Seth Cotlar is a professor of history at Willamette University. His first book, Tom Paine's America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (2011), won the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic's James Broussard Best First Book Prize. His current book project is entitled "When the Olden Days Were New: The Cultural History of Nostalgia in Modernizing America, 1776–1860."
Americans have long used the term "democracy" to describe the political system they most admire and in which they live, but in the founding era, "democracy" was a fighting word. It is rare to find someone who used the term "democracy" with a positive connotation before the early 1790s, yet by 1800 a significant number of Americans proudly used it as a descriptor of their new nation's political system. This talk will explore how and why this transformation occurred, and how we might think about its lasting significance. I will focus on the role Thomas Paine played in shifting the meaning of the term democracy in this era of international revolution, both as an influential thinker and a controversial symbol of democracy's most radical implications.