Keeping Democracy Alive. Democrat-Republican societies were organized groups of American citizens who came together in the 1790s to reignite the “fires of ‘76.” They wanted to keep people involved in politics to insure that the government would continue to be democratic. The societies existed during the 1790s and were concerned with both domestic and foreign affairs. Philip Freneau first wrote about the need for these societies in the National Gazette, which he published from October 1791 to October 1793. He challenged the idea that the government was always right, insisting that informed public opinion was needed to keep the government from becoming tyrannical. Ignoring or stifling public opinion was the result of monarchical thought and a prelude to tyranny. Freneau advocated the formation of clubs to maintain popular interest in government and to let people know when the government encroached on their rights.
Formation. The groups that began to form in the spring of 1793 supported the Constitution and the Bill of Rights but felt that Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists were trying to make the government an agency for the wealthy. This attitude was reflected by Chief Justice John Jay, who reportedly said, “those who own the country ought to govern it.” In contrast the people who formed the Democrat-Republican societies believed that “it must be mechanics and farmers, or the poorer class of people that must support the freedom of America.” They also disliked the way Hamilton and the Federalists seemed to accept English interference with American trade and with Americans moving into the western territories.
France and Liberty. Democratic enthusiasm was rekindled by the French Revolution. As the French monarchy fell Americans renewed their commitments to a democratic government. The French Revolution also gave energy to other antimonarchical movements in Europe. “Revolution societies” sprouted up in England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and France, and these societies corresponded with each other. One such immigrant society, the German Republican Society of Philadelphia, had its first meeting in March 1793. They believed that citizens were responsible for assisting in republican government by direct participation and by being alert to errors the government made. It was only through constant action that liberty would be kept alive. They believed that political societies could accomplish this through education, observation, and public expression of opinions.
Democratic Society of Pennsylvania. The largest and most influential society, the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania, was founded in the summer of 1793. It issued a circular letter calling on America to “erect the temple of LIBERTY on the ruins of palaces and thrones.” It urged citizens to form societies and warned that if European nations succeeded in suppressing the French Revolution, Europe’s monarchs would next turn their attention to the United States. Like other societies, the
Pennsylvania group focused on the right of freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Specifically, it wanted the right to criticize the government and to demand explanations for public acts.
Growth. The Democrat-Republican societies did not have a national network, but they spread from Massachusetts to Georgia. By the end of 1793 nine more societies were founded; twenty-three were founded in 1794, three more in 1795, one in 1797, and three in 1798. Between 1793 and 1800 more than forty Democrat-Republican societies were established. Some were large, such as the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania, which had 315 members, or the Charleston society, with 114 members, but on average most attracted 20 to 25 members.
Membership. Most members were craftsmen and mechanics, but there were also merchants, investors, doctors, and editors. Most had fought in the Revolutionary War, and many had been in the Sons of Liberty. Quite a few of the members were also leaders in their communities. Publishers were heavily represented and were instrumental in making the societies popular. The southern societies had slaveholders as members, and the western groups had wealthy landowners and speculators. It is not clear if African Americans were able to become members of the societies, although there is evidence that a few attended some meetings. Members followed the custom of the French Revolution and referred to one another as “citizen” and to their officers as “citizen presidents.” People joined the Democratic-Republican societies out of a common passion for political liberty and republican government, but they often disagreed about specific policies a free government should adopt. The societies tended to avoid potentially divisive issues. The wide range of interests represented in the societies affected the positions members took on all issues. Because slaveholders and abolitionists could sometimes be found in the same society, an antislavery stand could not be maintained without disrupting unity. While the societies passed many resolutions in support of the French Revolution, not one resolution passed in support of the Haitian Revolution.
Political Issues. The societies were concerned with several specific issues. They agitated against England for continuing to hold forts in the West and for acts of “piracy” against American trade and against Spain for closing the Mississippi River to American merchants. They protested the excise tax on whiskey, pushed for a uniform currency, and agitated for adequate representation for frontier areas. In South Carolina they opposed Jay’s nomination as envoy to England, as well as the treaty he negotiated in 1794. Moreover, Democratic-Republican societies were against secret sessions of Congress and state legislatures.
Meetings and Holidays. The societies usually met monthly, but during elections or political crises they met more regularly. They participated in local elections and organized public celebrations, particularly the Fourth of July, which they honored with speeches and toasts. The societies also observed Bastille Day on 14 July, commemorating the beginning of the French Revolution. The greatest efforts of the popular societies were toward creating public discussions. They composed, adopted, and issued circulars, memorials, resolutions, and addresses to the people. They also wrote complaints to the president and Congress.
Sir Augustus John Foster, Baronet, a twenty-five-year-old English nobleman, visited the United States during the Jefferson administration and later just before the War of 1812. Years afterward he published his travel journals, hoping to give a balanced picture of American life. Though he did not approve of many American institutions, he understood why the United States was becoming so much different than Europe.
Even our most liberal travelers are said to have found the people too democratic. And yet they are as they were known to be and necessarily must be for ages to come. For the fact is that the well educated and well informed in the United States are few compared to the mass, and do not throw themselves into the arms of every grumbling emigrant even when he comes with his pockets full of money from England, so that the latter perhaps gets in among a set of pseudo-Americans who are greater brawlers than himself. This may easily happen, when one considers that at least four or five millions of the whole population must be new to the country they call theirs, emigrants from other states, Europeans or sons of Europeans, and that one settler being as strange as another in the back districts there is nothing to prevent an Irishman or German, a fiery red-hot zealot, from taking the lead in all discussions, browbeating, and giving a tone to the rest. To this even the state of Pennsylvania, tho’ one of the oldest, was for a great while and is still from its vast extent peculiarly exposed, having long been the rendevous, on account of its rich soil.… Of all European emigrants, more especially Germans, who were attracted by the … Hessian soldiers that remained after the war and flocked there from the countries of the Rhine as well as from Hesse-Cassel. A German who has just arrived fresh and set free from serving barons or counts is like a great cart horse turned loose upon the plain, kicking and snorting in all directions. They revel in their new state and appear to be delighted with rolling about in the mire of democracy.
Source: Augustus John Foster, Jeffersontan America: Notes on the United States of America Collected in the Years 1805-6-7 and 11-12, edited by Richard Beale Davis (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1954).
Education. The Democrat-Republican societies were extremely interested in establishing a free public school system, which they felt was essential to the future of in
dependence and republicanism. They were vigorous supporters of the press as a key to freedom. Newspapers proliferated with the intense political discussions the societies encouraged. The number of American papers doubled to two hundred between 1790 and 1800. In 1800 there were five million copies of papers printed for a population of 5, 308, 483.
Foreign Impact. The French Revolution and the crisis over foreign policy in the mid 1790s most energized the Democratic-Republicans. Public support in America had begun to turn away from the French Revolution after the Paris massacres of September 1792. When the Whiskey Rebellion occurred in the summer of 1794, the Federalists blamed Democratic-Republican societies for the rebellion and then pointed to the frontier disorder as a symptom of revolutionary chaos and a beginning of an American reign of terror. President George Washington, in his annual message, publicly blamed the rebellion on “certain self-created societies.” The Senate agreed with Washington that the societies had increased the severity of the rebellion and that the government was right in using force to handle it. On the other hand, the House of Representatives praised the virtuous and informed citizens. While the critical attacks took away some of their support, it was not the opposition of the president or the Senate that hurt the societies most.
Declining Influence. The failed campaign against Jay’s Treaty in 1795 marked the decline of the societies. By 1796 the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania, once the largest society, no longer existed. The New York group and others remained active until 1799, and some new societies formed during the crisis years of 1798–1800. With Jefferson’s election to the presidency the fears that motivated the societies abated. Nevertheless, former members stayed active in politics and continued to influence government. Jefferson appointed some former society members to state-level positions.
Philip S. Foner, The Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790–1800 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976).