Politics in the Early American Republic

Essay by 2015 Arcadia Fellow Alicia DeMaio

The Colonial North American Project at Harvard University has a number of documents that shed light on the often divisive and vitriolic political culture of the United States in the 1790s, the first decade of American self-government. Disagreements over how the Constitution should be interpreted and how strong the federal government should be lead to the creation of two political parties: the Federalists, who supported a strong federal government, a loose interpretation of the Constitution, and were pro-British and anti-French; and the Democratic-Republicans, who argued for the opposite. The press was an integral part of early American politics: the number of newspapers in the 1790s exploded, and many chose to align with a particular party.

One such newspaper editor was Joseph Dennie, whose papers are held in Houghton Library. After graduating from Harvard in 1790 and unsuccessfully practicing law, Dennie moved to Walpole, New Hampshire to edit the Farmer’s Weekly Museum. He turned the newspaper into a pro-Federalist organ, and it became “much admired by the faithful in Congress” and other leading Federalists. Judith Sargent Murray, one of the earliest advocates for women’s rights in America, admired the paper’s literary qualities. She wrote to Dennie, “The Farmer’s Weekly Museum—of which I am a constant reader—furnishes a repast that for variety and elegance, cannot but allure and gratify even the most fastidious palate.”

Some readers of Dennie’s paper were concerned about the callous way the paper dismissed republicanism. While they understood that his comments were anti-French rather than anti-American, they cautioned him to use softer language. However, Dennie’s comments may have been more anti-American than his readers assumed. In letters to his family, he complained that as part of his editorial role, he was “obliged to the nauseous task of flattering republicans; but at bottom, I am a malcontent…Had it not been for the selfish patriotism of that hoary traitor, Adams…I might now perhaps…[be] in the service of my rightful King…instead of shivering in the bleakness of the United States.”

Despite Dennie’s pessimism, his skills as an editor caught the eye of John Ward Fenno, son of the editor of the Gazette of the United States, the pre-eminent Federalist newspaper published daily in Philadelphia. Fenno, who took over the paper after his father died, offered Dennie the editing job, and Dennie’s friends encouraged him to take it. Philadelphia, the national capital at the time, was abuzz with politics—even for those in debtor’s prison. In letters to his family held by the Harvard Law School, debtor Ralph Isaacs wrote, “Politics have run high…& party spirit has been very virulent—Fenno like a mad boy has relinquished his gazetter--& so topsy turvy are the times getting that I should not be at all surprised to see Baches Aurora become a ministerial paper.” Bache’s Aurora refers to the leading Democratic-Republican newspaper in Philadelphia, edited by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson.

Political commentary, in more veiled terms, even found its way to Dennie’s alma mater in poems and speeches given to celebrate Harvard’s commencement. These literary exercises tended to be much more optimistic about America’s republican experiment, but they warned against the damaging effects of political parties. In 1797, Joseph Perkins gave a commencement address on genius and republicanism. He argued that a republican government, based on principles of equality, would also promote a more equal diffusion of knowledge. While he acknowledged that “factious disorganization” posed dangers for republican government, a knowledgeable citizenry would not fall prey to smooth-talking politicians, no matter how smart they were. Joseph Mansfield’s 1800 poem on hope expressed confidence that “the monster faction” will not “break [the] chains” of “Columbia,” or the United States. However, such idealistic views of the equality promoted by republicanism overlooked the millions of individuals enslaved in the United States.