Politics at the Poles: Liberty Poles and the Popular Struggle for the New Republic

Lurie, Shira, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Taylor, Alan, AS-History, University of Virginia

This dissertation demonstrates that liberty poles sparked a national debate over the place of protest in American democracy. Patriots first raised liberty poles, wooden masts with signs that denounced the government as tyrannical, during the American Revolution. In the 1790s, people drawn to the emergent opposition party, the Republicans, resumed the practice and raised over one hundred liberty poles to protest the Federalist administrations of George Washington and John Adams. In particular, pole-raisers objected to the Federalists' regressive taxation policies and their attempts to silence opposition through the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798. Republicans believed that the Revolution's legacy guaranteed citizens the right to protest and resist government overreach. They used their liberty poles to equate the Federalists and their legislation with British tyranny.

In contrast, the Federalists held that the Revolution secured representative government as the means to protect American liberty and that protesting federal law was illegal. They denounced Republican liberty poles as an improper form of political expression because they challenged the will of the majority. Federalists maintained that popular protest was inappropriate in a democratic republic - if unhappy with government, a citizen had to await recourse at the next election.

As a result, local Federalists tore down the poles, leading to violent confrontations, vicious print battles, legal fights, and electoral fallout. The raising and destroying of liberty poles ignited and fueled the national struggle over whether citizens had a political role in the new republic beyond electing representatives. Rooted in a focus on grassroots political action, this dissertation reframes the emergence of the two-party system as a contest over the power of citizens in the new nation and highlights the contested origins of protest in American political culture.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Liberty Pole, Protest, Popular Politics, Political Culture, American Revolution, Early Republic, Whiskey Rebellion, Alien and Sedition Laws, Fries's Rebellion, Election of 1800, Federalist Party, Democratic-Republican Party, First Party System
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