Pioneers of Paranoia

Peter Porcupine in America: Pamphlets on Republicanism and Revolution

by William Cobbett
Cornell University Press, 288 pp., $24.95

The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, ‘A Laborer,’ 1747-1814 Wilentz.

edited by Michael Merrill, edited by Sean Wilentz
Harvard University Press, 240 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The distinguishing mark of American politics has been the absence of irreconcilable differences between the two parties that successively dominate the national government. Each party rests on a coalition of interests so diverse and inclusive as to prevent the formulation of any program that the other party will find intolerable. The one issue that eventually erupted into civil war was kept out of politics for half a century and more before any party dared take it into the open. And after the resulting war was over and won, the logical consequence of victory (racial equality) was quickly banished from politics for another hundred years, when both parties agreed to bring the subject gingerly forward.

American politics did not begin in so placid a fashion. When the present Constitution was adopted in 1789, hardly anyone expected it to last for long. The public debate preceding its adoption had been extraordinarily rational, but the majority favoring it had been narrow in most states; and its opponents were expected to make another try for a constitution more to their liking. Those in charge of the new government, not least George Washington, were consequently fearful for its fragility and treated every criticism as an attempt to overthrow it and them. The fears were in fact groundless, for the former opponents of the document accepted it almost at once as the basis of government, especially after the first ten amendments were added to it. Criticisms were aimed not at the Constitution or at the government it provided, but at the persons and policies of those conducting it. The result was a decade of scurrilous invective that has scarcely been equaled in subsequent American politics.

Supporters of the administration calling themselves Federalists, and their opponents, calling themselves Republicans, attacked each other in the press as, on the one hand, tyrants conspiring to subvert the constitutional liberties of the people, or on the other hand as criminal anarchists conspiring to destroy government, property, religion, and morals. Conspiring was the operative word. If scholars are correct in discerning a paranoid style in American politics, the designation fits the 1790s more closely than any other period of our history.

One is tempted to place the blame on the number of journalists who had come to America from a Europe where the French Revolution was generating the most bitter divisions since the Thirty Years War of the preceding century between Protestants and Catholics. The chief spokesman for the Republicans in America was Benjamin Franklin Bache, the great man’s grandson who had been brought up in Europe from the age of seven and came back to America with Franklin in 1785. Bache’s successor in 1798 as editor of the Aurora (and as husband of Bache’s widow) was William Duane, also born in America but also brought up abroad, returning to America only in 1796. An even more scurrilous partisan for the Republicans was James Callender, a Scotsman, who arrived around 1793. He later turned his talents to the …

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