The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER X
The Populist Impulse

"Democracy" was not to emerge as a fully legitimate cultural value in America, commanding more or less universal approval, until the 1830s, with the appearance of a national system of mass political parties. Yet as early as the mid-1790s with the agitation stirred by the French Revolution and the Jay Treaty, one already sees a clear turn in the direction of popular politics. Beyond doubt popular attitudes and popular participation took on qualities and proportions -- a "populist impulse" became discernible -- which had not quite been there before. But a "populist impulse" is not the same thing as functional democracy. Due account must be taken of the limits and inhibitions within which popular politics in the 1790s still operated.


I
The Democratic Societies

The fate of the Democratic Societies, between the first enthusiastic emergence of so many of these groups in 1793-94 and their utter disappearance within the following year or so, invites questions about the whole subject of voluntary associations in America. Voluntary associations are mentioned from time to time throughout our historical literature, though for the most part rather casually. This lack of attention is curious, inasmuch as few features of American society struck Tocqueville more forcibly in the 1830s than the proliferation of its associational life. Whatever the reasons, these associations still tend to be taken largely for granted; some have been examined piecemeal, but they have not been studied systematically; and there is surprisingly little in the way of a general theory on that subject. 1

It has of course been pointed out that by means of voluntary associations in America a variety of religious, economic, fraternal, humanitarian, and political

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