Democratic-Republican Societies were local political organizations formed in the United States in 1793-94 to promote republicanism and democracy 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. Philadelphia was then the national capital and soon an English-speaking society was formed in the city by David Rittenhouse, Charles Biddle (a prominent Quaker merchant), Dr. George Logan and Alexander J. Dallas. 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, a national political party he founded. As foreign affairs became dominant issues of the day, members of such groups 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, members of the societies 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 viewed excessive power as the enemy of liberty and were weary of the undue, corrupt accumulation of power in the central government. The Society of Newcastle, Delaware said, "If we consult the lamentable annals of mankind, and cast our eyes back over the historic page we shall find this solemn truth recorded in large characters; that all governments however free in their origin, have in the end degenerated into despotism." These societies adhered to Jeffersonian thought and believed the infant nation was fragile and needed careful protection by a vigilant population. The societies feared that Hamilton’s financial policies edged too close to English aristocracy; they saw the policies as “prescriptions of Aristocracy, under the masque of Federalism.” They opposed the growing class of commercial elites and speculators. One society in NYC said they had “less respect to the consuming speculator, who wallows in luxury, than to the productive mechanic who struggles with indigence.” The societies grieved a lack of virtue and patriotism in the 1790s. They viewed "jealousy" and suspicion of the government not as protest, but as the duty of a virtuous, vigilant citizen to maintain the republic. Tunis Wortman, secretary of the Democratic Society of New York stated, “It is a truth too evident to be disguised, that since the completion and final establishment of our revolution, the flame of liberty has burned less bright, and become less universal in its operation. The charms of wealth, the allurements of luxury, the thirst for gain and the ruinous system of speculation, have borne down like the irresistible flood upon us, and have threatened destruction to the most valuable elements of social life:-the desire of affluence and the love of ease, have absorbed every honorable and patriotic consideration; have rendered us supine and indolent, and have nearly banished from our minds the sentiment of public virtue, destroyed the ardor of liberty, and diminished our attachment to the sacred interests of our country.”
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 members believed ignorance was the greatest threat to democracy. They worked closely with republican newspaper editors, publishing numerous 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 freedoms of speech, press, and assembly; the right to criticize governmental representatives and to demand an explanation of their public acts; and the right to publish their reactions in a free press.
Born from the grassroots organization of the Sons of Liberty, the societies challenged existing notions of the social and political hierarchy. The societies united disparate groups of people from different classes. Usually lower and middle classes, made up of farmers, artisans, mechanics, and common laborers were led by richer merchants, local politicians, militia captains, naval officers, doctors, lawyers, and printers. Their persistence of egalitarian and republican thought revolutionized ideas about liberty through the Jacksonian era and beyond.
The members 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, they advocated a much more democratic political agenda than he supported, 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 demanded justice and were careful not to address with deference those who possessed wealth and power. They considered the 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 Federalists opposed such groups, saying they had been started by Citizen Genêt as a tool of the revolutionary government in Paris. Members responded by claiming they were inspired by the Sons of Liberty, the Whig Clubs and other republican groups of the 1770s. President Washington vehemently denounced the societies 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 influence. 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). In opposing rule by the few, they helped define what rule by the many might be.
- Foner found only two that used the actual term "Democratic-Republican" including the "Democratic-Republican Society of Dumfries" Virginia, 1794. Foner and Morris, The Democratic-Republican Societies, pp 350, 370.
- Foner and Morris, p. 10
- Schoenbachler. 237-61.
- Foner and Morris, p. 11
- Dotts 2005
- Sioli 1994
- Dotts, Brian W. Citizen Dissent in the New Republic: Radical Republicanism and Democratic Educational Thought during the Revolutionary era (PhD dissertation, Indiana University 2005), portions online
- Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism (1995)
- Foner, Philip S. ed.; The Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790-1800: A Documentary Sourcebook of Constitutions, Declarations, Addresses, Resolutions, and Toasts (1976).
- Luetscher, George D. Early Political Machinery in the United States (1903) online ch 2
- Link, Eugene Perry. Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790-1800 (1942)
- Schoenbachler, Matthew. "Republicanism in the Age of Democratic Revolution: The Democratic-Republican Societies of the 1790s". Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 18, No. 2. (1998) in JSTOR
- Sioli, Marco M. "The Democratic Republican Societies at the End of the Eighteenth Century: the Western Pennsylvania Experience." Pennsylvania History 1993 60(3): 288-304. ISSN 0031-4528
- Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005).