Defining Democracy, Challenging ‘Democrats’

This is the inaugural post of our “Challenging Democratic Revolutions” series, which explores the ways in which democratic ideologies challenged Old Regimes and how revolutionaries challenged notions of democratic liberty.

By Matthew Rainbow Hale 

We know with greater clarity than ever before that the invention of the American “democrat” between 1793 and 1795 was an abrupt, dramatic, French Revolution-inspired phenomenon, that it went hand-in-hand with the emergence of the democrat-aristocrat rhetorical polarity, and that it betokened and contributed to a millenarian, utopian “regeneration” movement oriented around the social implications of egalitarian ideology.[1]  One marker of the phenomenological character of the American “democrat’s” advent is the immediate remonstrance it occasioned.  Unwilling to stand idly by while “Frenchified citizens of the United States” brazenly identified themselves as “democrats” and their opponents as “aristocrats,” various individuals known to historians as Federalists challenged, in newspapers, the legitimacy of the terms “democrat” and “aristocrat.”[2]  How exactly those terms were challenged reveals not only certain elitist assumptions, but also the difficulty critics of the democrat-aristocrat polarity had adjusting to the first self-conscious democratic movement in American history.  For even as these critics correctly intuited the profundity of the change taking place, they struggled at times to come up with modes of persuasion capable of countering democratic “speech acts” and spectacles.[3]  That struggle, in turn, reveals another, ironic dimension of the the democratic movement’s phenomenological character.  Unnerved by the apparently wholesale reconfiguration of the accepted terms of political-cultural expression, assorted persons impulsively resorted to certain venerable classification systems at the very moment those systems were being eclipsed.  Unable to stem the democratic tide, a cohort of anti-democratic individuals unintentionally made clear to posterity just how powerful and unprecedented that tide was.

The negative response to the advent of American “democrats” rested on complaints about terminological ambiguity and hollowness.  Francophiles have “not . . . been very particular in defining” their words, a Portland, Maine writer noted, while a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania “CITIZEN” objected that the “terms Democrat and Democracy—Aristocrat and Aristocracy” have been “made use of in all the papers in the country” even though there was “no meaning annexed that we can depend on.”[4]  Intent on demonstrating rather than simply asserting the emptiness of democrats’ employment of the word “aristocrat,” an American Minerva author asked a series of rhetorical questions—was an aristocrat an officeholder? a wealthy person who “rides” in a “carriage?” a person of “great talents, great erudition?”—designed to bring into relief how the “fuss . . . certain declaimers make about aristocracy” was at bottom “noisy” linguistic ferment “without any meaning at all.”[5]

French Revolution-inspired politics served as the catalyst for disparagement of the newfound democrat-aristocrat polarity, but the Enlightenment’s longstanding preoccupation with “abuse of words” shaped its specific form and underlying assumptions.  According to the cultural logic of that preoccupation, vague language was not necessarily the product of verbal carelessness or ignorance.  Instead, it often registered the evil intentions of schemers and demagogues, who purposely used “vague indefinite” monikers to engender factious environments conducive to their ascents to power.[6]  Successful obstruction of these schemers and demagogues entailed two tasks.  Educated caretakers of the public good must highlight and condemn the intentional misuse of language.  They also must provide correct definitions and classificatory frameworks in order to fix the meaning of words and thus undermine malevolent conspiracies.

Conditioned by this Enlightenment understanding of the dangers of vague language and the purportedly appropriate means of combating such dangers, those offended by the democrat-aristocrat polarity repeatedly accentuated in print Francophiles’ purported “perversion of terms.”[7]  The “magical sounds of Aristocrat and Democrat,” argued a Gazette of the United States author, will “turn your chaff into wheat, transform an honest man into a knave and a pimp into a patriot.”  With these remarks, the Gazette writer suggested how the phrases “Aristocrat and Democrat” were subjective, “unmeaning giants” consciously exploited by pro-French evildoers to upend well-deserved (positive and negative) reputations and instigate social turmoil.[8]  Other critics of the democrat-aristocrat schematic more pointedly accused democrats of manipulating words for the purpose of creating harmful divisions.  “[D]istinguished by the names of . . . democrats or aristocrats, you see how we are played off, one against the other,” noted William Willcocks, while an anonymous New York writer similarly argued that “the distinctions of aristocrat and democrat” were “created for the most nefarious purposes,” such that “innumerable friends” were “converted” into “cold jealous party-men and enemies.”[9]

At the same time, maligners of the democrat-aristocrat polarity pointed to the intentional “abuse of words,” they took it upon themselves to instruct pro-French Revolution “Tyros” in “the school of politicks.”[10]  “Democracy, is derived from two Greek words, Demos, signifying the people at large; and Crateia, signifying government,” the aforementioned “CITIZEN” pontificated.  “Aristocracy, in like manner, is derived from two Greek words, Aristos, signifying the best; and Crateia, government.”[11]  A Baltimore “CONSTITUTIONALIST” was equally pedantic:  “A democracy, according to the original acceptation of the word, is a government where the whole of the people assemble in a body, from time to time, to enact laws by a majority of voices.”[12]  Although these two newspaper authors approached the subject of democracy in slightly different ways, they conveyed the exact same underlying message:  self-identified “democrats” should defer to those who had studied ancient languages and theories of government; only if moderate men of learning held sway in the realm of political terminology could the United States avoid internal corruption and fulfill its vast potential.

That various writers responded to the democrat-aristocrat polarity by offering brief, high-toned lessons in political philosophy shows that numerous Americans believed politics was only appropriate for those with collegiate “reading.”[13]  Haughty condemnations of the French revolutionary phenomenon whereby “All are Politicians from the Governor to the Chimney Sweeper” accordingly circulated widely.[14]  At a deeper level, the instinctive resort to methodical, forensic reasoning reflected an assumption that instruction in Aristotelian categories and Greek etymology would overawe or enlighten self-identified “democrats,” who would then supposedly give up their misguided attachment to the democrat-aristocrat schematic.  Yet not only did democrats refuse to abandon that schematic, they also felt no need to reply to their critics’ scholarly guidance or to define the disputed terms.[15]  This conspicuous non-response, in an era when the dynamics of newspaper politics revolved around tit-for-tat partisanship, shows that self-identified “democrats” perceived neither elitist political philosophy lessons nor associated complaints about vague terminology as threats to their movement.[16]  From the democratic perspective, critiques of the democrat-aristocrat polarity were neither right nor wrong; they were politically impotent and thus irrelevant.

The emphasis on insights obtained by collegiate “reading” therefore reflected a particular incomprehension among assorted anti-democratic individuals.  More specifically, some critics of the democrat-aristocrat schematic failed to grasp how, in the wake of the republicanized, militarized French Revolution, venerable philosophical frameworks had been rendered much less important, if not anachronistic.  Indeed, because the mid-1790s American democratic movement was animated by social as well as formal political imperatives, academic discussions of constitutional forms simply could not match, in terms of persuasive power, the democratic “speech acts” and public spectacles that were at that very moment constituting and expanding the meanings of democracy and politics.[17]  Moreover, no matter how psychologically comforting it may have been for critics of the democrat-aristocrat schematic to know that, from an eighteenth-century scholarly point of view, they were correct, that professorial victory was pyrrhic.  In their attempt to preempt the polarizing rhetorical framework materializing in the mid-1790s, various anti-democrats simultaneously preempted their capacity to shape that framework or use it for their own ends.  To stand apart from the ascendant democrat-aristocrat polarity was to cede significant political-cultural ground to opponents, to prepare the way for self-marginalization.

The mid-1790s resort to Aristotelian definitions and Greek language instruction in that sense anticipated high Federalists’ early nineteenth-century withdrawal from politics.  Unwilling—or perhaps emotionally unable—to assent to the success of the democratic movement, sundry individuals retreated into imaginative and literary projects incapable of forcefully engaging with contemporaneous politics.[18]  Notwithstanding its roots in the Old Regime, this forthright rejection of crucial elements of the mid-1790s democratic movement retains a degree of resonance today.  In particular, every time conservatives such as Rand Paul and Pat Buchanan argue that the United States is a republic and not a democracy, they re-instantiate an anti-democratic instinct first expressed during George Washington’s second presidential term.[19]  

To be sure, the examples of Paul and Buchanan make clear that current-day conservatives’ efforts to provide political philosophy lessons do not preclude energetic engagement in contemporary politics; anti-democratic political culture has evolved in ways that allow for both partisan forcefulness and a belief in the appropriateness of classical categories.  Still, the appeal, for some twenty-first-century Republicans, of narrow, neo-Aristotelian understandings of democracy reflects not only a (frequently contrived) nostalgia for Old Regime certainties and Burkean traditionalism, but also a discomfort with the ever-expanding terminological dynamic at the heart of modern democracy.  That discomfort directly connects current-day figures such as Paul and Buchanan to mid-1790s critics of the democrat-aristocrat  polarity.  It also indirectly illuminates the persistent political irrelevance of conservatives’ affinity for contracted definitions of democracy, in that Paul and Buchanan’s interest in Aristotelian terminology constitutes a relatively inconspicuous part of their political personas, more akin to a faddish, intellectual hobby than an animating anchor of a well-developed philosophy or partisan program.  Two centuries removed from French Revolution-inspired turmoil, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine any politician making an objection to either democracy or persons self-labeling as “democrats” the hallmark of her or his campaign.  The struggle over democracy-centered words consequently lives on, but only in residual form.  By defining democracy through “speech acts” and public spectacle, self-identified “democrats” rapidly transcended older, Aristotelian categories, achieving in the process a decisive political-cultural triumph.

Critics of thedemocrat-aristocratpolarity nonetheless have much to teach us regarding the nature of that mid-1790s triumph.  Not only did they pioneer the lingering Aristotelian terminology-dependent critique, they also bore witness, through their high-handed, horrified reaction, to the phenomenological character of the first self-conscious democratic movement in American history.  Too often casually referenced, if not ignored entirely, by modern scholars, that movement was a force to be reckoned with, which is precisely why assorted individuals felt the need to undermine its legitimacy by attacking its constitutive terms.  That those attacks failed is in part a sign of the burden of history, of just how difficult it was for critics of the democrat-aristocrat schematic to break free from inherited mental categories.

But in the end, it is inaccurate to depict opponents of the first self-conscious democratic movement in American history exclusively as tradition-bound, struggling-to-adapt friends of the Old Regime.  For one thing, even if critics of the democrat-aristocrat polarity at times displayed self-marginalizing tendencies stemming from their attachment to Aristotelian terminology, in many other instances they proved capable of adapting their anti-democratic values to new political-cultural frameworks, and even of wresting the mantle of innovation from their opponents.[20]  Equally important, the difficulty maligners of the democrat-aristocrat schematic had adjusting to certain new realities reflected first and foremost the stunning, spur-of-the-moment creativity of those they opposed.  Inspired by the republicanized, militarized French Revolution, numerous Americans not only redefined democracy and related, ancient-world terms, but also invented new ways of defining, improvised new modes of constituting political culture.  These developments were unforeseeable, startling, and difficult at the time to process or characterize, even for its advocates.  Through their relatively feeble challenges to the legitimacy of the terms “democrat” and “aristocrat,” various individuals in the United States left critical clues regarding the watershed changes taking place between 1793 and 1795.

Matthew Rainbow Hale, associate professor of History at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, won the 2010 Ralph D. Gray Prize for the best article in volume 29 of theJournal of the Early Republic.  He is completing a book entitled The French Revolution and the Forging of Modern American Democracy (under contract, University of Virginia Press).  His latest publication is “For the Love of Glory:  Napoleonic Imperatives in the Early American Republic,” in Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812, eds. Nicole Eustace and Fredrika J. Teute (Chapel Hill, 2017), 205-249.

Title image: America Guided by Wisdom.  Benjamin Tanner after John James Barralet, Philadelphia, 1815-1820.


[1] Matthew Rainbow Hale, “Regenerating the World:  The French Revolution, Civic Festivals, and the Forging of Modern American Democracy, 1793-1795,” Journal of American History 103 (March 2017), 891-920.  See also R. R. Palmer, “Notes on the Use of the Word ‘Democracy,’ 1789-1799,” Political Science Quarterly 68 (June 1953), 203-226; R. R. Palmer, “Reflections on the French Revolution,” Political Science Quarterly 67 (March 1952), 64-80; R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution:  A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (2 vols., 1959-1964; Princeton, 2014). 

[2] Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser, May 29, 1795.   

[3] For democratic “speech acts” and spectacles, see Hale, “Regenerating the World,” esp. 899. 

[4] Portland, Maine writer cited in Eastern Herald, May 25, 1793; Lancaster, Pennsylvania “CITIZEN” cited in American Apollo, June 19, 1794. 

[5] American Minerva writer cited in American Apollo, January 16, 1794.

[6] Virginia Gazette, cited in the Gazette of the United States, November 21, 1794.  See Ulrich Ricken, “Réflexions du siècle sur ‘l’abus des mots’,” Mots 4 (1982), 29-45; Sophia Rosenfeld, A Revolution in Language:  The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France (Stanford, 2001), esp. 22-27. 

[7] Baltimore Daily Gazette, cited in the Gazette of the United States, July 19, 1794. 

[8] Gazette of the United States, August 24, 1793. 

[9] Willcocks cited in the Aurora. General Advertiser, December 21, 1795; New York writer cited in Columbian Centinel, February 25, 1795. 

[10] Columbian Centinel, February 6, 1793. 

[11] American Apollo, June 19, 1794. 

[12] Baltimore Daily Intelligencer, cited in the Gazette of the United States, July 19, 1794. 

[13] American Apollo, June 19, 1794. 

[14] Thomas Mumford to Ephraim Kirby, January 20, 1794, Ephraim Kirby Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.

[15] For the striking virtual absence of definitions of democracy offered by self-identified “democrats,” see Hale, “Regenerating the World,” 899.

[16] For newspaper politics, see Jeffrey L. Pasley, ‘The Tyranny of Printers’:  Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville, 2001); Marcus Daniel, Scandal and Civility:  Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy (New York, 2001). 

[17] For the expansion of the meaning of politics and democracy, see Hale, “Regenerating the World,” esp. 916; Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley, 1984), esp. 236; Michel Vovelle, La découverte de la politique:  Géopolitique de la révolucion française (Paris, 1993); Patrice Higonnet, Goodness beyond Virtue:  Jacobins during the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), 290.

[18] William C. Dowling, Literary Federalism in the Age of Jefferson:Joseph Dennie and The Port Folio, 1801-1811 (Columbia, S.C., 1999); Linda K. Kerber, Federalists in Dissent:  Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (Ithaca, 1970), 1-22; David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom:  A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideals (New York, 2005), 205-206.

[19] See Hale, ‘Regenerating the World,’ 918.”

[20] See Hale, “Regenerating,” 917, esp. footnote 41. 

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