J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Three Early American Studies

Three items in the latest issue of Early American Studies caught my eye last month because of their Revolutionary-era content:
The Wheatleyan Moment
David Waldstreicher
Despite the recent profusion of interest in Phillis Wheatley by literary scholars, who increasingly recognize her artfulness and her challenge to slavery, she has not been seen as a political actor in real time. This essay argues for her canny timing and careful interventions in the politics of slavery from 1772 to 1784. The “Mansfieldian Moment” in the politics of slavery can also be called a Wheatleyan Moment, when leading whites were forced to respond to the art and politics of slaves and their allies. Wheatley garnered specific and consequential responses from Lord Dartmouth, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. A more interactive approach to the politics of slavery explains much about Wheatley strategies as well as the range of specific responses to antislavery among participants in the American Revolution—responses which cannot be ascribed merely to racism or the lack thereof.

Rattlesnakes in the Garden: The Fascinating Serpents of the Early, Edenic Republic
Zachary McLeod Hutchins
This essay considers the various ways in which writers and visual artists deployed the rattlesnake in order to advance and, later, destabilize nationalist agendas between the French and Indian War and the Civil War. During the intervening century the rattlesnake, with its powers of fascination, evolved into a multifaceted symbol used to represent a wide range of ideas: British colonial unity; American national identity; (white) fears of interracial conflict and miscegenation; and the lingering belief that original sin represented a serious threat to a secular republic whose well-being could only be insured by the virtuous behavior of its citizens. Between 1751 and 1861 visual artists like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Gadsden, together with writers such as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur and Oliver Wendell Holmes, made the rattlesnake a symbol of the national transition from imported art to endogenous culture, from indigenous inhabitants to European emigrants, from innocence to experience.
(Some Boston 1775 discussion of the rattlesnake starts here.)
The First Gerrymander? Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, and Virginia’s 1788 Congressional Districting
Thomas Rogers Hunter
While the term gerrymander was coined following Massachusetts’ state Senate districting in 1812, many scholars have posited that it was actually Patrick Henry who first practiced this art, by designing an unnatural district that would ensure rival James Madison’s defeat in Virginia’s first Congressional elections in early 1789. Historians have ample evidence to buttress such claims, for numerous Founding Fathers bitterly complained that Henry was going out of his way to design a district for Madison’s defeat. Through hard and smart campaigning, however, Madison managed to defeat his opponent James Monroe — thus marking the only Congressional election in American history pitting two future Presidents. This article closely examines Virginia’s 1788 Congressional districting, and finds that contrary to the accepted wisdom, “ingenious and artificial combinations” were not used to design Madison’s district, for it was composed of a compact group of whole counties entirely within the Piedmont region, and bounded on all sides by natural geographic features; Madison’s true problem was not the district’s formulation, but that he lived in an area that was predominantly Anti-Federalist. In fact, Virginia’s entire 1788 districting scheme shows no marks of partisan purpose, for it was both fair politically, and one of the most geographically logical plans in all of American history.
Starting tomorrow, I’ll share some thoughts on Phillis Wheatley and her reception in pre-Revolutionary Boston.


Peter Ansoff said...

Was there really a "visual artist" named Charles Gadsden who depicted rattlesnakes?

J. L. Bell said...

Hmm. That abstract does say “Charles,” though Christopher Gadsden’s credited with the Gadsden flag. I don’t know what the paper says. I found websites and at least one book that call that Continental Congress delegate “Charles.”