- Radical Rhetoric, Conservative Goals: The Democratic Society of Kentucky and the Language of Transatlantic Radicalism in the 1790s
In late December 1793, President George Washington and several members of Congress received a letter from the “Citizens West of the Allegheny Mountains.” No normal “remonstrance,” the correspondence took a strident tone. “We still experience,” the letter proclaimed, “that the strong nerved government of America, extends its arm of protection to all the branches of the union, but to your Remonstrants.” The denizens of Kentucky who had composed the letter claimed to have suffered too long outside the pale of the national republic. An unresponsive federal government had done little to meet the needs of the people on the frontier, those who represented the farthest reach of the republican experiment in North America. No one should question the patriotism of the letter writers, they argued. They did, however, caution that “patriotism, like every other thing, has its bounds.”
Discussions of natural rights and the responsibility of government dominated the missive, with the citizens of Kentucky employing the vocabulary of radical governance to seek the expansion of concrete federal power across the mountains. But for what purpose might these agitators speak out against a perceived federal injustice? “Your [End Page 431] Remonstrants are entitled by Nature and by stipulation,” they stated, “to the undisturbed Navigation of the Mississippi, and consider it a right inseparable from their posterity.” As they closed, the writers took an insurrectionist tone: “We declare it a right which must be obtained; and also declare, that if the General Government will not procure it for us, we shall hold ourselves not answerable for any consequences that may result from our procurement of it.”1
According to August Lachaise, a French consul then operating within Kentucky, a letter including the circular, or at least its contents, had been forwarded to the French Executive Council at the same time it was posted to Philadelphia. Both had been written by Kentucky’s permutation of the democratic society movement then sweeping the United States, particularly within the ports of the eastern seaboard. No proper reckoning of the size of the movement exists; what we do know is that, beginning in 1793, democratic societies appeared throughout the nation, espousing a far more democratic interpretation of the American revolutionary experience. While by no means a monolithic movement, the democratic societies did share a common vernacular. Generally speaking, democratic societies agitated against the presidential administration of George Washington and its perceived rejection of the nation’s revolutionary and (supposedly) democratic ideals. Because of the diverse issues then facing the young republic, such agitation, however, represented different things to different people.2
Founded during the late summer of 1793, the Democratic Society of Kentucky opposed many of President Washington’s policies and echoed much of the radical rhetoric used by other democratic societies [End Page 432] in the United States. From its inception, the Democratic Society of Kentucky espoused “the laudable objects of the Philadelphia Democratic Society,” the most prolific of its peers. The “laudable objects” the body in Lexington wrote about represented transatlantic ideals of democracy and equality then employed by the Jacobins to remake French society and politics during the French Revolution.3
For all of the similarities to its eastern brethren, the group in Kentucky was perhaps the most distinctive manifestation of a democratic society in the United States. The society employed the rhetoric of other like-minded groups still forming along the Atlantic seaboard. How they used that rhetoric, though, differed markedly from the democratic societies in the East. While the anti-establishment groups in Philadelphia and New York argued for tearing down any vestiges of aristocracy and agitated for full support of the French in their ongoing war in Europe, the Kentucky society crafted a more nuanced position that sought the expansion of federal power into the still-restive frontier.
The rhetoric of Jacobin-inspired radical democracy changed the nature, but not the context, of Kentucky and trans-Appalachian politics during the 1790s. The significant issues raised by the Democratic Society of Kentucky during the decade existed well before the group’s advent. However, the arrival of a new...