Political fever: The democratic societies and the crisis of republican governance in 1790s America

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Sharp, James Roger


American history; Social sciences; Democratic societies; Early Republic politics; Newspapers; Republican governance

Subject Categories

United States History


Drawing on recent works that have challenged the national orientation of politics and print culture in early America, this dissertation examines how the local, state, and regional interests of the democratic societies shaped their participation in national and international politics (and vice versa) during the 1790s. It explores how these political clubs appropriated the rhetoric of transatlantic radicalism, with its emphasis on the rights of man, and seized on the expanding print culture of the new nation to oppose the Washington administration's foreign and domestic policies. The clubs feared that the administration's efforts to construct a fiscal-military state modeled on that of Great Britain endangered America's republican experiment, undermining the sovereignty of the people with a powerful and elite-led federal government.

To illustrate how this crisis of republican governance played out differently in various parts of the country, this dissertation examines the experiences of the democratic societies and their reception in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, two geographically-diverse states in which associations formed early in the movement and achieved a degree of strength. This emphasis on diversity challenges the traditional presentation of the democratic associations as forming a cohesive and national opposition, one that was centered in Philadelphia, the national capital during the 1790s. Ultimately, the local and regional interests of the clubs constrained the formation of a national opposition. As an examination of the challenges and setbacks that the democratic societies faced in organizing an opposition, this dissertation stresses the experimental nature of 1790s politics. During that decade, Americans were adapting to their new roles as republican citizens as opposed to monarchical subjects. The activities of the democratic societies and the debates that they inspired raised fundamental questions about the nature of political representation in the new republic and the extent of popular authority over republican government. Therefore, this dissertation contributes to an understanding of the transnational nature of citizenship, associational activity, and democratization in early American history, but also reveals the continuing importance of localism and regionalism in shaping political allegiances and experiences in the new nation.


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