Publication Date

April 2016


John Finn, J. Donald Moon


College of Social Studies


English (United States)


This thesis tracks the development of an explicitly alternative theory of republicanism in rural America after the Revolution. In colonial America, urban mass politics proceeded from an understanding of the long British tradition of mob actions and politics “out of doors.” In cities, colonists engaged in collective movements to resist British policies and to engage with their government when all other means of doing so failed. For colonial farmers and backcountry settlers—who were easily and often ignored in political proceedings—the rich urban tradition of mass politics did not fit their geographical circumstances. Movements in rural Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and North Carolina adapted the premises and legitimizing drive of urban resistance movements—building a new tradition of an alternative politics for the countryside. After the Revolution, many rural communities were again ignored by their governors and legislators. They turned to colonial-era rural politics, and added to it from their interpretations of republicanism and their new republican documents of government. As republican citizens, marginalized political voices could engage in a legitimizing discourse on republican theory as part of extralegal attempts to participate in American politics. Shays’ Rebellion represented the first coherent challenge to the republicanism of the new, and often politically conservative, American gentry. This movement articulated a belief in the illegitimacy of taxation without local knowledge, the need for responsive and responsible representatives, and the importance of the right of the people to judge the legitimacy of government actions and to interpret founding documents and political theory for themselves. After the writing, debate over, and ratification of the Constitution—which excluded voices of rural dissent at every opportunity—the developing theory of rural republicanism had a codified and officially endorsed foil in Federalist republican theory. The Whiskey Rebellion and Fries’ Rebellion responded to this new order, refining the theories expressed by Shays’ Rebellion and articulating them more coherently and with greater procedural, legitimizing rigor. While these movements were unsuccessful, they emphasize the need to seriously consider rural republican theory, as expressed in the actions and petitions of underserved communities. This alternative interpretation of the political underpinnings of the United States and the promise of the Revolution presents a challenge to the binary of Federalist republicanism and Anti-Federalist republicanism—and emphasizes the importance of implicit, action-based political theory for communities that are easily ignored in the machinations of status quo politics.



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