EXPLAINING THE UNEXPLAINABLE
THE CULTURAL CONTEXT OF THE SEDITION ACT
JOANNE B. FREEMAN
DEMOCRACY WAS A PROBLEM in the early republic. Though we view it as the heart of the American political system, the founding generation had no such assumption. In fact, they equated pure democratic governance with civic disorder and popular un- rest. In a democracy, the entire population took part in the process of governance; republican governance seemed far more practicable, instill- ing order through the process of representation. Although political parti- sans of different stripes would come to have different understandings of democratic politics over the course of the 1790s, all agreed that America was not a democracy. The real question at the heart of the period’s politics was precisely how democratic a republic America should be.
Such doubts about democracy suggest the alien nature of the early na- tional political world—a simple fact that is easily overlooked. When we look to the founding period for the roots of modern political behavior, we impose a modern sense of political order and security onto a politics with its own distinct logic and integrity. In reality, the American republic was remarkably undeveloped and unsteady in its first decades, a political experiment with an uncertain outcome. Invigorating as this spirit of politi- cal experimentation might have been, it was also disquieting. Americans were creating the first polity of its kind in the modern world, and they were keenly aware that anything could happen. The result was an ongoing climate of crisis.
Any number of questions remained unanswered. Foremost was the sim- ple question of survival. With the stability and long-term practicability of such a polity untested, there was every likelihood that the republic would collapse—particularly given the new nation’s vulnerability on the world stage. Foreign powers held sway over international trade, impressed American seamen virtually at will, and tolerated rather than respected American diplomats in their royal courts. Joined with the fragility of the new American nation, it is no wonder that every foreign crisis seemed