"The Most Agreeable Country": New Light on Democratic-Republican Opinion of Massachusetts in the 1790s

Article excerpt

Among recent notable trends in eighteenth century American historiography are complementary emphases on "Atlantic history," resonating with current scholarly interest in hemispheric relations and globalism, and a simultaneous stress on regionalism: the relations between the divergent sections and interests of the parts of the nationstate.1 Unfortunately, these studies have relatively ignored the late eighteenth century United States during the Federalist Era (1789-1801), when infant national institutions first emerged, and the national government's cooperation and conflict with previously existing state and local entities, Northern and Eastern ["New England"], Southern and Western. A deeper examination of the effect the new national government's policies in the 1790s exerted on diverse regions' responses to each other will further increase our knowledge of regional tensions and affiliations in the Early Republic.2

The emergence of national political parties, with the Federalists gaining control of New England; the Middle States of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania being vigorously contested by them; and the South generally dominated by the Republicans (Democratic-Republicans), also occurred during the 1790s. This article seeks to further examine how Republican partisans from different parts of the Union viewed Federalist-oriented Massachusetts during the initial years of the revolutionary two-party system, whose grass-roots constituencies were something unique in modern times.3

As was the case in many areas of American political thought and practice, Thomas Jefferson was a forerunner of regional studies, not only with regard to his own state in his brilliant and controversial Notes on the State of Virginia, but in appreciating salutary mutual influences that the social and political institutions of different regions of the country might exert on each other.4 This was especially true, of his views on the relationship between the Massachusetts town meeting and Virginia's modes of local government.

In keeping with his historical reputation for self-contradiction, Jefferson, while denouncing New England's opposition to his Republican Party in the nation's earliest partisan contests, praised its people's democratic instincts and practices (this, notwithstanding the fact that in the presidential election of 1804 only Connecticut and Delaware had cast electoral votes for Charles C. Pinckney, his South Carolina Federalist opponent). He especially admired their town meeting elections, by which the people directly decided most local issues through referenda and elected their neighbors to a wide variety of local offices. He regarded this as the ideal form of republicanism. Proposing to divide Virginia's counties into "wards" or "hundreds," as he called them, organized on the basis of local militia musters or "captaincies," he sought to emulate the New England town's political modes. Jefferson first proposed to apply to his state, aristocratic Virginia, the techniques of the New England town meeting in his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, presented to the Virginia assembly in 1776 to institute a more widespread public education system. Jefferson, in Notes in the 1780s, and even more enthusiastically after he left the presidency in 1809, urged Virginia to adopt the town meeting mode for conducting all aspects of local government.5

This article examines the views of four influential non-New England political figures of the 1790s, about Massachusetts and Connecticut during this frenzied period of American history. Included will be Jefferson and his friend, Virginia political theorist, U.S. senator and state assemblyman John Taylor of Caroline, from the South; the controversial newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin's grandson, from Philadelphia; and an Anglo-American citizen of the world, Benjamin Vaughan, of London, Paris, and later of Massachusetts. The observations of these figures, some of which are unfamiliar to historians and have never appeared in print before, will further elucidate aspects of a turbulent, transitional stage of Massachusetts politics in the middle and late-1790s from Federalism to Democratic-Republicanism. …