Democratic-Republican Societies were popular associations that existed in the United States from around 1793 to 1799. The impetus behind these short-lived societies was a stated desire to guard against the government conspiring against the people.
In 1792, Philip Freneau, an early Republican newspaper editor, summarized that defensive and mistrusting sentiment in his National Gazette when he spoke of the need for such societies “for the purpose of watching over the rights of the people, and giving an early alarm in case of governmental encroachments thereupon.”
Such groups he considered “absolutely necessary in every country, where the people wish to preserve an uncorrupted legislation” (National Gazette, 25 July 1792). The Charleston Society stated their founding principle clearly: they had only “one general purpose, that of watching narrowly public characters” to guard against encroachments on the rights and liberties gained during the American Revolution.
The Democratic Society of the City of New York declared in its 1794 constitution “THAT all legitimate power resides in the People” (Foner, 151). Societies, of which there were about fifty, were formed in rural and urban settings, in all but two states. Especially active and important groups were formed in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
Members, of which there were thousands, were varied in their social status and occupations, and were drawn from many ranks of society, counting in their numbers artisans and farmers, but also doctors and lawyers, and other professionals. Members were also diverse in terms of their religious and political affiliations, even including some Federalists.
As U.S. political culture became increasingly polarized in the mid-1790s, Democratic-Republican Societies were at the heart of debate about the nature of the early American Republic. Members toasted the French Revolution at their meetings, waxed enthusiastically in newspaper articles published in the expanding press, and warmly greeted Citizen Edmund Charles Genet, the French ambassador, when he visited the United States in 1793.
The societies also tended to be mistrusting of the second Federalist administration of President George Washington, which they thought aimed to expand the powers of the national government, especially the executive branch, and to encroach upon the liberties of the common man.
Many Federalists came to believe that the societies themselves were conspiring to overthrow the government, a theory that was often broadcast in newspapers of the day like John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States or from pulpits like that of David Osgood of Medford, Massachusetts. Parallels were drawn between the Democratic-Republican Societies and the Jacobin Clubs of the French Revolution.
Charges against the Democratic Societies became more pronounced and were leveled with more conviction after the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. Historians are not yet agreed on the exact role of the societies and their members in that insurrection. There was a degree of overlap between society membership and the Whiskey Rebels, but a lack of solid evidence means the precise connections may never be known with certainty.
To many at the time, however, a lack of solid evidence did not seem to matter. Washington thought that blame for the insurrection lay squarely on the shoulders of the societies. The rebellion, he wrote, was “the first formidable fruit of the Democratic Societies” (Allen, 593). In a famous statement, Washington spoke of certain “self-created Societies” which had “spread themselves over this country, have been laboring incessantly to sow the seeds of distrust, jealousy, and of course discontent; thereby hoping to effect some revolution in the government”.
Democratic-Republican Societies increasingly came under criticism as being hotbeds of conspiracy, a view summarized by a critic in the Kentucky Gazette when he described the Democratic Society of Kentucky as a “horrible sink of treason,—that hateful synagogue of anarchy,—that odious conclave of tumult,—that frightful cathedral of discord,—that poisonous garden of conspiracy,—that hellish school of rebellion and opposition to all regular and well-balanced authority” (31 August 1793). By 1796 membership in most Democratic-Republican Societies was waning and by 1800 they had all but disappeared, although their spirit lived on, in part, through the Republican Party they helped bring to power.