In the Early Republic, a man’s reputation determined every social, political, and economic opportunity and interaction. It opened doors for trade partnerships, decided who could obtain credit, and served as political currency. Reputations were so important that men engaged in a highly regulated system of written warfare, which sometimes culminated in duels to defend slights to their honor. In order to carve out a successful career in public service, gentlemen had to establish a reputation as virtuous republicans. They were supposed to be talented and exceptional. They were expected to carry these principles into their federal positions—to bring honor and prestige to the office, but not aristocracy. Yet the meaning of these generalities differed from one person to another. What appeared republican to a New Yorker might seem downright aristocratic to a North Carolinian.
Furthermore, no existing governing customs or legal precedents existed to guide Washington and the first generation of officeholders. The lack of guidelines filled each new scenario with additional pressure, but also left officials without a rubric to assess their actions. With no other benchmark, officials turned to public opinion to measure their successes and failures—a highly contested process.
All Early Republic officials shared a constant dread that their fellow citizens might condemn their actions. Washington in particular wanted feedback “not so much of what may be thought the commendable parts, if any, of my conduct, as of those which are conceived to be blemishes.” Finding that careful balance between strength and virtue proved challenging. David Stuart, who had married Washington’s stepdaughter-in-law in 1783, regularly funneled reports to Washington from Virginia. A few months after Washington’s inauguration, Stuart shared criticism that he had heard in Virginia about Vice President John Adams appearing too monarchical. Washington offered a half-hearted defense of Adams. He replied that although Adams sometimes adopted a high tone, he only used a carriage with two horses. Washington expected Stuart to understand that Adams’ use of a relatively modest form of transportation conveyed his republican character. While this distinction might seem silly in the twenty-first century, it demonstrates how Washington, Adams, and others in the Early Republic carefully crafted and dissected each action for hidden republican and aristocratic meaning.
Before the advent of sophisticated polling measures and widespread suffrage, public opinion was hard to gauge. Politicians relied on a few methods to deduce the thoughts of their fellow citizens. First, a network of private correspondents passed along the opinions of their friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. These networks expanded far beyond their local communities and allowed politicians to keep tabs on developments across the United States and around the world. Politicians also collected pamphlets, which articulated specific arguments. They were usually signed by the author, which conveyed a great deal of seriousness because the author was willing to stake his name and reputation on the argument contained in the pamphlet. Because they were expensive to produce, pamphlets afforded the wealthy and connected a venue to share their ideas. Pamphlets were printed in relatively small numbers for a limited audience with very specific circulation. Broadsides, large printed sheets similar to posters, and newspaper editorials offered a more informal approach. They were cheaper to create, often anonymous, and recirculated through numerous newspapers. As a result, they were generally considered “beneath the notice of elite politicians.” That is not to say elite politicians did not notice them, but they considered the medium too undignified to merit a response.
The combination of letters, pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers offered politicians a fairly thorough report on the opinions of white, literate males. Although politicians often exchanged letters with female family members or friends, these types of published and private communications rarely conveyed the emotions of working-class women, illiterate men, Native Americans, or freed or enslaved African Americans. These were not the constituencies politicians worked to represent.