Democratic-Republican Societies, Subversion, and the Limits of Legitimate Political Dissent in the Early Republic
50 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2003
Political liberties and the needs of security have clashed often in American history. When asked to identify the seminal incident in this cycle, many if not most of us are inclined to look to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the series of federal seditious libel prosecutions which took place beginning in 1798. But this overlooks the events of 1794, when Federalists first made a concerted effort to assert the illegitimacy of political criticism of the government. The effort did not take the form of prosecution or legislation, but nonetheless presented a significant challenge to constitutional values.
The moment came in the tense, patriotic aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion, and was directed at the Democratic-Republican societies - a loosely-affiliated network of voluntary associations engaged in sharp criticism of Federalist policy. From the Federalist perspective, the societies were inherently illegitimate because the tendency of their speech - indeed, of their very existence - was to foment insurrection and to undermine representative government. Federalists also feared the societies were influenced by, if not subject to the direction and control of, a subversive foreign power - Revolutionary France. Building on these perceptions, President Washington used his annual address to Congress to denounce the existence of the societies. The censure produced an immediate echo in the Senate, and a fierce debate in both the House and the partisan press. Republicans insisted upon the right of private citizens to organize and to criticize the actions of elected officials, while Federalists branded political criticism from private groups as inherently disloyal and seditious. It was America's first sustained debate concerning freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press, but ultimately the decentralized nature of the debate prevented it from reaching a clear resolution. James Madison wrote at the time of his concern that the public failed to appreciate that the principle advanced by the Federalists could as well be applied in support of more direct intrusions on political liberties. This, of course, is precisely what happened just a few years later during the Sedition Act controversy.
Keywords: Freedom of association, freedom of speech, American legal history
JEL Classification: N41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation