Political Culture Emerges–Perhaps for the First Time

Frankly, it is hard to fathom political culture in a late-medieval traditional non-participatory pre-urban politics in a first time semi-democracy. Certainly, I shall argue in later modules that several religious-based ethnic cultures evolved fairly distinct political cultures in their respective colonies; Puritans and Quakers, even the Dutch come easily to mind, and the late-arrival Scots-Irish crossed over just as the good revolutionary times unfolded. Tidewater Royalists (like Washington but less so Jefferson), and Barbadian Deep South are less familiar to most readers but as we shall discuss are quite distinctive in their approach to politically-salient values, beliefs, structures, and perhaps surprisingly their economic preferences. But even among these cultures, one discovers what has been called a “deference culture”. Deference culture, I shall argue, touches on economic/social class, and over the years has seemingly lost its late-medieval context. Using ED policy-making in a newly-founded so-called democracy raises still another issue–how can a participatory voter-based polity and policy system not directly challenge a deference culture/polity? That question is the start of my understanding of the Articles and Early Republic Transition periods.

With democratic institutions/experience in some states almost-totally lacking (South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina), and the few institutions and practices that existed were poorly, at least unevenly, grounded geographically, it was very likely that the decades after 1783 produced a democracy that compared badly with anything most Americans today would think of as democratic. The constant arrival of yet new immigrants, inherently disruptive, infused new sources of cultural instability that had to permeate into politics and policy-making. Constant migration–and the reader should be advised that after 1783 all sorts of internal migrations commenced, including the Yankee Diaspora, the emigration of the Boston Brahmin to New York City, the Scots-Irish diffusion into the coastal and later hinterland South, and the Quaker/German/Virginia Tidewater/Mid-Atlantic migration into Ohio, Kentucky and the so-called Northwest Territory. The least known migration which began, albeit gingerly, in the 1790’s was the rise of the Cotton Belt into Piedmont areas of South Carolina and Georgia. Ethnic/religious cultures were on the move–and supplemented by the tender mercies of the Papist Irish who had sprinkled into selected geographies. Let’s not forget that about 20% of Americans were slaves, whose potential political culture was repressed-latent, yet evolving. At this point Native Americans, except for coastal areas, were independent nations. That would soon change as Washington dealt with the “Indian World”.

All this made for a real live cultural stew but also meant that groupings and proto-economic classes were migrating and settlement-building at the same time into what were hostile rural-isolated wilderness geographies where they expected whatever it was they construed this new-fangled democracy to be. That many of these evolved into contemporary cities and metropolitan areas underscores that somehow this all came together, but also suggests we can expect considerable variation, historical legacies, and certainly contrasting “environments” and “geographies”, i.e.  locations that shaped goals, economies, and the evolution of industrial/agricultural  classes. The overlapping aspect that each of these variations had to deal with, however, is to evolve a late-medieval, colonial deference culture into a capitalist and democratic polity.

It is in this sense that I posit that in many instances, a latent political culture emerged for the first time out of a non-participatory economic and political process and began to function in a participatory economy and government. It would not happen overnight–that is why 1800 proved so volatile, and then the 1830’s. Change was spasmodic, charismatic, and both subtle and herd-like. When the cultures, institutions, and nation/state/city-building had sufficiently laid its foundations (about 1840) we could see political culture had developed to support the very first national mass-based political parties, as well as large-scale urban politics with ethnic/religious machines. That meant it took almost sixty years of our history–a individual’s lifetime, three generations, and nine Presidents, included 26 states, and a population over 17 million, up from less than 4 million (including slaves) in 1790. This is one hell of a transition era that created serious “wounds” in our state and local policy systems, wounds which have now scarred over but which “bent the twig” that has become today’s urban and metropolitan “tree”. [By the way, I love mixed metaphors–get used to it]

Transition from Deference to Participatory Political Culture

In the late-medieval-early industrial colonial America, politics did not involve average citizens; it was left to the wealthy and “upper” middle-class, and for the most part they were the only ones who were politically active. Despite today’s prevailing belief, New England Town democracy wasn’t what it was cracked up to be–restricted to stockholders who owned property and dominated by the Congregational Church. Public assemblies were like today, vocal mobs, and elections had turnouts that would make a contemporary  off-year school district blush with shame. Colonial politics did not involve mobilized electorates or citizenry. Office holders, i.e. government policy-makers when elected served for many terms in office, and stayed in the family not only for generations, but overlapping centuries. Politics and economics were elite-based, and agriculture, where overwhelmingly most were employed, were small household farms either attached to a village or isolated in more remote areas–which was more common outside New England.

Dr. Ronald Formisano well summarizes the late 18th century American political culture as “a realm of thought and activity which very few persons actually dwelt. Those few were a select group, drawn largely from the colony’s gentry and leaders. The central government [state–the King lived in Great Britain] touched the lives of the populace infrequently and lightly; only occasionally did it command an aroused attention from active citizens. Towns acted often as units–ideally as unified moral communities” [1] Richard Formisano, p. 25 . Robert Zemsky observed that “government mattered little because central government did little” [2] Robert Zemsky, Merchants, Farmers and River Gods: an Essay of Eighteenth Century American Politics (pp. 2-3 Harvard Common Press, 1971) Formisano summarized Massachusetts local governance as “a social, political and moral leadership [which was] relatively undifferentiated in the towns where the basic hierarchy of society was held together by the deference which the lower orders paid to the higher. Every town of any pretension had a recognizable gentry, who lived in houses of superior size and furnishings, tended to occupy the leading positions in government, and sat in the best pews in the meeting house” [3] Richard Formisano, the Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790’s-1840’s (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 25-6 .

Deference was rooted in religious belief. Rooted, of course in a traditional society, it was formally expressed in medieval Christianity’s “Great Chain of Being“.Initially Catholic it diffused to many except the most pietistic religions, and it formalized a series of hierarchies in which every one “understood and knew their place” in the order of things. Individuals did not expect, nor were they raised to expect, they could do what they wanted or where they wanted. It wasn’t the average person’s job to do this “politics thing”–and for the most part he/she didn’t want to anyway. They had enough to do to produce enough to eat and live life. There was simply no rationale for them to get involved in government, nor to change the economic order/occupation in which they were born. Families stayed in the same village for literally hundreds of years–except when they moved to America, of course–but often in these years they came from the same villages in distressed periods.

Not appreciated today is that such deference to the “order of things” provided a measure of security and reduced expectations–and it wasn’t a one-way street that transferred power to the “legitimate” elites. They regarded it much as a burden, an obligation, and many were not even remotely interested in being involved in anything other than their family, farm, village and occupation. Absenteeism in colonial legislatures was a huge problem; only a few were motivated to devote time and consistently attend and serve on committees. This, of course, centralized power in the hands of a few, and facilitated nepotism as a way of political life. Far-fetched though it might seem today, the non-elite was freed of all this–how could he travel and operate a farm anyway–and he/she got what they really prized individual autonomy. Deference in this context did not produce class strife. J. R. Pole observed that “townsmen gave respectables deference voluntarily, he simultaneously valued his own independence, which he did not regard as compromised” [4] J. R. Pole,  Political Representation in England and the Origins of the American Republic  (University of California Press, 1979), p. 44; see also Dick Hoerder, Society and Government: the Power Structure in Massachusetts Townships (John F. Kennedy Institute, Berlin, 1972). Deference did not mean submission or inferiority but as an affirmation of ones self-respect for himself and his/her station in life. Absent a formal “democratic” polity there was no reason to, need for, or opportunity to involve oneself in matters for which they were not responsible.

While there were individuals who never fit into this manner of thinking (Philadelphia probably developed the most active and involved citizenry–and its politics was quite volatile), most did and the political culture inherited by the Articles and the Early Republic was heavily saturated by deference and non-participation. Less true in what passed for major urban centers, it was a way of life in the nation’s small towns and hinterlands. Migration often involved a number of a community’s members with leadership elements built into the migration (second sons was not uncommon)–and subsequent settlements attracted still more of the original community to the new one in the hinterland. Scots-Irish were notorious for community-based migration, and as we shall discover in a later module, possessed its own gentry to whom they (more or less) deferred and accompanied them in immigration to America, and migration within America. Thus the policy system encountered by Washington and other DTIS/Innovation advocates in the previous modules was saturated with large doses of deference and respect to elites.

The reaction of folk like John Fitch who would not or could not adjust to it was evidence the world of deference was “a changing”, but also supports the brutal unwillingness of most to join with him, in large measure leading to his suicide. The world of Washington was characterized by an elite-based policy system to which most non-elites neither involved themselves nor cared to. Washington died literally in the nick of time, before that policy system crumbled–a bit–on the national level. Government was dominated by wealth, the educated, and the families that arrived the earliest and who accumulated the most land and connections not because they seized control, but more because it was in their “job description” and most saw little benefit to public activism. The American Revolution in turn had exhausted whatever outrage British colonialism had generated, and loyalist Tories had literally left American for London or Canada, leaving behind by 1783 only the heroes of the Revolution. Government, weak as it was in 178 was simply not sufficient a threat to mobilize households from deference.

And therein lie the threat to deference’s continuity into the new democratic republic. Simply put, it had to establish a government that if nothing else could sustain its economic life and defend itself. America had to do for itself what the British formerly did for them. That required older institutions to adapt and evolve, and where they didn’t exist, for example currency and a domestic finance system, they had to be created virtually from scratch. The farmer clearing, sowing and harvesting his crops was not going to do that; it was left to the educated, affluent and far-sighted elites, and it was they who assumed responsibility for governance, and it was these folk that populated and constituted the chief actors in the policy systems that resulted. They would, with a few exceptions, hold nearly undisputed power through 1800–and it was they who wrote–and largely approved–the Constitution establishing the new republic in 1789. It is worth note, this Constitution, written by the Federalist bloc/tribe engendered the first notable reaction from non-elites (called anti-Federalists today) and resulted in the first fracture of the Federalist consensus: it came in the form of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, which were approved in 1791. The Federalist consensus forged during the Articles was fragile indeed.

That proved, not unexpectedly, to be their undoing. Inevitably, the colonial cultural apple cart was upset. An empowered government (however weak by today’s standards it may have been), and the consensual foundation underlying a deference culture was at first chipped, than hacked away by new and restructured political and economic entities and institutions. The reaction was both gradual and spasmodic, unnoticed except for small eruptions that bubbled up–until a political alternative emerged simultaneous with fragmentation of the Federalist elite consensus in the last half of the 1790’s. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Our task in this module is to understand how in the early years, during the Articles of Confederation the first experiments in structures and institutions were attempted–they included, of course, Washington’s DTIS infrastructure, the canal, and his technology to allow it to achieve its desired ends (the steamboat)–but even more imperative than that during the Articles period, the elite consensus was forged that permitted the next step in governance, the Constitution and the American Republic, and the first experiments in how to institutionalize a modern capitalist democratic economy had to be attempted.

State and Local Policy System During the 1780-1800 Articles/Federalist Period

The state and local policy systems typical of the pre-1800 Articles/Federalist period, while exhibiting their own individual styles/personalities and variation reflecting if nothing else their geographic location, cultural distinctiveness, and economic base, did share to some degree the following features–which adjusted to the entry of the Democrat-Republican tribe- persisted until 1824 or so.

  • the policy system was by today’s standards very closed–restricted to the elites discussed above. The Articles of Confederation-Constitutional Convention forged consensus and accompanying agenda produced a political party that was no political party by today’s standards, and is a misnomer at best. From 1783 to around 1795 a political tribe we call the Federalist Party exerted monolithic dominance over most policy systems at any level or size. With informal organization and very limited mass involvement in policy making, the Federalist took the first steps in what we will shortly describe as nation/state/city-building, with institutionalization constituting its prime overriding strategy nexus. The success of DTIS–or any other MED strategy–rested on institutions of governance and economy–notably a finance, currency, and fiscal capacity at all levels of private and public enterprise. After 1795, the Articles forged consensus incremental ruptured, between Federalists themselves (Adams v. Hamilton for example), and a Tidewater-led but multi-state coalition jelled into a tribal alternative: the Democrat-Republican Party (which like the Federalists was a tribe not a true political party) and captured the national government and many state and local positions as well. After 1812 or so, the Federalist tribe simply merged with the Democrat-Republican (non) Party. We will return to this in a later module and contrast the conflicting agendas and belief systems of each tribe.
  • From the start policy systems at the local levels featured a distinctive urban versus hinterland dichotomy. The power of the Federalist Party’s commercial and political elites was stronger in urban centers of size (again however small by today’s standards) than in the interior (non-coastal)almost exclusively agricultural countryside. Institutionalization was biased toward these urban centers because that is where wealth and education were principally aggregated. These institutions, commercial banks for example, were established in cities and then extended their reach into the hinterland. This extension of institutional embrace from urban to hinterland had serious MED policy implications which in due time will become apparent. The 1790’s should be considered as a decade of nation/state/city-building in which institutionalization of both private and public entities was the prime, albeit controversial, policy output. Institutionalization will continue through the 1820’s.
  • In the Federalist period, the electoral or political franchise/institutions were restricted and fledgling. Propertied males dominated most electoral systems, and given a strong core of deference elections were very low turnout affairs. In Massachusetts, for example, probably the best case for an active franchise, the highest turnout of the early years was 28% in 1787. In the first Congressional elections of 1788 and 1790, turnout was 13 and 16 percent respectively [22] Richard Formisano, the Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790’s-1840’s (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 11-12], p.30. Lower rates were common as one moved down the ballot. In a hotly contested gubernatorial contest in 1785, turnout was 11%. In 1785 almost one-third of Massachusetts towns submitted no votes at all; in 1787, 20% did likewise.
  • In each election during the 1780’s through 1800, one third of the towns that submitted votes, reported 90% or more for one candidate. The participation of these hinterland towns in the state legislature was minimal. The Massachusetts House of Representatives (the General Court it was called) typically had absentee rates between 40 and 50 percent, as town representatives simply did not attend. State legislatures (which one might remember, elected the Senators in the U.S. Senate until 1920) were dominated by charismatic, opportunistic and closed blocs of representatives that frequently were able to to sustain themselves over time, resembling what we will later call a political machine. The Massachusetts state Federalist bloc was only broken in 1820, by a political leader of some note in our ED history, Josiah Quincy. In state after state, the years immediately previous and following 1820, witnessed significant policy system shifts of some consequence to both state and local MED. At those levels, the so-called Era of Good Feeling was already coming to its end. Bloc leaders were often clusters of shared social status and wealth, or charismatic and opportunistic. The latter usually won out in the end. Issue consistency was minimal as events rapidly overturned previous agendas.

One last “moving part” that occupies at best an off-Broadway location on the convergence drama–but is of MAJOR-LEAGUE importance in the history of American policy-making, and totally central to our American S&L ED history is the emergence of business, trade, financial, entrepreneurial and land-owning elites (no doubt an aspect of the emerging class structure referenced above). This grouping is going to be called a bewildering variety of names over the next two hundred years, neo-liberal is popular today, but during the Articles they are arising on the policy-making stage. Today’s perception of this grouping is that it is monolithic, solid and inflexible in its beliefs (which is ridiculous), but in 1780, even by 1775 in fact, it is incredibly decentralized, fragmented, clustered in states and their port cities mostly–i.e. urban in nature–or anchored in many states by old land-owning wealth resident in various hinterlands.Almost exclusively, these elites compose the leaders of the American Revolution (which in 1780 is still on-going–with many believing that 1780-1 was its most difficult year), the delegates to the various conventions that wrote the Declaration of Independence, and would comprise the delegates to the various conventions, leading to the Constitutional Convention that met in 1787 to write our Constitution. Wealth and political power were fused in this period–and as we described above, the politics of deference were arguably dominant during the period in question. This emerging business/land-owning class enjoyed a virtual monopoly, or so it thought, until the war debt repayment, establishment of commercial banks/nation/state-building and polarizing reaction nexus upset the apple-cart.

In the tale that is described below, a multi-state business coalition, internally fragmented, enters the picture attempting to do its “thing” (repay war debts by founding commercial banks which would upset the here-to-fore dominant state legislative public finance finance and currency system) generated a non-elite counter reaction to both the the haughty business class,, but also to the “horse they came in on”–what we call industrial capitalism. In their eyes, this new business/land-owning elite was a proto-aristocracy installing a new economic system which, to their mind, would inevitably result in their misfortune. The reader should constantly remember the American economy was agricultural and rural–what is called in this module hinterland. Even the incredibly small port cities (New York and Philadelphia the only exceptions) were composed of near-hinterland populace by no means urban by today’s measure. Boston was still a town, and would remain a town, not a city, until 1820–Philadelphia and New York are today artificial agglomerations of several long-since annexed “neighborhoods” which were then independent and autonomous.

That’s another story, but as this story plays out in this and following modules, the reader will soon suspect that this new economic class, and fledgling political tribe, is rent with fissures–fissures which in our good time will be linked to the various political cultures of the Thirteen States. In this module we shall see the heritage of the old Quaker, the newly-settled Scots-Irish, the Tidewater plantation, and the amalgam of entrepreneurial, blur of old wealth and rags-to-riches (Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris–not to neglect Alexander Hamilton “his self”) port city capitalist/finance/trade entrepreneurs who had made their peace, sort of, with the aims of Revolutionary War independence. In any case, notice the subtle distinctions within this emerging business class and fledgling political tribe. Those distinctions, cultural in their roots, would enlarge massively over the next decade to become a central feature of the federal, state and local policy systems that were formed. From these fissures will come Mainstream Economic Development and Community Development, and the subtle variations between elites of different political cultures will produce ED policy outputs that seriously impact Washington’s DTIS Paradigm and set the stage for a half-century of DTIS off to the races internal improvements–the legacy of which still underscores the economic bases of America’s Atlantic coastal urban centers.

Enough with the conceptual and analytical road map-like background–Let’s get on to the war debt repayment, establishment of commercial banking/finance, and birth of American populism nexus!


central battle line between these two pro-Revolution groupings. The bank and the finance system associated with it were  THE chief fault lines in Pennsylvania politics at that time. As will be evident in the next section the Bank of North America played a major role in the the post-1782 rollback of Pennsylvania populism, a redefinition of the Test, and the incremental return of moderates to the electoral franchise meant favorable moderate majorities in the unicameral legislature. With power so centralized, the ideological reconfiguration of the legislature provided the majorities that Robert Morris needed to win what proved to be a four-year battle against declining populist opposition. The Bank would survive, reformed a bit.