University of Wisconsin–Madison

Political Humor in the Ratification Debate

Throughout our history, Americans have liberally used satire and other forms of humor in the political arena. The Ratification period is no exception. Often students of the ratification debate are prone to associate the public discourse with the lofty prose of Publius in the Federalist Papers or the Antifederalist writings of the Federal Farmer and Brutus. Not all of the discourse, however, was of an elevated nature. Dating back to the Revolutionary Era when the British invented the pejorative character Yankee Doodle, Americans were accustomed to seeing themselves as an irreverent and uncouth people. It is as if Americans proudly took on the caricature and were willing to use this archetype as they engaged in public debate.

For many Americans, the issues of ratification were disseminated using the various devices of satire, fictitious letters, dialogues, metaphorical rhetoric, burlesque, parody, allegory, and ridicule. All of these formats had popular appeal. Among the more sophisticated examples of political humor was The Chronicles of Early Times which combined allegory and satire in confronting prominent Pennsylvania Federalists. At the other end of the spectrum, Inspector I employed the use of allegory and burlesque to skewer Alexander Hamilton. The common practice of using pseudonyms gave cover for both Federalist and Antifederalist writers, who unleashed biting criticism with little fear of personal responses, canings, or even challenges to duels.

Joseph Boskin, an historian of American political humor, noted that our system of governance produces “one of those rare societies in which eloquence and experience of humor is an axiomatic byproduct of its devotion to freedom.” Writers in the early republic certainly demonstrated a delight in this freedom to ridicule their opponents. Below you will find a collection of some of the best examples of political humor that circulated during the ratification debate.

Federalist Political Humor

Antifederalist Political Humor