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 Federalists and served them characteristically by spreading the story of Thomas Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemmings.
On the Federalist side, one of the most vociferous early advocates was William Cobbett, who came from England in 1792 with the intention of enjoying the pristine American freedom but quickly found it altogether too free. Even before the French Revolution British political journalism had far outdone American in scandalous abuse of public figures. Writers like Cobbett and Callender now filled American newspapers and pamphlets with pieces so venomous that today they seem ludicrously counterproductive. By the end of the decade, as Thomas Jefferson challenged John Adams for the presidency, Federalists warned the people to
Look at your houses, your parents, your wives, and your children. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, hoary hairs bathed in blood, female chastity violated or children writhing on the pike and the halberd?…. Look at every leading Jacobin [i.e., Republican] as at a ravening wolf, preparing to enter your peaceful fold, and glut his deadly appetite on the vitals of your country.
The alternative, according to Republicans, was to continue the country in the hands of “a repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite, an unprincipled oppressor…one of the most egregious fools upon the continent.”
It must be admitted that the issues dividing Republicans and Federalists in the 1790s were more substantial than has been the case in most subsequent contests. The new Constitution was untried when the Federalists began to operate the national government under it, and every measure they took set precedents that warranted close examination. Indeed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, designed to suppress all public criticism, were the first successful attempt by the government to defy the first amendment to the Constitution. But what prompted Republican hostility and the acts to suppress it was not so much issues as loyalties: the Federalists’ siding with England and the Republicans’ with France. When Washington issued a proclamation of United States neutrality in the European conflict, Republicans saw it as dictated by “the little buzz of the aristocratic few, and their contemptible minions, or speculators, tories and British emissaries.” Washington should be impeached, nay guillotined. When Republicans founded “Democratic Societies,” to protect civil liberties, Federalists saw them as the work of Jacobins sent to bring the reign of terror to America. Indeed the whole world was to be brought to its knees by a secret society known as the Bavarian Illuminati, dedicated to atheism and anarchy, an organization that existed only in the minds of fanatical Federalists.
It is probably worthwhile to reprint some of this drivel, if only to remind us that freedom of the press in America has always included freedom to lie and hate. David Wilson and the Cornell University Press offer us a selection from the pamphlets in which William Cobbett, writing under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine, shocked Americans with revelations of the plots he had discovered hatching in their midst. Cobbett wrote with little respect for fact but a good deal of acerbic wit; and the public evidently enjoyed it, for most of his pamphlets went through several editions. Although he later returned to England and switched his politics there from conservative to radical, in America he endeavored to enlist Americans in favor of the kind of law and order (obedience to your betters) that prevailed in England.
The great threat to law and order was, of course, France and its Jacobins, who destroyed all the bonds of society by preaching liberty and equality. “Liberty,” Cobbett explained, “according to the Democratic Dictionary, does not mean freedom from oppression; it is a very comprehensive term, signifying, among other things, slavery, robbery, murder, and blasphemy.” Equality was even more destructive of everything good and decent. In France “Birth, beauty, old age, all became the victims of a destructive equality.” The lesson for Americans was clear: “Throw from you the doctrine of equality as you would the poisoned chalice.”
Cobbett followed his depiction of French horrors with a History of the American Jacobins, Commonly Denominated Democrats. This was aimed at the Democratic Societies, “dark caballing clubs,” which he accused of inviting “revolt against the constitution, under the pretext of preserving it in its purity,” and which he particularly blamed (falsely) for the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. But his crowning achievement was a pamphlet in 1798, whose title conveys the contents: DETECTION OF A CONSPIRACY FORMED BY THE UNITED IRISHMEN, WITH THE EVIDENT INTENTION OF AIDING the TYRANTS of FRANCE IN SUBVERTING THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
Wilson also includes a set of “pen portraits” in which Cobbett impaled people whom he suspected of being Republicans or reformers, and whom he believed in general to be “needy, discontented men, too indolent or impatient to advance themselves by fair and honest means, and too ambitious to remain quiet in obscurity.” Among them apparently he included Benjamin Franklin, whom he had referred to at one point as a “whoremaster, a hypocrite and an infidel.” Enough already.
From Cobbett it is refreshing to turn to a contemporary of less wit and greater modesty. None of William Manning’s writing—and there was not much of it—appeared in print at the time. Although it shares some of the paranoia of both Federalist and Republican writings, it is more constructive and lacking in the usual vituperation, characteristics which may have led to its rejection by the sensational media of the day. It was first published in this century and now receives an edition with an introduction and notes outnumbering the ninety-one pages of text.
The text itself has been drastically modernized. The editors have silently altered faulty grammar, “unclear phrasing,” and even some archaic wording “to accord with modern American usage.” Such a violation of the canons of historical editing suggests that, for the editors, Manning offers a message of more than historical or scholarly interest, a message that needs bringing to those who cannot cope with his language. And indeed with the collapse of communism in Europe, the American left has more need than ever to discover native non-Marxian roots, and Manning, a farmer and tavernkeeper from Billerica, Massachusetts, fits the bill. Manning wrote in the 1790s several drafts of a pamphlet that he called The Key of Liberty. And the key he offered was a way to keep control of government in the hands of the many against the all-too-successful efforts of the few to take it from them.
Manning was no Jacobin. While sympathizing with the grievances of such rebels as had followed Daniel Shays in 1787, he saw the solution not in any new revolution but in organized legal and constitutional political action. The world, as Manning saw it, had always been divided between the many who did the work and the few who lived from it without doing any themselves. Acknowledging that a few of the few might be needed to run things, he wanted to ensure that they received no more for their white-collar efforts than the farmers who fed them and the workers who clothed and housed them. He wanted the many (though excluding slaves and women, who actually outnumbered his many and received even less in return) to organize in local, state, and national associations. By organizing they could not only exert their power in elections but keep themselves informed about the activities of the people they hired to run things for them, especially the judges and executives who subverted the intentions of laws by interpreting them in favor of the few.
If laboring men could regain control of the government they would keep the money supply abundant and wages high; they would build more elementary schools and fewer colleges; they would reduce foreign trade and the number of merchants who “grow rich on the ruins of our mechanics and manufactories”; they would get rid of most of the lawyers, who “get their living entirely from the quarrels, follies, disputes, and distress of the Many, and the intricacy of our laws.” They would keep lawyers out of the legislatures too, so they could not multiply their sordid business by making such deliberately intricate laws. And they would hire ministers who would confine themselves to preaching the gospel and keep politics out of their sermons; for he found that many of them had been “praising monarchical and despotic government, and running down and blackguarding republican principles and the French nation.” They were “in fact acting a treasonous and rebellious part, and doing all in their power to destroy the government.”
Manning believed that the Revolution had furnished Americans with free governments for both states and nation, governments well designed for control by the many. But they had already fallen into the hands of the few because the few had organized for the purpose. Lawyers had bar associations, merchants had chambers of commerce, doctors had medical societies, ministers had assemblies, and even literary men and teachers were in “close connections with the other orders.” Indeed all these lesser combinations were united in support of “the great national schemes and plans” of the sinister combination that lay behind them all: no, not the Jews, not the Freemasons, not the Roman Catholic Church, but the Society of the Cincinnati. This was the fraternal organization formed by officers of the Continental Army at the end of the Revolutionary War. Those who started it had made membership hereditary. That provision and the exclusion of the rank and file seemed aristocratic to the many Americans who had drunk deeply from the chalice of equality that Cobbett belatedly warned them against.
Washington, after accepting the presidency of the society, backed off when Jefferson explained to him that the public found it offensive. But in Manning’s eyes the Society had taken over Washington’s government and inspired “the organization of almost all the other orders of the Few, who follow after and support them in their measures.” Those measures were designed to rob working men of their due and it was therefore hardly surprising that “the order of speculators, stock jobbers, and land jobbers are made up principally of Cincinnati. By the funding system [Alexander Hamilton’s measure for paying the national and state debts] they have risen like a black cloud over the continent, and have gained wealth like the nabobs of the East.”
The Cincinnati played for Manning the role that Jacobins played for Cobbett and the Federalists. Manning’s way of exposing their machinations was not far different from Cobbett’s pamphlets and newspaper articles. Although the newspapers of the day did regularly print transcripts of debates in Congress (more fully than modern papers do), Manning thought that his organization of working men needed a more trustworthy guide to what was really going on. He was ready to provide it for a dollar a year in a magazine that, unlike all the others, would tell the truth.
Manning’s scheme never got off the ground, though there is no evidence that anyone tried to stop it. With the election of Jefferson in 1800, it lost most of the appeal it might have had. The Republican Party formed its own grassroots organization, not wholly unlike what Manning had planned but without the exclusively working-class basis that he had envisioned. The Federalist Party, unable to construct a wide enough organization, gradually expired, and the paranoia of the 1790s subsided into the so-called era of good feelings.
We do not need to be told, however, that conspiracy theories retain their charm, and these two volumes remind us how silly people could become in pursuit of them during our most formative decade. Silly speech, including maliciously silly speech, is a price of free speech and, as we have learned, not too high a price. Those who yearn to discover the original intent of the founding fathers may be thankful that they were willing to put up with so much malicious silliness, bound as they were by their own First Amendment. When they passed that amendment, they may not have realized how far their words could reach, and a few obviously showed second thoughts in their approval of the Alien and Sedition Acts. But in the end their words have prevailed, whatever the intent, to protect not only the venom of men like Cobbett but along with it the stability of what has become the most stable government in the world.
October 6, 1994