The Populist Impulse
“Democracy” was not to emerge as a fully legitimate cultural value in America, commanding more or less universal approval, until the 1830s, with the appearance of a national system of mass political parties. However as early as the mid-1790s with the agitation stirred by the French Revolution and the Jay Treaty, a clear turn in the direction of popular politics could be seen. Beyond any doubt popular attitudes and popular participation took on qualities and proportions—a “populist impulse” became discernible—which had not quite been there before. However, a “populist impulse” is not the same thing as functional democracy. Due account must be taken of the limits and inhibitions within which popular politics in the 1790s still operated. The fate of the Democratic Societies, between the first enthusiastic emergence of so many of these groups in 1793–4 and their utter disappearance within the following year or so, invites questions about the whole subject of voluntary associations in America.
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