The Revolutionary Invention of the American “Democrat”

matthew hale

Date: Tuesday, Oct 17, 2023

Start time: 5:00 p.m.

End time: 6:15 p.m.

Location: Cabell Library, 901 Park Ave., Lecture Hall, room 303, 3rd floor

Audience: Free and open to the public

In response to the republicanization and militarization of the French Revolution in 1792-1793, a sizeable number of Americans began self-identifying as “democrats.”  Largely unknown today, this unprecedented and abrupt wave of democratic self-identification marked an inflection point in the history of popular sovereignty. The American Revolution—especially the ratification of the Constitution in 1787-88—elevated to new heights the idea of “the people” as supreme ruler. Yet by raising expectations, the apparent apotheosis of popular sovereignty in the late 1780s ironically created a widespread sense of disconnect. 

More specifically, a diffuse anxiety developed regarding the fact that the constitutional version of “the people’s” authority being institutionalized during George Washington’s first presidential term did not feel as compelling or exalted as it should. In conjunction with the events surrounding the fall of the Bourbon dynasty and the outbreak of the French revolutionary wars, that anxiety yielded a series of epiphanies that enabled some Americans not only to discover themselves as “democrats,” but also to bring into being a novel version of “the people’s” authority that drew upon monarchical concepts and values even as it reinforced the formal rejection of monarchy as an institution. 

Recognition of that paradox compels a reconsideration of current understandings of democracy.  By recovering the invention of the American “democrat,” we can break the spell of democracy and see our political culture and its late eighteenth-century founding in a new light. 


Matthew Rainbow Hale, Associate Professor of History at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, is the author of a number of essays and book chapters investigating the impact of the French Revolution on American political culture. One of his essays won the 2010 Ralph D. Gray prize for the best article in vol. 29 (2009) of the Journal of the Early Republic. He is the recipient of research awards from various institutions, including the Kentucky Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.

Sponsor(s): The Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia

Event contact: Andrea Wight,