12 Years a Slave: A Re-examination of Modern Depictions of American Slavery


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I will do my best to not divulge too much of the plot of the movie. I simply plan on explaining what the movie adds to the historical representation of slavery, and what it might tell about how slaves contributed to political speech in the mid-nineteenth century.

12 Years a Slave is not a cathartic film. Those who attend expecting a sense of closure on their feelings towards slavery or its history in the United States will be disappointed. There is no allegory to modern America, nor is it a Marxist critique of capitalism. Its goal is to move today’s depictions of slavery away from the “feel-good” category of movies, such as Lincoln, Amistad, or Glory (and arguably Django Unchained), and make us reflect critically and realistically on the facets of slavery. Interestingly, it is largely a British film, with British actors (including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup) in leading roles and a British director (Steve McQueen- and no, not “The Cooler King”). While the British themselves have a unique history with slavery and abolition, this film falls squarely within the American realm.

The script, in contrast to the dramatizations of many nineteenth-century stories, clings closely to Northup’s memoir released in 1855. Fourteen years earlier, he was kidnapped in a deceptive business deal in New York and was sold under the name ‘Platt’ in New Orleans. Northup’s peculiar situation in his enslavement gave him unique advantages compared to other slaves, such as literacy, musical talents, and a knowledge of the outside world. Despite these advantages, he still faced a brutal enslavement in Louisiana for twelve years. Any attempt he made to write a letter, let alone send it northward, could have fatal consequences if he was caught. His main weapon, however, was his intelligence. Northup knew how to utilize potential advocates who would give him a chance at freedom; his strongest political speech spoke through their actions. However, very few other enslaved peoples had the ability to appeal for outside assistance in their plight. Northup was an exceptional case in this system.

12 Years a Slave is not a popcorn flick. There’s no traditional chronological structure, or really a climax, to mark the progress of the film. Despite the remarkable dialogue and cinematography, my movie-going self was dissatisfied. However, I later realized that that was the point. The film is supposed to alter how slavery is depicted modernly. While the slavery debate in Congress may have had drama, excitement, and a palpable climax (note Lincoln), the lives of most enslaved people did not. McQueen aims not to entertain, but to provide a re-education of what slavery really was in the cotton fields of the Deep South. He removes its representation from the halls of power and puts it at the ground level- an idea that the members of this class have learned to appreciate.

Coping with Slaughter: Ars Moriendi and the "Good Death"


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War and dying were not new to American society in 1861. In fact, they were an inseparable part of the early American psyche from its colonization, to its Revolution, to its ruthless settlement of the West. However, it had never witnessed the carnage of war on such a grand scale before the bloody campaigns of Bull Run, Shiloh, and Antietam in the early phases of the Civil War. Earlier today, Henry pointed out that, after the war, Frederick Douglas tried to reignite the passions and principles of the Civil War in an effort to halt Jim Crow and “remember (it) as a moral struggle between Northern abolition…and Southern slavery”. However, historian Drew G. Faust notes how the damage done by the war so numbed the populaces of both sides that it became “the common ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite” (5).  Faust argues that the destruction caused by the war and the desire of soldiers to die a “Good Death” largely tamed the political zeal and “secular language” that had triggered the war itself (37).

For much of her article “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying”, Faust utilizes the last written correspondence of dying soldiers, the testaments by witnesses to fatally-wounded soldiers, and the condolence letters written by both friends and strangers to the families of those killed in action as primary sources. She argues that Civil War death became an “art”, following the tradition of the Ars Moriendi, offering a unique blend of patriotism and Christian sacrifice. Regardless of nationality or religion, wounded soldiers wished to die a “Good Death”, should it come to them (8). This kind of death required resilience in the face of fate that offered a sort of declaration of faith in God and love for family. “Bad Deaths” were those who were killed immediately in action, were denied a last testament on their deathbeds, or died “impertinent or unpardoned sinners”(29). It interests me that very few of the final testaments express passion for the fighting cause or hope for the war; most emphasize religious zeal over politics. Here, Faust argues that years of combat drained much of the political passion present on both sides amongst common soldiers, with spiritual concerns taking their place.

However, the lack of secular language brings me to some criticisms of Faust’s work. There are very little politics amongst Faust’s sources, but there is a total absence of race, ethnicity, or any sense of identity to differentiate between her subjects of interest. I have doubts that all soldiers had a homogenous view on what constituted “dying well” as a soldier. For example, African American soldiers in the war surely had different reasons to fight and die in the war than the typical regiments, but Faust ignores them as a group entirely. The same goes for immigrants fighting on both sides. Did they share the same principles and belief systems as all their comrades? What about non-slaveholding whites fighting for the South? The list goes on. While Faust makes an interesting argument that political rhetoric played little role in final testaments of dying soldiers, it seems as though patriotism, principles, and sacrifice for a higher cause were very prevalent on the minds of those who fought in the Civil War, even if many of them did not survive its entirety.

Racism, Xenophobia, and Republicanism: A Night Out on the Bowery


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Sean Wilentz utilized Chapters 4-5 of Chants Democratic to document the failure of labor to successfully challenge the major political parties in Jacksonian New York City due to the Working Men’s lack of a solidified class-consciousness. However, Chapters 7-8 exhibit the evident consciousness of ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries amongst the lower classes throughout the city. As Alex noted last week, the workers’ employers had “distanced themselves further from their workers and receded into private terms” during the 1820s, largely leaving them to their own social and cultural circles. These working-class congregations were anything but homogenous; workers typically united around their respective neighborhoods and localities. The groups often radicalized around specific issues, such as hyper-patriotism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-abolition. Even trade unionists saw these groups as uncontrollable renegades in need of “a complete transformation of character centered on temperance”. (255) Through the economic turmoil of the late 1830s, Wilentz argues, these radical congregations such as the Native American Democratic Association and the American Republican Party gained immense political power in the city on a platform of xenophobic rhetoric against Irish Catholics, abolition, and “anti-republican” peoples. (268)

After the fall of the Working Men in 1830, disaffected workers hit the streets and formed their own organizations to represent their interests. Volunteer fire groups were a popular source of fraternal bonding and local identity in poorer parts of the city. In the Bowery, known as “New York’s plebian boulevard,” nativist sentiment amongst the working-class was enflamed by newspapers such as the Spirit of ’76, published by the Native American Democratic Association. (257) They argued that Irish-Catholic immigrants were an inherent threat to the ideals and purity of American republicanism by carrying the “papist monarchical” conspiracy across the ocean from Europe and swelling their presence in America. (267) The intellectualism of the Working Men’s Party had been replaced by the macho-nativism and muscle of the freikorps-like street gangs of angry workers throughout the city, and their power, unfortunately, was destined to increase.

In the Panic of 1837, more of a third of New York workers lost their jobs. After public unrest and rioting, it appeared as though the traditional union movement had surrendered to the “street tactics of the Bowery”. (295) As labor competition increased in the city, the nativist circles gained power by labeling immigrants (especially Irishmen) as lecherous job thieves. Wilentz utilizes the street propaganda of these powerful groups (the Native American Democratic Association, the American Republican Party, and the Loco Focos) as primary sources along with the concerned responses from the entrepreneurial classes (the American Institute, the Washington Temperance Benevolent Society, etc). They targeted both major political parties- the Whigs were accused of upper-class preference and the Democrats of corruption and pandering to immigrants for votes. (320) At the height of the nativist furor, the American Republican Party candidate James Harper succeeded in winning the mayor’s office, although he failed to implement a thorough nativist policy.

According to Wilentz, the emergence of Bowery-style politics in the 1830s reveals one major point: there was no Rochesterian revival of religion, temperance, and civility in NYC. The revivalists largely gave up and moved on, and the booze continued to flow without obstruction. However, he never seems to examine why New York resisted the Second Great Awakening. Was it due to the militarism and ferocity of the working classes, or the passiveness of the business elite? Also, he fails to document the perspective of the Irish Catholics and immigrants vehemently targeted by the nativists. How did they react to their persecution? Did they fight back, or just roll over when push came to shove? While he may have covered these topics in different portions of the book, I hoped to gain a better understanding of the underlying causes and consequences of the nativist furor that dominated the city. Fear of global papist dominance (while frightening!) can only convince me to a certain degree.

Wilentz's Workies: Labor Power in the Big Apple


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Twenty years prior to The Communist Manifesto, the Working Men’s Party (“Workies” colloquially) proposed some incredibly revolutionary ideas in New York City, such as the abolition of private property, universal suffrage, and universal public education. Sean Wilentz, in his epic study Chants Democratic, analyzes the causes, context, and consequences of these critical labor groups. Wilentz rejects the notion that the Workies were a Marxist phenomenon of the proletariat uniting against the oppressive bourgeois. He instead argues that worker groups and their leaders were not “class conscious” of exactly who or what they represented. (15) Were they the party of all working men, or just unskilled urban laborers who rejected capitalism and revivalism? Wilentz portrays how the workingmen’s inability to establish a clear identity of their political goals and base made them susceptible to interference and coercion from the major political parties in the early 1830s.

Wilentz describes how, around 1825, the great “artisan republic” crafted by the Founders had collapsed “gradually but decisively” under the weight of modern capitalism. (145) A new entrepreneurial class, with (then-defunct) Federalist leanings, rose up to claim their foothold in the city. As thoroughly described in The Shopkeeper’s Millennium, these businessmen fueled the religious revivals of the 1820s. As a result, as Michael Lamoreaux pointed out, they “imposed a sense of religion on the poor of their community because they believed a void of morality existed”. The entrepreneurs and businessmen now became the spiritual as well as the economic protectors of the working classes, who were either too incompetent or too drunk to establish a decent code of conduct. Many workers undoubtedly resented this new form of bourgeois condescension onto their lives and chose instead to form political societies based on their own interests.

Wilentz’s description of the Working Men’s leadership is simply fascinating; the party was a hodgepodge of French Jacobins, Painite deists, Owenite Utopians, and even women, such as Frances Wright, who was “the first woman of importance to ascend a lecture platform in the United States.” (182) The party’s figurehead was a agrarian socialist named Thomas Skidmore, whose The Rights of Man to Property!, added a socialist spin to the work of Thomas Paine. Wilentz utilizes the worker-friendly newspapers of New York as primary sources for the events and philosophies of the Workies, such as the Radical, the Working Man’s Advocate, the Free Enquirer, and the Sentinel (205). The party, steadfast in its progressivism, reached into territory uncovered by neither Clayites nor Jacksonians: equal distribution of private property, universal suffrage regardless of race, freethinking independence from religious institutions, and public education. At first, the party experienced surprising local successes, with candidates receiving over six thousand votes in the race for State Senate. (199) However, the party’s working-class unity was soon to falter.

By the turn of 1830, Wilentz reveals how the Workies lack of class-consciousness came back to haunt them. In what Wilentz calls “The Coup”, a coalition of urban workers and Tammany Democrats brought down the agrarian Skidmore from power in a scene worthy of the 1917 Russian Duma. The Democrats then “co-opted” the issues of the Working Men’s Party for their own, effectively sealing former Workies inside their bubble. (202) The party’s newspapers, individually allied with a certain faction of the party, also turned on Skidmore, leaving him without public vindication. Wilentz describes the political coercion and the downfall of Skidmore as rather tragic; the united working class, the only true threat to the two-party system, had been subjugated by coercion and deceit. For years to come, the Tammany political machine would dominate the city using the same tactics displayed against the Workies to consolidate their power in an unrivaled fashion. For now, the great socialist vision of urban America would have to wait.

When You Play the Game of Revolts, You Win or You Die


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In Eugene Genovese’s detailed, strategic chapter “Slave Revolts in Hemispheric Perspective,” rebelling slaves in the Western Hemisphere are portrayed as black Davids attempting to slay the well-armed, well-funded, white Goliaths. These rebels risked it all for a shot at freedom- they typically have few supplies, few allies, and little detailed intelligence about their foes. However, as Michael wrote earlier today, not all rebelling slaves had equal chances of success, as “major differences” separated the regions that could support broad slave revolts from those that could not. The rebellious slaves of the Caribbean and South America had a slim, but viable, chance of victory thanks to volatile island diplomacy and their vast outnumbering of the white captors. Bands of guerrilla runaways, known as maroons, would harass the colonizing classes and form their own communities based on traditional African culture. (3) However, the slave ringleaders of the British Colonies and United States faced an even more stacked deck. Due to the large number of whites, the paternalist slave society, and the white public’s horrific fear of slave uprisings, Genovese surmises that all revolts planned by black slaves in the United States were doomed to fail.

Genovese goes into extensive, if not overreaching, detail concerning the slave revolts of the Caribbean from 1500 to 1900 (including Latin America, Brazil, and Guiana). The European powers viewed these colonies less as opportunities for colonial resettlement and more as possibilities of wealth and mercantile prestige through sugar cultivation. These “thoroughly bourgeois” colonies generally contained a small amount of white businessmen and a large number of black slaves (mostly African-born) who worked under pitiful conditions in the sugar fields. (2) The Pan-African identity, supported by sheer numbers and the natural island geography, encouraged dozens and dozens of revolts throughout the Indies and the mainland. The runaways who survived the initial outbreak became formidable adversaries, forming themselves into guerilla armies. They sometimes gained support and protection from nations at war with their owners, augmenting their political clout as independent bodies. However, these successes were few and far between- many European nations allied amongst themselves to assist each other in putting down slave revolts and suppressing conspiracies as statements of their dominance over the region. (21)

The circumstances of rebellion in the United States made a slave revolt a difficult proposition, with American slaveholders “in a position of unusual strength”. (23) The Americanization of slavery after the abolition of slave importation created a more paternalistic culture, with traditional African identity losing its strength in the nineteenth century, especially compared to that of the Caribbean. The population balance simply did not favor the rebels, nor did the geography support the thought of a guerilla war. While his citations are not provided, it is evident that Genovese focused on utilizing the dialogue of both slave leaders and ordinary slaves in his analysis of the revolts. He claims that many slaves deemed the proposition of revolt to be suicidal, and wonders how they had any uprisings at all. (50) To Genovese, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser were a radical minority while most slaves “shifted away from revolt to other forms of resistance”. (49) While Genovese chronicles the ill-fated rebels in detail and scope, he fails to analyze what this alternative resistance might be, and therefore fails to answer an important question: Did American slaves have any political speech beyond violence? In my opinion, slaves played an instrumental role in the economic, religious, and cultural development of the African-American identity; for that, I believe the answer is yes.

Rochester: American Microcosm


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            The Shopkeeper’s Millennium is my second trip up the Genesee River Valley with Paul E. Johnson, my first being Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper, an assigned reading from last year. Much like Sam Patch, Johnson uses Rochester as a grand specimen for larger American phenomena during the Industrial Revolution, with Patch focusing on the strains of labor and Millennium on social and religious evolution. While Sam Patch provides the chronicle of a wage labor driven into alcoholism, depression, a fall-diving career, and a tragic death (in Rochester, no less), The Shopkeeper’s Millennium presents an exposé of a sinful, depraved mill town transforming into an (on-the-surface) orderly, God-fearing church town thanks to the Second Great Awakening.  Johnson argues that the religious and moral revival in 1830-31 amongst the town’s entrepreneurial class led to heightened labor discipline, increased calls for temperance, and, eventually, a need for a new party system to address their concerns and desires for reform. However, he occasionally makes sweeping generalizations that oversimplify his subject and weaken his argument.

Rochester was a logical choice for Johnson to base his research. It was a blend of all worlds: east and west, agricultural and industrial, urban and rural. Also, its location square in the middle of New York’s “Burned-Over” district made it a hotbed for religious, political, and social turmoil. It had all sorts of characters and classes: migrants hoping to start anew, settlers hoping to make it to the frontier, and entrepreneurs and businessmen hoping to make it big. Make no mistake- Rochester was still a town thoroughly divided by class, beginning with the powerful families who settled the area around 1815 (including Nathaniel Rochester himself). As a result, the consequences of industrialization follow the patterns seen elsewhere. Business owners became less and less a part of the productive process until they were merely salesmen. The workers were pushed back from the eye of the consumer and the owner. They lived in separate neighborhoods and social spheres. Before the religious revival of 1830, the relationship was impersonal and strictly businesslike.

Johnson then makes a noteworthy argument that more factors than just wealth and profit played into American social interaction. While Alex’s post on the “Hydra” argues that “it’s all about class” when it comes to labor relations, Johnson stresses that the reinvigoration of religion, especially amongst the business classes, had a redefining role in labor, politics, and social life. While the businessman of the 1820s would “dominate his wife and children, work irregular hours, consume enormous amounts of alcohol, and seldom vote or go to church”, the businessman of the 1830s was sober, religious, and intent on instilling moral values in his community (8). They would prevent drunkenness amongst their workers on the job and crusade for temperance off the job, while campaigning for “moral” political candidates and movements. By 1830, temperance would become “a middle-class obsession”, signifying the self-given responsibility of the bourgeoisie class to govern the morality of the lower classes. The fiasco created by the Anti-Masonic Party in 1826 displayed the great power of the middle-class in obtaining political power from the “elite families”, and it assisted in undermining the already unstable party system of the mid-1820s.

Overall, Johnson uses the Rochester model well as a microcosm of America, and he backs up his points with comments from residents, newspaper columns, advertisements, economic data, and even city geography. His maps provide great insight into how the inhabitants divided the city into business and residential spheres as well as how the classes separated themselves. However, some of his more sweeping claims concerning the divisions between the business and working classes are questionable and unsubstantiated. For example, he declares “the fifth-ward neighborhood known as Dublin spent Sundays drunk and Mondays visiting their friends” (42). It seems unlikely that no members of this working-class group would have a church affiliation, or could even stand being sober on a Sunday. While these businessmen and working class groups are largely homogenous and consistent amongst themselves, I believe they are still more nuanced and sophisticated than Johnson portrays them to be.

The Whiskey Rebellion, and the Birth of Partisanship


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By the end of 1791, the farmers of the frontier and the Washington administration were at each other’s throats. Earlier that year, Congress had passed an excise tax on domestically produced spirits, known colloquially as the Whiskey Tax. The tax was especially hard on western frontiersmen, who often ran stills with the grain they cultivated. This tax lay on top of an already contentious relationship between western counties and the federal government, mostly concerning the government’s failure to sufficiently protect frontier towns from Indian assaults. From the government’s perspective, however, the western counties sucked up undue resources without contributing back to the country. The attempted enforcement of the excise was met by firm violent and nonviolent opposition, with grandiose rhetoric on both sides: the western farmers proclaiming their defiance in the name of Revolutionary values, and the supporters of the government insisting their supremacy in the name of law and order. By emphasizing this political context and rhetoric concerning the Whiskey Tax’s enforcement, Thomas Slaughter reveals how the Whiskey Rebellion provided a significant impetus for the division of American politics into a multi-party system.

The Pennsylvanians’ response to the excise echoed that of colonial Boston. One group of objectors, with an interest in law and civility, organized an official assembly to petition against the tax at Redstone and Pittsburgh. Another group saw little need for niceties and decided to treat tax collectors like British tea agents. In many parts of the country, such as Kentucky and the Carolinas, tax collectors did not even attempt to enforce the excise, much to the chagrin of Washington and Hamilton. While swift reprisals against the tax scared off collectors for much of 1791 and 1792, the federal government was not ready to simply keel over. Hamilton saw the insurgency as not only an embarrassment, but a threat to the American ideals of federalism under a strong, capable federal government. The “spirit of disobedience” as portrayed by the Pennsylvanians would diminish national order and cause “the authority of the government to be prostrate” (121). However, in the opinion the frontiersmen, fighting the enforcement of a perceivably unjust tax was as American as apple pie. Neither side saw any reason, ideological or pragmatic, to step down. Max’s earlier analysis of the North Carolina Stamp Act riots can certainly be applied to the escalation of the excise conflict in 1791: “Each side raises the stakes further until the other one folds or a victor eventually emerges”. In this case, after three years of defiance, Washington was forced to utilize the threat of open military conflict, the highest stakes at his disposal. The rebels quickly, and wisely, folded.

Slaughter’s most effective chapter in Part II, Liberty, Order, and the Excise, emphasizes how the Whiskey Rebellion was a critical, if not defining, moment in the identity of the American political process. The argument of Hobbes versus Locke, Whig versus Tory, or order versus liberty, was hardly new; they just fought a war over it. The western frontiersmen viewed the question as definitively settled by the Revolution, while the Hamiltonians viewed governmental order as the prerequisite to freedom. The heroes of the Constitution, such as Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and Jefferson, had little common ground remaining. The opposing poles on the political spectrum of the early 1800s were developing at this time, and the conversion of these men from allies to rivals was only precipitated by the excise conflict. As Slaughter put it, “the excise produced a simultaneous challenge to (republican) ideology and (national) interest and thus created a truly volatile situation” (142). In other words, the Whiskey Rebellion was the very first grand, divisive partisan debate. The zero-party state’s veil of harmony could not endure any longer.

The Great Chasm: Disconnect on the Frontier


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Through his frontier analysis The Whiskey Rebellion, Thomas Slaughter argues that the largest internal American conflict between 1780 and 1860 was more than just a scuffle about an alcohol excise; it was a culmination of years of turmoil between two distinctly different Pennsylvanian groups. The politically powerful “easterners” who occupied the halls of power in Philadelphia and the “westerners” who lived precariously on the fringes of American society had been at odds for decades, from the Paxton Boys to the Westsylvania movement. Even the Revolutionary War did little to ameliorate the political divide between the two groups, as they had entirely different views on what the new Republic should look like. After a decade of conflict and tension over land, Indian wars, and taxes, the westerners decided to take up arms and dare the federal government to challenge them. Rather than being an idealist uprising against despotic taxes and abuse, the Whiskey Rebellion was instead a manifestation of years of frontier frustration that reached its tipping point after the passing and attempted enforcement of a whiskey excise tax in 1791.

By the time of the American Revolution, the men of the frontier from North Carolina to New York had established themselves as a separate entity from the elite interests in state assemblies and landed commerce. Bacon’s Rebellion solidified this distinction and exemplified the power that the united frontier could display when aggravated. Many of the grievances expressed by the Westsylvanians in 1775 remained unchanged from those expressed by Bacon: little state support in defending against Indians, overrepresentation of the rich and corruption public offices, and unfair property laws. While viewed by many easterners, including George Washington, as unkempt, troublesome, and “as ignorant a set of people as the Indians,” the westerners viewed themselves as the defenders of American borders and the expansionists of civilization (79). The Paxton Boys exemplified this disparity, with some treating them as frontier saviors and others declaring them bloodthirsty outlaws. In reality, it’s all about perspective.

“By 1790, the chasm appeared…wider than ever before” (30). The chasm, of course, refers to the detachment in identity from the urban and frontier peoples of America. The majority of frontier concerns, even requests for greater autonomy and statehood, were generally ignored or denied by the state and federal legislature. While the east was concerned about the big picture (continental Indian peacekeeping, paying off war debts, and international diplomacy), the west was more concerned with daily survival. As their voice in legitimate politics dissipated further, the frontiersmen saw mass organization, or even illegitimate self-government, as their final option. As Wade pointed out on September 12, “Riots were one of a few ways communities could unite behind a common cause and…assure camaraderie amongst themselves”. The westerners found their only political allies to be themselves, and this united identity likely strengthened their resolve to openly challenge the state of Pennsylvania, as well as the federal government and George Washington himself. The uprising was the kind of popular political action that makes Occupy Wall Street look like kindergarten recess.

Religion, newspapers, and cheese: political divides in Jeffersonian America


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What significance could a lump of cheese have in revealing important political boundaries in early America? Quite a lot, according to Jeffrey Pasley, if one analyzes the origins, inspirations, and reactions to the colossal dairy creation. To Jefferson, the cheese represented the essence of America: independent, hard-working farmers fighting for a voice in government. To the Federalists, who mockingly named the creation the “Mammoth Cheese”, it was a humorous display of Jeffersonian backwardness and frivolity. Jefferson proudly held it in the East Room of the White House (non-coincidentally nicknamed the “Mammoth Room”) for public consumption for over a two-year period, and no dairy product has replicated its political impact yet.
The origin of the cheese, the western Massachusetts town of Cheshire, reveals much about a vocal faction of the Jeffersonian coalition. As Pasley points out, not only did these farmers resent the snobbish Federalists of urban New England, they also felt their Baptist beliefs were under attack by encroachments on their religious freedom. The vocal religious leader of the “cheesemongers” was priest John Leland (appropriately nicknamed the “Mammoth Priest”), who argued that Jefferson was a Christian hero “greater than Solomon”. This hyperbole is not as shocking as it is ironic; Jefferson was a devotee to Deist philosophy. However, it reveals how little Jefferson’s religious beliefs had to do with his celebrity amongst the cheesemongers; they instead admired Jefferson for his devotion to religious liberty and the yeoman ideal.
I first disagreed with Alex’s claim that the Federalist philosophy “wished nothing more than for the rich to maintain the upper hand in society and for the poorer peoples of meeker status to be barred from participating in national politics” after reading Webster’s argument in People Power. However, after examining the Federalist news response to the Cheshire Cheese, this sharp assertion appears much closer to the truth. The Federalist newsmen of the day, viewing themselves as Stewart or Colbert-esque satirists, had a clear antipathy for the cheesemongers, so far as to calling them “simpletons”, “vermin”, and “Jacobin encomium-mongers”. The latter insult was a clear reference to Jefferson’s support for the French Revolution, which many Federalists saw as a chaotic, orderless catastrophe. Nonetheless, the Cheshire cheesemongers took pride in their illustrious new nicknames. While the Federalists used the word “mammoth” as a term of barbarism and savagery, the Jeffersonians accepted it as a populist anthem: the idea that the “mammoth” populace will overwhelm the elites.
While I admire the populist dedication of the Cheshire dairy farmers to their hero Thomas Jefferson, I simply cannot argue that their situation was an accurate representation of American rural populism. The social and religious circumstances of the Cheshire township make them closer to a Republican interest group than a normal farming community. For example, the 1800 race for Massachusetts governor saw 175 votes go to the Republican candidate in Cheshire, with none going to the Federalist. While many farming areas may often have seen drastic victories for Republican candidates, there logically would be a measurable minority vote in favor of the Federalists. The lack of voting dissent in Cheshire weakens the argument that the Mammoth Cheese was the ‘American farmer’s’ response to Jefferson’s victory. For the evidence supplied, such a claim would overstate the cheese’s significance in the Jeffersonian age of popular politics.

American democracy: an intangible force


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While Alexis de Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America is often held as one of the best critiques on America’s early political society, his ideas may have been about twenty years late to the party. Jill Lepore’s article “People Power” highlights famous American lexicographer and politician Noah Webster, a Federalist reactionary who cautioned against universal male suffrage and populist rhetoric. While Republicans such as Jefferson held the yeoman as the figurehead of American democracy, Webster held in his place the sage aristocrat. Although Republicans and Federalists had famed, heated debates over the federal government’s role in banking, internal improvements, and tariffs, the true debate laid in whether or not the nation would continue centralizing influence amongst the elite or share it amongst all its (white male) inhabitants.

This political debate reveals an integral problem in post-revolutionary America: democracy proved to not be a tangible object, but an elusive idea. Lepore notes a number of historians’ interpretations on the nature of American democracy, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, Mabel Casner, Ralph Gabriel, Arthur Schlesinger, and Sean Wilentz. Casner and Gabriel’s book The Rise of American Democracy, whose play adaptation casts rough, virtuous Westerners as the beacons of democracy, appears to be heavily influenced by ideas presented in Turner’s essay “The Contributions of the West to American Democracy.” Turner stresses the importance of the American frontier on the evolution of American democracy, from the need for full political participation amongst frontiersmen to the ideals of Western independence and individualism. To Turner, the rapid urbanization of the frontier and the civilizing of the frontiersman can only erode and corrupt American democracy. Wilentz and Schlesinger instead emphasize the role of economics in the progress of democracy. The rich and poor have separate interpretations of the word “equality”, and how it ought to be applied politically, socially, and, of course, economically, in American government.

In the modern age, Webster’s argument may cause even the most impassioned Hamiltonian to scratch his head: the limitation of voting rights and office holding to white, male, property owners. However, it is key to remember that Webster does not make his arguments out of elitism or malice. He believes that education and honor are the best determinants of good governance, and these qualities are best harbored in the aged aristocracy. Jefferson, however, does not believe that the common man is any more corruptible than the aristocrat, but rather represents the American tenets of individualism, equality, and self-determinism. To the likely dismay of a lexicographer such as Webster, Lepore proves how “democracy” in the early republic was not as definable as we may have thought.