Consensus, Thomas Paine, Whiskey Rebellion, Diplomacy, Shays’ Rebellion, Political Theory
Engels’s Enemyship and Mercieca’s Founding Fictions employ communication theory to describe how early national politicians sought to build consensus and stifle dissent at a time when the powers and limits of citizenship were very much in flux.
Engels explains that “enemyship” became a recurring and effective rhetorical strategy for containing and disciplining democracy in the early United States. Thomas Paine coined the term in Common Sense, where he united the North American colonists against Britain by raising their fears and persuading them that communication and therefore reconciliation were impossible. Limiting discourse in this way, Paine convinced the colonists that armed rebellion was the only possible remedy. Engels, however, argues that enemyship never perfectly constrains its audience, and Paine’s subsequent attack on Quakers and other moderates demonstrates how the rhetorical strategy often failed to unite its audience fully.
While Paine used enemyship to foment revolution, political leaders in the early republic employed it to consolidate governmental power and make it less responsive to the people’s will. They employed this strategy first during and after Shays’ Rebellion, which they cast as a dangerous example of revolutionary excess and the people’s inability to govern themselves. The political elite inaccurately suggested that Shays and his followers wished to level social distinctions and redistribute property. Engels concedes that the rebels gained some of their political objectives in Massachusetts, but in the longer term the political elite depicted Shaysites as enemies to the republic as a means of curbing the democratic impulse and forming a Constitution so suspicious of the people that it amounted to a “second revolution.” [End Page 146]
The Whiskey Rebellion prompted a similar response. When Regulators in western Pennsylvania opposed a tax designed to foster the Federalists’ vision of a republic that favored property holders, Alexander Hamilton cast the protestors as licentious enemies of the Constitution and argued that the state’s ability to use violence was the ally—rather than the enemy—of liberty. Hugh Henry Brackenridge and others also distracted Westerners unhappy with the policies of the federal government by presenting Native Americans as an even greater threat to their way of life. Victory over them, he promised, would improve the economy and make more of them property owners with an interest in supporting an institution capable of protecting what they owned.
As the 1790s drew to a close, France responded to the Jay treaty by allowing privateers to attack American shipping. President John Adams’s desire to seek a diplomatic solution resulted in the scandalous XYZ Affair, which gave Federalists an opportunity to unite Americans behind their banner by declaring France an enemy, building a navy and a large standing army, and passing the Alien and Sedition Acts. The political elite argued that the second generation of Americans owed their revolutionary forbears a debt of blood that demanded orderly and deferential citizenship. When John Fries prompted German Americans in Pennsylvania to rebel against the federal tax designed to pay for the military buildup, Federalists demonized the protestors and cooked up an excessive show of force. Republicans exposed the partisan motives behind such actions, and Adams, realizing too late that Federalists had over-played their hand, pardoned Fries, a move that outraged Hamilton and contributed to his opposition to the president’s reelection. German Americans abandoned the Federalist party, and the scandal helped Republicans win the presidency in 1800.
Though Engels shows that Federalists were more interested in centralizing power than their opponents, he argues that political leaders in both parties sought to make the United States “less democratic” (215), and that by the election of 1800 “the counter-revolution was secure” (221). In the end, Engels argues, the elite were so inspired by a Hobbesian view of human nature that they convinced Americans to trade obedience for protection.
Engels diligently explains how enemyship sometimes backfired. The...