were local political organizations formed in the United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...
in 1793-94 to promote republicanism
Republicanism is the ideology of governing a nation as a republic, where the head of state is appointed by means other than heredity, often elections. The exact meaning of republicanism varies depending on the cultural and historical context...
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...
and to fight aristocratic tendencies. Historians use the term "Democratic-Republican" to describe the societies, but the societies rarely ever used the name "Democratic-Republican." They called themselves "Democratic," "Republican," "True Republican," "Constitutional," "United Freeman," "Patriotic," "Political," "Franklin," and "Madisonian."
The Germans of Philadelphia began the first society in April 1793, inspired by Peter Muhlenberg
John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg was an American clergyman, Continental Army soldier during the American Revolutionary War, and political figure in the newly-independent United States...
. Philadelphia was then the national capital and soon an English-speaking society was formed in the city by David Rittenhouse
David Rittenhouse was a renowned American astronomer, inventor, clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, scientific instrument craftsman and public official...
, Charles Biddle (a prominent Quaker merchant), Dr. George Logan
George Logan was an American physician, farmer, legislator and politician from Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. He served in the Pennsylvania state legislature and represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate. He was a founder of the Democratic-Republican Societies in 1793...
and Alexander J. Dallas
Alexander James Dallas was an American statesman who served as the U.S. Treasury Secretary under President James Madison....
. Its charter was widely copied. At least 35 societies sprang up by 1795, located in most important American cities. Many leaders soon became active in Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party
The Democratic-Republican Party or Republican Party was an American political party founded in the early 1790s by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Political scientists use the former name, while historians prefer the latter one; contemporaries generally called the party the "Republicans", along...
. As foreign affairs became more and more the dominant issues, they opposed the British and rallied behind Jefferson, proclaiming their friendship with France.
The societies usually met once a month, or more often during election season. Applicants for membership had to have five members attest to their "firm and steadfast friend of EQUAL RIGHTS OF MAN" and a couple members could blackball an applicant. "Apostasy from Republican principles" was ground for expulsion. Officers were rotated regularly—in one case every month.
The societies politicked in local elections officially or quietly. They often joined parades and celebrations of July Fourth, and were credited in 1794 with having made that day "more universally celebrated" than it had been. They also celebrated July 14—French Bastille Day. Some societies engaged in direct action to help France in her war with Britain, such as equipping French privateers.
Endless discussions and rounds of resolutions fill the minute books; most common were general addresses and resolutions critical of the Washington administration. In western states they agitated against the British for holding the frontier posts and against the Spanish for closing the Mississippi River; in the East, they denounced Britain for "piracy" against American shipping. In the Carolinas they demanded a uniform currency and adequate representation for the growing back country. The societies strongly protested the excise tax on whiskey. They denounced John Jay as special envoy to London and vehemently repudiated the treaty he brought back. They complained about secret sessions of Congress and the state legislatures, demanding that public officials abandon the use of "dark, intricate, antiquated formalities" and "obsolete phraseology" that only lawyers and classical scholars could understand.
The societies preached equal justice and a general diffusion of knowledge as essential "pillars supporting the sacred temple of liberty." A primary purpose of the societies was to disseminate political information, as they believed ignorance was the greatest threat to democracy. They worked closely with republican newspaper editors, generating a heavy flow of letters, editorials and essays.
"To support and perpetuate the EQUAL RIGHTS OF MAN" was the New York society's "great object," and toward that end they would "constantly express our sentiments." The "Equal Rights of Man" meant to them the right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to criticize governmental representatives and to demand of them an explanation of their public acts; and the right to publish their reactions in a free press.
The memberships often included dissenting teachers and theologians striving to create a more progressive, humanitarian, and enlightened society. Their ideas were also influenced by classical and modern republicanism, particularly the works of Aristotle and Machiavelli, and by the 'Common Sense' philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. This philosophy led the societies to oppose many of the Federalist party policies. The societies advocated both a system of publicly funded and locally controlled education for all classes and a broadening of the franchise. Standing to Jefferson's ideological left, however, they advocated a much more democratic political agenda, including attempts to create a permanent organization of popular dissent directed against the federal government and an educational philosophy based on a dialectical and democratic approach to learning.
Pennsylvania frontier and Whiskey Rebellion
Most societies were urban but three formed on Pennsylvania's western frontier, the Democratic Republican Society of the County of Washington, the Society of United Freemen of Mingo Creek, and the Republican Society at the Mouth of the Youghiogheny. Members dreamed of a yeoman farmer empire and thought that western farmers were exploited by wealthy easterners, particularly merchants and land speculators. They did not base their appeals on the idea that the governing classes should protect the poor; rather they demanded justice and were careful not to address those who possessed wealth and power with deference. They viewed whiskey tax inspector John Neville, a reasonably wealthy man, as an agent of their eastern enemies. James McFarlane, chairman of the Society of United Freemen, was killed while trying to force Neville's resignation, an event that triggered the Whiskey Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion, or Whiskey Insurrection, was a tax protest in the United States in the 1790s, during the presidency of George Washington. Farmers who sold their corn in the form of whiskey had to pay a new tax which they strongly resented...
The Federalists opposed them, saying they had been started by Citizen Genêt
Edmond-Charles Genêt , also known as Citizen Genêt, was a French ambassador to the United States during the French Revolution.-Early life:Genêt was born in Versailles in 1763...
as a tool of the revolutionary government in Paris. Members responded by claiming they were inspired by the Sons of Liberty
The Sons of Liberty were a political group made up of American patriots that originated in the pre-independence North American British colonies. The group was formed to protect the rights of the colonists from the usurpations by the British government after 1766...
, the Whig Clubs and other republican groups of the 1770s.
President Washington denounced them vehemently in late 1794, following his successful quelling of the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington complained that the Democratic-Republican societies in western Pennsylvania had helped instigate the revolt and thus were enemies of the new government and nation. By 1796, most of the groups had disbanded.
As educational organizations they had some impact. They believed that a republican nation required citizens to act together to deal with social problems at the grass roots. The mobilized citizenry was essential to defeat aristocracy (which they identified with Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America's first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury...
). In opposing rule by the few they helped define what rule by the many might be like. The believed in the free play of intelligence, and insisted upon their rights to freedom of speech, press, and assembly.