Binding the Body Politic:
Contention and Consensus
in the Early Republic


a note on the quotes


In his First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson defined American democracy as a contest of opinion, which is decided by the voice of the nation... according to the rules of the Constitution. At the time of his speech, the United States was undergoing the first strenuous test of its constitutional democracy; a rancorous debate that shackled two of the nation's foremost Revolutionary compatriots -- Jefferson and John Adams -- in a bitter struggle over the nature of the right to rule.

Both men were heirs to well-established traditions of public service and democracy. The draconian rule of George III had united them -- as it had their colonies -- in a common struggle against an aggressive oppressor. Yet, the intellectual inheritance that had united them, was to force an acrimonious wedge between them and the factions which gathered around them: the Republican Democrats and the Federalists. The rift widened steadily during Washington's two terms, growing into a gaping divide, while the flames of mutual hostility were fanned to hysterical heights by an ever-increasing number of partisan newspapers. In his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson sought to staunch the bleeding of the body politic by reiterating the basic outline of constitutional democracy as set forth by Washington in his Farewell Address. Though the Pandora's box of American partisan politics had been irreversibly opened, Jefferson sought to bring the debate back to the rational plane from which it had drifted, by confirming the rights and responsibilities of the governors and the governed; the majority and the minority.

The turbulent aftermath of revolution often exposes a gap between the two fundamental components of rebellion -- the intelligentsia and the foot-soldier. While the intelligentsia expounds the underlying revolutionary principles to the world and history, the masses -- through the sacrifices made on both the military and home fronts -- are the actual agents of change. Their conception of the revolution is basic and pragmatic, rooted in the fundamental forces which drive human action -- the struggle for survival and the desire for amelioration. The American revolution followed this pattern; the increasingly onerous nature of George III's ministers' rule and the acts they introduced to Parliament -- the taxation of commodities for which the colonists were dependent on Britain; the (largely ignored) moratorium on westward expansion; the stranglehold of mercantile monopolies; the restriction of trade with third parties, to name but a few -- radicalized every strata of colonial society. As the 1770s unfolded, the colonists became acutely aware that the crown -- by denying them the sacred rights of British citizens -- regarded them as little more than cogs in its great mercantile machine, setting the stage for revolution.

The successful conclusion of the American Revolution left the nascent nation's intelligentsia -- whose brightest lights had composed the Continental Congress -- uneasy and uncertain. The American Revolution had been fought under the rubric of liberty and democracy, but how far would the revolutionary fervor -- spread so effectively by Thomas Paine's pamphlets -- permeate American society? How would the Declaration's broad proclamation of human rights be interpreted by the common man? Was the populace ready for self-government, or was there a need for a new oligarchy of merit, which would lead the common people to republicanism through education and example? In seeking the answer to these questions, the intelligentsia of the newborn nation devised a unique document -- the Constitution, a charter, born of committee and compromise, which accommodated two distinct conceptions of the nature and innate intellectual capacities of man.


Despite the notorious intolerance of its founders, New England's Puritan settlers bequeathed a strongly democratic concept of governance to their successors. Though each town in Massachusetts Bay was originally governed by worthies appointed by the colonial authorities in Boston when the town was granted its charter, their rule was not arbitrary. The Puritans viewed public service not as a stepping stone to aggrandizement or wealth, but as a duty and an honor incumbent upon God's elect. New Englanders also developed a democratic forum at which the vital issues facing the community were openly discussed: the town meeting, open to every landowning male. This institution was to survive the Puritan dominance of Massachusetts, as the original population was diluted by a massive influx of non-Puritans into New England in the second half of the seventeenth century. The new wave of colonists used the town meeting to wrest political power from the Puritans, whose influence, nevertheless, remained strong throughout the breadth of New England during the colonial era. Confronted with the irreversible erosion of their influence, the remnant of the Puritan clergy turned its energy to the organization of societies designed to promote the public weal by upholding moral standards and combating vice. These reform societies established a strong tradition in the northeast, from which sprang the Sons of Liberty, as well as innumerable educational, intellectual, and cultural societies. [explanatory note 1]

Had John Adams been born a half-century earlier, he may have gravitated to the clergy, rather than the bar. [explanatory note 2] From his Puritan forebears, Adams inherited an abiding distrust of human nature. Adams' view of human nature, however, owed as much to direct observation as to his intellectual rearing. As a young man, Adams noted that Massachusetts' ministers preferred acrimonious debate over obscure theological issues to the care of their flocks. Such a predilection for expounding upon subtleties from the pulpit not only dissuaded Adams from joining the clergy, but left entire congregations vulnerable to predatory itinerant preachers, who employed rhetorical pathos to whip crowds into hysterical frenzies. Such appeals to man's base emotions, Adams believed, left the unenlightened masses with the mistaken conviction that they had undergone a religious experience. Thus, was born Adams' abiding conviction that the common man was too easily swayed by the sophistry of silver-tongued speakers and the inflammatory prose of the rabble-rousing pamphleteer to be allowed to participate in the highest exercise of human reason -- governing.

In the southern colonies, a natural ruling class of plantation owners emerged. Like their English counterparts, the members of this aristocracy of wealth held sway over vast tracts of land, exercising dominion over the slaves, yeomen and artisans whose skills and sweat provided it with the trappings of luxury and sophistication. For more than a century, the southern gentry's domination of colonial government was universally accepted as a duty incumbent to its station. The respective roles of governor and governed in the south, was -- until the first stirring of populism sparked by the Great Awakening -- an unquestioned fact.

The liberating sense of empowerment that the Great Awakening, stirred within the yeoman class, was the catalyst which sparked the development of the southern democratic ideal. The emphasis which the Awakening's prostyletizers placed on the individual, coupled with an antipathy for the hierarchical organization of Anglicanism, posed the first serious challenge to the heretofore unquestioned hegemony of southern landowners. Southern gentlemen viewed themselves as the natural rulers of society -- a status which was seriously threatened by the spirit of inquiry the Great Awakening aroused in the lower class. In the mid-eighteenth century, a growing number of educated southern gentleman -- through their inquiry into the nature of morals, individual merit, and politics -- arrived at the conclusion that with their station came a duty to guard against the evils of ignorance and false knowledge. In this light, they viewed the betterment and comprehension of their lesser brethren as a duty incumbent upon them. Thus, the presbyterian movement sparked by the Awakening awoke within the southern elite a growing awareness not of their right to rule, but their responsibility to do so.

Thomas Jefferson was the most eloquent spokesman for the southern democratic ideal. His thirst for knowledge, however, led him to participate in an international republic of ideas, which enabled him to transcend the provincial view of his peers. Jefferson's reflections on the nature of morality, politics, and society led him to conclude that every man possessed an innate knowledge of right and wrong -- a common sense that was the true foundation of morality. The seat of this innate sense of morality was the conscience, which, in most men, was clouded either by the superstitions of a religion based on fear or the sophistry of false knowledge. If men followed the dictates of the common sense which had been implanted in all men by their Creator, and kept their minds unsullied by the often-contrary dictates of philosophical and theological vogues, a moral and civil society, in which Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are respected, could be -- and would be -- sustained.


With the surrender of the British at Yorktown, the thirteen newly sovereign states embarked on an orgy of autonomy which threatened to splinter the United States into a quarrelling patchwork of petty independent states. The Articles of Confederation -- conceived in the wake of the Revolution's anti-centralizationist fervor -- had emasculated Congress, the nation's sole national political body. This, combined with the new nation's economic anemia, fostered a growing consensus between the nation's disparate intellectual elites that in order to preserve the country, a complete restructuring of the government was imperative. If the United States were to remain united and democratic, some form of guidance from above was necessary.

The motives behind the convening of the Constitutional Convention are as complex as the men who forged its final compromise. While the aim of the Constitution was, ostensively, to consolidate into law the gains of the Revolution, its authors' aims were not purely altruistic. The authors of the Constitution sought not merely to safeguard the liberties for which Americans had fought and died, but to incorporate their intellectual inheritance, personal convictions, and regional agendas into law. Yet, the underlying principles of the Constitution are those of the Revolution -- due process of law; a separate and independent judiciary; representational government; freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and the press; individual state's rights; etc. -- revised in the light of the dismal failure of the Articles of Confederation. Furthermore, by establishing a system of checks and balances, the Constitution ensured that no wing of the government could consolidate all the powers of governance in itself.

The basis of the Federalist-Republican debate which followed the Constitution's ratification and implementation was -- stripped of all its rhetoric -- a debate over the capabilities of the average man. Could the common man be trusted to rule himself using the Constitution as his lodestar, as the Jeffersonian Republicans argued; or, did the populace need the guidance of enlightened, educated men, who fully comprehended the complexities and nuances of governance? Who was capable of wielding the instruments of government most effectively and beneficially?

The most eloquent expression of the Constitutional ideal is the Farewell Address of the Convention's firm and subtle chair, George Washington:

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquillity at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize.

Washington firmly believed that the United States could only survive as a cohesive whole if its people -- citizens by birth or choice of a common country -- ignored the slight shades of difference, between them, and instead identified with the nation; for it is the unity of government which constitutes you one people.

As a southern gentleman, Washington inherently distrusted emotional appeals, and he took great pains to warn the American people against the artifices which would be employed to divide the body politic along religious, geographic, or sophist political lines. His concern for unity, however, transcended his intellectual inheritance. When the Revolution began, there was no national identity amongst its participants -- soldier and delegate alike (with the exception of a few radical fire-brands, such as the newly-minted American Thomas Paine and the ex-Regulator and "Philosopher of the Alleghenies", Herman Husband -- viewed themselves provincially, as citizens of their respective colonies. To most, the term American served simply as a geographic generalization, not an identity. As commander of the Continental Army, Washington -- in an attempt to foster a sense of unity and nationality amongst his soldiers -- had petitioned Congress to outfit his troops in a universal uniform, which would replace those which -- by their colors -- identified the exact origin (the particular state and region) of its wearer. As president, Washington attempted, through his interpretation of the Constitution -- the intimate Union between all citizens and their government -- to do the same: Washington expressed it succinctly: The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.

Even as he called upon his fellow citizens to reconceptualize their identity, Washington realized that an ignorant and uneducated populace was eternally susceptible to the rhetoric of internal and external enemies who sought to use the people to further their own opportunistic avaricious aims.

it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

Yet, Washington admitted, despite the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally [...] this spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. Thus, in order to root out the irrational, passionate causes of the spirit of party, Washington stressed -- as an object of primary importance -- the need for an educated electorate. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

The evils of party politics, enumerated by Washington in his Farewell Address, aptly characterize the contemporaneous factionalization of American politics. Party politics, Washington warned:

serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.

Washington spoke with the authority of experience. In assembling his Cabinet, Washington had consciously chosen the ablest man for each post, convinced that their proven dedication to country and Constitution would outweigh any philosophical differences amongst them. Yet, as President, he had witnessed a disagreement of principle between his Secretary of State, Jefferson, and his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, devolve into a personal political battle. Hamilton championed a strong central government and a federal fiscal policy which encouraged commerce and fostered a nascent industry; Jefferson staunchly believed that the economic life of the country fell beyond the proper purview of the government. Moreover, Hamilton's commercial and industrial bent seemed, at least to Jefferson and his partisans, to favor New England and the Mid-Atlantic states over the overwhelmingly agrarian south. [explanatory note 3]

The debate over the role government should or shouldn't play in the economic development of the nation grew more caustic, as the philosophical and economic repercussions of the unfolding French Revolution began to impact America. Jefferson ardently supported the Revolution's broad Declaration of the Rights of Man, while Hamilton and Vice-President Adams viewed the swelling of revolutionary hysteria in France -- and the increasing violence which accompanied it -- with revulsion. The rift grew deeper as Jefferson began to openly and eloquently declare his support for the French Revolutionary cause (although he often disapproved of its methods). The Secretary of State's open sympathy alarmed Hamilton and Adams, who sought to steer the American ship of state clear of the rocks of partiality, so as to avoid alienating Britain, which remained the United States' main trading partner. Congressmen and Senators divided into opposing factions over the same issues. These factions -- like Washington himself -- deferred to Washington's Secretaries' acknowledged expertise, and aligned themselves around them. Thus, with Jefferson's resignation from the Cabinet in 1793, the American body politic was irrevocably torn asunder.

As verbal sparring between rival politicians accelerated, the caliber of discourse rapidly deteriorated. Issues were soon sublimated by increasingly acrimonious personal attacks. Republicans were denounced as madmen, intoxicated by an excess of liberty, while the Federalists were accused of plotting to surrender the country to the British. Partisan newspapers flourished, spreading scurrilous slanders against the opposition, which further fanned public passions.

The popular appeal of the Federalists was never very broad, due to the elitist views espoused by its leaders. New England and the Mid-Atlantic states -- where commerce and industry played an integral role in the local economy -- had become Federalist strongholds during Washington's presidency, a direct result of the interventionary fiscal policies so closely identified with Hamilton and his party. The main tenet of the Federalists was that a strong and stable centralized government, for which the franchise would be limited, was necessary to preserve the rule of law from the chaos of mob rule. The Federalists' belief in the sanctity of property also extended the party's appeal to large landowners in the southeast, whose authority was threatened by the democratizing effect of the westward expansion of their states. Thus, though the Republican Democrats enjoyed a much wider base of support, John Adams -- who had served two terms as Washington's Vice-President and heir apparent -- managed to capture the Presidency in 1796, by virtue of the Electoral vote.

The passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts during Adams' presidency, was both a tacit recognition of the Federalists' waning popularity and a desperate attempt to preserve their power, in flagrant disregard of the Constitution. [explanatory note 4] The xenophobic Alien Acts gave the President extra-constitutional powers of imprisonment, which although they were never used, violated the principles of due process as outlined in the Bill of Rights. In addition, these acts disenfranchised recent immigrants -- a back-handed recognition of the fact that immigrants tended to vote overwhelmingly for the Republican opposition. Politically, the Alien Acts were an enormous tactical blunder, which illustrates the narrow-mindedness of the Federalist leadership. The party could ill-afford the votes it lost in the Mid-Atlantic states -- which contained the highest concentrations of immigrant populations -- as a result of these acts.

The Sedition Act -- which made it a crime to speak, write, or print scandalous, false, or offensive statements about the President and his appointed officials -- effectively sealed the party's doom. While the popular conception of democracy varied widely from region to region and class to class, such an outright infringement of one of the most popular and cherished constitutional rights was indefensible, serving only to lend credence to the wildest excesses of the anti-Federalist press. The Sedition Act effectively removed the Federalist party from national prominence, for in attempting to shackle the most effective agent for the dispersal of political doctrine then available -- the press -- the Federalists imprisoned themselves in a political purgatory of their own device. Ultimately, the only lasting effect of the Sedition Act was the relegation of the Federalist party to a definite -- if vocal -- minority on the national political scene.

Adams himself disliked partisan politics, but the factionalization of Washington's cabinet, combined with his abiding dislike of egalitarianism, forced him into the Federalist fold. Adams was never, however, a party man; he had grave reservations about Hamilton's aims, and even graver reservation about Hamiltonian policies and partisans. Moreover, Adams' distrust of the mob was surpassed only by his distrust of bankers, businessmen, and career politicians. Adams perceived himself not as a politician, but -- in the New England tradition to which he was heir -- as a public servant. Throughout his long career, he yearned to return to his small Massachusetts farmstead, but was prevented from doing so by his self-perceived duty to his country. The Hamiltonian wing of the Federalist party mistrusted Adams nearly as much as did Jeffersonian Republicans. Adams had never enjoyed the full support of the Federalist faction of Congress, and his pacifistic policy towards France during his presidency alienated him further from the party's most vocal and vigorous wing. Adams' increasingly open rift with Hamilton and his partisans left the Federalist party internally divided, allowing the Republicans to capture the presidency in 1800. [explanatory note 5]

Jefferson's first concern upon assuming the presidency, was to quell the polemic maelstrom which had engulfed American politics. His First Inaugural Address, therefore, is a rational reaffirmation of the principles of the Constitution. Now that the contest of opinion had ended, Jefferson argued, it was incumbent upon every citizen -- regardless of the fortunes of his party -- to unite in common efforts for the common good. This was the sacred principle of democracy: athough the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, it must do so reasonably, by not merely protecting the minority's right to express its opinion, but by extending to it equal protection under, and application of, the law.

Jefferson firmly believed that the agent of democracy -- the Constitution -- would endure the rancor of partisan politics to the thousandth generation, provided that Americans observed the sacred principle of democracy: the rule of reason. Thus, Jefferson asserted, error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. A difference of opinion, Jefferson observed, is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. By thus embracing the Federalists as brothers, Jefferson sought to extinguish the flames of partisan enmity, in order to refocus the political spotlight upon the Constitution itself, thereby returning the parameters of debate to the plane of reason.

In order to illuminate the common ground shared by Republican and Federalist in the clear, cool light of reason, Jefferson outlined the essential principles of our Government, thereby redirecting the nation's attention to the parity of Americans under the Constitution. The foremost principle of American democracy, Jefferson asserted, was the assurance of equal protection under the law to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political. Jefferson also sought to subdue the rampant regional factionalism which had hamstrung the nation since its inception by vowing that individual state governments -- the surest bulwarks against antirepublican [sic] tendencies -- would retain control over their internal affairs. To further this end, Jefferson vowed to uphold the separation of powers as decreed in the Constitution.

The bulwark of the Republic, Jefferson argued, was a jealous care of the right of election by the people. This demanded absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, provided that the rights of the minority -- as expressed in the Constitution and interpreted by the light of reason -- are not violated. The rights of the minority would never be threatened as long as Americans retained a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them.

These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

Jefferson's First Inaugural Address was a reaffirmation of the basic principles of Constitutional government that Washington had outlined in his Farewell Address. Jefferson's oration was an outstretched olive branch, which called upon Americans of all political factions to exercise the common sense with which they had been endowed. In Jefferson's schema, America had no need of sedition acts, for the error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. Though Washington's worst fears concerning the factionalization of politics had been realized, as long as the twin pillars of reason and the Constitution remained standing, Jefferson assured the nation, the edifice of freedoms which the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention had erected, would never fall.


Explanatory Notes

Explanatory Note 1. This tradition also gave birth to the militant abolitionist and temperance movements of the nineteenth century.
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Explanatory Note 2. Indeed, Adams' father, a simple New England farmer, had encouraged the young John to prepare for the clergy, and was disappointed when his son, the first member of his family to attend university, chose to study law, instead.
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Explanatory Note 3. It is significant to note that Jefferson, a life-long opponent of the centralization of power and fierce proponent of states' rights was Ambassador to France at the time of the Constitutional Convention. While Adams, too, was overseas at the time of the Constitutional Convention, serving as the first American ambassador to the Court of St. James' in London, he had already made a great impact upon American constitutional thought through his authorship of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which remains the oldest written constitution still in effect.
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Explanatory Note 4. Though he was indelibly linked to the Alien and Sedition Acts in the public mind, it is important to note that Adams neither sponsored them, nor endorsed them. He did, however, sign them into law. In all, only twenty-four persons were prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and only ten of the twenty-four were convicted and imprisoned. (A jury in New Jersey decided that a pamphleteer who had printed that the President was as big an ass as that which he (the President) himselft possessed, was acquitted on the grounds that, Adams was -- by this time -- quite a stout individual. In fact, he was often derided by his political enemies as His Rotundity.) Morever, any condemnation of Adams for allowing the Alien and Sedition Acts to become law should be tempered by the knowledge that Jefferson authorized illegal search-and-seizures (that is, searches conducted without a warrant) of vessels suspected of violating his extremely unpopular embargo -- actions which he had characterized as Abuses and Usurpations of power in the Declaration of Independence.
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Explanatory Note 5. As a final insult, Adams finished third in the election of 1800, which resulted in a tie in the Electoral College between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The matter, as specified in the constitution, was referred to the House of Representatives. After 35 rounds of voting, and a good deal of horse-trading the House of Representatives finally declared Jefferson president, making Burr, under the electoral procedure then in place, Jefferson's vice-president.
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A Note on the Quotes

Throughout the text, I have used the HTML element Q to provide the quote in context. The Q element should be an actionable element -- that is, all quotes should be clearly demarcated as quotes, and all quotes point directly to that instance of the quote in the primary document. (Note: All explanatory notes are internal hyperlinks, used by the author to expand upon ideas contained in the text of this essay.)

Links to text or hypertext versions of the primary documents referenced in this essay follow, listed in chronological order:

  1. The Declaration of Independence
  2. The Articles of Confederation (passed by Congress in 1777; ratified in 1781)
  3. The Constitution of the United States of America
  4. The Bill of Rights
  5. Declaration of the Rights of Man & Citizen (La D├ęclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen) August 26, 1789
  6. Washington's Farewell Address September 17, 1796
  7. Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address March 4, 1801

Related Resources

The quantity (and quality) of information about American history on the web increases daily. What follows is a selective listing of some of the best historical sites relating to the Revolutionary and Federal periods of American history.

Eighteenth Century Historical Resources
part of the encyclopedic index of links to online resources pertaining to the eighteenth century maintained by Jack Lynch of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Eighteenth-Century Studies at the English Server at Carnegie Melon University.

The Adams Family Papers (Massachusetts Historical Society)
An Electronic Archive of Adams Family Papers

there are several Jefferson Papers projects online, including:
Thomas Jefferson's Papers (Library of Congress
The Correspondence and Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University)
Jefferson Digital Archive (University of Virginia)
Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive (Massachusetts Historical Society)

Thomas Paine Papers (University of Michigan)
Thomas Paine Electronic Archive

The Papers of George Washington (University of Virginia)

Please send any comments, suggestions, or corrections
to Gregory J. Rosmaita <oedipus@hicom.net>

essay copyleft 1993, Gregory J. Rosmaita

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Permission to quote this essay for the purposes of review or as secondary source material is freely granted. Attribution should be noted as follows:

Rosmaita, Gregory J. (essay, 1993) "Binding the Body Politic: Contention & Consensus in the Early Republic" Retrieved June 3, 1999 from the World Wide Web:
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