Literary Politics in 1790s New York City
In October of 1793, a pseudonymous author named Midas wrote “A Dissertation on jack-asses.” Silly as it sounded, the “dissertation” received serious consideration from the author’s co-members in the Calliopean Society—a literary society founded by New Yorkers to compose, share, and critique original writings. In a city with only one college (Columbia), and with other avenues to advanced education similarly limited, this was how ambitious young men went about improving themselves. They also used societies like the Calliopean to organize themselves politically.
At the very same moment that the Calliopeans debated the “Dissertation on jack-asses,” they and other New Yorkers were preoccupied with the French Revolution. In this context, the society put its literary work to political use. In December of 1793, the Calliopeans heard a “Prologue to the tragic opera of Tammany,” written by Richard B. Davis, a member of the committee of examinations and president of the Society. This was perhaps what the Calliopean’s “committee on examinations” had in mind when they urged Midas and other members to “employ their pens in something more useful to themselves and the Society” than mere satire. Davis, and many other Calliopeans, were also members of the Society of Tammany. Founded in 1786 as a benevolent society, its connection to the emergent Jeffersonian Republicans was already apparent by the early 1790s.
In 1794, the committee on examinations reviewed an essay on “whether Democratic Societies are necessary in a Republican Government.” Democratic-Republican societies had first appeared in Philadelphia in 1793 and spread rapidly thereafter. The societies extolled republican and democratic as opposed to aristocratic principles, supported the French Revolution, and were another important piece of the emergent Jeffersonian coalition. The committee took the essayist to task for arguing that democratic societies only had a place during times of revolution. Such an argument, the committee contended, rested on the erroneous assumption that “existing republican governments are arrived at the greatest possible perfection.” They believed men were “capable of being further republicanized.” This was the mission of democratic societies, Tammany, and, it seemed, the Calliopeans.
The interaction between the Calliopeans and Tammany did not start out radical. Richard Davis first appeared in the records of the Tammany Society’s Committee on Amusements in November of 1791, when he wrote a song to commemorate Evacuation Day—the day the British left New York at the end of the American Revolution. Tammany also liked to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, and Davis wrote an ode to celebrate that event too.
But by 1793, with the French Revolution in full swing, Tammany’s opposition politics became much more overt. Though they still celebrated Washington’s birthday that year, the Tammany Society drank toasts to “The Rights of Man, and may Aristocracy, and despotism be sunk to lasting Oblivion.” If that reference to Thomas Paine’s radical treatise wasn’te enough, the Society also toasted to “The Citizen of the World, Thomas Paine.”
Around this time, the Tammany Society started holding Calliopean-style literary exercises during their own meetings. A few days after their 1793 celebration of Washington’s birthday, the society considered a question: Whether “there are any Important plans of Improvement in the Civil government of society yet unadopted by any of the United States of America”? They then went on to debate “Whether a Convention founded every seven years, would be the best means of securing the Liberties of the people.”
Tammany infused their politics with the reasoned literary engagement of the Calliopeans. Federalists, who developed similar debating societies and literary networks around this time, would certainly have valued the form of these debates. Yet the fact that Tammany deigned to consider fundamental changes to the American political system, would only have enflamed Federalist beliefs that French radicalism and Painite ideals threatened to throw the United States back into a state of disorder.
In a political culture driven by parades, public celebrations, and accounts of both in the press, the connection between the Calliopeans and the Committee on amusements was no small thing. Tammany and the Calliopeans’ literary practices lent legitimacy to the political arguments they made. But treatises on jack-asses could threaten the literary reputation of these critical Jeffersonian political organizations. What remained clear was that in the American republic, policy decisions ostensibly turned on public debate and persuasion, and so politics and the pursuit of literary merit and reasoned would always be connected. That was the hope at least.
Robb K. Haberman, “Periodical Publics: Magazines and Literary Networks in Post-Revolutionary America” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Connecticut, 2009). Andrew L. Hargroder, ““The Muse’s Favorite Son:” Richard Davis, Candor, and the Democratic Clubs of the 1790s” Gotham Center for New York City History Blog. On Tammany see Edwin P. Kilroe, Saint Tammany and the origin of the Society of Tammany or Columbian Order in the City of New York (New York : [M. B. Brown Prtg. & Binding Co.,], 1913); and on the organization of New York’s Republican Party more generally, see Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York; the origins, 1763-1797 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967).
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