“The Muse’s Favorite Son:” Richard Davis, Candor, and the Democratic Clubs of the 1790s

By Andrew L. Hargroder

The 1790s was a decade marked by conspiracy-mongering in the United States. Polarized visions over the republic’s future inspired a prevailing mood of both revolutionary optimism for humankind and abrasive paranoia. Countering these anxieties, middle- and working-class Americans formed fraternal and literary clubs designed to foster democratic comity and candor as a public discourse. Among New York’s clubs, a new class of citizen took form, which espoused a more inclusive understanding of rights and political engagement. That allowed non-elites, like Richard Bingham Davis, to contribute to the conversation over the republic’s future.

"Tontine Coffee House” (1797) by Francis Guy. Though this coffee house was a site of frequent political clashes between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans throughout the 1790s, it also provide a sense of NYC architecture and the city's lively streets at the time of Davis and the societies’ activities.

"Tontine Coffee House” (1797) by Francis Guy. Though this coffee house was a site of frequent political clashes between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans throughout the 1790s, it also provide a sense of NYC architecture and the city's lively streets at the time of Davis and the societies’ activities.

In October 1792, Davis published a critique of a close friend. The article, “Drone – No. VIII,” marked Davis’s second appearance in the monthly New York Magazine. By 1792, at just 21 years old, Davis had withdrawn from Columbia College and turned to carpentry. But he held tightly to the pen, pursued authorship, and joined at least three clubs to display his literary talent, including the Calliopean Society. Another young poet-member in the democratic, literary Society was“Mr. Martlet” -- Davis’s target in “Drone – No. VIII.” The club’s founders, including Martlet and Davis, had organized the society in 1788 “for the express purpose of improving Education” forthe inhabitants of New York City. To fulfill their purpose, members regularly published poetry, political essays, and scientific inquiries. As diffusers of knowledge, Martlet, Davis, and others projected their club as an instrument of the public good.[1]

At first glance, Davis’s critique of Martlet seems hardly concerned with enlightening the public. After introducing the “timid” Martlet, Davis mocks his shortcomings: “[Mr. Martlet] has found himself circumvented in business by the illiterate, eclipsed in company by the buffoon, and frustrated in his hopes of female favour by the more brilliant qualifications of the coxcomb.”[2] Presumably a lazy entrepreneur and an ineffectual bachelor, Martlet is an easy target. Taken at face value, Davis’s language is insulting and slanderous; his libel betrays the club’s purpose and image as a bastion of friendship and trustworthy knowledge. In a decade of bitter partisanship, libel and slander encouraged faction, disrupting harmony between friends and threatening the republic at large.[3]

Davis attempted to redeem himself and the “old bachelor” by illustrating the “good qualities of his heart.” In the company of his closest friends, Davis observed, “[Martlet] is entertaining, communicative, and desirous to please.” Mr. Martlet’s love of fellowship and lack of “self-interest”reflected an inner-appreciation for his place within the “little society.” Eclipsing the other desirable qualities, Martlet’s candor most inspired Davis, alleviating “the somber cloud of his external manner.” Davis emphasized this impartial behavior, his candor, to illustrate Martlet’s facility fordemocratic friendship.[4]

But as other members of the Calliopean Society already knew, “Mr. Martlet” did not exist. After Davis’s untimely death to yellow fever in the fall of 1799, his friends in the society compiled his works and drafted a brief biography. When they published the collection in 1807, Martlet’s true identity was revealed. He was, in fact, Richard Davis. Although Davis’s piece maintained the appearance of one man’s thoughtful critique of a peer, it was actually an exercise in candid self-scrutiny affirmed by friends in a political club.[5]

What motivated Davis to publicize a candid but fictional self? Evidently, Davis sought to entertain. Within the confines of the Calliopean Society, Davis’s use of Mr. Martlet displayed his knack for satire. By presenting clever work, Davis could best advance his literary reputation. But beyond simply contending for notoriety amongst his friends in a club setting, Davis fictionalized himself to profess candor publicly. Expressions of candor (most often literary) appealed to democratic friendship by signifying one’s impartiality and open-mindedness. Unlike republican “disinterestedness” and more akin to “transparency” in contemporary American politics, “candour”was a relational and behavioral quality. It served as a prerequisite for political expression in an era wrought by fears of conspiracy and faction.

In a revolutionary era that promised an end to deference, candor was a form of political discourse. Those who invoked “candour” appealed for a kind of equality that resided in democratic comity and grew from the exchange of knowledge -– publicly through authorship or within the comfort of clubs and societies. This behavior directly arose from the contentiousness and rancor of the 1790s, which amplified the political value of authorship and club membership in the United States. For men and women like Richard Davis and Ann Julia Hatton (who I will address at length in a later post), writing and publishing meant asserting their political worth in the new republic. Similarly,their association with like-minded others equated to an allegiance with one of the growing political factions within the United States.

Amidst the confusion of who was as a friend of “liberty” or of “good government,” a Democrat or a Federalist, people exercised candor as a political language to vet who they could personally trust. In turn, many of New York’s literary and politically aspiring shaped personal support networks into democratic clubs. Once joined, club members affirmed their collective championing of popular will through public expressions of candor and democratic comity. By describing Mr. Martlet as a club member and his commitment to the genuine pursuit of knowledge and friendship, Davis sought to legitimize the Calliopean Society as an instrument of the public good. His multiple audiences not only expected candor of Richard Davis, but of the association that he represented. In this way, New York City’s democratic-republican societies fostered an expansive meaning of popular sovereignty.

This article seeks to answer the following question: how did members of New York’s democratic societies profess candor to navigate the political landscape of the early American republic? Its purpose is to illustrate how Richard Davis and his friends used candoras an essential component of respectability and club culture in New York City during the 1790s. Part I examines Richard Davis’s up-bringing, club culture in New York City, and one of the many ways in which an individual like Davis could express candor, by emulating a cultural icon. Part II is forthcoming and will reveal how professions of candor, in Davis’s case, often masked deceitful actions behind the scenes. Contention was equally a component of candor as sincerity.

This image, titled “London Corresponding Society, alarm’d," and published in London in 1798, captures the transatlantic fears of conspiracy that democratic clubs inspired throughout the 1790s. The author’s portrayal of the club members as a disfigured gaggle, huddled under candlelight and a portrait of the radical Thomas Paine, illustrates the degree to which many in England and the United States associated democratic societies with anarchy, rabble, and degradation. Reproduced with permission from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

This image, titled “London Corresponding Society, alarm’d," and published in London in 1798, captures the transatlantic fears of conspiracy that democratic clubs inspired throughout the 1790s. The author’s portrayal of the club members as a disfigured gaggle, huddled under candlelight and a portrait of the radical Thomas Paine, illustrates the degree to which many in England and the United States associated democratic societies with anarchy, rabble, and degradation. Reproduced with permission from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

What little details we can glean from Davis’s life rest in three types of records: his newspaper publications, others’ observations of him in club minutes, or the short biography published by his Calliopean Society friends in 1807. In his short life, only twenty-eight years, Davis published at least forty-seven essays and poems, navigated the cultural epicenter of democratic opposition in New York, edited a newspaper, and co-authored the first native-themed American opera. But in 1799, yellow fever struck down the young Davis, ending the life of a man who poised to join the ranks of Charles Brockden Brown and Washington Irving among America’s first generation of great writers.[6]

Davis was born on August 31st, 1771 into an artisan household. His father, a carpenter, likely intended to apprentice Davis to atradesman after the Revolution, but recognizedhis son’s “sensibility of temper and love of letters.” Perhaps in an attempt to propel their son into the higher classes of the “learned professions,” the Davis family supported Richard to enter Columbia College in 1785 at the tender age of fourteen. Davis attended Columbia College for three years, “where he prosecuted his studies with success and reputation.” However, his educationproduced a peculiar “dissidence,” and after the third year “decline[d] preparing for any of the learned professions.” Davis’s friends identified his “dissidence” and his family’s inability to secure the “greater influence and patronage” as the principle reasons for abandoning the higher occupations.[7]

But Davis’s choice to withdraw from the “learned professions” did not equate to a descent into hardship. A humble occupation, carpentry emerged as one of the highest paying and fastest growing trades in New York City. By 1850, historian Sean Wilentz argues, the journeyman carpenters’ average wage competed with those of shipwrights and printers, the highest in the city. Although Davis chose to pursue a well-respected artisan’s craft, he could not subdue, to borrow Benjamin Franklin’s term, his “Bookish Inclinations.” Davis indulged in New York’s social and literary activities to escape the drudgery of working-class life. Club membership, tavern going, and authorship all served as status-elevating activities for working-class men in the early republic.[8]

But simply submitting a poem or a short essay to a newspaper or periodical did not guarantee respectability or an elevated status. How then did those with middle class aspirations gain respect? Expressions of candor helped to secure respectability byfacilitating political friendships, displaying literary skill, and encouraging polite exchanges of knowledge. The most effective way that working-class men in the 1790s like Davis professed candor was to invoke or emulate a cultural icon. Late eighteenth-century Americans maintained traditional concepts of polite society as attached to gentlemanliness, and the most notable of these took the form of an ideal (male) public figure: the impartial spectator.

For Davis, a “go-to” reference for candid behavior was Addison and Steele’s The Spectator (1711-1712). Later published into bound volumes, The Spectator essays illustrate eighteenth-century genteel expectations and earnest self-regard. Whether or not Davis owned copies of the Spectator essays in his home is uncertain. But in a meeting on April 10, 1792, members of the Calliopean Society appointed Davis and two others to “report such books as they may think proper to the society.” Alongside works such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Edward Gibbons’s Decline of the Roman Empire, eight volumes of The Spectator were listed for purchase on behalf of the society.[9]

In the opening Spectator essay, the narrator conducts an exercise in candid self-observation, summarizing his early years and examining his social activities. In his relentless pursuit for knowledge, rather than living as “one of the Species,” the “Spectator” emphasizes his role as a “Looker-on.” To live the part, the “Spectator” needed to observe human society while immersed in various settings. “There is no Place of publick Resort, wherein I do not often make my Appearance…and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Post-Man, over-hear the Conversation of every Table in the Room.” The “Spectator’s” emersion in human society and his silent observation leveled himself to the candid observer.[10]

Davis emulated the “Speculator” on the page and through his activities. In Davis’s “Drone” piece, “Mr. Martlet’s” apparent inattentiveness looks remarkably similar to that of the “Spectator,” and is worth quoting at length:

In the midst of conversation, he has a habit of sometimes indulging his own thoughts in silent meditation, during which periods it is impossible to extract a direct answer from him, or even a word to the purpose; tho’ when the interval is over, he appears to have perfectly attended to what was passing, and at the same time to have combined it with some of his own thoughts in his own manner, by which he makes ample amends for his silence.[11]

Davis is able to indulge in candid self-exploration, all the while observing his immediate environment. That Davis included this description of himself suggests the importance of emulating the “Spectator,” even among peers. However, the true purpose of any candid exploration, for all those who pursued truth, was to then share their observations within their immediate relationship circles in hopes of inspiring self-knowledge for the group. One’s ability to examine their role in society and to profess their findings was to inspire collective self-improvement. Candor therefore was a reciprocal quality, requiring group or club settings for affirmation and encouragement.

Like the “Spectator,” Davis also demonstrated his commitment to acquiring knowledge beyond his immediate circles. The “Spectator’s” purpose to live as acandid observer was “laid and concerted in a Club.” Indeed, the concept of the impartial spectator relied upon the assumption that this individual sought friendship and enlightened discourse within a club setting. Also making concerted efforts to be seen in all manner of places, Davis joined at least three of New York’s largest democratic clubs: the Tammany Society, the Calliopean Society, and the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Davis’s additional club activities illustrate his emulation of the impartial spectator, but they also made practical sense. Joining clubs was a cultural phenomenon in the Atlantic world that provided men like Davis the means to share a sense of community with others, to inspire moral and intellectual development, and to fulfill personal aspirations.[12]

New York City in the late 1780s boasted a colorful array of societies and clubs within which people could find spiritual fellowship, intellectual improvement, political support networks, working-class solidarity, or just good old fun. The most important aspect of club culture was friendship. Friendships, then as today, fostered aspirations and secured reputations, but more importantly they encouraged a fulfilling life. The concept of friendship also held deeper implications in the late eighteenth century. According to Steven Bolluck, the emerging language of republican discourse placed friendship and fraternity “into the accepted genealogy of learning, giving it a central role in the lineage of progress.” Friendship, in other words, was a facilitator and protector of knowledge, best assured the very notion of civilization. Clubs settings best developed friendships, and poised to serve as the moral and intellectual bastions of society. Though, perhaps, the progress of civilization never passed Davis’s mind when he joined his various clubs, the kinds of friendships he sought through his club activities would best ensure his own respectability.[13]

Davis most likely first joined the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen as a means of networking and conducting business with other tradesmen. Established in 1785 as an offshoot of the Mechanics Committee during the Revolution, the General Society provided opportunities for artisans of all trades and crafts to influence local and national legislation to favor the working class. Though the New York state legislature eventually limited the society’s charter to allowing philanthropic events, the artisan’s club embodied, as Sean Wilentz calls, “the ideal of mutuality and craft pride.” Such an environment perhaps best provided Davis’s needs and interests as a carpenter in-training.[14]

Davis’s more intriguing choice of club membership, however, was the Society of St. Tammany, or simply the Tammany Society. Members often distinguished themselves by wearing buckskin or dawning their hats with feathers, called their leaders “sachems,” and their meeting places “wigwams.” Founded in 1786, the Tammany Society grew slowly, attracting (it boasted) more than three hundred members by the end of 1791. Overwhelmingly, the society was composed of artisans and middle-class men. Originally serving as a patriotic society, hosting festivals and celebrations to commemorate national holidays, Tammany rapidly transformed into a partisan organization. By 1792, the Tammany Society harbored New York City’s most dedicated and ambitious democratic-republicans. Davis stood among them, and no doubt gleaned political sentiments from their commitment.[15]

Davis’s multi-club activities allowed him the opportunities to seek respectability as both an artisan and a developing political operative. As literary scholar Bryan Waterman notes, Davis and his contemporaries “demonstrated that their places in civic society were structured not simply by individual station or reputation but by their positions in the multiple groups and networks of civic life.” Despite the impact of the Tammany and General societies upon Davis’s future, neither accelerated Davis’s development as a public writer than the Calliopean Society. Within the Calliopean Society, Davis was able to most easily profess candor and emulate the impartial spectator as a way to secure reputation and upward mobility.[16]

The democratic societies established profound and fulfilling friendships for Davis that would affirm the candor he professed. After his death, his friends in the Calliopean Society, cared for the memory of their beloved friend and illustrated his candor to the public. One passage from the short biography in Poems is worth quoting at length:

A lover of truth, he detested falsehood in every shape, and considered the policy of using it for any purpose, or to accomplish any end, but a miserable justification. Frank and generous in his nature, he could not endure the tale of slander, much less be the instrument of its propagation. Warmly attached to the interests of his country, he considered those interests endangered by the turbulence of political dissention. He was, therefore, a calm spectator of the various conflicts of party.

The preceding highlights Davis’s fulfillment of candor in the eyes of those who, perhaps, knew him best. Every sentence illustrates a key component of candor: propensity for inquiring knowledge on behalf of the public good, open-mindedness, and impartiality towards the “conflicts of party.” Davis’s love of truth and his delicate handling of knowledge set him apart from others. Relaying their observations of their dear friend to public, Davis’s Calliopean brothers affirmed his candor, and sealed his memory as the Spectator.[17]

The heartfelt premise to Davis’s Poems underscores the compassion shared between Davis and his society brothers. Davis’s accomplishments and personality -– achieved and improved through club activity –- confirmed the personal value that his friends held of their little club, and provided fulfillment in their own sense of belonging to this fraternity.

However sincere, we must take the preceding passage at face value. At critical points during Davis’s development as a writer, his continued activity in various clubs, and his search for respectability, Davis relied on candor to mask deceitful and ambitious maneuvering. Behind transparency, Davis channeled and regulated knowledge to fulfill specific personal ends…

Andrew L. Hargroder is a Graduate Student at Louisiana State University, and Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army National Guard.

[1] “The Drone – No. VIII,” New York Magazine, October 1792; Poems by R.B. Davis, (J. & T. Swords: New York, 1807),vii-viii; Proceedings of the Calliopean Society, Thursday, 24 November 1788, New York Historical Society.

[2] Davis’s use of “coxcomb” in this context refers to an eighteenth-century dandy.

[3] “The Drone – No. VIII,” New York Magazine, October 1792.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Richard Davis, Poems, xi.

[6] Robb K. Haberman, “Magazine, Presentation Networks, and the Cultivation of Authorship in Post-Revolutionary America,” American Periodicals Vol. 18, No. 2, (Ohio State University Press: Columbus, 2008), 143; Richard Davis, Poems, vii, viii-ix, xi.

[7] Richard Davis, Poems, vii-viii.

[8] Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850, (Oxford University Press: New York, 1984), 133, 405; Jeffrey Pasley, The Tyranny of Printers, (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2001), 24-25; Richard Davis, Poems, viii.

[9] Proceedings of the Calliopean Society, minutes, 10 April 1792, New-York Historical Society Mss Collection;Proceedings of the Calliopean Society, minutes, 1 May 1792, New York Historical Society Mss Collection.

[10] The Spectator – No. 1, 1st March 1711.

[11] “The Drone – No. VIII,” New York Magazine, October 1792.

[12]Spectator – No. 1; Robb Haberman, “Magazine, Presentation Networks,” 144.

[13] Steven C. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel, 1996), 143-144; Bryan Waterman, Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature, (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2007), 28.

[14] Sean Wilentz,Chants Democratic, 38.

[15] Douglas Bradburn, The Citizenship Revolution, 214-215; Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic, 70; Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763-1797, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1967), 202-203.

[16] Bryan Waterman, Republic of Intellect, 29, 31.

[17] Richard Davis, Poems, ix.