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The Key of Liberty

The Key of Liberty

The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, “a Laborer,” 1747–1814

Edited by Michael Merrill and Sean Wilentz

ISBN 9780674502888

Publication date: 03/30/1993

The recovery of the ideas and experiences of William Manning is a major event in the history of the American Revolutionary era. A farmer, foot soldier, and political philosopher, Manning was a powerful democratic voice of the common American in a turbulent age. The public crises of the infant republic—beginning with the Battle of Concord—shaped his thinking, and his writings reveal a sinewy mind grappling with some of the weightiest issues of the nation’s founding. His most notable contribution was the first known plan for a national political association of laboring men. That plan, and Manning’s broader conclusions, open up a new vista on the popular origins of American democracy and the invention of American politics.

Until now, only a few specialists have referred to any of Manning’s writings—though always with some wonderment at his sophistication—and his place as a pioneering and exemplary American democrat has been largely unacknowledged. In this new and complete presentation of his works, the often arid debates over “republicanism” and “liberalism” in early America come to life in vivid human detail. The early growth of democratic impulses among quite ordinary people—impulses that defy orthodox categories, yet come closer to describing the ferment that led to the repeated political conflicts of the late eighteenth century—is here visible and felt. The Key of Liberty allows us a fuller understanding of the popular responses to the major political battles of the early republic, from Shays’ Rebellion through the election of Thomas Jefferson. It offers, better than any book yet published, a grassroots view of the rise of democratic opposition in the new nation. It sheds considerable light on the popular culture—literary, religious, and profane—of the epoch, with more exactness than previous histories, presenting a new interpretation of early American democracy that is bound to be controversial and much discussed.

The editors have written a lengthy and detailed introduction placing Manning and his writings in broad context. They have also modernized the text for easy use and have included full annotation, making this volume an authoritative contribution to the American Revolution and its aftermath.


  • This publication of William Manning’s writings—with their populist formulations of the powerful few and the laboring many, as well as their libertarian defenses of individual liberties—is a powerful blow for democracy and freedom. The meticulous scholarship of Michael Merrill and Sean Wilentz has unearthed a jewel in early American thought that still poses a challenge for us in these days of democratic decay.

    —Cornel West, Princeton University


  • Sean Wilentz is George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University. He is the author of numerous books on American history and politics, including The Rise of American Democracy, which won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and The Politicians and the Egalitarians, chosen as Best History Book of the Year by Kirkus and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Wilentz’s writings on American music have earned him two Grammy nominations and two Deems-Taylor-ASCAP awards.

Book Details

  • 240 pages
  • Harvard University Press