James Madison called it “perhaps the greatest error” of George Washington’s “political life.” That he committed so few makes Washington’s speech of November 19, 1794, memorable in itself.

His words that day—his Sixth Annual Address to Congress—are all but forgotten now, which is unfortunate. There ought to be a yearly commemoration, to remind us how our political elites, from the republic’s earliest days, have regarded anyone who presumes to challenge their wisdom and probity.

The context of the speech was the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, when the 62-year-old president squeezed himself back into his old military uniform and, at the head of 13,000 troops, rode into western Pennsylvania. There Washington was prepared to fire into a gaggle of back-country tax-resisters who objected to the new federal excise on distilled spirits. Washington resented being put into that position and did not want to be provoked by such insolence ever again.

Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, riding with the president as a civilian advisor, had been prepared to wage war on their own countrymen in the interests of federal supremacy. As troubling as this episode was, the speech that followed and the thinking behind Washington’s remarks made it more worrisome still. Washington said he was forced to use the troops because “certain self-created societies” had “assumed a tone of condemnation” against the tax and therefore against the government itself.

The leaders of these “self-created societies” were encouraging something far more dangerous than opposition to a specific policy, Washington claimed: they were inciting a “spirit, inimical to all order,” violating “the fundamental principle of our constitution, which enjoins that the will of the majority shall prevail.” To put down this mischief, “to reclaim the deluded,” it would be necessary to station “a small force for a certain period” until cooler heads prevailed and the troublesome farmers went back to their plows.

Few of Washington’s contemporaries—including his critics, who by this time included Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—questioned the need to enforce the law, make sure the taxes were collected, and put a swift end to the spasms of violence that accompanied the protests. What stuck in the craw was the reference to “self-created societies.” Implicit in it was the notion, largely accepted by those around Washington, that there was something unconstitutional, and in fact subversive, in ordinary citizens banding together to express their disapproval of the national government’s policies. Such organizations, they believed, even when they did not incite violence, should be discouraged and destroyed.

In the judgment of historians, Washington’s response to the Whiskey Rebellion was restrained. The rebels dispersed, and when two ringleaders were tried for treason and sentenced to death Washington issued pardons. The controversies stirred up by the speech, however, were not put to rest, and efforts to discredit the “self-created societies” that supposedly had whipped up the anti-tax fury were only beginning. In the campaign against them—and in the attitudes of Washington, Hamilton, and those we today regard as the founders of the Federalist Party—we can read the dog-eared playbook on which the political class still relies.

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Who were these “self-created societies” that worried Washington so? Their names varied, depending on their location, but for convenience they are known today as the Democratic-Republican Societies or clubs. They first appeared around 1793 in response to a cluster of concerns, only one of which was the whiskey tax. Before the last petered out in 1800, there were at most about 40 of them, from Maine to Georgia. The Democratic Society of Pennsylvania, the country’s largest, could count about 315 members at its peak, but most had some 20 or 25.

One of the larger issues that brought them into existence was the Washington administration’s tilt toward Great Britain in her war with France, when large numbers of Americans still revered the French for supporting our War of Independence and looked on the French Revolution as a continuation of our own. Because of this, they were regarded by Washington, Hamilton, and Chief Justice John Jay, among others, as agents of revolutionary France. This requires some explaining because the political culture of the Federalist Era makes little sense otherwise.

The party system we take for granted today did not begin to come into existence until the mid-1790s, and even then few of the men we consider Founding Fathers thought such a system desirable. While political parties had existed in Great Britain since the 17th century, these were not parties as we now understand them, and the Founders were right to view Britain’s Whigs and Tories with suspicion. The British “factions,” as the Founders called them, existed only in Parliament and operated without popular support. Washington and Jefferson alike viewed the Whigs and Tories as little more than gangs of intriguers whose sole interest was grasping the Crown and its baubles for themselves and their friends.

Such factions might be inevitable and maybe useful under “governments of a monarchical cast,” as Washington said in his so-called “Farewell Address,” published in the American Daily Advertiser in September 1796. But in a free republic, where the people or their representatives elected officeholders to promote the common good, parties would not be needed. The Founders, with the notable exception of Madison and later Jefferson, assumed that the common good would be obvious to all, hence parties—and, in fact, organized opposition of any kind—would exist only to prevent legitimately constituted government from doing its job.

For that reason, political parties formed to promote policies at odds with those of any given administration were seen as challenges not just to the administration but to government itself. They were ipso facto evidence of disloyalty or, as Washington put it, of “foreign influence and corruption.”

The Democratic-Republican Societies were seen in that light. Because their members supported France and welcomed Citizen Genêt when he made his ill-considered tour of the United States in 1793, the Democratic-Republican clubs were suspected of being agents of a foreign power. Such suspicion was not unusual in the early days of the republic, when political opposition organized by domestic forces was not taken for granted the way it is today. The Democratic-Republican clubs were thought to be pawns of the French, just as Hamilton, because he admired Great Britain, was regarded by Jefferson as a tool of the British.

Even if it had not been in their political interest to denounce the Democratic-Republican clubs as “Genêt-begotten” Jacobins, their Federalist critics would have regarded them as such anyway. But the self-organizing farmers in western Pennsylvania, in Kentucky, in Georgia, and elsewhere were no more secret agents of the French than Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was the North American outpost of the Kremlin. The Democratic-Republican Societies, we can now see from a distance of two centuries, were simply civic-minded groups of mechanics, laborers, small farmers, and merchants, but also teachers, lawyers, and editors. Their ranks included slaveholders and abolitionists. They had come together not to overthrow the government but to oversee it, which they considered their duty as citizens of a free republic.

They sought to educate each other and their neighbors and to express political opinions that often did, in fact, run counter to those of Washington’s administration. They were not mere obstructionists, however. In their lawful civic engagement, they were supporters of a free press, of a humane reform of the criminal law, of open rather than secret sessions of Congress, and of free public schools. “The rich can buy learning—it is a luxury,” said one member from Pennsylvania. “But to the poor it is a necessity.”

They bristled at the belief expressed by those around Washington that, as Jay put it, those “who own the country ought to govern it.” The important business of government should be reserved to “the rich and the well-born,” while the poor and uneducated should leave such matters to those who were better informed and more qualified.

Washington had made known his attitude about the involvement of ordinary citizens in questions of national significance as early as 1786, when an enthusiastic young nephew wrote to inform his uncle that he had joined a local group calling itself the Patriotic Society. It was perfectly acceptable for commoners to have opinions about local matters, Washington replied, but they should leave national affairs alone. He had “seen as much evil as good result from such a society,” which as a rule was as apt to “clog as facilitate” public policy. “To me,” Washington wrote, “it appears much wiser and more politic to chose able and honest representatives and leave them in all national questions to determine from the evidence of reason and the facts which shall be adduced, when internal and external information is given to them in a collective state.”

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The upstarts who joined organizations such as the Democratic-Republican clubs might not have been foreign agents, but they did threaten a political class that enjoyed its near-monopoly on national policy and intended to keep it. And as Hamilton, who had “learned to hold public opinion of no value,” recognized, the Whiskey Rebellion provided an opportunity to stamp out these meddlesome pests. As early as 1792, Hamilton had proposed using troops to enforce the whiskey tax, and two years later he got his wish. The national government needed to prove it could put down local resistance, and to move against the rebels, he said, “will do us a great deal of good and add to the solidity” of the new federal establishment.

Washington himself believed the Whiskey Rebellion had been “the first formidable fruit of the Democratic Societies,” as he said in August 1794, two months before his address to Congress. There was no telling what the riffraff might do next. It was not enough to send the western Pennsylvania troublemakers back to their plows. The spirit of rebellion itself needed to be extinguished, and Hamilton and his allies set out to accomplish that with Washington’s support.

The clubs, they said, were made up of the poor, the stupid, and the easily deceived. They were “hot-headed” and “ignorant,” in the words of Oliver Wolcott Jr., Hamilton’s successor as Treasury secretary. British-born William Cobbett, who wrote in Philadelphia under the byline Peter Porcupine, called them “butchers, tinkers, broken hucksters, and trans-Atlantic traitors,” whose New York club was composed of “about 40 poor rogues and about 3 rich fools.” Their leaders were “the Ciceros of the mob,” who “harangue the gaping Mechanic and the admiring Truckman,” a Bostonian wrote in the Columbian Centinel.

The entire membership of the Democratic Society of New York, wrote the journalist James Rivington, was “of the tribe of Shylock.” A meeting of the True Republican Society of Philadelphia was marked, another critic wrote, by the attendance of “Citizen Sambo,” an apparent reference to Cyrus Bustill, an African-American born into slavery who had served in the Continental Army during the revolution and purchased his freedom.

Washington’s prestige was still immense, and the onslaught against the Democratic-Republican societies took its toll. Over the next few years, their numbers declined, and by 1800 they had almost disappeared. But they did not slink away—in some regards, the campaign against them backfired. The attacks on them provided the occasion for a vigorous and eloquent defense that put forward, in an informal and unsystematic way, a philosophical case for precisely what Washington and most of the other Founders had opposed: a political system in which, as historian Richard Hofstadter later wrote, “partisan competition is [understood as] an asset to the political order under what they called free government” and not an encumbrance.

As members of the Democratic-Republican clubs pointed out, they were no less patriotic than their critics. Many had been Sons of Liberty and had fought in America’s War of Independence. Many had been federalists in the sense that they supported ratification of the Constitution of 1787. Quite a few of their clubs had denounced the violent excesses of the Whiskey Rebellion and in some cases supported its suppression by military force.

These clubs were no more “self-created” than Washington’s own Society of the Cincinnati. While their ranks included large numbers of workingmen, they also counted men of learning. The president of the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania was David Rittenhouse who, after the death of Benjamin Franklin, succeeded that learned old rascal as president of the American Philosophical Society.

The existence of such organizations had not been authorized under the Constitution, but in a free republic no such authorization was necessary. As the North Carolina society proclaimed: “It is the unalienable right of a free and independent people to assemble together in a peaceable manner to discuss with firmness and freedom all subjects of public concern, and to publish their sentiments to their fellow citizens, when the same shall tend to the public good.”

The Independent Chronicle of Boston put it this way:

After having set up a government, citizens ought not to resign it into the hands of agents—whither does this tend but toward despotism? We conceive that it is the right and duty of every Freeman, to watch with the vigilance of a faithful centinel the conduct of those to whom is intrusted the administration of Government, that they pass not the sacred barriers of the Constitution.

When resolutions were introduced in Congress to join with Washington in denouncing the societies, it was Madison—then a congressman from Orange, Virginia, and the leader of the Jeffersonians in the House—who most forcefully opposed them. Condemning the bloodshed of the Whiskey Rebellion and applauding the president’s efforts to restore order, Madison nonetheless regarded the campaign against the societies as a menace to individual freedoms. The U.S. House of Representatives, moreover, had no constitutional authority to censure the views of the voters who elected them. Arguing that “opinions are not the objects of legislation,” Madison reminded his colleagues that in a republic, “the censorial power is in the people over the Government and not in the Government over the people.”

Madison also had no illusions about why the campaign was being waged. “The game was to connect the Democratic Societies with the odium of insurrection,” he told James Monroe, and “to connect the Republicans in Congressthisarticleappears with those Societies,” thus putting Washington’s prestige “in opposition to both.”

The speech against the societies had been Washington’s “greatest error,” in Madison’s reckoning, not only because of the mistaken judgment that had led the president to give it but also because he had committed a serious tactical miscalculation. By denouncing what he considered one faction that sought to influence federal policy, Washington had placed himself, unwittingly, at the head of another. He had undermined the pretense that he was a nonpartisan leader of all the people, which was how he liked to see himself.

And as Madison told Jefferson, in some places the attacks “on the essential and constitutional right of the citizen” were proving counterproductive. In the fall of 1794, for example, when Washington was putting down the Whiskey Rebellion and blaming the “self-created societies” for fomenting it, opposition to excise taxes was mounting in the cities, where they were seen as discouraging manufacturing, throwing mechanics and shipbuilders out of work. Many of these workers joined the societies, and that year candidates associated with Jefferson and Madison and the defense of the Democratic-Republican clubs won congressional seats in districts previously considered Hamiltonian strongholds. The controversies increased interest in the elections, and the efforts of Democratic-Republican clubs helped get out the vote. As a result, Madison said, “the prospect is rather improved than otherwise,” and events would prove him right.

Again the date of November 19, 1794, looms large. That was the day Jay wrapped up his negotiations of a new trade pact favorable to Great Britain and the Treaty of London, or Jay’s Treaty, was signed. Benjamin Franklin Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin and firebrand editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, leaked the details of this agreement that was sure to cause controversy, and the Democratic-Republican clubs had an invigorating new cause for complaint. Although their campaign against the treaty failed, anti-administration sentiment intensified, and the Jefferson-Madison “faction” was developing into a full-fledged political party, the first in the nation’s history.

After the treaty was ratified in 1795, the Gazette of the United States crowed that “the Democratic societies are dead.” The obituary was premature. The New York City club continued at least until 1799, and the members of the organizations that disappeared earlier hardly ceased their involvement in politics. The clubs didn’t vanish but were absorbed into the nascent Democratic-Republican Party that Jefferson and Madison were forming. This is the party that in the “Revolution of 1800” won the presidency and held onto it until 1824, by which time it was Hamilton’s own Federalists that had ceased to exist.

The Democratic-Republican Party won because it maintained a high regard for the “public opinion” Hamilton scorned and pioneered the grubby mechanisms of electoral politics that we now take for granted: the mass distribution of tickets of candidates, the publication of party platforms, the use of the press to publicize candidates and their views.

“It was the original Democratic-Republican clubs,” historian Philip Foner writes,

that brought most sharply to the forefront the principle that only public vigilance could frustrate the designs of those hostile to popular governments and who emphasized that every free state needed a watchful eye on the representatives to whom it had delegated authority. In contrast to the Federalist presumption that the people should be seen but not heard, the popular societies stressed the need for extensive popular participation in the governmental process. Moreover, they created the avenue through which the people could express themselves.

Though they might deny it, the political class and its propagandists will forever resent the cantankerous spirit of the American people. That spirit’s prefab obituary will always be held in readiness, should the opportunity to print it arise at long last. It’s an old, old story, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Alan Pell Crawford is the author of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.