#WomenAlsoKnowDemocracy: Women, Print Culture, and Transatlantic Revolution in 1790s America

This post is a part 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 Michelle Orihel

Women do not appear often in the histories of the Democratic-Republican Societies. Americans established about forty of these political organizations in the mid-1790s in opposition to the domestic and foreign policies of the Washington administration. Though the movement fizzled within a few years thanks to the Whiskey Rebellion and President Washington’s denunciation of the clubs, the Democratic-Republican Societies are historically significant because they established the first opposition movement to the national government in American history. In an era of transatlantic revolution, the societies seized on the print media to assert the rights of man, but they did not talk about the rights of woman. Paine was their inspiration, not Wollstonecraft. Club members and leaders were all male. They belonged to a world of male sociability.

Yet, we know that the American Revolution had politicized women to an extraordinary degree and that women continued to play important and diverse roles in early republic politics and print culture. We also know that women can be hard to find in the (often predominantly male) archival record. This doesn’t mean that we give up. It means we approach our sources critically and creatively to find the experiences of women.[1]

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Democratic Society of Pennsylvania, “Principles, Articles…” (Philadelphia, 1793). Image Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

When I was working on my dissertation on the Democratic-Republican Societies, I made a discovery that illustrated this point. In May 1793, the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania published its constitution as a pamphlet entitled, Principles, Articles, and Regulations, Agreed upon, Drawn, and Adopted by the Members of the Democratic Society in Philadelphia. The title page listed E. Oswald as the printer. I initially assumed that Eleazer Oswald printed the pamphlet.[2] A well-known Philadelphia printer, he edited the newspaper The Independent Gazeteer, and later joined the Democratic Societies in both Pennsylvania and New York. However, when researching his life, I learned that Oswald had sailed for England in the summer of 1792. He did not return to the United States until November 1793.[3] He could not have printed the constitution. His wife did — E. for Elizabeth Oswald.

In her husband’s absence, Elizabeth took charge of the family’s newspaper and printing business. A common practice in the eighteenth century, wives and daughters often worked in print shops. For example, Benjamin Franklin recounted in his Autobiography that his wife Deborah “cheerfully attended me in my business, folding and stitching pamphlets, tending shop, purchasing old linen rags for the paper makers, etc. etc.” (It is worth noting that by relegating the rest of his wife’s work to the “etc., etc.” category, Franklin rendered women’s work paradoxically invaluable and invisible in a text that famously celebrated his own work ethic and path to success.)[4] Women also ran print shops when their husbands traveled or after they died. This was the case for Clementina Rind, for example, who took over her husband’s printing business in Williamsburg after his death. She published the Virginia Gazette and took on other print jobs, even publishing Thomas Jefferson’s pamphlet, The Summary View of the Rights of British North America in 1774. Unlike Elizabeth Oswald, her full name appeared on the title page.[5]

Likewise, Elizabeth Oswald came from a family of printers. Her father was John Holt, the well-known patriot printer in New York, and her mother, Elizabeth Holt, ran the New York Journal for two years after her husband died in 1785.[6] Less than a decade later, while Eleazer was away, his wife advertised in the Independent Gazetteer on several occasions that she had received a new and complete assortment of printing types that her husband had sent from England. Elizabeth specifically noted that she specialized in printing “blank checks, circular letters, &c. executed upon a new and beautiful Scripts.”[7] After Eleazer died in 1796, Elizabeth carried on publishing the newspaper for a short period, just like her mother had done after her father’s death. She eventually sold the newspaper to Joseph Gales, but maintained the printing business.[8] One year later, she died of “the prevailing disease” of yellow fever. Her obituary described her as an “amiable lady,” “a valuable member [of society],” and “a tender and affectionate mother.”[9]

Although women did not participate in the Democratic-Republican Societies, the experience of Elizabeth Oswald suggests that women contributed their labor to the movement in vital, but previously unrecognized ways. We can begin to imagine them folding and stitching the pages of political pamphlets, collecting linen rags to make paper on which to print pamphlets and newspapers, and running the print shops where they were sold. Few traces of that work remain in the historical record, an archive that details male sociability rather than female labor, but from this one experience we can extrapolate that other women likely played a role in printing, distributing, and reacting to the publications of those controversial clubs. Going beyond the rhetoric of printed texts and researching the circumstances of their authorship, production, and distribution has the potential to reveal traces of women’s activities in the print media in an era of transatlantic revolution. We do not know what Elizabeth Oswald thought of the Democratic Society’s opposition to the Washington administration, but we can acknowledge that her work underpinned a constitution written by an ambitious group of men asserting their rights. Indeed, women’s work was critical to the constructions of self-made men and their claims to citizenship. #Womenalsoknowdemocracy, and have known it since they helped found the American democratic republic.


Michelle Orihel, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of History at Southern Utah University. She is presently revising her dissertation on the Democratic-Republican Societies into a book.

Title image: Democratic Society of Pennsylvania, “Principles, Articles…” (Philadelphia, 1793). Image Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Endnotes:

[1] Susan Branson, These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001; Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press, 1997; Rosemarie Zaggari, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

[2] Democratic Society of Pennsylvania, Principles, Articles, and Regulations, Agreed upon, Drawn, and Adopted by the Members of the Democratic Society in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, 1793.

[3] On Oswald’s political activities in Europe, see Vernon O. Stumpf, Colonel Eleazer Oswald: Politician and Editor (Duke University, 1968).

[4] Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. byJ.A. Leo Lemay (New York: Norton, 1986), 64-65.

[5] Karen A. Weyler, Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America, 1760-1815 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 165-203.

[6] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America. Vol. 2, New York, 1874, 116-119.

[7] This classified advertisement appeared periodically from January to October, 1793 in The Independent Gazetteer.

[8] Independent Gazetteer, March 5, 1796, August 17, 1796.

[9] Gazette of United States, September 19, 1797.

Further Readings:

Eugene P. Link, The Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790-1800. New York: Octagon, 1942; rpt. 1973.

Philip S. Foner, ed., The Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790-1800: A Documentary Sourcebook of Constitutions, Declarations, Addresses, Resolutions, and Toasts. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Seth Cotlar, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011, 183-88.

Albrecht Koschnik, “Let a Common Interest Bind Us Together”: Associations, Partisanship, and Culture in Philadelphia, 1775-1840. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007, 11-40.

Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: Norton, 2005, 53-71.

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