society as "that horrible sink of treason,--that hateful synagogue of anarchy,--that odious conclave of tumult,--that frightful cathedral of discord,--that poisonous garden of conspiracy,--that hellish school of rebellion and opposition to all regular and well-balanced authority." (20) Fisher Ames labeled the Societies "born of sin, the impure offspring of Genet," while Oliver Wolcott branded the members "hot-headed, ignorant or wicked men devoted entirely to the views of France." (21)
Even as early as the 1790's it was not uncommon for the Right to find in progressive tendencies evidence of some devious Conspiracy. Some Federalists charged that the Societies bore a relation to a "dark and silent system of organized treason and massacre, imported by the UNITED IRISHMEN." (22) The critics also contended that the groups had some connection with the mysterious and infamous "Illuminati," who were believed to harbor the most dangerous anarchistic principles. Finally, the conservatives often made anti-Semitic attacks the Societies, which had several prominent Jewish leaders. The attackers contended that the Societies were secretly controlled by Jews (maligned through abusive terms like "the tribe of Shylock") and that the movement was in fact a sort of devious Jacobin-Jewish Conspiracy. (23) Interestingly, we find here the beginnings of a classic syndrome in the American politics of paranoia: the linking of anti-immigrant feeling, anti-Semitism, and fear of foreign revolutionary movements.
Revolutionary Theory: French and American
The Democratic-Republican Societies were profoundly effected by the political ideas of the Enlightenment. It has been noted that their membership included a group of intellectuals with progressive philosophical and social opinions. The documents of the Societies strongly bear the stamp of their influence. A "Circular Letter" from the Democratic Society of New York eloquently and concisely expresses the aspiration of applying Enlightenment ideas to the sphere of politics:
It was not to be expected, that in an age of philosophical investigation, when the revolutions of the planets were surveyed, and their distances measured, when even the swift and subtle lightening was pursued, and traced to its hitherto hidden sources, that the errors and abuses of government, one of the plainest branches of moral science, should remain unnoticed and unknown. (24)
The political truths that were believed to be revealed through this "moral science" accord in most respects with tenets of French radical thought: the inviolable Rights of Man, the basis of government in the Social Contract, the sovereignty of the General Will, and the ideal of Universal Democracy.
Statements of these principles are ubiquitous in the documents of the Societies, being invoked habitually to legitimate particular policies and demands. Typical is an "Address" from the German Republican Society of Philadelphia on the arrival of Citizen Genet in America. The Society applauds the French people's defense of "their own natural rights, and the rights of mankind." They deplore efforts to "supersede the general will of France," and declare "the combinations of the sovereignty of the people" to be "the only security for general liberty and happiness." Finally, they express the hope that political understanding will progress sufficiently so as "to fix the Rights of Man upon an immovable basis." (25) Belief in the universality of natural rights led many democrats to a commitment to internationalism that is striking in comparison to the paternalistic and imperialist views held by later generations of liberals and even socialists. Their Enlightenment optimism allowed them to entertain the hope of spreading the democratic revolution throughout the world. As the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania expressed it, the Societies should "preserve and dessiminate (sic) their principles... till the Rights of Man shall become the Supreme Law of every land, and their separate Fraternities be absorbed, in One Great Democratic Society, comprehending the Human Race." (26)
The idea of contract is a particularly important one in the political theory of the Societies. In a "Circular Letter" of the Democratic Society of New York, the transition from the ideology of status (to use a later distinction) to that of contract is identified as the crucial step in political evolution. The concept of "JURE DIVINO," which posited a sovereignty based on "the necessary relations of being" became implausible as a more enlightened society no longer heeded "crafty ecclesiastics" who legimitated despotism through their "mysterious comments upon a prostituted and perverted revelation." Kings were forced to attempt "to erect their superstructure of domination upon the broader and more solid foundation of compact." (27) Broader and more solid, but designed, as the revolutionary generation had discovered, for a quite different "superstructure"! The recent ill-fated attempt to reconcile monarchy with radical democracy was vivid in the minds of these writers of 1794. They therefore conclude that as society comes to accept consent and contract, "superstition and delusion, the diadem and tyara possess but a precarious existence, and the Rights of Mankind will be permanently established upon the tombs of their oppressors." (28)
One quality that is quite striking in the statements concerning social contract and general will is the great care taken to emphasize the stringent limitations placed on sovereignty. Indeed, it might be said that the salient characteristic of the peculiarly American version of radical democracy is its strong emphasis on the necessity of the dispersion of power, and its deep distrust of arbitrary authority. While one finds in this democratic discourse echoes of Rousseau, the Rousseau that one discovers is far from the theorist of the triumphant general will, on behalf of which citizens should be "forced to be free." Rather, it is the libertarian, decentralist Rousseau, who idealized the small, self-governing community, in which active citizens manage their own political affairs, and are inspired by a patriotic commitment to the common good. As Link points out, the democrats were also influenced by other European theorists, including William Godwin, the philosophical anarchist, who saw small self-governing "parishes" as the ideal, and Helvetius, who, much like Godwin, proposed small commonwealths in which public opinion could maintain social order. (29)
Though the influence of Rousseau and other European thinkers is important, the American version of radical democracy was shaped more by theorists closer to home. The significance of Thomas Paine should not be underestimated. Paine was revered for his part in the American revolutionary movement, and was able to use both his prestige and his rhetorical powers to win support for the French cause and to propagate its influence in America. He was the object of a number of toasts by the Societies, and his ideas are implicit in many of their statements of principles.
Paine's famous work, The Rights of Man , appeared in 1791 and was widely discussed during the following decade. It is remembered primarily for its proclamation of the doctrine of natural rights and for its defense of the French Revolution, in response to Burke's scathing attack on it in the name of prejudice and prescription. However, it is no less an attack on the evils of government, and the need for constant vigilance against the abuses of state power. Indeed, Chapter I of the work is a kind of libertarian manifesto against the state. "The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act. A general association takes place, and the common interest produces common security." (30) It is clear that Paine is not merely musing abstractly, but rather recommending a considerable measure of such abolition. He argues that government does little to create social order. The latter is chiefly the product of cultural consensus and individual self-interest. "The safety and prosperity of the individual and of the whole," he says, depend on such factors as "the great and fundamental principles of society and civilization," "the common usage universally consented to," and "the unceasing circulation of interest." (31) Few laws are necessary, and even these are so fundamental to life that it matters little whether they be enforced by government or by custom. Indeed, "the more perfect civilization is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself." (32)
While Paine has little to say about the positive effects of government, he does not hesitate to expound on the evils of its abuses. In his opinion, the various "riots and tumults" of British history were caused not by a lack of government, but rather by an excess. Government divided society, "deprived it of its natural cohesion, and engendered discontents and disorders, which otherwise would not have existed." (33) He blames the British state for excessive and unequal taxation, and, in general, for its interference with people's ability to cooperate voluntarily for their mutual benefit. This corrupt regime is contrasted with the American government, which he describes as of manageable scale, simple and inexpensive enough to avoid the evils of heavy taxation, and comprehensible to the average citizen. (34) As will be shown, these themes find echoes in many of the Societies' statement about the dangers of governmental power.
But the figure who exerted perhaps the greatest influence in defense of the Revolution in American, and who did most to adapt its principles to American democratic ideology, was Thomas Jefferson. His strong commitment to the Revolution, even during the severities of the Jacobin period, has been noted. Fay comments that Jefferson never failed to present the Revolution in the most flattering light, and to depict it as analogous to the American Revolution. (35) When he read the manuscript of Paine's The Rights of Man , Jefferson expressed his enthusiasm in a note to the printer in which he rejoiced that something would "be publickly said against the heresies which have sprung up among us." (36) When the printer published the statement (without asking permission) Jefferson became known as America's leading defender of the Revolution. In his view, the enormous turmoil in France was a natural consequence of the failure of French society to continually reform itself. In the absence of the "little rebellions now and then" that are necessary to eliminate the accumulation of injustice, large revolutionary cataclysms will occur, and will, indeed, be justified. In the famous words of Jefferson, "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." (37)
In arguing for constant reform in society, Jefferson sought a means of avoiding the tendency of power to destroy the rights and liberties of the citizens. He was haunted by the dangers of two forms of abusive power: that possessed by privileged economic minorities, and that concentrated in the centralized state. In a famous letter written in Paris in September of 1789, he touches on both these evils. Arguing that "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living," he contends that the right of possession is limited the lifetime of an individual, after which it reverts to society. (38) To avoid abuses of rights, society cannot allow any debts to extend beyond the span of a generation, which he calculates to be 19 years. Consequently, neither the individual nor the nation can contract a debt of over 19 years. Jefferson's theories here relate to a variety of complaints made by the democrats: that individuals become enslaved as debtors, and that the financially powerful gain tyrannical control as a result of personal and public debts owed to them.
However, his conclusions are even more radical than they at first appear. If contractual agreements in general are void after 19 years, then every law (which, to be legitimate, must be based on consent) automatically becomes invalid at that time. Otherwise, government could not possibly be based on consent in any meaningful sense. He does not consider the theoretical power of repeal to be evidence of consent. Once a law is passed, numerous abuses can assure its survival: "representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents, and other impediments arise . . . ." (39) In view of this long list of likely abuses, one must wonder how laws of even a 19-year duration could possibly be considered to be based on consent!
It is reservations of exactly this kind that led Jefferson to introduce into his radical democractic theory a strong decentralist element. The aspect of this decentralism that is best know relates to the doctrine of states' rights. Even as Vice-President, Jefferson was developing the doctrine of nullification, which holds that "whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force," and that each state "has an equal right to judge for itself, as well as of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress." (40) Furthermore, since Congress was "merely the creature of the compact, as subject as to its assumptions of power to the final judgment of those by whom, and for whose use itself and its powers were created and modified," that is, to the states. (41) In a letter of 1800, Jefferson attacks attempts of the Federalists to destroy the power of states, arguing that with power concentrated in a national government, the citizens will be unable to oversee and control legislators and administrators. The result, he says, will be "corruption, plunder, and waste." (42)
The unique contribution of Jefferson to American political theory is not, however, his defense of the rights of states, but rather the more radically libertarian and decentralist elements of his thought. His statements of the 1790's reveal much of this tendency. In a letter of 1799, for example, he makes a "profession of political faith" in which he claims such tenets as the following: opposition to all "monarchising" of government; preservation of the rights of states against the federal government, and those of the legislature against the executive: support for "frugal and simple governments," in which there is little bureaucracy or public debt; reliance on citizens militias and minimal coastal defense in peacetime, as opposed to a standing army, which might "overawe" the citizenry; avoidance of involvement in the disputes of other nations, and especially ties with corrupt and unjust regimes; preservation of civil liberties; and an openness to the growth of knowledge and "science" in all realms. (43)
The radicality of Jefferson's underlying decentralism only became evident later. While he had earlier defined republicanism in terms of effective control of decisions by the people, he makes the significance of this view clear. A republic, he says in a letter of 1816, is "a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to the rules established by the majority." (44) If this is true, then authentic republican government can only exist on the most local level; indeed, he doubts "whether it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township." (45) In another letter of the same year, he draws out the practical implications of this principle. He proposes that the basic unit of government should be "wards" small enough so that "every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person." (46) He then lists their functions, which are reiterated in slightly more detail in another letter written eight years later:
In each of these might be, first, an elementary school; second, a company of militia, with its officers; third, a justice of the peace and constable; fourth, each ward should take care of their own poor; fifth, their own roads; sixth, their own police; seventh, elect within themselves one or more jurors to attend the courts of justice; and eighth, give at their folk-house, their votes for all functionaries reserved to their election. (47)
In every case, functions that cannot effectively be performed at the ward level should be undertaken at the county, state, or federal level, respectively. Yet the presumption is in favor of local democratic control, for one of the central ends of government is the formation of an intelligent, responsible, and active citizenry. As Jefferson concludes, "these wards, which are called townships in New England...have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation." (48)
It should be noted that the decentralist version of radical democracy developed in America had some reciprocal effect on the French revolutionaries who helped inspire it. Fay notes the significant federalist currents that were present in France in 1792. At that time, the Jacobins were attacking the Brissotins frequently for an alleged desire to imitate the federalism of the United States. Even among the Jacobins themselves there was a tendency that followed Franklin in defending the idea that government should remain weak, so that a strong people could control its own destiny. Given the internal dynamics of the Revolution and the external pressures on it, these tendencies were fated to be crushed by authoritarian centralism. (49) Still, they exemplify the continuing mutual interaction between the political ideals of the two countries.
The Political Ideology of the Societies
The popular Societies were a product of the cross-fertilization between French revolutionary spirit and the kind of native American radicalism just described. When the American democratic ideologists looked at the French Revolution, they saw the phenomena as conditioned by their own revolutionary history and by their experience in American political culture. On the other hand, when they looked back at the American Revolution, and invoked its authority, they rediscovered their own revolutionary tradition as reinterpreted and transformed in the light of the new idealism and the intensified radicalism inspired by their image of the events in France. Symbolic of the peculiar mélange of the two revolutionary heritages is a resolution of the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania. It resolved that all correspondence of the Society shall use the title "Citizen" exclusively, and shall be dated "from the Era of American Independence."(50)
One of the most pervasive themes running through the literature of the Societies is the danger of concentrated power. One hears strong resonances of familiar themes from Paine and Jefferson concerning the evils of centralization. The Democratic Society of the City of New York cautions that "too much power is incompatible with the principles of republican government, that EXCESS OF ENERGY IS DESPOTISM." (51) The German Republican Society of Pennsylvania is even more blunt in its strictures against governmental power. "All governments" it says, "are more or less combinations against the people, they are states of violence against individual liberty, originating from man's imperfection and vice . . . ." (52) To the extent that they are a necessary evil, they must be vigilantly restrained. What is needed, in effect, is a popular power that counteracts the power of government. "The checks and balances of government" are explained, not as a wise solution to the problem of arbitrary power, but , strikingly, as "inventions to keep the people in subordination." In the face of such a threat:
a reaction of some sort is necessary...to keep up the equipoise, between the people and the government. Whether these be town and township meetings, called to echo the pre-eminent virtues of administration, or whether they are associations of another kind, that approve or condemn as their judgment directs, they are alike legal, they may be alike useful and to interpose a veto to them is alike tyrannical. (53)
Although the Societies saw dangers to liberty in the tendency of all three branches of government to overstep their limits, the greatest menaces were seen as coming from the executive and judiciary. The Democratic Society of New York City notes that legislation is "a declaration of the general will," and is fundamental to the protection of rights, for which legitimate government is established. It is necessary for civil liberty and security that strict limits be placed on the actions even of legislatures, for "every degree of coercion more than what is indispensible for the purposes of general, and individual preservation, is so far a DESPOTISM." (54) But the attacks on executive and judicial power are much more vehement than those directed at the legislative, which is often defended against the usurpation of its power by the less popular branches. As the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania expressed these sentiments in a toast: "Reason:--May it successfully counteract the baneful effects of Executive influence, expose the insidious arts of Judicial sophistry, and preserve inviolate the purity of legislation." (55) The Democratic Society of the Borough of Norfolk (Virginia) approved a statement advocating that all means necessary be used by the people to prevent governmental abuses. They claimed the right, when those in power oppress the people, "to call them to an account, to reprimand, to displace and punish them" for their abuses. (56) The Society goes so far as to advocate direct action when more moderate methods fail: "although, to redress these grievances, every lenient and emolient remedy should be applied, yet if from the obstinacy and perverseness of our rulers, this should prove ineffectual, coercive applications would be justifiable." (57) This was an age when patriotism did not mean the passive obedience typical of a servant or slave. Rather, it meant action, and, at times, active resistance on behalf of liberty.
An institution that was highly valued by the democrats was trial by a jury of citizens. This was one area of the judicial system that fulfilled their ideal of popular self-government. In one of its resolutions, the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania said, in part, "that tryal by jury ought to be held sacred and inviolate; that all attempts by judges to overawe or influence juries in the exercise of their functions, and all publications made by any citizen, but more especially by persons in authority, tending to prejudge a cause and to influence the minds of the jury by whom it is to be tryed are infringements of this sacred right . . . ." (58) The Democratic Society of Canaan published several lengthy resolutions condemning the complexity of the court system, and proposing means for its simplification. It included suggestions that delays in decisions should be eliminated; that legal jargon should be removed from codes and procedures; that the "insincere harangues, partial representation and equivocation" typical of the legal profession be banished from the courts; that, indeed, the general rule should be trials without "the partial pleadings of attorneys"; and that laws and procedures should be simplified through legislative reform. Surprisingly, the Society also asked whether unanimous verdicts might not be replaced by majority vote of jurors, so as to avoid the coercing of jurors into perjury "by hunger and thirst." (59)
A constant theme for the democrats is the challenge of insuring the responsibility of officials. Implicitly, the democrats accepted the Jeffersonian premise that the only truly republican government is direct democracy, as exemplified in town meetings and local juries. Yet, they were committed to a system of representative government, and sought means of making it work, whatever its inevitable dangers. One such means was believed to be a high frequency of elections, so that officials will remain under the close scrutiny of the citizens, and will feel the pressure of being called to account regularly. Link cites a speech delivered to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by Dr. Michael Leib, a member of all three Philadelphia Societies, in which he stated ("with numerous references to Godwin") that:
as the expression of the people's will can only be fairly and substantially given at the election of their Representatives, and as this will ought at all times to be consulted, the more frequent the elections, the more frequent the opportunity of consulting it. If elections are not frequent, the will of the Representatives, instead of the will of the people, becomes the Supreme Law. (60)
Foner notes that not only were the officers of every society chosen for a term of no more than one year, but that in one case the chair of the Committee of Correspondence was rotated each month. (61) Thus, the internal structure of the Societies reflected their political ideals. This ideal was expressed well in the Constitution of the Democratic Society of Addison County (Vermont), which affirmed that "frequent elections, directly from the body of the people, of persons, to important offices of trust, have an immediate tendency to secure the public rights, as less opportunities intervene for abuse of power . . . ." (62)
The Societies were strongly committed to a doctrine of majority rule, as opposed to the Federalists, who wished to preserve disproportionate representation of certain special interests and privileged groups. According to the Patriotic Society of the County of Newcastle (Delaware):
That the will of the majority should govern, is the definition of a true rational liberty; and although a very good form of government may be badly administered; yet we must never suppose, in theory, that the majority of the people can be misled or corrupted. Because the moment that we admit of such a supposition, we abandon the strong hold of freedom, the will of the many, and become subject to the will of the few. (63)
This faith in majority rule implied as a corollary that districts should be equally represented according to population. Particularly in rural and newly-settled areas there was dissatisfaction with the fact that older and more urbanized areas had a disproportionately greater representation, a condition that satisfied the Federalist desire to give greater weight to the wealthy and more privileged classes. In a series of "Resolutions Upholding the Cause of France," the Democratic Society of Pinckneyville (South Carolina) could not refrain from promoting their own domestic cause, affirming that "population is the only true principle of representation among a free people," that "wealth causes its own influence, and ought not directly to be represented," and finally, that since the present system is not based on the principle "of equality and just proportion" it "ought to be reformed." (64)
One of the greatest fears of the Societies was that the union of wealth and political power would multiply corruption and oppression. The Democratic Society of the Borough of Norfolk (Virginia) expressed such sentiments in lamenting the fact that there are persons in government ("even in legislative capacity"!) "who are unfriendly to their country, more attached to their own interest, and more influenced by lucrative motives than the good and happiness of their country . . . ." (65) The object of this attack is, in particular, those Federalist legislators who contrived to create a large public debt, benefitting the wealthy but imposing hardships on the less privileged, including the revolutionary veterans. (66) Quite often, the Societies warn about the evil of overpayment of officials, which leads to the creation of an elite with less than public-spirited motives for service. The Democratic Society of Canaan (New York) resolved that "posts of trust in a free state, ought never to be considered as places of emolument; or as rewards for past services: but as duties occasionally requested of citizens found worthy to be so honored with public confidence, for which only a reasonable indemnification can be expected." (67) The Democratic Republican Society of Prince William (Virginia) similarly rejected the idea "that offices of high trust and great emolument should be heaped on the same person." (68)
While the Societies attacked abuses that rewarded those with economic privilege, they were no less concerned with abuses that penalized those suffering economic disadvantages. An object of particularly strong censure was the practice of imprisonment for debt. One democrat wrote the New Jersey legislature calling for penal reform, and asserting that debtors' prison, having an "affinity to a Bastille," has no place in a free country. (69) The Tammany Society called for a "happy amelioration of our penal laws, respecting criminal punishments and imprisonment for debt." (70). The democrats also pointed out that legal fees were a burden on some, so that the innocent could be convicted merely on grounds of poverty. (71) Once again, the Societies stressed the inseparability of inequities of economic and political power.
The Enlightenment ideal accepted by the Societies required the existence of an educated citizenry capable of managing its own affairs. This implies an openness of government to public inspection and supervision, so that the citizens are able to hold their representatives strictly responsible. As the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania toasted on the 18th anniversary of the Revolution, "Governmental secrecy; may it be banished (from) the land of freedom, and be hereafter known only to a conclave or a court." (72) The Societies opposed such practices as closed sessions of legislatures, and, in the words of the Democratic Society of Canaan, those "dark, intricate, antiquated formalities" and that "obsolete phraseology" that mystifies the the legal and political system. (73) They supported the principle that the citizens should be able to engage in lively and well-informed debate, after which they would instruct their representatives to carry out their will. According to Link:
Travelers in America were impressed by the political agitation which they found in all parts of the country. The Frenchmen, Bonnet and La Rochefoucauld, noted the interest in politics and the avidity with which the newspapers were read. Mazzei, of Italy, heard much political talk and said that the Americans reasoned even more on public affairs than in the days of the Revolution. (74)
The Societies were active in organizing public meetings throughout the country to discuss important questions, and to express the "general will" to the legislators and other officials. (75) A preferred method of organization was for leaders of the Societies to work within their local town meetings, in order to inspire their fellow citizens to support the democratic cause and their French allies. (76) In the furor over the anti-French Jay Treaty, large public meetings were held to discuss and protest the treaty. In Boston, the treaty was read and explained to a crowd of 1500 people, while in Philadelphia 5000 assembled for what was described by a close associate of Jefferson as an "orderly and dignified" meeting. (77) In 1798, as the Federalists moved in a direction increasingly hostile to France, there were numerous mass-meetings, and in 1799 a petition of protest signed by over 1000 citizens was sent to the House of Representatives. (78) The level of participation inspired by the Societies in the sparsely-populated young Republic is an impressive testimony to the civic life of the era.
The assumption behind the Societies' commitment to popular democracy was the possibility, and, moreover, the necessity of an enlightened citizenry. The democrats therefore placed an enormous emphasis on public education, which was considered to be the indispensible precondition for a free and democratic society. Link presents a long list of academies and colleges that were founded or given support by members of the Societies, and he cites numerous members who were active in supporting libraries. (79) Among the toasts of the Societies were frequent tributes to the importance of education, reason, and enlightenment. The New York City Democratic Society proposed a toast to "The progress of education--May it cause a speedy abolition of every species of dangerous distinction, and render every American a patriot from principle." (80) The Tammany Society toasted that "the establishment of public Schools" throughout the state of New York might be "the favorite object of our next and every future Session of our State Legislature." (81)
The democrats saw equality in education as essential not only for the inculcation of civic virtue, but also for the securing of equality of opportunity for all, and for counter-balancing the dangers of economic privilege. The Democratic Society of Pennsylvania first praised public education for its fostering of "independence and republicanism," but added that it is necessary also so that "the children of the poor may have equal opportunities with those of the rich." (82) Foner cites a member of the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania who lamented (in words that, tragically, ring true two centuries later) that "the rich can buy learning--it is a luxury. But to the poor it is a necessity, and to them, O Americans, it is denied." (83) But perhaps the most pointed comment concerning the relation between knowledge and power came from a pamphlet on education by an educator and leader of the Newcastle (Delaware) Patriotic Society: "An equal representation is absolutely necessary to the preservation of liberty. But there can never be an equal representation, until there is an equal mode of education for all citizens . . . ." (84)
An interest of the Societies that closely paralleled their concern for public education was their strong support for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Once again, the underlying principle is that knowledge and enlightenment must be placed at the service of active citizenship and the general welfare of the community. Consequently, the goal is that these civil liberties should mean in practice, not mere formal, but rather, effective freedom. The Democratic Society of Canaan, in a lengthy denunciation of the "aristocratic conspiracy" that combats popular democracy, accuses the Federalists of discouraging the "general dissemination of political information and virtue" and the "attempt of common people" to "acquire any useful knowledge" of "politics and government." (85) It has already been shown that one means toward these ends favored by the Societies consisted of town meetings and public assemblies.
The Societies emphasized equally the importance a truly free press. They made abundant use of those newspapers that were sympathetic to the democratic cause, or at least opened their pages to it, publishing numerous addresses, circular letters, resolutions, minutes, and articles and letters from the members. At the same time, they warned about the dangers to freedom of the press posed by wealth and political authority. In many areas the newspapers were entirely controlled by the Federalists, and, in general, economic power exerted a disproportionate influence over the press. The Societies argued that a free press should be at the service of the community, rather than the interests of the "few." (86) The Committee of Correspondence of the Democratic Society of the City of New York cited the abuses resulting from the influence of the state. In its opinion, "the channels of intelligence are too generally directed by the government; and too many of the printers, instead of being the mirrors of the public sentiment, are creatures and eulogists of administration." (87) Implicit in such critiques is an ideal of a democratic press, which uses the dissemination of information to foster the activity and express the will of the people, rather than functioning as an instrument of concentrated power.
Another area in which the Societies drew a distinct line between authoritarian and free institutions was defense. The democrats inherited a revolutionary tradition of radical patriotism and popular self-defense, and drew inspiration from the actions of the French in defense of their Revolution. Thus, the militiamen and sailors were particularly ardent in their democratic sentiments. Link notes that many militia companies "were Francophile in spirit," and often at their meetings toasted the Revolution and various radical principles. (88) Military societies were a notable presence in the democratic and patriotic celebrations of the day. The sailors were also strongly democratic and pro-French, and harbored a particularly strong hostility to Britain, as a monarchical regime, a former oppressor, and a threat to American sea trade. The Society of Master Sailmakers is described by Link as "ultra-democratic in its position." (89)
The Societies were emphatic both in their support for the popular militias and in their animosity toward standing armies. While the Federalists feared the militias as unprofessional and unreliable, they were to the democrats the model of popular institutions. At an Independence Day celebration of "the Officers and Privates of Captain Snowden's Company of Artilery," the gathering toasted to "The militia of the United States; may they still prove the bulwark of liberty, and by their readiness to support the laws, supersede the necessity of a standing army." (90) The Democratic Society of the County of Addison was more explicit about the latter, calling standing armies "highly dangerous to liberty." (91) But a toast at an Independence Day dinner for "Capt. Montaigne's Company of Light Infantry" exhibits the depth of the feeling on the issue: "A standing army, the charybdis of republicanism—May the faction who have so long strove to saddle one upon the freemen of America, continue to experience disappointment in a measure so pregnant with death to our liberties." (92) The toast was greeted with six cheers.
The democrats believed that self-defense should be kept in the hands of the citizens themselves. Otherwise, the military would become a tool of the state and privileged minorities to oppress the people. In addition, vast armies would lead to involvement in external affairs, and the imposition of heavy taxes on the people to support such adventures. The Societies argued for militias which were designed clearly for purposes of self-defense, and which were pervaded by a democratic and egalitarian spirit alien to the hierarchical structure of armies. In these militias, the members must have the right to elect their own officers and make their own rules--rights that were well-established in practice, to the distress of the Federalists. (93) As the Franklin or Republican Society of Pendleton County resolved, "it is the inherent right of every free man to vote and to elect the officers who are to command them in a military character; and he who dares to attempt a contravention of this right, forfeits all protection from this country, is a tyrant and a despot, and an enemy to the people." (94)
The egalitarianism of the Societies extended to the area of economics. Given their makeup, it would be easy to conclude that they were essentially a coalition between certain rising bourgeois interests, members of the "old working class," and ideologically-motivated allies, and that its purpose was simply to challenge the entrenched power of landowners and finance capital. Indeed, there is considerable truth in this interpretation. However, like most such economistic interpretations, unless it is integrated into a larger scheme that takes the social imagination seriously, it leads to reductionism. It underestimates the significance of ideology as a creative historical force, and fails to comprehend the open texture of society as lived in by the historical agents. The ideology of the Societies is pervaded by a sense of possibility and optimism that was shaped in large measure by those real possibilities that then existed in a pre-industrial American society. Thus, an ideology that bases "freedom of opportunity" on the destruction of barriers to artisanship, small manufacture, small farming and the professions might seem "ideological" in the most pejorative sense, looked at from the perspective of the present. Still, from the standpoint of a society that did indeed contain possibilities later closed by the emergence of industrialism, bureaucracy, and the society of commodity consumption, that ideology had a strongly egalitarian and libertarian dimension.
The economic ideology of the Societies was based on a belief in the equitable distribution of economic power through the dispersion of property, and in the necessity of combating the evils of economic privilege. As a democrat wrote under the pseudonym "Republicanism" in the Newark Gazette :
It must be the mechanics and farmers, or the poorer class of people (as they are generally called) that must support the freedom of America; the freedom which they and their fathers purchased with their blood—the nobility will never do it--they will be always striving to get the reins of government into their hands, and then they can ride the people at pleasure. (95)
The public welfare was best served by removing the obstacles to economic productivity, providing certain essential social goods through judicious legislation, and preventing the powerful from stealing the fruits of honest toil. The hostility toward the privileged classes, who were seen as dangerous parasites on the body politic, is expressed in a pamphlet of 1797 by Albert Gallatin, who speculated that "had America in the year 1775 been what she is now, a nation governed by stock-jobbers, stock-holders, and bank directors, we should have hugged the fetters which Great Britain had then forged for us." (96)
The democrats believed that one of the foremost evils imposed on society by economic power is the public debt. The Societies condemn its increase as detrimental to civic virtue and to the common good. The Democratic Society of Pennsylvania expressed its sentiments in several toasts. "May every Free Nation consider a public debt as a public curse; and may the man who would assert a contrary opinion be considered as an enemy to his Country." (97) And again, "Public debt: May it be considered as the Charybdis of republicanism and the Scylla of virtue." (98) Similarly, the Democratic Society of the County of Addison asserted that "a public debt (and a financial funding system to continue the same) is a burthen on the nation, and ought, by the oeconomical exertions of the nation, to be reduced and discharged...." (99) The democrats attacked the debt not only for its detrimental economic effects on the less privileged for the sake of financial interests, but also because it increased governmental power and bureaucracy. As a republican expressed it in a letter to a newspaper, a "debt creates a party always at the nod of government, and the minister of a treasury has absolute a command over it as the general of an army has the command of his soldiers." (100)
The only other economic policy that infuriated the democrats to an equal or greater degree was the excise tax. They believed that it constituted unjust discrimination against the small farmers, artisans, and manufacturers (who were a major segment of their movement), and, also that it had deleterious effects on the economic and political systems in general. As the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania expressed their sentiments: "Excise: May this baneful exotic whither in the soil of freedom." (101) The idea that the excise tax is an alien institution associated with corrupt and despotic regimes was a common one. Wilson Cary Nicholas, a republican member of Congress, attacked a proposed excise on tobacco by asserting that what "has degraded and annihilated the spirit of Britain" was "public debts, taxes, and officers of excise. One half of the nation has been loaded with the plunder of the rest." (102)
The democrats attacked the tax as another example of abuse of power by the economically privileged. The most immediate victims of the excise were the small farmers, artisans, and manufacturers who were a major segment of the democratic movement. A typical reaction was that expressed by the Philadelphia snuff manufacturers in a memorial to the Senate, in which they saw the tax resulting in "the ruin of their trade and the impoverishment of their families." (103) The wealthier and more politically powerful interests concentrated in the towns of the East, who had more to gain from retail trade, imports, and governmental activity, were the main beneficiaries of such measures.
However, the democratic argument contended not only that thriving domestic production was necessary to the economic health of the producers, but also that it was essential to the political health of the Republic as a whole. The Democratic Society of the City of New York warned that excessive imports to fulfill domestic needs would create dangerous ties to the old regimes that were antithetical to American democracy. "Commerce, though justly celebrated as one of the greatest causes of the present civilization, and refinement in manners, yet, by introducing the corrupt practices and abandoned polity of foreign climes, often proves injurious to the morals of a state." (104) It was added that it is much better to avoid such foreign involvement than to try to remedy the evil when its baneful consequences become all too apparent, for "the channels of commerce, when once established, are difficult to be removed." (105) The Democratic Society of Pennsylvania argued that the tax creates great opportunity for fraud, that its collection is expensive, and that it adds to an irresponsible bureaucracy that is always jealous of its power, those "officers..., ever ready to join in a firm phalanx to support government even in unwarrantable measures." (106)
While the Societies were widely attacked by Federalists for fomenting the Whiskey Rebellion, their reply was that it was instead Federalist policies like the excise that caused it. The Societies universally opposed the Rebellion for unwisely and unjustly using force to correct an abuse that should be eliminated through legislative means, which had not been exhausted. However, their explanation of the uprising contained an implicit warning not unlike that contained in Jefferson's musings on the relationship between reform and revolution. As one republican writer concluded, in view of the Federalists' discriminatory and oppressive policies, "the insurrection may fairly be counted the first fruit of the blessed harvest sown by the advocates of the funding and banking systems," (107)
It is striking the degree to which overt class conflict pervades the political conflicts of the period. Fay contends that, despite his manifold shortcomings, Genet succeeded, through his attacks on governmental aristocracy and clerical conservatism, in intensifying class antagonisms. In his view, Genet had a particularly strong influence on recent German, Irish and French immigrants, imparting to them a feeling of class identity, and mobilizing their energies. (108) According to Page Smith, if we look back over this period of early American history, we will find "that class antagonisms in the United States ran much deeper than we have been inclined to recognize--and that this class feeling was more bitter in the first decades of the Republic than it ever was again." (109) The validity of this sweeping generalization is doubtful, and is probably based on excessive reliance on official readings of later American history that give little attention to popular movements and labor struggles. The truth that it reflects, though, is that after this period the class antagonisms were never again so close to the surface, never again so explicitly expressed in political discourse, and never again so systematically correlated with the fundamental cleavage in American "mainstream" politics.
Of course, no interpretation of the conflicts of the 1790's can ignore the fact that some of the most important groups in American society were substantially excluded from the political struggles of the era, and, for the most part, even excluded from political discourse. This was true most significantly in the case of women, slaves, and native peoples.
It is true that some members of the Societies did have a concern for the improvement of the position of women in society. Link cites several members, including Benjamin Bache, one of the most prominent democrats, who supported greater educational opportunities for women. Another, William Boyd, read his poem "Woman" in Harvard Chapel, expressing his support for Mary Wollstonecraft's radical defense of women's rights. (110) And, of course, there was implicit in the Societies' support for universal rights the implication that these must be extended to women also.
Unfortunately, however, most members of the movement held a view of women that was far from radical. The issue of rights and liberties for women never became part of the agenda of the Societies, whatever progressive views some democrats may have held. Foner notes that none of the Societies ever sought women as members. (111) Instead, the references to women in their proceedings show a conformity to the traditional patriarchal image of the relationship between the sexes. Typical of many paternalistic and condescending toasts to woman was one to "The Fair of America.--May they reward with their smiles the mind which respects and the arm which protects their important station in society." (112)
Neither did the Societies show any inclination to extend to "rights of man" to Native Americans, whether male or female. There is no evidence of any resolutions or statements on behalf of the Indians, nor is there condemnation of unjust treatment of the original human inhabitants of the continent. On the other hand, the Indians were themselves attacked for interfering with white settlement of the frontier, which was seen as preordained by both God and reason. (113) The democrats' Jeffersonian ideal of the independent "yeoman-farmer" was best exemplified by the new settlers, and they had no intention of sullying this ideal by applying their labor theory of property rights to the hunters and gatherers of the primeval forests.
The insensitivity of the Societies to the plight of the Indians betrays the deeply ambiguous nature of the Enlightenment consciousness, for all its luminescent grandeur. For while, on the one hand, it was capable of inspiring the most lofty and admirable ideals of liberty, equality, and justice, it was linked to a conception of nature that still contained the seeds of domination. Indeed, of an episode in the history of domination that is still being played out. For when the early Americans (and perhaps, most especially, the democrats) looked out across the vast continent, they saw but a fertile field for their honest productive activity. Little thought was given to the threat that expansion of this activity might pose to the existence of those cultures that lived in delicate balance with the land, still less to the delicate ecological balances prevailing upon that land itself. Despite their attainment of the most laudable heights of civic virtue, they were sadly lacking in piety toward nature and in respect toward those cultures that they imaginatively assimilated into nature. In this, they shared in one of the most fatal defects in the American character.
Finally, the Societies had a quite mixed record on the issue of slavery. As has been noted, the democratic movement was a diverse coalition of members from various classes, occupations, and geographical regions. It was able to unite over principles of popular democracy, civil liberties, and economic freedom. While these fundamental principles should obviously have led to universal denunciation of slavery and agitation for its immediate destruction, the members' actual positions ranged from vehement and active opposition to overt support for its continuation.
Most of the Societies failed to pass resolutions explicitly demanding abolition, nor did they lend their support to the Black slave revolution in Haiti. (114) Some Southern democrats, following Jefferson, remained steadfastly against slavery in theory, but failed to oppose it in practice. They argued that the immediate economic effects of abolition would be disastrous, and that the institution could only be gradually abolished. In some cases, their performance was even worse than this. The Franklin or Republican Society of Pendleton County was capable of cynically attacking the British for causing the loss of "the value of Negroes and other property." (115)
On the other hand, the Societies contained strong abolitionist elements, and were far in advance of the country as a whole on the issue. The Society of Master Sailmakers passed a resolution against slavery, the Tammany Society toasted to its abolition at their Columbian Centenary Festival, a Fourth of July oration at the Republican Society of Ulster County proclaimed humanity to be "outraged by the infamous traffic and merchandise of the human species," and the General Society of Mechanics of New York toasted, "may the time soon arrive when men shall be ashamed to make their fellow creatures an article of commerce." (116) Indeed, some democrats in slave states did feel enough shame to free their slaves and even become active abolitionists. And in the North, many members of the Societies participated in the abolitionist movement. (117)
The Heritage of the "American Jacobins"
Had the history of the Societies continued into the 19th Century, there would no doubt have developed a lively debate concerning the failure of some members to uphold democratic principles on this and other issues. Unfortunately, that debate was never witnessed, as the movement faded away at the end of the decade. Support for the Societies declined, as enthusiasm for the French Revolution dwindled, and America went through a period of overt conflict with France, much to the dismay of the democrats. However, even more significant than these immediate developments were deeper, long-term social, economic, and political conditions that were moving American democracy far from the radically populist, libertarian, egalitarian, and decentralist version espoused by the Societies.
What, then, is the importance of this brief moment in American history, when political events and political ideas were so profoundly moved by dreams of Revolution? I believe that its significance is considerable. On the one hand, it teaches us something about history and imagination. However profound the influence of the French Revolution on American politics of the time may have been, this influence was, of course, situated within a vast system of economic, political, and cultural determinants. This is obvious. Still, study of the Societies and their image of the Revolution indicates that an adequate understanding of social dynamics requires that careful attention be given to modes of self-understanding and to the activity of the social imagination. It helps us grasp the importance of ideology in giving direction to movements for social change.
Fay is quite astute in noting that what the Americans loved as "France" was not France "en soi." As if there were such an entity! Rather, it was a certain image of France that was loved, a thoroughly ideological image that was highly useful for political purposes, as "a weapon for internal politics, an all- powerful lever, a means of stirring up spirits and building enthusiasm." (118) This sounds a bit cynical, but it is not really so. For, as he says, this image of France was not merely used, it was also loved.
Thus, the relationship between the United States and France in the revolutionary era was above all "un mirage, une histoire d'amour" of a certain type. (119) In the case of each nation, the image of the other involved illusions and even misconceptions, but it produced for each a self-revelation, and a release of creative powers. In such a relationship of "mirage," ones images of the other are of necessity a mélange of reality, fantasy, and projection. But is this not the case with all truths of any importance? In the play of imagination, one confronts the other, but one also discovers within oneself that which was unknown, and one thereby gives to dormant possibilities the capacity to manifest themselves. Fay is therefore quite perceptive in attributing such effects to the dialectic of revolutionary images between American and French societies.
But perhaps most significantly for us today, the Democratic-Republican Societies and their image of the Revolution can exercise a critical function in relation to the actual course of American political history. In their vision of a Republic of free and active citizens, and in their scathing attack on economic and political power, these frightful democrats and terrifying republicans challenge the authenticity of the reigning American ideology of freedom and democracy. Ironically, they step out from the mythic haze of the early Republic to challenge the dominant myth of America. Indeed, it is impossible to read the history of their movement without rereading the present.
In this sense, the heritage of the Societies, and of the image of Revolution that inspired them so deeply, is still very much alive.
(1) The present discussion will focus on one side of a relationship that Bernard Fay has aptly described as "a reciprocal action of the two peoples, stimulating their desires, and revealing in them and exciting their most creative energies." [L'Esprit Revolutionnaire en France et aux Etats-Unis a la Fin du XVIII Siecle (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Eduard Champion, 1925), p. 315]. One should consult Fay's book for an excellent depiction of the other side of this relationship: the French image of America as a pure ideal; the American influence on the Declaration of the Rights of Man; the appeal to America as ideological ammunition even by the opponents of the Revolution; and the profound influence in France of the remarkable republican cult of Franklin. See, for example, pp. 175-78; 182-83; 190-91; 193-96; and 211.
(2) Eugene Perry Link, Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790-1800 (New York: Octagon Books, 1965), p. 56.
(3) Philip S. Foner, ed., The Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790-1800: A Documentary Sourcebook of Constitutions, Declarations, Addresses, Resolutions, and Toasts (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976), pp. 4-6.
(4) Ibid., p. 7.
(5) Ibid., p. 9.
(6) Link, p. 80.
(7) Alexander DeConde, Entangling Alliances: Politics & Diplomacy under George Washington (Durham, N.C.: Duke Un. Press, 1958), p. 178.
(8) Page Smith, The Shaping of America (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1980), p. 203.
(9) John Somerville and Ronald Santoni, eds., Social and Political Philosophy: Readings from Plato to Gandhi (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1963), p. 260.
(10) Foner, p. 103.
(11) Ibid., p. 107.
(12) Ibid., p. 168.
(13) Ibid., p. 236.
(14) Ibid., p. 69.
(15) Ibid., p. 260.
(16) Ibid., p. 83.
(17) Link, p. 95.
(18) Foner, p. 396.
(19) Link, pp. 34, 136-37.
(20) Ibid., p. 175.
(21) Foner, p. 23.
(22) Ibid., p. 39.
(24) Ibid., p. 187.
(25) Ibid., pp. 55-56.
(26) Ibid., p. 104.
(27) Ibid., p. 187.
(29) Link, p. 107.
(30) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1961), p. 399.
(31) Ibid., p. 400.
(33) Ibid., p. 401.
(34) Ibid., pp. 418-19.
(35) Foner, p. 186.
(36) DeConde, p. 176.
(37) Smith, p. 144.
(38) Somerville and Santoni, p. 261.
(39) Ibid., p. 265.
(40) Smith, p. 270.
(42) Alpheus Thomas Mason, ed. Free Government in the Making: Readings in American Political Thought (New York: Oxford Un. Press, 1965), p. 377.
(43) Ibid., p. 376.
(44) Ibid., p. 390.
(46) Ibid., p. 395.
(47) Adrienne Koch, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Columbia Un. Press, 1943), p. 163.
(48) Mason, p. 396.
(49) Fay, p. 222.
(50) Foner, p. 74.
(51) Ibid., p. 189.
(52) Ibid., p. 62.
(53) Ibid., p. 63.
(54) Ibid., p. 196.
(55) Ibid., p. 103.
(56) Ibid., p. 349.
(58) Ibid., p. 71.
(59) Ibid., pp. 242-43. This idea, which conflicts with the Societies' usual solicitude in regard to individual rights, is phrased, it should be noted, as a "query, rather than a resolution.
(60) Link, p. 112.
(61) Foner, p. 10.
(62) Ibid., p. 276.
(63) Ibid., p. 326.
(64) Ibid., p. 395.
(65) Ibid., p. 349.
(67) Ibid., p. 240.
(68) Ibid., p. 35.
(69) Link, p. 152.
(70) Foner, p. 204.
(71) Ibid., p. 11.
(72) Ibid., p. 107.
(73) Ibid., pp. 10-11, 241.
(74) Link, p. 56.
(75) Ibid., p. 163.
(76) Ibid., p. 205.
(77) Ibid., pp. 131-32.
(78) Ibid., p. 205.
(79) Ibid., pp. 168-69.
(80) Foner, p. 225.
(81) Ibid., p. 204.
(82) Ibid., p. 108.
(83) Ibid., p. 14.
(85) Ibid., p. 248.
(86) Link, p. 163.
(87) Foner, p. 109.
(88) Link, 180.
(89) Ibid., p. 95.
(90) Foner, p. 230.
(91) Ibid., p. 276.
(92) Ibid., p. 226.
(93) Link, p. 179.
(94) Foner, p. 397.
(95) Ibid., p. 145.
(96) Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca: Cornell Un. Press, 1978), p. 241.
(97) Foner, p. 104.
(98) Ibid., p. 197.
(99) Ibid., p. 276.
(100) Banning, p. 225.
(101) Foner, p. 107.
(102) Banning, p. 223.
(103) Ibid., p. 222.
(104) Foner, p. 188.
(106) Ibid., p. 106.
(107) Banning, p. 228.
(108) Fay, p. 220.
(109) Smith, p. 206.
(110) Link, p. 171.
(111) Foner, p. 13.
(112) Ibid., p. 222.
(114) Ibid., pp. 12-13.
(115) Ibid., p. 404.
(116) Link, p. 95; Foner pp. 201, 12.
(117) Foner, p. 12.
(118) Fay, p. 225.
(119) Ibid., pp. 318-19.