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  • “Let A Common Interest Bind Us Together”: Associations, Partisanship, and Culture in Philadelphia, 1775–1840
  • Gerald Leonard (bio)
“Let A Common Interest Bind Us Together”: Associations, Partisanship, and Culture in Philadelphia, 1775–1840. By Albrecht Koschnik. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007. Pp. 384. Cloth, $45.00.)

In 1840, Martin Van Buren charged that the nation’s incorporated voluntary associations, like so many of its business corporations, were agents [End Page 494] of aristocracy. By some mysterious “law of their nature,” these organizations seemed always to resist the will of the people.1 Van Buren’s tone reflected some befuddlement, but this mastermind of democratic party organization did not slow down to consider the reasons why literary and benevolent societies were so dominated by Whigs, “federalists,” and other contemnors of democracy. Nor have historians closely considered the connections between, on the one hand, the first stirrings of mass party organization and, on the other, the birth of the private associations that equally defined early republican civil society. Although historians have certainly been aware of the partisan leanings of so many of the voluntary associators, Albrecht Koschnik’s valuable new book on early national Philadelphia brings these connections into sharper focus.

Koschnik’s story is a neat one. Demonstrating (like many before him) the general hostility to party that persisted from the Revolution through the early 1800s, Koschnik nicely conveys the post-Revolution worry that any political organization outside the government contained the seeds of more revolutions. This hostility to political organization made it easy for Federalists to undermine the Democratic Society of Philadelphia (and its counterparts in other American cities). The Society arguably embodied the first instance of what might be called formal party organization in Pennsylvania, and Federalists easily made the charge of revolutionary tendencies stick, thanks especially to the Whiskey Rebellion. Even though Pennsylvania had itself been a notorious hotbed of factionalism for decades before the Revolution, antiparty sentiment helped drive one voluntary organization after another out of business in the 1780s and 1790s. But the abortiveness of formal party organization did not deter organization altogether. Rather, it left a void that would be filled by extrapolitical voluntary associations, organizations that avowed charitable or other civic purposes and avoided electioneering, but frequently carried marked partisan identities.

The Tammany Society, for example, left Republican electioneering to the temporary committees that emerged as elections approached, but it regulated its own membership by a test of political character. It served the Republican cause by building a year-round fellowship of active democrats (many of whom would, of course, participate in the temporary [End Page 495] electioneering committees as well). The Federalists, for their part, created a series of equivalent organizations, culminating in the Washington Benevolent Society of 1811. It was the Federalists who pioneered the notion that these organizations should chiefly pursue charitable purposes or other civic goals, like the establishment of libraries and other cultural institutions. At the same time, there was no doubting that these organizations fostered Federalist cohesion and influence in a way analogous to the Tammany Society and other Republican-oriented organizations.

Koschnik’s story supplies welcome detail and texture to the now dominant understanding of early “party” competition: that the competition between Federalists and Republicans fell well short of constituting a “party system” even as it rested on significant advances in organization. At the same time, Koschnik suggests that the antipartyist tradition supplies a major part of the explanation for the emergence of extrapolitical voluntary associations. Facing ready-made and highly plausible charges of factionalism and revolutionary tendencies, the would-be political elite eschewed overt political organization when they could and substituted ostensibly apolitical organization. As a result, Philadelphia was graced with a number of publicly authorized but privately organized militia companies, a Law Academy, a bar association, an Academy of Fine Arts, an Athenaeum, and much more. Although some of the more conservative Republicans participated in many of these institutions, the main thrust of Koschnik’s story is that Philadelphia’s associational life was built by a new generation of Federalists emerging mostly after the turn of the century. As the Republicans came increasingly to dominate electoral competition and to gain comfort with...


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pp. 494-497
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