Yes, Americans did refer to the nation as a “democracy” and not just a republic in the founding era…but it’s complicated

Neither the word “democracy” nor any of its cognates appeared in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776), one of the most radically populist pamphlets of the Revolutionary era. Even a fearless writer like Paine considered the language of democracy too controversial to use in an essay intended to persuade the unconverted. The word democracy surfaced occasionally in the debates over the Constitution in 1787–8, but usually with a negative connotation. Almost no one defended the Constitution as a democratic charter, and only a handful of the Constitution’s most radical critics described their preferred alternatives as more democratic. A mere five years after the Constitutional Convention, however, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1792) lauded the new American political system as “representation engrafted upon democracy” and cheered the triumph of democratic over aristocratic and monarchical principles around the globe. In 1793 the word “democracy” appeared in American newspapers three times as often as it had the previous year, and in 1794 its usage doubled again. By the year 1800 a slate of candidates who frequently identified themselves as Democrats (with Thomas Jefferson as their standard bearer) gained control of the new nation’s federal government. In the span of one generation and thanks in large part to the influence of the French Revolution, democracy moved from the fringes of American public discourse into the centre — from a word used most frequently as a term of abuse in 1776 (and even 1787) to a term emblazoned upon the public banners of a successful, nationally-coordinated political party.

This story is not simply one about the triumph of a coherent, unchanging democratic ideal that slowly won the hearts and minds of the American people between the imperial crisis and 1800. Rather, the language of “democracy” evolved significantly over those years. In the decades before independence, those few writers who used democracy positively usually treated it as a synonym for republic, a much more commonly used term. When used by their advocates, both republic and democracy referred to little more than the theoretical proposition that all legitimate political authority flowed up from the people and not down from their rulers. A far more common use of the term democracy in the revolutionary era, however, was as an epithet, as a way for Loyalists and conservative Patriots to name the perceived threat of mob rule and excessive egalitarianism that they saw emerging around them. While these fears were frequently overblown, there did indeed develop in the 1770s and 1780s a segment of the Patriot movement that began pushing the question of just how democratic the new American republics should be. In their hands, democracy came to embody not just a theoretical understanding of where political authority came from, but a set of concrete prescriptions for how political power should operate — who should have the right to vote, who should hold office, and whose voices political authorities should heed. Put another way, over the course of the revolutionary crisis democracy ceased to be simply a synonym for republic, and instead came to modify it. Tentatively during the debate over the Constitution in 1787–8 and then with much greater intensity in the 1790s, a populist American opposition coalesced around the idea that American republics at both the state and federal level should be less “aristocratic” and more “democratic,” that is, that their institutions and practices should be organized in such a way as to render the polity more inclusive and participatory, more literally self-governing.

The influence of the French Revolution in the early 1790s introduced two additional elements to the American language of democracy. First, the term “democrat” came to describe a distinctive social type, the proudly assertive citizen who rejected the social and political elitism of those American “aristocrats” who were unwilling to embrace the egalitarian implications of the French and American revolutions. At first this usage did not have partisan meanings, but by the election of 1796 the moniker “democrat” had become associated with support for a particular slate of candidates. The most radical self-described “democrats” of the 1790s invested the term with a second and more utopian meaning. Democracy to them was the great moral imperative of their revolutionary age. Its implications spilled far beyond the boundaries of formal politics, calling upon citizens to work toward a more just world marked by a rough degree of social and economic equality and governed by a radically participatory and inclusive political system.

In the last half of the 1790s, in the context of a global reaction against the French Revolution, these more radical connotations of the term “democracy” came under severe attack, putting American democrats on the defensive. Conservative Federalists associated the democratic aspirations of thinkers like Thomas Paine with every form of unpalatable extremism imaginable — free love, atheism, the redistribution of property, and genocide to name but a few. Thus many proponents of “democracy” — as an ideal and as the name for an emerging political coalition — sought to distinguish themselves from the ultra democratic, “Jacobinical” menace that supposedly threatened the nation. Through this process, America’s language of democracy became dissociated from the more radical implications that the term had accrued during the heady days of the French Revolution. The genealogy of the “Democratic” party that triumphed in the election of 1800 thus included not only the anti-aristocratic progressivism of the previous years, but also the conservative anti-Jacobinism of the late 1790s. To be an American Democrat in 1800 meant that one believed in equality and popular rule, but not too much.

Even though democracy did not become a widely-used term in American public discourse until the early 1790s, the archive is dotted with occasional Anglo-American uses of the word “democracy” in the century preceding the American Revolution. Most commonly, it appeared in learned discourse when scholars discussed the three types of government — monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy — that should be balanced against each other in an ideal political system, but which would devolve into tyranny if implemented in isolation. A second manner in which colonists before the Revolution used the word democracy was as a synonym for popular sovereignty, a more oppositional appropriation of the term that hearkened back to the radical republicanism of the English Civil War. It is in this context that Massachusetts Congregationalist John Wise, in a 1717 treatise on civil and ecclesiastical governance, spoke glowingly of “democracy” as “a form of Government, which the Light of Nature does highly value.” Wise defined democracy as the “ancient” and simple idea that when men “being Originally in condition of Natural Freedom and Equality” set up a government, they would “be inclined to administer their common Affairs, by their common judgment.” Wise used the word “democracy” sparingly, and mostly as a way to laud New England’s distinctive practices of church and town governance. All the same, his pamphlet marks the first time that an American publication deployed the term democracy to criticize an aspect of colonial rule.

As the imperial crisis intensified during the 1760s and 1770s, positive uses of the word democracy began to appear with greater frequency in Anglo-American political discourse. This change can be explained largely by the fact that the dispute between the colonies and Britain revolved around issues of taxation, and taxes were historically the province of the “democratic” elements of the British Constitution. Thus it became commonplace for colonial writers to open their arguments as Daniel Dulaney did in his 1765 pamphlet on the Stamp Act — by acknowledging that each of the three forms of government “hath its peculiar Department, from which the other are excluded,” and then reasserting the essential principle that the power to tax belonged solely to the “Order of Democracy.” As long as the political conversation revolved around taxation, kind words about the democratic aspects of the British Constitution flowed from the pens of those asserting the rights of the colonists.

While there was nothing innovative about how colonists linked the democratic elements of the constitution to taxation, a second shift in the use of the term democracy harbored more radical implications. It is no coincidence that a group of Massachusetts Patriots reprinted John Wise’s obscure 1717 pamphlet in the early 1770s. While his admirers did not identify him as a “democrat,” they recognized Wise as an early proponent of what we might call a literalist reading of Lockean contract theory that gave democracy pride of place in the long-standing trinity of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. James Otis made a similar move in his influential 1764 pamphlet The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted. Drawing on Locke’s formulation of the state of nature, Otis identified “a simple democracy, or government of all over all” as the world’s original form of government. While he acknowledged that through “express compact…the individuals of each society” could choose any form they saw fit, Otis implied (while stopping short of treasonously saying) that aristocracy and monarchy were artificial impositions layered upon a foundational democracy that both he and Wise identified as the most “natural” and “ancient” system. This was a small, but important step away from a theory of mixed government in which all three elements were understood to have their separate, but equally important roles to play in the political order.

Otis and Wise gestured toward a question that would become important in the debate over independence — if democracy was the form of government that best reflected the original equality of all people, then shouldn’t republics strive to be as democratic as possible? After July of 1776 this was no longer an abstract question. As colonists went about rewriting the political charters under which they lived, literally enacting the theory of popular sovereignty, the gap between the terms “republic” and “democracy” became more apparent. Lines of division emerged within many colonies over the question of just how democratic these new American republics should be. While there was widespread consensus that the new polities should all be republics that served the common good and derived their legitimacy from popular consent, the extent and nature of ordinary citizens’ roles in these new governments was a source of great disagreement.

At the level of language, however, “democracy” was still a term most frequently imposed upon people by their opponents. Virtually every criticism of Paine’s Common Sense, for example, echoed John Adams’s charge that the text was “so democratical, without any restraint” that it could only “produce confusion and every evil work.” Yet as generations of progressive scholarship has demonstrated, many revolutionary era Americans did not share Adams’s anti-democratic concerns. Works like Common Sense tapped into popular resentments and aspirations that had smouldered for years and were fanned by the mobilization that accompanied the War of Independence. Positive (though still sporadic) uses of the word democracy can be found wherever the Patriot movement took on a particularly populist cast. In March of 1776, for example, one Pennsylvania pamphleteer lauded democracy as “the plan of civil society wherein the community at large takes the care of its own welfare, and manages its concerns by representatives elected by the people out of their own body.” While those still shackled by “political bigotry and prejudice” associated democracy with anarchy, this writer regarded it as an aspirational ideal. Later that same year the citizens of rural Mecklenberg County, North Carolina instructed their delegates to the state constitutional convention to “oppose everything that leans to aristocracy or power in the hands of the rich and chief men exercised to the oppression of the poor.” The government they had in mind was “a simple democracy, or as near it is possible.” As these two examples suggest — one urban and one rural, 800 miles apart — the association of democracy with popular self-rule and an egalitarian social ethic had become a part of Anglo-American political culture by the time of the American Revolution.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 best epitomizes the high water mark of democracy in the revolutionary era. Due to a unique set of political circumstances, a coalition of radical artisans, Enlightenment intellectuals, and populist farmers gained control of Pennsylvania’s politics in 1776 at the time when the state rewrote its new charter. The system they designed placed great power in the hands of ordinary citizens. Suffrage was extended to every taxpaying man over 21. Representatives to the unicameral legislature were elected annually. No person could serve in the legislature more than four years out of any seven, thus ensuring wider participation in the government. Before any bill could pass into law, it had to be “printed for the consideration of the people” and then voted on again in the next session of the assembly after a new election had intervened. The executive was comprised of an elected, 12-man council, so as to avoid consolidating executive power in a single individual. Finally, an elected body called the Council of Censors was to meet every seven years to reassess the Constitution and determine if it had been violated by any branch of the government. This document became a source of great contestation in Pennsylvania. To Loyalists and more moderate Patriots like John Adams, Pennsylvania’s 1776 Constitution embodied the dangers of “democratical” ideas like Paine’s. While the Constitution’s supporters rarely used the word “democratic” to describe it, they proudly embraced the document as an experimental effort to create a republic shorn of the aristocratic and monarchical elements that they thought marred the vaunted British Constitution.

The political contestation over how democratic the new American republics should be continued in many states through the late 1770s and into the 1780s, but evidence from the newspapers and pamphlets of the era suggest that the language of democracy did not evolve significantly or become a more prominent part of the nation’s political dialogue. The delegates to 1787’s Constitutional Convention spoke of democracy much as the moderates and conservatives of 1776 had — as one of the three essential components of a properly mixed government, and also as a potentially anarchic force that needed to be kept in check by the new nation’s political institutions. None of his fellow delegates argued with Elbridge Gerry’s claim on the second day of the convention that the nation’s current crisis was the result of “an excess of democracy,” nor did they quibble with Alexander Hamilton’s characterization of “the amazing violence and turbulence of the democratic spirit.” With only a few exceptions, most of the framers shared Roger Sherman’s sentiment that “the people…should have [as] little to do…about the Government” as possible. The difficulty the delegates faced was figuring out how to craft a political system that could simultaneously counter the perceived dangers of democracy, and win the support of a citizenry that harbored such a “fondness for democrac[y]” and its attendant “levelling spirit.”

The framers and defenders of the Federal Constitution found two ways — one largely rhetorical and the other more substantive — to forge a link between democracy and the new Constitution, despite the significant extent to which that document differed from the more assertively democratic charters of the day like the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. In a speech delivered to his fellow Pennsylvanians very early in the ratification debates, James Wilson made the case that the Constitution was “purely democratical” because the “supreme power…[was] vested in the people.” Even though Senators served for six years and were not directly elected, even though the Constitution was very difficult to amend and was overseen not by an elected body but by appointed judges who served for life, and even though the house of representatives was kept intentionally small so that only already prominent or wealthy men were likely to get elected; none of this was anti-democratic, according to Wilson, since every branch of the government ultimately, if often quite indirectly, drew its authority from the people. This attempt to equate democracy with the theory (rather than the practice) of popular sovereignty seems to have fallen flat, for few federalists repeated Wilson’s attempt to depict the Constitution as democratic.

James Madison articulated a more sophisticated and convincing linkage between democracy and the Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention, Madison proposed that the creation of a large republic would provide “the only defence against the inconveniences of democracy consistent with the democratic form of government.” The primary inconvenience he had in mind was the problem of majority rule, the tendency of majority factions to form and then take over the machinery of government to the detriment of minorities. He expanded upon these ideas a year later in Federalist numbers ten and fourteen, but in that context he introduced a new distinction between democracy, which he defined as the direct democracy of the ancient world, and a republic characterized by the modern innovation of representation. Democracies had to be small because only then could citizens assemble as an entire group to deliberate and make laws. Republics, by contrast, could be large since citizens elected representatives to do the peoples’ business. Even better, tyrannical majorities would be less likely to form in large republics because the diversity and geographical dispersion of the citizenry would prevent them from coordinating their efforts and consolidating their power. In the Federalist papers, Madison abandoned his initial description of this innovation as “consistent with the democratic form of government,” instead referring to it as a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.” Madison’s abandonment of any positive association between the Constitution and democracy is significant. Federalist numbers ten and fourteen depict “democracy” as an admirable but now obsolete relic from the Athenian past, and frame the new representative republic as the modern inheritor of that same spirit of “republican” self-rule. By positing such a bright line between old fashioned democracies that by definition lacked representation and modern republics that had it, Madison sought to preempt the argument that the Constitution was insufficiently democratic. True democracy, Madison implied, belonged solely to the ancient past, not the republican future.

In the few years immediately following the Constitutional Convention, this effort to neutralize the language of democracy in American politics seems to have worked. The term democracy appeared sporadically, but never systematically in the newspaper essays and pamphlets published during the ratification debates. Those critics of the Constitution who did deploy the language of democracy generally did so in a vague and largely rhetorical manner. In one of his opening statements against the Constitution at the Virginia ratifying convention, for example, Patrick Henry described the obstacles that had been put in the way of amending the Constitution as a betrayal of “the genius of democracy.” Despite holding the floor for hours at a time during the ensuing three weeks of the convention, Henry never developed his “democratic” critique of the Constitution further. That same summer, a group of anti-federalists gathered for a July 4th celebration in rural Pennsylvania and offered a toast to the hope that amendments should “be speedily framed” so as to “render the proposed Constitution…truly democratical.” What exactly a “truly democratical” Constitution would look like, however, rarely became a topic of sustained discussion.
In contrast to the minor role that the term democracy played in the ratification debates, talk of “aristocracy” abounded. The Constitution’s critics derided the document as the “most daring attempt to establish a despotic aristocracy among freemen that the world has ever witnessed.” Like Amos Singletary, an anti-federalist delegate to the Massachusetts ratifying convention, many ordinary citizens interpreted the Constitution as the work of a cabal of “lawyers, and men of learning, and moneyed men, that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill.” The members of this new, American aristocracy, Singletary charged, “expect to be the managers of this Constitution, and get all the power and all the money into their own hands, and then they will swallow up all us little folks…just as the whale swallowe’d up Jonah.” In the final number of The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton derided such critics, claiming that their incessant talk of “the wealthy, the well-born, and the great” deserved nothing but the “disgust of all sensible men.” Despite Hamilton’s criticisms, charges of aristocratic intent clearly resonated with the significant number of citizens who mistrusted the nation’s aspiring political and social elite.

The word “aristocracy” encapsulated two key charges that anti-federalists repeatedly levelled against the Constitution in 1787–8: 1) that control of the new Federal government would “fall into the hands of the few and the great,” and 2) that its mechanisms were designed to “deprive the people of a share in the government.” These criticisms described fairly accurately, if uncharitably, the intent of most framers. Federal representatives were chosen from relatively large districts and Senators were appointed by state legislatures because the framers assumed that such procedures would render more likely the selection of men “distinguished for their rank in life and their weight of property.” These “natural aristocrats,” it was thought, would govern with more wisdom than those from more humble walks of life. Their independence from the fickleness of economic fortune and popular whims would stop the government from enacting foolishly short-sighted laws. According to most federalists, the nation faced a fiscal and diplomatic crisis in 1787 precisely because the state governments had been too responsive to popular demands for debt relief. This is what Elbredge Gerry meant when he referred to the dangers of “too much democracy.” Responsible legislation could only be expected from a government that was insulated from the passions of the people, and presided over by the sort of men who would honor the interests of the nation’s wealthy creditors regardless of the short-term pain this might cause ordinary citizens. Federalists called this a sober, energetic government administered by those most suited to rule. Their opponents detected a plot to construct a new aristocracy of wealth and privilege. If the people consented to this “complete Aristocracy,” one anti-federalist warned, then they would be subject to a governing class that would heed their voices as much as “the whistling of the wind.”

On the day New York ratified the Constitution in 1788, ensuring its success at the national level, a French observer who was well connected to New York City’s commercial elite noted approvingly that “the phantom of democracy which had seduced the people is about to disappear.” Many leading federalists privately shared this hope, but most knew better than to say it publicly. Ratification had been hard won, and the extent of popular skepticism about the Constitution suggested that a good portion of “the people” still adhered to a vision of politics far more egalitarian, localist, and participatory than that which the federalists preferred. While this populist opposition had found common ground in their fears about the supposed aristocratic threat posed by the Constitution, their alternative did not yet have an agreed name. The gap between popular and elite politics that existed in 1787–8 took on a new meaning and discursive form in the early 1790s, when a French-inspired wave of political activism and optimism swept the Atlantic World. By 1794 those opposed to the “aristocratic” elements of the American polity and inspired by the French example had a name they could collectively embrace. They were now, unapologetically, democrats.

Democracy, as a term with an unqualified, positive connotation, found its way into the American political lexicon between 1790 and 1794, largely through the efforts of a small, but influential cohort of newspaper editors. Two of the leading democratic editors of the 1790s, Thomas Greenleaf of New York and Eleazar Oswald of Philadelphia, had cut their political teeth during the ratification debates when they opened their papers to anti-federalist authors. As the French revolt against monarchy and aristocracy gathered steam and began to inspire similar movements in Britain and Ireland, Greenleaf and Oswald eagerly covered these developments and integrated them into their critical understanding of contemporary American politics. From the start, they identified events in France as a continuation of the American Revolution, the principles of which these editors began to describe retroactively as “democratic.” In 1790, they applauded when the National Assembly abolished the nobility, thus “democratically put[ting] an end to Prince, Duke, Marquis, &c.” and replacing these titles with the egalitarian term “citizen.” One year later Greenleaf published an account of the New York Tammany Society’s celebration where a series of toasts were offered to the “patriots of France” and the evening’s festivities wrapped up with the wish that “the baneful weeds of aristocracy [should] never be suffered to spring up in the garden of freedom.” The best way to “check” the encroachment of aristocracy in America, Greenleaf reminded his readers, was to “nourish the democratic order among us.” By early 1792, Greenleaf, Oswald, and a few other editors presided over opposition newspapers that were known to sympathetic as well as critical readers as “democratic.”

The outbreak of war in Europe and the accelerating pace of change in France transformed American political culture in 1793–4, making it more vibrantly expressive and deeply polarized than it had ever been. This perhaps explains why the words democracy or democrat were used three times as often in American newspapers in 1793 as they had been in 1792, and why their use doubled again in 1794. As democracy became an increasingly central part of America’s political language, the term accrued a host of new and intensely contested meanings. To those many Americans who invested great hopes in the success of the French Revolution, the world’s political future seemed to hinge on the latest news from Europe. One British observer in Wilmington, Delaware noted with astonishment in the summer of 1793, that “Every time the newspapers arrive, the aristocrats and democrats” rushed into the streets to “have a decent quarrel.” French victories or losses seemed to involve much more than just incremental steps in a protracted military conflict; rather each morsel of news was interpreted as part of the global struggle between democracy on one hand and its monarchical and aristocratic enemies on the other. In most localities, one had little choice but to take sides. Foreign travelers noted the abundance of Americans wearing cockades expressing support for one side or the other. In over forty towns across the new nation, groups of the most ardent supporters of democracy abroad and at home formed “Democratic Societies” that met regularly to discuss contemporary politics and theory. They issued numerous resolutions that were then printed in the nation’s growing network of democratic newspapers. As the members of these societies saw it, they needed to coordinate their efforts on behalf of democracy because it was threatened by “a powerful combination in Europe” and “the growing establishment of pride, formality, [and] inequality…in these States.” Within the span of just two years (1793–4), American supporters of the French Revolution pushed the term democracy into the centre of the nation’s political conversation.

This first generation of proud democrats, however, denied that they were up to something new. Democratic newspaper editors uncovered every positive use of the term democracy or sentiments that sounded democratic from the revolutionary era and reprinted them for their readers’ delight. A few passages from John Adams’ “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765), for example, were reprinted multiple times in the 1790s as evidence of the “democratic” ideals that this founder had espoused during the revolution. Quoting passages where the Adams of 1765 called upon “the rich” to make large contributions to support the education of the poor and urged his fellow citizens to “demand” their rights and privileges “against all the power and authority on earth” became an easy way to score points against the Adams of the 1790s who was rightly perceived as a critic of Francophilic “democrats.” Hence arose a compelling, partisan narrative about the American Revolution that legitimated the democrats of the 1790s. As one writer in Greenleaf’s New York Journal put it: “What these states contended for during their struggle for independence, was then termed a free democratical government; and this was what the parties professed to advocate at the formation and adoption of the federal constitution.” Thus the author claimed that the contemporary innovators were not the democrats, but conservatives like John Adams who had betrayed the spirit of 1776 and 1787 by treating “the term democracy…as something novel and frightful.”
Though a growing cohort of democratic writers, newspaper editors, and readers eventually succeeded in inventing a genealogy for “democracy” that stretched back to the revolutionary era, there was much disagreement within that community as to what it meant to espouse that ideal in contemporary America. The same author who denied there was anything “novel” about the term democracy, concluded his essay with a quite vague, even conservative definition of it. Democracy, he argued, was simply another word for popular sovereignty and it implied no structural critique of the nation’s existing political system. This was the definition of democracy that James Wilson endorsed in 1787; it functioned in the 1790s as a way to parry the charge that democrats advocated something that departed from the nation’s founding principles.

The problem with this strategy, however, was that it overlooked (or consciously repressed) the extent to which 1790s democrats did indeed have a critical relationship to the Constitutional order designed by the framers and presided over by conservative Federalists like Alexander Hamilton. The democrats of the 1790s were the inheritors of the anti-federalist tradition that regarded the hierarchical and exclusionary political sociology that informed the Constitution as an “aristocratic” holdover. To be a “democrat” in 1794 meant that one was critical of those members of the political elite who felt uniquely entitled to rule, as well as of privileged fellow citizens who felt that their opinions and interests deserved special attention from those in office. The Democratic Societies that formed in the mid-1790s opposed more than just the specific policies implemented by the Washington Administration; rather they sought to push against what they perceived to be a political system that was closed to ordinary citizens like themselves. Inspired by the French example, they sought to democratize the new nation’s political culture by building institutions like newspapers and political clubs that would help bring into existence a more assertive and astute citizenry. Democratization, they implied, was an unfinished process, and its opponents were legion. To a great extent, it was this idealistic vision of the political present that made the language of democracy so compelling to ordinary citizens in the mid-1790s.

The language of democracy had other experimental dimensions as well. Democracy had long been associated with “levellerism” and “agrarian laws,” and most 1790s democrats were careful to distinguish themselves from those traditions. All the same, every time an author espoused policies designed to aid the poor or foster greater economic equality, they used the language of democracy to legitimize their claims. Democrats opposed virtually every one of Hamilton’s actions as Treasury secretary because they thought his policies disproportionately benefited those who were already wealthy. Democrats railed against land policies that sold public land to speculators in large parcels and denied easy access to ordinary citizens. They also criticized Hamiltons’ funding of the national debt because it favored wealthy investors over the hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens who had originally held the debt but sold it under duress for a pittance. These “democratic” positions did not reflect an opposition to private property or the market; rather, they articulated a populist distrust of how well-connected elites tilted the political scales to benefit themselves. Hamilton’s policies were dangerous, one author argued, because “in every democratical government the laws ought to destroy, and prevent too great an inequality of condition among the citizens.”

The “Democratic Songster” published in 1794 by George Keatinge, a United Irishman who had recently emigrated to Baltimore, captures the diverse meanings that democracy accrued in that decade. This collection contained a few “french airs” like the Marseilles Hymn (in English and French), odes to American independence, an anti-slavery song, songs written in a sailor’s voice decrying the horrors of impressment, and tavern favorites like “There’s Nothing Like Grog.” Keatinge’s 36-page, polyglot text brought together several strands of revolutionary sentiment under the heading of democracy. Each piece validated the voice of the historically dispossessed or devalued — the slave stolen from Africa, the happily drunken sailor, the involuntary conscript into the British Navy, the newly empowered French peasant — and projected a “democratic” future in which such figures would be given their due. When collected together and sold in the bookstore of a committed United Irishman, the text linked democracy with a worldview that was simultaneously revolutionary, plebeian, cosmopolitan, and assertively egalitarian. Thus, any reader encountering the article on slavery by “A Consistent Democrat” in the February 5, 1796 edition of Greenleaf’s New York Journal would have hardly been surprised that the piece advocated abolition. While the Democrats would eventually become the party most dedicated to preserving slavery in the nineteenth century, it is nearly impossible to find the word democracy associated with a defense of slavery in the 1790s. As one writer explained in a Philadelphia newspaper, “The democratic principles…teach that all men, of whatever nation, are brothers.”

By 1795–6, thanks largely to the intensification of partisan conflict during the Jay treaty crisis and the ensuing election cycle, talk of democracy became ubiquitous in American public life. For the first time newspapers begin printing detailed results of elections and identifying particular slates of candidates as “democratic.” Likewise, those years witnessed a significant increase in the number of personal letters ending with salutations like “Your Friend & Fellow Democrat” or “Remember me to all our democratical friends.” When used sympatheticaly, the term had a host of different meanings. It could be associated with organizations that sought to create a more inclusive, participatory, and egalitarian political culture; a populist preference for rough economic equality; a belief in fundamental human equality that extended to a critique of racial slavery; or a more diffuse sympathy for the French cause and reflexive animosity toward anything redolent of aristocracy. The most radical democrats of the era embraced all of these meanings of the term, and some went further to embrace the critique of the Bible and organized religion that Paine offered in the Age of Reason (1795). Even though many self-described “democrats” rejected some or all of those positions in their more vehement forms, deep divisions amongst democrats did not emerge until after the election of 1800. In the last half of the 1790s, thanks to the term’s generally positive and hopeful connotations, democracy functioned effectively as a partisan label under which a diverse coalition of citizens gathered.

As more Americans began embracing “democrat” as a term of partisan affiliation, their political opponents initiated the nation’s first explicitly anti-democratic print offensive. Inspired in part by their anti-Jacobin counterparts in Britain, Federalist printers in the United States churned out a host of texts that satarized the democrats in their midst — The Democrat; or Intrigues and Adventures of Jean Le Noir (1795); A Bone to Gnaw, for the Democrats (1795); and The Guillotina, or a Democratic Dirge (1796) to name just a few. Such texts offered a powerful counternarrative in which American democrats were not the beneficent and noble inheritors of the spirit of 1776, but rather cynical agents of a foreign conspiracy that sought to undermine the pillars of American society. According to their critics, democratic ideals led inevitably down the path toward the guillotine, the destruction of churches and families, inversions of the racial hierarchy, and the abolition of private property. These texts recapitulated the anti-democratic arguments of revolutionary-era Loyalists and moderates, only this time fleshed out with lurid details from the French Terror.

As America and France hovered on the precipice of war in 1798, the attacks on the dangers of democracy drew additional ammunition from pseudo-journalistic reports that linked American democratic printers and activists to an international conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the American government. While in hindsight such charges seem ludicrous, they had a profound impact on American political culture in the summer of 1798, creating the climate in which the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts could be passed with significant public support. In an 1856 memoir that recounted his upbringing in a strongly Federalist family, Samuel Goodrich described the hyperbolic fears of democracy that circulated in 1798: “We who are now familiar with democracy, can hardly comprehend the odium attached to it in those days, especially in the minds of the sober people of our neighborhood. They not only regarded it as hostile to good government, but as associated with infidelity in religion, radicalism in government, and licentiousness in society. It was considered a sort of monster, born of Tom Paine, the French Revolution, foreign renegados, and the great Father of Evil.” In the summer of 1798 scores of Federalist militias organized to fight off a French-led democratic invasion, Federalist printers rushed into print with anti-French chapbooks aimed at young readers, and ministers admonished worshippers to resist the allure of democratic ideas that looked beneficent on the surface, but which masked sinister, Jacobinical intent.

As evidenced by the victory of the Jeffersonian Democrats in 1800, these attacks backfired politically. Nonetheless, they had a significant effect on the American language of democracy. In the run up to the election of 1800, leading Democrats went to great lengths to distinguish their moderate, American form of democracy from that espoused by their more radical contemporaries at home and abroad. The Democrats of 1800 won the election, in part, by triangulating themselves against the Anglophilic and aristocratic Federalists to their right, and the dangerous Jacobins to their left. The more experimental and radically egalitarian connotations of democracy that had suffused the language of democracy in the 1790s were pushed into the margins of American political discourse. If the American and French Revolutions had opened up analytical space between two eighteenth century keywords, republicanism and democracy, the Jeffersonians of the early nineteenth century, also known as the Democratic-Republicans, did much to collapse the distinction between the two. At least at the level of language, the path toward a more democratic nation was now presented as straightforward, involving little more than the election of Democrats into office.

Looking back from 1856, Samuel Goodrich marveled at how “the word democracy…changed its signification.” No longer a term of opprobrium, “synonymous with Jacobinism,” by the first decade of the 1800s democracy had “put on clean linen, and affected respectability.” The moderation of America’s language of democracy in the nineteenth century did not go unchallenged. The struggle over the meaning of the term continued both within and outside the party that had successfully appropriated the name “democrat” for itself. That said, the capture of this once oppositional concept by a political party had a long-lasting, moderating effect on the nation’s language of democracy.

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Professor of History at Willamette University. Author of Tom Paine's America. Working on a book about the long history of illiberal conservatism in the US.

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Seth Cotlar

Seth Cotlar

Professor of History at Willamette University. Author of Tom Paine's America. Working on a book about the long history of illiberal conservatism in the US.

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