By Donald Warren, John Patrick
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Indeed, written with Jefferson’s radical republican philosophy in mind, the Declaration inspired active citizenship in defining the more passive and nondescript Constitutional language. The value of citizenship and virtue took on novel and comprehensive meaning in this context. Members of the Democratic-Republican Societies became keenly aware that social hierarchy and privilege were potentially as arbitrary as tyrannical rule or divine right, for the former also prevented a wide sharing of the formal benefits of citizenship and education.
The new Enlightenment republicanism could just as easily be conceived as requiring the destruction of arbitrary rule by any means, political or social, and applicable to the property-less as well as to the propertied class. Likewise, members of the societies could look to the same 36 Brian W. Dotts authoritative classical and modern republican sources and employ them in defense of popular government and active citizenship. The republican character was informed by, and always measured against, a large political literature, including the Roman analysis of classical Athens by the likes of Cicero, Sallust, Plutarch, and Livy, as well as the subsequent experiences of Italy’s city-republics during that country’s Renaissance, events separated by centuries of a Christian medieval framework that redefined governmental authority in terms of theology and divine right.
What did they learn, and perhaps, teach others? How did the societies contribute to the enduring struggle to define republicanism and to reconstitute it within their own context? Much like the earlier Leveller movement in England after Cromwell’s defeat of King Charles, the Democratic-Republican Societies, many of whose members were soldiers during the American Revolution, contested traditional ideas of deference and social privilege, appropriating Enlightenment philosophy on their own terms. 2 Soon after Washington began his second term, the societies set out to redefine citizenship and civic virtue in entirely unconventional ways.