“Mississippi Mad”: The Democratic Society of Kentucky and the Sectional Politics of Navigation Rights
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“Mississippi Mad”:
The Democratic Society of Kentucky and the Sectional Politics of Navigation Rights

Although on the western frontier of the new American nation, Kentucky was not isolated from the revolutionary upheavals sweeping through the Atlantic world in the late eighteenth century, especially the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Kentuckians learned about events in France by reading newspapers. “Citizens of this [western] country, however distant, think nothing uninteresting, which affects the cause of freedom,” declared John Bradford, the editor of the Kentucky Gazette, the first newspaper published in the region. Kentuckians participated in this transatlantic ferment by establishing four Democratic-Republican societies. The first and most prominent association formed in Lexington in August 1793. “France has caught the glorious flame [of liberty],” the Democratic Society of Kentucky rejoiced. The French “have arisen in their strength, and like an inundation, have at once swept away their Tyrants and their Gothic Structures.” A new political order had begun.1 [End Page 399]

During this era of democratic revolution, citizens on both sides of the Atlantic organized extralegal associations to deliberate on politics, assert their rights, and correspond with like-minded individuals and communities. In the 1760s and 1770s, Americans established associations like the Sons of Liberty, the Committees of Correspondence, the Committees of Safety, and the Continental Congress to oppose British imperial measures such as the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Coercive Acts. Similar reform-oriented societies emerged in Great Britain at the time, and by the 1790s, corresponding societies there were arguing for annual parliaments and for universal male suffrage. In Ireland, the United Irishmen brought Roman Catholics and Protestants together in opposition to British rule in their country. In revolutionary France, Jacobin clubs mobilized the population in opposition to aristocracy and monarchy. Wherever they formed, extralegal associations proved controversial because they operated outside of the authority of established governments. Critics feared that the clubs destabilized and threatened to usurp those governments, as the Second Continental Congress had done during the American Revolution. The Jacobins too seized control of the French government in 1793. During the Reign of Terror that followed, they guillotined thousands of their political enemies. Regarded as dangerous by the British government, the corresponding societies and United Irishmen were suppressed by the end of the decade.2 [End Page 400]

News about these extralegal associations and corresponding fears about their formation circulated throughout the Atlantic world. Far from uniform in purpose, membership, or strategy, the various organizations nonetheless influenced one another. American newspapers often printed the proceedings of the international clubs, which emboldened some Americans, in the mid-1790s, to organize extralegal associations in opposition to the administration of George Washington. These self-proclaimed Democratic-Republican societies represented the first attempt in American history to establish an opposition movement to the national government. They formed a loosely organized network of about forty societies across the nation from Maine to South Carolina and as far west as Kentucky. They particularly criticized the Proclamation of Neutrality (April 1793), which was designed to keep the United States out of the war between the French Republic and the rest of monarchical Europe. According to the Democratic-Republican societies, American neutrality sacrificed the revolutionary alliance with France for the sake of trading ties with Great Britain. Fearing that the administration’s policies were growing disconnected from the will of the people, the clubs used the expanding press to build support for their movement and communicate their grievances to the government. Their constitutions, circular letters, declarations, and petitions nearly all employed the rhetoric of transatlantic republicanism, embracing the “Rights of Man,” denouncing monarchy and aristocracy, and advocating for representative democracy.3 [End Page 401]

Traditionally, historians have presented the Democratic-Republican societies as a cohesive opposition to the Washington administration, centered in Philadelphia, the national capital, but they have disputed the origins of the clubs. Following contemporary Federalists like Philadelphia printer William Cobbett, who denounced club members as American Jacobins, early historians depicted the Democratic-Republican societies as foreign imports. In contrast, Eugene P. Link stressed the domestic origins of the clubs and the influence of American precedents like the Sons of Liberty. Published in 1942, his work reflected the...


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