Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic / Edition 1

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Overview

These 14 original essays show that the early political history of the U.S. was not just the product of a few founding elites but was also marked by widespread and passionate popular involvement; an emerging print media; and conflict along race, gender, & class lines.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This collection of invaluable essays comes as a welcome relief from the current cult of celebrity. [It] penetrates beyond the plethora of biographies of the Founding Fathers to demonstrate how the 'newest political history' broadens our understanding of the political character of the early republic."
Journal of Southern History

"Further evidence that imaginative and relevant scholarship is giving political history a buzz. . . . An outstanding collection of lively, enlightening, and provocative essays."
American Historical Review

"A valuable collection of essays that introduces a new way of looking at the political history of the early republic."
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807855584
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 11/8/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 1,221,421
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey L. Pasley is associate professor of history at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and author of "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.

Andrew W. Robertson is associate professor of history at Lehman College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of The Language of Democracy: Political Rhetoric in the U.S. and Britain, 1790-1900.

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Read an Excerpt

Beyond the Founders

New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-5558-8


Chapter One

The Cheese and the Words

Popular Political Culture and Participatory Democracy in the Early American Republic

President Thomas Jefferson and his guests rang in the new year of 1802 as many later generations of Americans would celebrate New Years' Day, by consuming some snacks and watching a spectacle. In this case, however, the snack was the spectacle: the long-awaited "Mammoth Cheese" from Cheshire, Massachusetts, four feet in diameter, eighteen inches tall, 1,200 pounds, and already an American icon.

The cheese and its saga were several months old by the time they reached President Jefferson. The "Ladies of Cheshire" had made the cheese back in August as "a mark of the exalted esteem" in which Jefferson was held by a small Berkshire County farming community that was monolithically Baptist in religion and Democratic Republican in politics. The Cheshire Baptists' esteem for Jefferson was especially exalted, and his accession to the presidency especially sweet, because they were members of an embattled religious minority in New England, at odds with the Congregational establishment that still reigned and collected tax money in most of the region. Exalting God even above Jefferson (most of the time), the Baptists of Cheshire believed that no government or other human institution should have authority over matters of faith, which were God's alone. Allegedly following the example of a similar large dairy product made in Cheshire, England, to celebrate George III's recovery, they had gathered "the milk of 900 cows at one milking" in a vat six feet wide and used a giant cider press to actually create the cheese. A few weeks later, a bemused but admiring newspaper report of the project appeared in Rhode Island, where most of the Cheshire Baptists were born. It ended with the warning that "if some of the high-toned Adams men do not soon turn and become friendly to Jefferson and the ladies," they might "have to eat their bread without cheese" in the future.

The reporting newspaper was a strongly Republican one, but it was the Federalist press opposing Jefferson that was most active in spreading word of the cheese. Embittered by defeat but convinced that Jefferson's manifest unfitness and incompetence would soon drive him from public favor, Federalists could not believe their luck. "If we were not so convinced of the stupidity of the Jacobin encomium-mongers," wrote one editor, "we should imagine the whole introduction to the cheese vat to be conceived in a vein of irony." In a seemingly endless stream of reports, comments, and satirical poetry that continued long after their subject was delivered and consumed, Federalist writers lampooned Cheshire's gift as the "Mammoth Cheese," after the mastodon bones that Charles Willson Peale had unearthed in New York during 1801 with aid from the Jefferson administration. It was considered a devastating stroke to link Cheshire's tribute to Jefferson's well-known interests in natural history and scientific research, which Federalists considered intolerably frivolous and had often satirized before.

The leader in cheese-bashing seems to have been Joseph Dennie's prestigious Federalist literary journal, the Philadelphia Port Folio. Dennie and his contributors did some clever send-ups, especially "Reflections of Mr. Jefferson, Over the Mammoth Cheese," a poem in which Jefferson is depicted as seeing his "life and fortunes in this useless mass. / I curse the hands, by which the thing was made, / To them a cheese, to me a looking-glass." Federalists saw particular significance in the fact that the Mammoth Cheese, as unsealed, unrefrigerated foods will, attracted an appropriately mammoth share of insects and spoilage. (Republican papers responded with satirical charges that the Federalists now feared a "Maggot Insurrection" along with their other worries about Jeffersonian rule.) In the Port Folio, the decaying cheese became a metaphor for Jefferson's hypocrisy and inner turpitude. "Like to this cheese," says the poem's Jefferson, "my outside's smooth and sound / ... When nought but rottenness within is found / ... midst this shew of greatness and of ease, / Ten thousand vermin gnaw this wretched heart." More often, the Port Folio simply spat contempt on "the mummery of the Cheshire simpletons," suggesting on at least two occasions that the cheese was really "made of asses' milk." Eventually Dennie tired of "cheese-communications," and tried to stop printing them, apparently to little avail as far as his contributors were concerned.

It soon became apparent that the mammoth joke was really on the Federalists, as both the word "mammoth" and the mammoth tribute caught on with the populace. Giant foodstuffs and fossils seemed to communicate in some democratic, patriotic idiom that the Federalists did not understand. Their ridiculing publications introduced a new adjective into the English language, one that connoted nationalistic pride more than the wooly pretentiousness that they intended. A copycat baker in Philadelphia advertised "Mammoth Bread" for sale; a "Mammoth Eater" in Washington downed forty-two eggs in ten minutes; and two admiring Philadelphia butchers sent what Jefferson himself referred to as a "Mammoth veal," a hindquarter of the largest calf "we remember ever to have seen in this part of the country," 436 pounds at only 115 days old. Far from finding Jefferson's scientific investigations silly, butchers Michael Fry and Nathan Coleman had actually been inspired by Jefferson's much-twitted debate with European naturalists over the size and vitality of American fauna. They expressed joy "in being able to place confidence in the Man who while a private citizen laboured ... to remove the European prejudice that animals were inferior & Degenerated in the New World." Sadly, despite Fry and Coleman's promise that the cool weather would allow their historic veal to arrive in Washington as fresh "as if it had been dressed this day," Jefferson declined to dine on the gift, though he did agree that it was most impressive example of "enlarging the animal volume."

A much more successful display of animal volume took place at Charles Willson Peale's museum in Philadelphia, where the eponymous Mammoth bones went on public display in December. The artist and his sons had spent several months piecing the bones together into a full skeleton, making some unintentional (but not unwelcome) anatomical errors that made the beast even more mammoth than it should have been. After a VIP showing Christmas Eve, there was a gala opening and parade replete with a trumpeter and an actor in Native American costume (keying into a Shawnee legend used in Peale's advertising). Crowds thronged the "Mammoth Room," paying an additional fifty cents a head over and above the Peale museum's usual twenty-five-cent admission price. The Pennsylvania state legislature was so thrilled that it soon allowed Peale to move his museum into larger quarters at the city and state's most prominent building, the former State House, now better known as Independence Hall.

However, mere bread, meat, eggs, and bones could not begin to rival the half-ton appetizer from Cheshire. While originally planned as a spring gift, the extreme weight of the Mammoth Cheese dictated that it be delivered in winter, when as every good northern farmer knew, the snow and ice made it infinitely easier to haul heavy goods to market. The assigned deliverymen were John Leland and Darius Brown, Cheshire's leading Baptist divine and the son of his leading parishioner, respectively. The two men were on the road with the cheese for a month, traveling by sled, boat, and wagon, and creating a sensation wherever they appeared. A Stockbridge newspaper reported that twenty cheese-loaded wagons escorted Leland and Brown to their embarkation point on the Hudson, and even greater throngs seem to have materialized for their later stops. A prolific evangelist and the New England clergy's most radical exponent of religious freedom, Leland happily accepted the sobriquet "Mammoth Priest" and preached frequently along the way. The cheesemongers stopped just short of letting the tour become an actual circus: Leland turned down a thousand dollars to use the cheese in a show for twelve days in New York.

Even the ceremony-averse Jefferson, whose typical manner on public occasions was low-key to the point of sedation, appeared "highly diverted" by the arrival of the cheese. He stood in the doorway of the presidential mansion to receive the emissaries and their cargo, which had been decorated with a paper sign bearing the inscription "The Greatest Cheese in America-for the Greatest Man in America." Leland read Jefferson a message from the people of Cheshire, likely penned by the parson himself, that cast the freethinking president in the unlikely role of God's chosen instrument: "The supreme Ruler of the Universe ... has raised up a JEFFERSON for this critical day to defend Republicanism and baffle all the arts of Aristocracy."

The message laid out the ideological grounds for the cheesemakers' veneration of Jefferson, giving the typical Jeffersonian themes of strict construction and limited government a northern, Baptist, and democratic spin. They considered the constitution "a description of those Powers which the people have submitted to their Magistrates, to be exercised for definite purposes, and not a charter of favors granted by a sovereign to his subjects." Among the frame of government's most "beautiful features" were the "right of free suffrage, to correct all abuses" (something actually not guaranteed by the Constitution in terms of its extent or form, but more and more widely claimed as a right after Jefferson's "Revolution of 1800") and "the prohibition of religious tests," which was alleged to "prevent all hierarchy." Perhaps most remarkably, given the modern view of Jefferson as an avatar of slavery, the cheese producers of Cheshire went out of their way to boast that their gift had been made "by the personal labor of freeborn farmers"-more accurately of freeborn farmers' wives and daughters-"(without a single slave to assist)."

On the spur of the moment, Jefferson decided to deliver his written reply to the message as a speech, making appropriate pronoun changes as he went. Declining to accept the messianic mantle offered by Leland, Jefferson praised the Cheshireites for their constitutional theory and pronounced himself particularly grateful for the nature of the gift, a "mark of esteem from freeborn farmers, employed personally in the useful labors of life" who expressed themselves through the medium of the goods that they produced.

Visiting Federalist congressmen were not impressed by this democratic love-feast. The Reverend Manasseh Cutler of Massachusetts and several other New England solons went to the presidential mansion that morning intent on tweaking the head of the household. Upset at Jefferson's studied efforts to reduce the formalities surrounding the presidential office, they "were determined to keep up the old custom, though contrary to what was intended, of waiting on the President with the compliments of the season." An aggressively genteel man who delighted in reviewing the social performances of others in his diary, Cutler grudgingly admitted that he and his friends were "tolerably received, and treated with cake and wine." With the Federalist delegation thus lulled into a false sense of gentility, it was Jefferson's turn to tweak: he invited them to "Go into the mammoth room" (now the East Room) to see what Cutler regarded as a "monument of human weakness and folly," the Mammoth Cheese.

Two days later, on January 3, the Mammoth Priest himself preached the sermon at Sunday services in the House of Representatives chamber, with Cutler and other pious Federalists among the captive audience. Though wildly popular with rural congregations, the rough-hewn, poorly educated Leland was considered something of an embarrassment even by some of the more polished clergymen in his own denomination. Besides alienating many of them with his uncompromising religious and political views, he was given to such colorful eccentricities as recounting his triumph over the "groaner," an evil spirit lurking in the Leland family home that he claimed to have exorcised through forceful prayer. (One can imagine Leland's fellow clergy cringing when he performed his blood-curdling impression of the demonic shrieks with which the groaner fled his house.) As a preacher, Leland was much closer to a political stump speaker in style than the elegant, erudite homilist that genteel churchgoers expected. Never a man to shy away from hyperbole, Leland took as his text "And behold a greater than Solomon is here," almost sacrilegiously applying the sentiment to Jefferson (who sat in the audience) instead of Christ. No full record of Leland's sermon has survived, but it is apparent that he gave the assembled statesmen a relatively full-strength dose of backwoods preaching. "Such a farrago," Cutler reported, "bawled with ... horrid tone, frightful grimaces, and extravagant gestures ... was never heard by any decent auditory before."

Federalists apparently did not speak the homely language of popular political bombast, evangelical religion, and compressed milk curds. The honorary philosophe Thomas Jefferson did not exactly speak this language either, but he understood it well enough to know how to respond. Jefferson may never have given a real stump speech in his life and typically preferred his religion more abstract and his cheese more French than what was offered in Cheshire. Yet he treated Leland as an honored dignitary and paid him two hundred dollars to reimburse some of his travel expenses. Jefferson also chose the very day of the cheese's arrival to issue his most important statement on the issue of greatest concern to the Cheshire Baptists, the separation of church and state. Jefferson thus scored points both with a key constituency and against his Federalist opponents. Nor did Jefferson drop the mammoth theme after Leland's visit. While the cheese's final fate cannot be definitely ascertained, indications are that it was kept in the White House and served, with the occasional pruning of rotten bits, for at least two years.

Besides the probable disposal of the cheese, 1804 also saw another mammoth democratic event. As the first session of the Eighth Congress neared its end, Jefferson likely gave his blessing to the official Navy baker's creation of a "Mammoth Loaf," made from an entire barrel of flour and baked in a specially built oven. On March 26, the loaf was covered in white linen and carried on the shoulders of decked-out bakers to the Capitol, where it was placed in a committee room off the Senate chamber along with plenty of roast beef, hard cider, wine, and whiskey.

Continues...


Excerpted from Beyond the Founders Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : beyond the founders 1
1 The cheese and the words : popular political culture and participatory democracy in the early American Republic 31
2 Voting rites and voting acts : electioneering ritual, 1790-1820 57
3 Why Thomas Jefferson and African Americans wore their politics on their sleeves : dress and mobilization between American revolutions 79
4 Women and party conflict in the early republic 107
5 The "little emperor" : Aaron Burr, Dandyism, and the sexual politics of treason 129
6 Young federalists, masculinity, and partisanship during the War of 1812 159
7 Protest in black and white : the formation and transformation of an African American political community during the early republic 180
8 Consent, civil society, and the public sphere in the age of revolution and the early American Republic 207
9 Beyond the myth of consensus : the struggle to define the right to bear arms in the early republic 251
10 The federalists' transatlantic cultural offensive of 1798 and the moderation of American democratic discourse 274
11 Continental politics : liberalism, nationalism, and the appeal of Texas in the 1820s 303
12 Private enterprise, public good? : communications deregulation as a national political issue, 1839-1851 328
13 Popular movements and party rule : the New York anti-rent wars and the Jacksonian political order 355
14 Commentary : deja vu all over again : is there a new political history? 387
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