debates over the citizen’s political role in a republic. A liberty pole was a wooden mast with a flag or sign that expressed opposition to the government as tyrannical. During the American Revolution, Patriots raised liberty poles to symbolize their resistance to British rule. In most cases, redcoats tore them down, eliciting fights with Patriot pole-raisers. In the 1790s, grassroots Republicans revived the practice of raising liberty poles to protest the Washington and Adams administrations as monarchists and tyrants. Echoing the British response, the Federalist supporters of government destroyed the poles, leading to vicious confrontations in both person and print.
Using a case study drawn from Reading, Pennsylvania in 1799, this essay argues that liberty poles operated as the flashpoint for conflict over the place of protest in the new nation among grassroots partisans. Republicans advocated for an activist citizenry that aimed to impede any unjust exercise of federal power. Federalists, however, argued that representative government implied an obligation for citizens to defer to their elected officials. By raising and destroying liberty poles, both sides put into practice the type of popular participation they envisioned for the republic.