AN EXPANDING PUBLIC SPHERE

The debates of the 1790s produced not only one of the most intense periods of partisan wan fare in American history but also an enduring expansion of the public sphere, and with it the democratic content of American freedom.

More and more citizens attended political meetings and became avid readers of pamphlets and newspapers. The establishment of nearly 1,000 post offices made possible the wider circulation of personal letters and printed materials. The era witnessed the rapid growth of the American press—the number of newspapers rose from around 100 to 260 during the 1790s, and reached nearly 400 by 1810.

A print shop in the early republic. The increasing number of newspapers played a major role in the expansion of the public sphere.

Hundreds of “obscure men” wrote pamphlets and newspaper essays and formed political organizations. The decade’s democratic ferment was reflected in writings like The Key of Liberty by William Manning, a self-educated Massachusetts farmer who had fought at the battle of Concord that began the War of Independence. Although not published until many years later, Manning’s work, addressed to “friends to liberty and free government,” reflected the era’s popular political thought. The most important division in society, Manning declared, was between the “few” and the “many.” He called for the latter to form a national political association to prevent the “few” from destroying “free government” and “tyrannizing over” the people.

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