Franklin, Paine, and the Enlightenment

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were born about three decades and a few thousand miles apart. Neither came from especially privileged families, but both achieved international celebrity. While Franklin gained fame first as a scientist and then as an American patriot and revolutionary, Paine earned renown as the author of several revolutionary pamphlets, including Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, with the first two of these probably being the most widely read English-language pamphlets of the 18th century, and with the latter being popular but also fiercely attacked.

Franklin and Paine met briefly because of their common intellectual interests when Franklin was serving a diplomatic mission in England, and his letter of introduction helped Paine to land on his feet (after recovering from serious illness) when he arrived in Philadelphia in late 1774. While both Franklin and Paine supported republican revolution in the late 18th century, Paine took more radical positions, leading scholar Craig Nelson to describe him as “Benjamin Franklin unleashed.”

Franklin and Paine also both had religious upbringings: Franklin as a Presbyterian and Paine as an Anglican and Quaker. Neither, however, was inclined to accept the creed of any church, and each tried his hand at writing (and publishing) a personal statement of belief. (These credos are included in the assigned excerpts.) Ultimately, both men believed that religion was necessary to support public virtue — note the second paragraph of the Paine excerpt, for example — but while Franklin charitably supported multiple Christian churches, Paine launched a vociferous attack on revealed (Biblical) religion, which he considered to be both false and morally harmful. Franklin only leaned strongly towards the firm deism that Paine adamantly promoted.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did Franklin and Paine, each in their own way, articulate Enlightenment principles in these writings?
  2. How did Franklin’s and Paine’s views on religion (and Christianity) differ?
  3. How do these two excerpts reflect the influence of Protestant thought?

For an irreverent, alternate view of Franklin, see D. H. Lawrence’s famous 1923 send-up.

Fareed Zakaria’s “Rise of Illiberal Democracy”

Reading: Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec., 1997).

I’ve assigned this article in a course on the “Early American Republic” in order to aid our consideration of the long-term historical consequences of this period in U.S. history. Zakaria focuses his inquiry on such political constructs as democracy, liberalism, and constitutionalism. The founders of the United States did not invent these ideas, but they did play a central historical role in fusing them into an enduring national government that has often (although by no means unerringly) expanded and protected minority rights.

By the 1820s and 1830s, the constitutional republic set into motion by the 1787 Philadelphia convention had become a democracy for white men, complete with an ample ideology to explain precisely why it was that white men — and not others — deserved the right to elect their own leaders. Despite a variety of moments during which constitutional restraints were stretched and even broken, by and large the United States remained a constitutional democracy up to American Civil War. During this period, most American political discussions took place with the understanding that the Constitution circumscribed the power of the federal government and protected the rights of American citizens.

The democracy of the early U.S. had its illiberal features. The fact that women, Indians, and African Americans lacked rights and power was no accident — to be sure — but in the North especially, where concern about slavery’s future did not inspire a cultural lock-down, women and African Americans could find spaces (often in churches) within which they could speak and act politically in hope of expanding their rights.

The United States, then, is not (and was not) simply a democracy — a nation ruled by its people. It is a liberal or constitutional democracy whose founding documents profess respect for rule of law and for individual rights.

At this juncture, it is worth asking the question again: how and why did the founding generation create a government of limited power, a government that would pursue the will of the majority while also respecting the rights of political minorities (if not, at first, other kinds of minorities)? To what extent were the founders successful in this project?

Zakaria writes with great respect for constitutional liberalism, which can and sometimes has, even in the absence of democracy, helped protect individual liberty. He expresses concern for the rise, since the end of the Cold War, of a substantial number of democracies that lack constitutional safeguards and that fail to protect individual rights and liberties — he calls these states “illiberal democracies.” Illiberal democracies, he argues, are prone to war, unfriendly to economic development (capitalism), and have with some frequency led to ethnic cleansing and similar atrocities. We need to be careful, he warns, not to mistake democracy as the only political virtue. A democracy without liberal, constitutional limitations on its power can do serious damage to its own people, to other nations, and to the reputation of democracy itself.

In short, Zakaria concludes that democracy should not be seen as an end, in and of itself. Constitutional liberalism, rather, posits the proper end or goal of a government, and democracy is only one way of reaching that goal. In making this point, Zakaria does not mean to defend autocratical forms of government, yet he is properly sensitive to the fact that democracy may not be the right form of government at all times in all places. Both self-government and liberalism have deep roots in western culture, especially in Anglo-American culture and society. The democratic republic that gradually emerged within the U.S. did not develop overnight. Zakaria implies that it would be folly to expect developing nations today to embrace full-fledged, functional democracy simply because they have the means in place to hold elections. (He wrote this essay well before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. and the subsequent invasion of Iraq; it’s hard not see his concerns as prescient.)

“The Great Contradiction”

Reading: Charles Sellers, “The Great Contradiction,” in The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), 396-427.

This essay is the concluding chapter of a very influential (and on some points controversial) book. Sellers is capable of producing some very dense sentences, and his use of the language is sometimes idiosyncratic, but he nevertheless provides a very compelling explanation of the role of slavery — the great contradiction — in precipitating the Civil War.

The battle over the admission of Texas to the Union played the crucial role in escalating this conflict, not simply because of Texas itself but also because adding Texas helped lead to war with Mexico in 1846. Texas had gained its independence in 1836, but the possibility of Texas joining the United States had been shunted aside in the interest of sustaining the Democratic Party. A political accident, the death of the first Whig president, William Henry Harrison, in 1841, ultimately destabilized both political parties, as Vice President John Tyler, a nominal Whig at best, rose to the presidency, alienated Whig voters, and, unable to return the Democratic Party (which he had left after the nullification controversy), began promoting the annexation of Texas as a strategy for wooing political support.

Tyler’s strategy failed, insofar as his own ambitions for returning to the White House were concerned, but the Texas issue drew enough support that the Democrats put forward James Polk, a pro-annexation candidate, for the presidency. Notably, both Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, and Martin Van Buren, the would-be Democratic contender, opposed the annexation of Texas, fearing that it might divide their own parties, provoke war, or even threaten the Union. On all three counts, they were essentially correct.

Asking several important questions will help us to understand Seller’s account of how the “great contradiction” began propelling the nation towards the secession crisis.

  1. How and why did the national discourse on slavery change after 1830? (Consider Garrisonian, moderate antislavery, and pro-slavery voices.)
  2. What was Polk’s agenda, and why did it generate substantial support?
  3. How and why did Polk lead the nation into war with Mexico?
  4. What were the political consequences of the war?
  5. What major point does Sellers make about the role that racism played in garnering support for the Wilmot Proviso, the Free Soil Party, and, eventually, the Republican Party?

Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement (II)

Reading: Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 47-76.

In the second half of her introduction to this compelling volume, Sklar repeatedly suggests that the women’s rights movement, as it began to develop independently of the Garrisonian antislavery movement after 1840, became increasing “secular.” Although this argument has merit, it also obscures the extent to which basic Christian principles remained important within the movement.

To support her argument, Sklar emphasizes that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in contrast to the Grimke sisters and Lucretia Mott, did not come from a Quaker background. Furthermore, as Stanton’s influence within the movement increased, she tended to focus more on the subjugation of women within the political and legal system. The “Declaration of Sentiments” that was approved by the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 provides a good example of the increasingly political vocabulary used by the proponents of women’s rights. (The fact that the document was modeled on the Declaration of Independence also speaks to this shift.) Sklar also notes that the women’s rights activists began arguing for their “co-equal” status with men, thus shifting away from the Grimke’s argument for equality based on the “moral being” of women (p. 64).

While these points are well-taken, they fall short of demonstrating secularization. One of the documents that Sklar points to as a special example of “increasingly secular language” (p. 180), Abby Price’s “Address to the ‘Woman’s Rights Convention'” (1850), was in fact pervaded by religious language. Price deeply rooted her claim to woman’s “co-equal” rights in God’s creation of humanity. Both men and women, she argued, were created in God’s image — and equally so. Price did not argue that men and women were “adapted to the same positions or duties, or that they are absolutely equal in physical and intellectual ability” (this was a common concession), but she stepped from her principle of “co-equality” to a claim that men and women are “absolutely equal in their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — in their rights to do, and to be, individually and socially, all they are capable of, and to attain to the highest usefulness and happiness, obediently to the divine moral law” (p. 181). In short, Price continued to root women’s rights in spiritual and moral principles, even as she drew on the political vocabulary of liberalism.

Rather than describing this shift as secularization, it might make more sense to note the intertwining of ecumenical Christian notions of equality with a more secular political vision of rights. The women’s rights convention movement of the 1850s did indeed loosen its ties to a specifically Quaker and Garrisonian spirituality, but Christianity seems to have continued to play a central rather than a marginal role in the movement.

Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement (I)

Reading: Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 1-47.

In her first half of her introduction to this volume, Sklar traces the emergence of a women’s rights movement inside the northern abolitionist movement of the 1830s. Many of the men (and some of the women) in the abolitionist movement balked at this development, and by 1840 the American Antislavery Society had broken into three parts (p. 43). In short, the issue of women’s rights both energized and divided the antebellum antislavery movement. By the 1840s, women’s rights activists began to develop a separate reform movement, apart from but generally supportive of antislavery.

Sklar focuses a great deal of attention on Angelina and Sarah Grimke, who played especially important roles in the early abolitionist movement for three main reasons. First, they came from an elite, slaveholding family in Charleston, South Carolina. They had observed the cruelty of chattel slavery firsthand, as they saw enslaved families split apart in order to serve the labor needs of their family plantation. The Grimke sisters could thus speak with great credibility about what they referred to as the “sinfulness” of slavery. Second, they were women. They could speak about women’s issues in ways that would help mobilize northern women for the abolitionist cause. (In particular, they could address the impact of slavery on women, children, and families.) Finally, they had moved to the North in order to join a Quaker meeting that — up to a certain point — empowered them to speak their minds in public. Eventually, they had to break with the Quaker meeting that they had joined in Philadelphia, as it became too stultifying and restrictive. Nevertheless, the central Quaker spiritual principle of the inner or inward light, and the corresponding principle of spiritual equality, played a substantial role in moving the Grimke sisters into public activism: it provided them with a spiritual and religious justification for their unconventional actions.

Sklar shows how the Grimke sisters (especially Angelina) followed Frances Wright (a British radical who visited America) and Maria Stewart (a free black Bostonian) in beginning to break down the informal prohibition on women speaking publicly to mixed-sex audiences. They also encouraged white American women to exercise their right to petition as a means of pushing for the abolition of slavery. (The group petition was still a relatively new phenomenon, and the only precedent for women petitioning in groups was the relatively recent campaign against Indian Removal.) Both of these tactics, however, began to raise opposition, inside and outside of the antislavery movement.

Sklar’s narrative, and the associated documents, raise several key questions:

  1. How did the Grimke sisters (and other “Garrisonian” abolitionists) argue against slavery? What were their major tactics?
  2. How did the Grimke sisters defend a public role for women? What were the limits of their argument?
  3. What kind of opposition did abolitionists, in general, and women abolitionists, in particular, face as they began to campaign against slavery?
  4. How and why did the abolitionist movement fragment in 1839-1840?

Soul by Soul II

Reading: Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Trade (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), 78-220.

At the heart of Johnson’s book lays his third chapter, “Making a World Out of Slaves,” in which he explores how slaveholders constructed their identities by buying slaves. Slaves literally made the physical world within which slaveholders dwelled, but, as Johnson argues, they also figuratively made slaveholders fully white, fully masculine or feminine, and fully free and independent. At least such was the “fantasy,” to use Johnson’s language, that slave buyers took into the slave market. The language of slave buying, he says, “transmuted the reality of dependence on slaves into the conventions of slaveholders’ self-willed independence” (88). More specifically, “Slaveholders became visible as farmers, planters, patriarchs, ladies, and so on, by taking credit for the work they bought slaves to do for them” (102) — and also by taking credit for the slaves themselves, should they seem duly submissive and productive.

According to Johnson’s distinctive argument, chief among the commodities purchased on the slave market was paternalism itself. Johnson shows that paternalism was not simply an ideology invoked to defend the institution of slavery. Paternalism was also an end in itself. Johnson makes it clear, however, that paternalism was not as benevolent as advertised: the power of paternalism rested upon real and threatened violence, including both physical violence inflicted upon individuals and emotional and social violence inflicted upon slaves through the slave trade itself.

So powerful were the slave buyers’ fantasies of mastery that slave traders found it profitable and necessary to cater to these fantasies in the slave market. In fact, Johnson shows that the process of “Turning People into Products” (the title of chapter 4) was driven as much by economic factors as by the slave buyers’ desires to purchase slaves who would reflect well upon their masters as paternalistic figures. Traders and buyers invented and imagined plausible histories for the slaves that they bought and sold. (The attributed special significance to the racial characteristics that they believed they could observe — see chapter 5, “Reading Bodies and Marking Race.”) Slave buyers took these speculations, fantasies, and expectations home with them, along with the slaves that they had purchased.

Johnson suggests that these high expectations were never met — that the reality of owning slaves could never live up to the fantasy that led the buyer into the market. He may be exaggerating here: isn’t it likely that some experienced slaveholders internally recognized and conceded the challenges and limits to their power? Johnson goes so far as to declare that “The only slave buyers who could be assured of getting what they wanted in the slave market were the ones who bought slaves in order to torture them” (206). This statement, too, seems hyperbolic, but it also draws attention to the fact that behind the chattel principle lay real human beings who resisted total commodification. Johnson has shown that the master-slave relationship required careful negotiation, from both sides, and that masters had to make some concessions to the humanity of their slave property, lest that property steal or even destroy itself.

Furthermore, Johnson shows that slaves being bought and sold had (and at least sometimes seized) opportunities to shape their own sales. They could send subtle signals to potential buyers in order to either increase or decrease their chances of being purchased. Because the the redhibition laws (in Louisiana) meant to protect buyers, newly purchased slaves could attempt to spoil a sale that had already taken place, should they find their new conditions too miserable to bear. Johnson makes it clear that slaves endeavored shape their own sales only by incurring a substantial risk of being beaten (by the trader or by their new owner), but it seems plausible that they did so with some frequency. (See chapter 6, “Acts of Sale.”)

In its complex whole, Soul by Soul makes a convincing case that “the history of the antebellum South” — or at least the history of antebellum slavery — “was made . . . in the slave pens” (214). The slave trade, and the logic of the chattel principle, cannot be dismissed as incidental to the history of antebellum slavery, even given the fact that many enslaved African Americans during this period were not sold. The slave market loomed as a threat to enslaved families and communities: the master could always put a slave in his pocket by invoking the chattel principle. In short, Johnson persuasively argues that the antebellum abolitionists correctly perceived that “the essence of slavery lay in its worst abuses” –not only in physical violence but in the market itself — “rather than its rosiest promises” (219). He also leaves his readers with the suggestion that white abolitionists appropriated this insight from the “indigenous antislavery of the enslaved South” (219).

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Trade, by Walter Johnson

Reading: Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Trade (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), 1-77.

In the introduction and opening chapters of this book on the antebellum slave trade, Walter Johnson suggests two key arguments. The first argument is quite explicit. Johnson rejects the ideology of slaveholder paternalism by maintaining that the “chattel principle,” the notion of “a person with a price,” lay at the very heart and soul of antebellum slavery, for slaveholders and slaves alike. The chattel principle came glaringly to the forefront of an enslaved African American’s experience, of course, when he or she or a loved one was sold away. But Johnson also shows how the chattel principle played a more subtle role in the daily lives of both masters and slaves, even in the absence of the slave trader.

Johnson’s second argument about antebellum slavery exists in implicit tension with this first point about how the institution of slavery ruthlessly commodified its human victims. Despite the chattel principle, Johnson suggests, slaves did frequently assert their humanity, and slave traders and masters frequently found that they had to attend to and sometimes concede to the humanity of their human chattel. Even though the chattel principle remained inescapably fundamental, slavery involved a complex process of negotiation between masters, traders, buyers, and slaves.

Johnson fleshes out these points in substantial detail, and these early chapters suggest a few key questions:

  1. What was the chattel principle, and how did it emerge in the everyday operation of the institution of slavery?
  2. How did the chattel principle give the lie to the ideology of paternalism?
  3. How did enslaved African Americans resist commodification and assert their humanity, even as they were being bought and sold?
  4. How did slave traders acknowledge and deal with the humanity of their stock in trade?
  5. How does Johnson’s depiction of slavery and the slave trade fit within the context of what other historians have said on these subjects?

Women’s Petitions against Indian Removal

Reading: Alisse Theodore [Portnoy], “‘A Right to Speak on the Subject’: The U.S. Women’s Antiremoval Petition Campaign, 1829-1831,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5 (2002), 601-24.

In late 1829, Catherine Beecher anonymously published a circular letter addressed to the “Benevolent Ladies” of the United States. In this letter, Beecher sympathetically portrayed the “poor Indian[s]” as a dignified people, no longer “naked and wandering savages,” who had made much progress towards becoming Christian and civilized. Although Beecher showed little interest in the native cultures of the Indians of the South, her remarks showed no sign of racism (as distinct from ethnocentrism). Instead, she focused on the fact that the U.S. government had promised to protect these Indians and their lands. (The Indian nations in question included the Cherokee, Chocktaw, Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw, which were often collectively referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes” because of their notable adaptation to white, American ways.) Beecher was writing, she declared, because “it has become almost a certainty that these people are to have their lands torn from them, and to be driven into western wilds and to final annihilation, unless the feelings of a humane and Christian nation shall be aroused to prevent the unhallowed sacrifice.” Clearly, Beecher did not believe the rhetoric of the Jackson administration that removal would be voluntary and that it was necessary to protect Indians — instead, she said, Indians’s land would be “torn” from them, and their removal west would lead to their “annihilation.” In short, Beecher thought that she saw through the pro-removal rhetoric to the real reason that Indians were to move west — their “fertile and valuable” lands were “demanded by the whites as their own possessions.” [1]

This letter helped inspire a small but significant petition campaign on the part of American women. Alisse Portnoy has carefully studied this petition campaign. While her article helps document the political resistance to the Indian removal policy, it also shows how women in the early republic period began tentatively to assert a “right to speak” regarding political issues. Portnoy shows that how these women spoke is just as important as the fact that they did so.

Here are several questions to consider when reading this essay:

  1. What main arguments does Portnoy make?
  2. What evidence does she bring forward? Where did she get this evidence?
  3. Where did the petitions come from? What might be the significance of their regional source?
  4. Why are these petitions historically significant?
  5. Why weren’t the petitions effective in changing Indian policy?

[1] Catherine Beecher, “Circular Addressed to the Benevolent Ladies of the U. States,” Dec. 25, 1829, in Theda Purdue and Michael D. Green, eds., The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005), 111-14.

The Long, Bitter Trail (II)

Reading: Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians, ch. 2.

This chapter explores the shifting nature of U.S. Indian policy, starting with the late 1700s and moving forward to the 1830s.

  • Officially, what was the relationship between the U.S. and Indian nations during the early 1800s?

Wallace also begins to explain the various programs intended to reform Indians, with the ultimate goal of assimilating them into mainstream American society. (Such plans would persist into the 20th century.)

  • What were the two approaches to Indian policy during the early 1800s? How was the U.S. Indian policy divided against itself? What did the two approaches to Indian policy have in common?

Wallace also pays close attention to Lewis Cass, who stated his position in his 1830 article in the North American Review on the “Removal of the Indians.” (See especially page 439, in which Cass makes it clear that the Indians would voluntarily remove themselves rather than forcibly removed.)

  • How, according to Wallace, did Cass misunderstand Indians?

The Long, Bitter Trail (I)

Reading: Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), introduction and ch. 1.

In his introduction, Wallace describes the experiences of John Ross, who served as an important Cherokee leader (despite the fact that only one of his mother’s grandparents was of Cherokee descent) from the 1820s through the 1860s. Like Andrew Jackson, Ross had fought against the Creek Indians in the War of 1812, and he had gone on to become a successful plantation owner and slaveholder as well as an influential leader, politician, and diplomat for the Cherokee. Wallace goes so far as to call Ross a “mirror image” of Jackson (10). Because of these similarities rather than despite them, Ross represented a problem for President Jackson and for white settlers in Georgia who lusted after Cherokee land, with its rich soils (rich for cotton production and in some cases literally rich with gold). The problem was that Ross and his fellow Cherokee were not disappearing — they were becoming stronger, as they integrated themselves into the larger regional economy and adopted a written Constitution. In short, they gave the lie to official claims that all Indians had to be moved west for their own protection and benefit.

Wallace also provides a brief but helpful overview of Indian history from the Mississippian period (hundreds of years before European contact) through the War of 1812, which so devastated the Indian nations east of the Mississippi River. This context is important, because it helps to suggest the disadvantages faced by those Indians, like the Cherokee, who continued to resist removal.

These opening sections raise a couple of questions:

  1. What kind of societies did the Cherokee create? How might you describe their history, up to the early 19th century?
  2. How does Wallace’s description of the Cherokee fit with your own presuppositions about American Indians during this period?
  3. Reaching back to the colonial period and moving forward to 1820, why did American Indians have such a problematic time dealing with European Americans?