Rethinking the Limits of Revolution: Family and the French Revolution

In our symposium and seminar on the topic of the “limits of revolutions”, we talked about the limits of revolution at length- especially in relationship to race and gender. While it is important to recognize the limitations of the Atlantic revolutions, I tend to agree with Jane’s comment that the concept of limits can itself be “limiting.”

For example, until recently historians of the French revolution have debated whether the revolution was “good or bad for women”, thus framing the revolution as either an entirely positive or an entirely negative event. This question necessarily calls for responses that lack nuances and fail to take into account the multiple identities of women and the different aspects of their lives. In fact, during the symposium, Suzanne Desan, the author of a fantastic book about the ways in which French revolutionaries sought to change the family, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France, referred to the “complexity and fluidity of women’s position” during and in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Even though women were denied full citizenship, they participated fully in the French revolution, and the revolution did improve some aspects of their life.

One area in which revolutionary changes did benefit women was that of marital law, and the introduction of divorce in particular. On September 20, 1792, the French National Assembly passed a decree regulating divorce, which for the first time in France opened the possibility of completely severing marital relationships. For the authors of the decree, divorce was inextricably linked to the concept of liberty: it was “a consequence of individual liberty which an indissoluble engagement would destroy”. More specifically, by making marriage a civil contract that could be terminated by either party, the French revolutionaries sought to give more power to women and give them the possibility to end relations which were harmful, not only for the women themselves, but also for the nation.

As several of its clauses demonstrate, liberty and equality stood at the center of the divorce decree. In particular, its authors postulated an unprecedented level of equality between husbands and wives:

I.2 “Divorce shall take place by mutual consent of the husband and wife.”I.3. “One of the spouses may have a divorce decreed by the simple allegation of incompatibility of disposition or of character”

IV. Effects of divorce with regard to children: “In the case of divorce by mutual consent or by the request of one of the couple for simple cause of incompatibility of disposition or of character, without any other indication of motives, the children born of the dissolved marriage are confided accordingly: the girls to the mother, the boys, aged less than seven years also to the mother; after that age they are sent to and entrusted to the father, nonetheless the father and the mother can make on this subject another arrangement that seems proper to them…”

Thus, with this decree, women were granted the possibility to end their marital relationship, and husbands and wives shared equal responsibility in deciding who would take care of the children following a divorce.

So, what do we do with this evidence, and what does it suggest about the impact of the French Revolution on women and gender relations? Instead of answering these questions, I want to suggest a set of questions that would allow us to fully capture the (positive and negative) consequences of the Revolution for women, by avoiding the question of whether it was “good or bad” for them.

1. What was the decree of divorce for? What were the revolutionaries’ motivations for passing such a law? And what does it reveal about the relationship between gender and nation-building?

2. What is the relationship between law and practice, and more specifically, what was the impact of the divorce decree on the lives of women? Did women take advantage of it, and if so, who, when and how? What were the immediate consequences of the decree?

3. Did the introduction of divorce help reconfigure the French family according to the revolutionaries’ vision?

4. What was the intellectual legacy of the divorce decree? Considering that divorce was abolished in 1816, not to be reintroduced until 1884, did the effects of divorce on women and gender relations persist even during the time when divorce was suppressed?

5. Did this law have an impact abroad? And how does a global perspective of family law look like?

These questions point to several lines of inquiry; about the revolutionaries’ motivations and the pace of social and cultural change, in particular the short-term consequences and long-term legacy of divorce. The answers to these questions would certainly show the complexity of the impact of the French Revolution on women, which ultimately suggests that if we want to fully understand the age of revolution and its impact on race and gender, we need to start with “good” questions.

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“To Toussaint L’Ouverture” as an Elegy

William Wordsworth’s “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” is one of the frequently discussed literary works in the historical writings on the Age of Revolution. One can easily see why: ostensibly making a hero of Toussaint Louverture, the most prominent revolutionary during the Haitian revolution, the poem is one of the few literary representations of the revolution in Western literature and one of the fewer positive ones. While the poem, at surface, expresses Wordsworth’s admiration for a black hero, critics like Cora Kaplan (in the article we read last semester) have drawn attention to complexity of the poem, questioning the heroic quality of Toussaint in it. Perhaps, the fact that Toussaint is represented as a ‘hero,’ they suggest, is less important than the way in which he is represented as such. Along this line of investigation, in this post, I shall address some of the peculiarities of Wordsworth’s poetic representation of Toussaint, by reading it as a specific instance of a literary genre—that is, as an elegy. (To explain generic characteristics of “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” is one of the aims of my final project, which deals with the issues of representation and language in the Age of Revolution. Hence, I do more than welcome any thoughts or comments on this post.)

To begin with, let me quote the whole sonnet, as it was published in 1807:

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!

Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow

Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now

Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,

O miserable Chieftain! where and when

Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou

Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:

Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,

Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind

Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;

There’s not a breathing of the common wind

That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;

Thy friends are exultations, agonies,

And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.

When one reads the poem as an elegy, one of its striking peculiarities is that the speaker laments over a person who is not yet dead but dying. Perhaps it might not seem so odd at the factual level. Wordsworth first published the poem in The Morning Post on February 2, 1803, probably having read the news that Toussaint had been imprisoned in the Fort de Joux since June, 1802, and Toussaint died two months after the poem appeared in the newspaper. Still, it seems to me quite an unusual choice that Wordsworth highlights the hero’s vulnerability by describing the ‘present’ moments of dying, rather than, for example, his past acts of heroism. It seems all the more peculiar because Wordsworth does so both by relying on the elegy tradition and appropriating it in his own way.

That is, Wordsworth uses figures and rhetoric peculiar to elegies with a twist in representing Toussaint. One of those twists is, as I said, his choice to mourn anticipated death. To mourn the death to come seems not only unusual in the elegy tradition—I do not know any precedent to it—but also is presented as unusual in the poem, especially by Wordsworth’s eccentric use of the sonnet form. The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet which consists of two quatrains (that is, two four-line sections) and two tercets (two three-line sections) and each section in the sonnet usually functions as a unit of meaning, similar to paragraphs in prose. Yet Wordsworth betrays the reader’s expectations by making it unclear in the first quatrain whether Toussaint is dead or not, whether he hears the maid’s song, or lies dead alone in the den. Wordsworth, in other words, holds back the information that the reader desires to know, in order to register effectively Toussaint’s being on the verge of death.

The fact that Wordsworth mourns for a dying person, rather than a dead one, is important because it enables him to express his paradoxical wish for Toussaint’s recovery. Because Toussaint isn’t dead yet, Wordsworth could dearly wish him not to die: “die not” (line 6); “Live, and take comfort” (line 9). Again, it seems peculiar that Wordsworth asks the dying hero not to die. Compare, for example, the injunctions in Milton’s “Lycidas,” where he requests shepherds not to grieve for his dear friend’s death: “Weep no more, woeful Shepherds, weep no more.” Similarly using imperatives, Wordsworth, however, makes an impossible demand that a dying person stop dying. Wordsworth’s wish is thus not just wishful but almost paradoxical in that he acknowledges the impossibility of his demand. In asking a question, “where and when / Wilt thou find patience?” (lines 5-6), for instance, he suggests that Toussaint will soon find patience through death, as the ‘patience’ here means something close to the “calm, self-possessed waiting” (Oxford English Dictionary 1.c.), associated with martyrdom in Luke 21:19. Wordsworth’s presentiment of Toussaint’s death, moreover, is underscored by the word that follows this rhetorical question, “Yet” (line 6). By putting the contrastive conjunction before voicing his wish for Toussaint’s recovery (“Yet die not”), Wordsworth betrays his sense that, as he has all along expected, Toussaint would not improve in the end. Indeed, the paradox in Wordsworth’s wish is stated clearly after a few lines, when he speaks to Toussaint thus: “Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,/ Live and take comfort” (lines 8).

Why, then, does Wordsworth express those futile wishes? Of course, they are expressions of his grief. In addition, I suggest that, in mourning Toussaint in such a particular way, Wordsworth attempts to make Toussaint a symbol of republican virtues or of “love, and Man’s unconquerable mind” (line 14). It is worth noting how Wordsworth reformulates his demand, “die not”: “do thou/ Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow” (lines 6-7). What Wordsworth wishes for here is not so much Toussaint’s composure as the appearance of it. In other words, his insistence on taking a cheerful posture can be taken as an expression of his wish for posterity to remember Toussaint as such, that is, as embodiment of fortitude. Every act of mourning is directed to the living, not the dead, but it is particularly true in the poem. The poem is, in other words, about how one should remember Toussaint Louverture . Even nature will remember him, rather than merely bewailing his death (as it is natural in a pastoral elegy): “There’s not a breathing of the common wind/ That will forget thee” (lines 11-12). Yet, if one question is answered at this point, a series of questions follow: why does he write an elegy so as to make Toussaint a symbol? Why does he make it explicit that he makes him an embodiment of a certain value? Why does he mourn so conspicuously?

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Who Counts?: Women and the Title of “Traitor”

While researching primary documents for my bibliography, I stumbled upon a “Black List” of Tories printed in Pennsylvania in 1802. Though I doubted there would be any women among them, there was still that small seed of hope—and simple curiosity about what such a list looked like, since my research hours aren’t typically devoted to primary documents about the American Revolution. Unsurprisingly, there were no women listed, but rather a lot of men with names like John and James, and even Benedict Arnold.

The list demonstrates what a traitor looked like in the early republic: for the most part, white men of property. Such a list seems to counterintuitively (or, perhaps, intuitively) reinforce a definition of citizenship, for to betray one’s country, it follows that one has to belong to a country. Treason, by definition, is betraying one’s own country, one’s own people. However, in a revolution, these lines become blurred: what is being betrayed, and by whom, and in the interest of what? Who belongs where? What, precisely, is the “country” in question? One man’s treason is another man’s patriotism.

For the purposes of this post, I am specifically interested in the question of who can betray, because to ask who can betray also indicates who can belong. Women were infamously excluded from official citizenship in both the American and French constitutions, and yet there is ample evidence of women participating in revolution in varied and layered ways, “revolutionary” and “counter-revolutionary” alike. However, while women’s participation in revolutionary activity clearly was not enough to merit citizenship or recognition in either the American or French case, participating in counter-revolutionary efforts was, in revolutionary France at least, enough to be sent to the guillotine.

In the colonies, statutes on treason were uniformly gender neutral in using the term “persons,” thus understanding treason as a crime both men and women could commit. However, Linda Kerber writes that oaths of allegiance “seem almost always to have been selectively imposed on men” (358). Though it seems that opportunities to try women for treason were few, states had other legal avenues through which to root out and “test” loyalist women—or, rather, women who had been married to loyalist men. Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Virginia sought to determine a wife’s loyalty apart from her husband by way of property rights, only allowing a loyalist “widow” to claim her dower right (technically a third of her husband’s property) if she continued to reside in America. This option for recourse through the legal system in itself complicates a notion of citizenship (not to mention the principles of the revolution, given that the widows were only allowed their property if they reneged on any personally held convictions or hope of reuniting with family elsewhere). However, I haven’t found records of any women who were either arrested and/or executed for counter-revolutionary activity during the American Revolution and would welcome suggestions (though the case of Bathsheba Spooner has loyalist connections).

In France, conversely, numerous women were executed during the Terror. However, many women were arrested and executed in connection with their families’ sympathies. The legal notion of coverture, by which a woman was legally subsumed (and theoretically protected) under her husband also seemed to imply that she could be condemned with him; indeed, there are records of multiple generations of families, grandparents through grandchildren, being sent to the scaffold together. Even Madame Roland, a considerable threat to the Jacobins in her own right, was arrested at least partly as a political move against her husband. Roland was a radical writer and salonnière who was intimately connected with the Girondins. Her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, was a prominent politician who had fled Paris prior to the Terror. Madame Roland’s arrest and subsequent execution are considered to have been a part of Robespierre’s attempt to purge the Girondins, but, perhaps more importantly, to flush out her husband, who was in hiding. Jean-Marie Roland committed suicide shortly after hearing of his wife’s execution.

However, some women were arrested due to their own individual revolutionary activity, independent of marital status. Marie-Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, is a prime example. A longtime ally of the Girondins, she was also sympathetic to Marie-Antoinette and, in the face of the Jacobins’ increased radicalism, called for a more tempered government. In 1793, she published a pamphlet that considered a constitutional monarchy (among others) as a potential form of government, which led to her arrest and eventual execution. Her official charge was sedition and harboring monarchist sympathies—or, trying to overthrow the current state power (Madame Roland was similarly charged).

Though a direct comparison between American and French counter-revolutionary women would be a fraught enterprise, I think that comparing the cases side by side is highly suggestive. For one, both revolutions raise questions regarding the treatment of married women and the varied uses and implications of coverture (disregarding the fact that, as a legal doctrine, it is antithetical to the principles of both the American and French Revolutions). Moreover, there are both practical and theoretical distinctions between executing women en masse and officially naming them as traitors in a published document. Naming traitors years after the fact doesn’t only discredit the people named; it further articulates a discourse of proper citizenship and helps further the ever-evolving project of creating the ideal subject. It keeps names like “Benedict Arnold” in the air. When women were sent to the guillotine during the Terror, they were largely anonymous. Madame Roland and Marie-Olympe de Gouges were published writers and notable personalities, but in most cases, those women remain faceless, nameless—they are not remembered as traitors or counter-revolutionaries, but, rather, as victims of the Terror.

So, at the end of the day, when it comes to being a “traitor,” is it important to be named in order to be remembered? Can we think about this in connection with citizenship, and how being “counted” as a traitor connects to “counting,” in some respects, as a citizen?


Black List. A List of Those Tories who took part with Great Britain, In the Revolutionary
War, and Were Attained of High Treason, Commonly Called the Black List! To
which is Prefixed the Legal Opinions of Attorney Generals, McKean & Dallas
Philadelphia, 1802.

Kerber, Linda K. “The Paradox of Women’s Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case
of Martin vs. Massachusetts, 1805.” The American Historical Review 97.2 (1992):

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People, Sources, and Counterrevolution: Or, What to Do with Molly Brant

One of our seminar meetings last semester featured Kathleen DuVal, Amy Freund, and Emma Rothschild, who all shared work dealing with different aspects of “people and revolution.” In introducing her work, Kathleen DuVal spoke of the intrinsic appeal of biography when attempting to understand a significant event. By focusing on people, we can attempt not only to understand the event itself, but also to glimpse how people lived within that event – how they responded to it, how they influenced it, or simply how they coexisted with it. DuVal argued that the Age of Revolution was particularly ripe for a biographical approach to the study of events, in large part because the Enlightenment accentuated a focus on the individual, and on his or her perceptions of both their exterior and interior worlds. She then introduced her concept of “slightly important people” – individuals who have received little or no attention from historians, but who nevertheless allow us some new insight into the people and events that populated and punctuated their lives. They may be “slightly important” because of their occupations, because of the people with whom they interacted, or because of their accomplishments. But DuVal also suggested that this importance is largely connected to sources. People become “slightly important” when they leave behind a written record, allowing historians access to a life and an experience that would otherwise remain unknown.

But what happens when the sources just aren’t there? How else might an individual – slightly important or otherwise – enter into historical memory? This question has been on my mind for some time now, so I was delighted when the topic of people and absent sources entered into the discussion at our latest seminar meeting. The topic, counterrevolutions, also introduced the theme of people and counterrevolution, and we were tremendously lucky to have scholars Ada Ferrer, Marie-Hélène Huet, and Phillip Gould as our guests. All three challenged us to think more critically about our sources – to place them into a complex and evolving transatlantic context, to think about one piece in relation to an individual’s canon of work, and to interrogate the evolution of literary styles and symbols. But it was Ferrer’s work on the revolution in Cuba in 1812 that introduced me to the fascinating questions that can be asked – and in some cases, answered – when the source base is problematic. Or, as Ferrer demonstrates with the case of rebellion leader José Antonio Aponte’s book of drawings, when a key source may be missing altogether.

What, then, is a scholar to do? In the case of the Cuban rebellion, the absence of Aponte’s sketchbook does not mean that Aponte himself has been absent from the historical record, and it does not mean that he has been left out of (recent) historical inquiry. There are descriptions of the drawings, from Aponte himself, because Aponte was interrogated about his book before he was executed (though Ferrer points out that this source is far from unproblematic – with questions answered under duress, and a scribe mediating Aponte’s words). But the fact remains that historians have never seen the book – a fact that is inherently frustrating, but is at the same time (for me, at least), galvanizing.

Which finally leads me to a most intriguing – yet source-poor – counterrevolutionary figure: Molly Brant, a Mohawk woman who aided the British as an informant, most notably assisting in the British victory at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. Using DuVal’s terminology, Brant could certainly be considered slightly important. She had influential family connections: she was the sister of war hero Joseph Brant, and the wife of Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Northern Indian Affairs. She lived in significant places, moving from her Mohawk village of Canajoharie (in present-day upstate New York), where her family hosted several important colonists, including Johnson, to Fort Niagara, where she helped maintain relations between the British military and the Iroquois. And without a doubt, Brant seized the possibilities the revolution provided her, transforming herself into a valuable, if unconventional, diplomat for Loyalist forces. Yet this slightly important woman produced no documents of her own. Like Aponte, she was important enough for her contemporaries to mention her, which has certainly helped carve out a (small) place for her in historical memory. In many ways she fits DuVal’s biographical imperative: she helps fill in the meaning of revolution, she allows us to understand war from another perspective, and most importantly, she provides insight into the opportunities that the American Revolution – or, perhaps, the rebellion – could create for an individual. And she fits nicely into Ferrer’s methodology, which refuses to be cowed by the absence of sources.

But what can we really do with Molly Brant’s obscure biography? If we are to accept that the lives of individuals can help us better understand the experience of (counter)revolution, then Molly’s role as a cultural and political go-between, representing both Mohawk and Loyalist interests, can give important insight into how the war allowed – or perhaps required – groups and individuals to reconstitute their alliances, and it demonstrates in particular how the Mohawk negotiated a changing political and strategic landscape. Through Brant we also see the opportunities that war could provide for women. But what else can Molly Brant do for us? What other questions should we be asking? How else can we mine sources, or constructively interrogate their absence? How can we rise to the challenges that she – and countless others – present?

Plaque in Ontario honoring the Loyalist Molly Brant.  Despite her "slight importance," there are no visual representations of her.

Plaque in Ontario honoring the Loyalist Molly Brant. Despite her “slight importance,” there are no visual representations of her.

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Counterrevolutions, Empires, and Canada

Encampment of the Loyalists in Johnstown, 1925, (after an original), National Archives of Canada
“Encampment of the Loyalists in Johnstown,” National Archives of Canada

When we think about the relationship between revolution and counterrevolution in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, perhaps we should be thinking about Canada. Modern Canada’s constitutional foundations have their origins in the Constitutional Act of 1791 and the resettlement of thousands of Loyalist émigrés fleeing the American Revolution. The act split French Canada into two new provinces: Upper Canada–roughly corresponding to modern-day Ontario and predominantly British in character–and Lower Canada, analogous to modern-day Quebec and chiefly retaining its French culture. Each province received their own elected legislatures and legal structures, one based on British law and custom, the other following French precedents.

I propose to think about this new Canada as not one but three counterrevolutions. First, as a Loyalist counterrevolution. Although still yoked to the British Empire, the new Canada offered low taxes, cheap land, and a measure of republican government that promised to avoid the excesses of democracy that had threatened to overwhelm the American Revolution. The Crown also took measures to ensure the establishment of the Anglican church in Canada, putting an effective end to nearly two centuries of the “Catholic menace” in Quebec. In effect, the American Loyalists in Upper Canada succeeded in securing imperial support for many of their Patriot adversaries’ original goals.

But Canada was also a conservative imperial counterrevolution: with the 1791 Constitution, the Crown acted to prevent another American Revolution by firmly securing Canada within London’s imperial orbit. The new government strictly regulated the press, limited access to the electoral process, and encouraged the establishment of a new governing aristocracy unwavering in their allegiance to the monarchy. Each of these actions aimed at curbing the sources of friction that plagued the Crown’s relationship with the thirteen seceded provinces–inflammatory newspaper editorials, the growth of a recalcitrant upper class, and broadly-conceived constitutional rights concerning the sovereignty of the people. 1791 was the first test of a mixed imperial/constitutional government that became the hallmark of the new British Empire.

Finally, it might be possible to imagine Canada’s new constitution as a British counterrevolution in the face of an increasingly radical French Revolution. Edmund Burke, one of the act’s chief proponents, had published his counterrevolutionary pamphlet Reflections on the French Revolution the previous year. Burke and Parliament’s growing fear of the French mob might be one reason behind the clear division of Canada into separate British and French zones–if the Constitution’s concessions to republicanism proved inadequate to French Canadians, a divided populace would be easier to control. In any event, the new Canada emerged shortly after French Revolutionaries forced a reluctant Louis XVI to adopt the 1791 Constitution, severely limiting the powers of the French monarchy. Burke might have found this poetic.

What do we gain when we think about Canada as a counterrevolution? I will offer a transnational suggestion: as historian Alan Taylor has argued, acknowledging the existence of a second republican government on the American continent demands a re-conceptualization of the gains and limits of the American Revolution. In other words, can we now imagine a Canadian dimension to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the “Revolutionary Settlement,” itself often described as an American counterrevolution? Similarly, how does Canada’s constitution compare with the Haitian constitutions promulgated between 1801 and 1816, and the French constitutions of 1791-1804? Is it noteworthy that in an age of constitutional turmoil, Canada emerged with a relatively solid government structure? If nothing else, the idea of Canada-as-counterrevolution insists that we include Canada in any transnational discussion of an Atlantic Age of Revolution.

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Impressions from the MFA: How to (Re)Present the Americas

Last Thursday’s visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was a precious experience. It was one of our ‘laboratory’ sessions of the Sawyer seminar, and we spent most of our time seeing the “Art of Americas” wing, which displayed the artworks in the U.S. and other parts of North and South America. Not only the wing’s size but the beauty of its collection impressed me very much. And, above all, I admired the concept and organization of the wing itself. As the curators told us, the ‘Americas’ wing aimed to present the arts of both Americas in such a way to fully represent the U.S. history in the broader context of the Atlantic world. If the MFA had been oriented toward Boston and New England, they explained, it was making effort to be both more national and international by means of acquisition and rearrangement of artworks in the wing. The MFA’s ambition to represent the Americas in the plural, rather than ‘America’ (equated with the U.S.) alone, was what made our experience of artworks exciting, though it did not always achieve its ambitious goal.

One of my favorite works in the wing was the chairs, as they seemed to best exemplify the wing’s achievement. On the first floor of the wing, there was a row of the eighteenth-century chairs, which came from all over the U.S. and Barbados. If I had seen each of them by itself, I wouldn’t have been impressed as I was. There was something deeply instructive about the way in which the chairs were placed and presented. The presentation enabled me to compare different styles at a quick glance. Moreover, it stimulated my curiosity about the social and cultural contexts that underlied such a variety of style. I came to ask myself the questions concerning the relationship between the furniture’s appearances (shape, size, and color) and the regional peculiarities (such as climate, material wealth, social stability, and so on). For example, finding the chair from Barbados to be bigger than others, I wondered if its size would tell something of the opulence of the colony and perhaps of the need for magnificence in life style on white settlers’ part. In short, the display of the chairs was instructive in the best sense: thought-provoking.

Yet some parts of the Americas wing did not achieve this level of consistency in presentation. And the focus on geography, in particular, made it somewhat difficult for the artworks to be representative of the Americas. It was unfortunate that this innovative wing resorted to conventional ways of presenting arts by sticking to geography especially when it comes to South America. The ‘South America’ section on the first floor (Gallery 135, whose official name was “New Spain and the Spanish Tradition”) would be a case in point. It was the only gallery on the first floor that was devoted to the arts of South America, being surrounded by the galleries that featured those of colonial New England and the newly made United States. I believe I wasn’t the only one who could not quite understand the connection between the South America gallery and the adjacent ones. Nor could I get over the sense that various paintings, ornaments, and furniture were lumped together in this gallery just for the reason they came from South America, from Mexico, Cuba, and so on.

All of these impressions, then, point toward the fact that the theme-based, rather than the geography-oriented, organization of the wing would have been much more effective in representing the Americas. Some might object that all the museums have limited resources and, therefore, have the limits in achieving its mission statement. But I doubt that this is the case of the MFA. In my view, it is less a matter of the collection or acquisition than a matter of display and conceptualization. Suppose the MFA would create a gallery that is centered around the slavery and/or slave trade in the Atlantic world. The Cuban chest in the South America gallery, the grandeur of which we admired very much, then, will be placed in this new gallery, testifying the luxury based on the exploitation of slave labor. There, it won’t sit alone but will find a good company in a British plantation owner, William Beckford’s exquisite chest, which we actually found in the European arts wing. Furthermore, what if they would spare a room for ‘race’? It surely would provide the audience with good insights on the issue, demonstrating the diverse ways of representing races in North and South America. Do they have enough works for this gallery? What immediately comes to my mind are the costume paintings, again, in the South America gallery (but, alas, they are on loan), which portray a variety of racial types in the colonial society in South America. These paintings would go very well along with other American paintings on African or Native Americans around the same period. If it would take too much effort to adjust the organization of the permanent collection, a temporary exhibition would suffice for the time being to make the “Art of Americas” wing more representative and instructive.

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Revolutions of endless possibilities?

This blog post was inspired by Cassandra’s and Jeanna’s explorations of the role of women in the revolutions of the 18th century. In her blog, Cassandra highlights that the opportunities offered to women during the American Revolution were not without limit. She argues that, “just because homespun provided an opportunity for the politicization of the domestic sphere, and gave “women” a place in which they could contribute substantially to a rather significant cause, does not mean that women were readily accepted as political actors.” Jeanna’s post on sensibility echoes Cassandra’s in many ways. By showing the “inefficacy of sensibility as protest for women” through a close reading of Charlotte Smith’s novel Desmond, Jeanna also demonstrates the limits put on the possibilities for political action available to women. Reading Cassandra’s and Jeanna’s posts made me realize how much of the historiography on the French and American revolutions revolve around the questions of the possibilities that these revolutions opened up, as well as their limits.

I can think of two fields in which these questions are particular prominent: gender and the study of religious/racial minorities, such as Jews. Specialists of both topics continue to struggle with the legacies of the French and American revolutions. Much of the literature on these two revolutions, it seems to me, is devoted to how the revolutions did not, after all, yield as positive results as one (eg previous historians) had assumed. For example, in article published in 1995, historian Carole Shammas showed the persistence of patriarchal households in post-revolutionary United States, thus emphasizing the continuities in family life between British America and the United States.(1) By doing so, she suggested that historians tend to overstate the changes that the American revolution wrought, in particular as far as women were concerned.

I am struck by the contrast between the scholarship on American women and that on French Jews. While some historians of the former, such as Shammas, stress the limits of revolutionary change, historians of French Jews have acknowledged the nature of revolutionary change as a dramatic rupture with the past, but have questioned whether this break was good or bad for Jews. Unlike Shammas, who stresses the continuities between the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras, these historians see the French revolution as a rupture, but not necessarily a positive one. For example, Pierre Birnbaum reminds us that the historiography of Jews and the French Revolution has been divided among three lines of interpretation, one of which argues that the revolution was detrimental to the Jews because French universalism (that originated in the French revolution) jeopardized the ethnic link among Jews and destroyed their unique identity.(2) The truth is that, in recent years, this interpretation has been widely discredited. For instance, historians such as Lisa Leff and Nadia Malinovich have shown that ethnic identification and solidarity among French Jews did not disappear in the wake of the French revolution.(3) Yet, it strikes me that the question “Was the French Revolution good or bad for the Jews?” has shaped the historiography on French Jews, and echoes the question, implicit in the historiography of women in post-revolutionary America, “Was the American Revolution that good for women?”.

The question to me then is, do we tend to assume that revolutions should be “good” (empowering, liberating, equalizing, etc.), and if so, why? My intuition is that scholars of the “Age of Revolution” do in fact assume, maybe unconsciously, that revolutions should necessarily yield positive results, for minorities in particular, and seem surprised when the historical record indicates that maybe revolutions did not open endless possibilities after all. I am not sure why this is so; maybe we take the discourse of the revolutionaries themselves too seriously, or maybe there is a flair of romanticism about revolutions that tweaks our reading of past events. I really don’t know. But I want to suggest that we need to question our assumptions about what revolutions do or do not do; this, in turn, may help us assessing the degree of continuity and change during and following revolutions without resorting to moral terms.

1. Shammas,Carole. “Anglo-American Household Government in Comparative Perspective,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 52, 1 (1995), pp. 104-144.
2. Birnbaum, Pierre. ” Les Juifs entre l’appartenance identitaire et l’entrée dans l’espace public : la Révolution française et le choix des acteurs. ” Revue française de sociologie. 1989, 30-3-4. Sociologie de la révolution. Etudes réunies et introduites par François Gresle et François Chazel. pp. 497-510.
3. See: Leff, Lisa Moses. Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-century France. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006, and Malinovich, Nadia. French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth-century France. Oxford, UK ; Portland, Or.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.

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Revolution and Modernity

In his blog post “Print Culture and the Problematics of Revolution”, Haram referred to “the frictions and pressures that post-colonial nation-states encounter in the process of incorporation within the socio-political and cultural matrix of Western modernity.” This sentence brings up two questions that I have been struggling with for the past few months: What is Western modernity? Furthermore, what is the relationship between revolution and modernity?

Some of the scholars that we have read in this seminar would argue that modernity is a change in consciousness (here come the imaginary and representations again!), in particular consciousness of time. Lynn Hunt for instance claims that the French Revolution inaugurated a new relationship to time.(1) Arendt made a somewhat similar argument. In “The meaning of Revolution”, she wrote: “The modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never know or told before, is about to unfold, was unknown prior to the great revolutions at the end of the eighteenth-century.”(2) Both Hunt and Arendt seem to imply that the new relationship to the past and the future that emerged in the course of revolutionary events was itself modern.

Did modernity start in the “Age of Revolution”, in particular the French Revolution, then? Sociologist Gurminder Bhambra has argued that at least French historians have thought so for a long time. She claims that the idea that the French Revolution marked the beginning of modernity has roots in the French revolutionary historiography: “As Furet argues, the Revolution was not understood simply as an event within a complex of events, but rather, was seen as constitutive of the advent of a new age (…).This heightened the sense of the present as unique and unprecedented and, as a consequence, problematized the way in which the relationship between the past and present was theorized.”(3) Yet, does the fact that revolutionaries thought that they were opening a new, modern, time, makes them, or their period, modern? Did revolutionaries think of themselves as “modern” and can historians use their self-definition as a unmediated category of analysis?

It is worth noticing that there is no consensus about where “modernity” starts- witness the debate about whether the Enlightenment marks the beginning of modernity. I wonder what is at stake in the debates about the chronology of modernity. Periodization is central to the writing of history, and it would make sense that historians discuss when modernity emerges, at least for purposes of communication. If we all start the “modern” age at a different time, discussing modernity becomes nearly impossible. Yet, there is something more to this debate, and I can’t quite figure out what it is. How important is it to trace modernity back to the “Age of Revolution” for example? What does the category of “modernity” teach us about the revolutions themselves? Does modernity, as a lens, further or hinder our understanding of the Haitian, American and French revolutions?

As I am writing these questions, I find myself wondering what modernity means, after all. And the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the “modern” refers to whatever resembles the world we know, the world of the 21th century: a world in which citizenship, nation-states, and technology frame and define our identities as individuals, and members of local and national groups. Thus, the attempt to locate the “modern” in the “Age of Revolution”, which still permeates the historiography, is part of a quest to understand who we are, and trace the genealogy of the world we know. There is nothing wrong per se about doing this, but I think that there is a great need to define “modernity” better, and ask ourselves whether and when it is a useful heuristic device, if we want to understand the past better.

1. Hunt, Lynn Avery. Measuring Time, Making History. Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press, 2008, p.68.
2. Arendt, Hanna. On Revolution. New York: The Viking Press, 1963, p.21.
3. Bhambra, Gurminder K. Rethinking Modernity. Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination, p.106.

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Sensibility and Revolution: A Case Study

In seminar this week, we started to talk about the discourse of sensibility. Sensibility was particularly prominent in Mary Ashburn Miller’s article, in which she linked sensibility to authenticity. Miller writes, “The more passionate an individual during the phase of the Terror, the more authentic his actions were interpreted to be” (372). Sensibility was linked to authenticity, certainly; it was also linked to morality, both to an individual’s moral judgment and to the effect of that judgment on the broader community. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith calls sympathy one of “the original passions of human nature” (2). Though the discourse of sensibility was appropriated for the rhetoric of politics and revolution (as noted by Miller and numerous others), its insistence on authenticity and morality, and in those things being evidenced by the body, presents an important tension. In seminar, Tom King asked the question: how revolutionary is the discourse of sensibility? He suggested the possibility of decidedly non-revolutionary violence, latent in a strong rhetoric of sensibility.

However, I would like to take this important question in a different direction in this blog post. Because sensibility relies on the body and physicality to demonstrate its own authenticity, it may not be read as political or revolutionary in itself; the context of the particular body or group of bodies is important. This is especially important to consider for bodies of those not in authority: women, racial, ethnic, and religious “others,” the socioeconomically underprivileged, etc. Sensibility was an important discourse that manifested not only in print but also in the public sphere, on the body, in moments of action—what was it for a body operating within the discourse of sensibility to not be recognized as politically minded or “revolutionary,” and what are the consequences of such a failure of recognition?

I am particularly interested in considering the convergence of sensibility with the political in sentimental novels of the 1790s. Notably, though sensibility was not an inevitably gendered discourse, even in novels (see Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, 1771), the sentimental novel, known for its excessive emotionality, was very much associated with women. The work of radical authors like Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Smith is particularly useful when looking at this intersection of sensibility with revolution, as they often parody the extremes of the genre and/or offer critiques of the representation of women as irrational creatures overcome by physical sensation (the sort of sentimentality Wollstonecraft criticizes in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

To this end, I would like to briefly look at an example of a particularly virulent scene of sensibility in Charlotte Smith’s 1792 novel Desmond, widely considered to be her most radical work. Desmond, Smith’s only epistolary novel, was written explicitly in reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Borrowing from Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise, Smith crafts an unorthodox sentimental narrative in which the young, idealistic, and wealthy Desmond (a revolutionary who nonetheless embodies Burke’s chivalric ideal) pines after Geraldine Verney, a married mother of three who suffers under the rule of her despotic husband; the novel’s climax comes when her husband tries to prostitute her to a French duke to pay off his debts. Desmond is not alone in his plight to save Geraldine from her husband’s plot: he is aided by Bethel, his Burkean mentor, and Fanny, Geraldine’s sister. Anne Mellor says, “Insofar as there is a feminist voice in the novel, it occurs in the letters that Fanny writes to her sister and Bethel” (118). Fanny is intensely critical of her brother-in-law’s despotism as well as her mother’s failure to defend Geraldine from harm. Though Fanny doesn’t connect her sister’s situation to the oppression of British (let alone French) women on a systemic level, her criticisms are still potent. Fanny’s critiques operate in two registers: satire (the verbal, e.g. wordplay) and sensibility (the physical, e.g. tears). Patricia Meyer Spacks’ assertion that eighteenth-century satire and sensibility both “proceed by and depend on exaggeration” is exemplified in Fanny, as she often swings from one to the other within one scene (131). However, satire proves a far more useful protest than sensibility, because sensibility is constantly misread as conventional sentimentality by other characters.

Indeed, Fanny’s sensibility is not recognized as political even in her most powerful scene, when Geraldine is about to leave for France, ostensibly to be prostituted. At this point, Geraldine is mentally and emotionally exhausted, as evidenced by her claims that she would rather die in the course of duty than be prostituted by her husband and cruelly treated by her mother—she sees herself as a martyr to virtue (303). Fanny and Bethel are responsible for seeing Geraldine off, and Fanny is physically overcome: she sobs violently, incapable of speech. This is Fanny’s last scene in the novel, and this overflow of emotion towards her sister can be seen as the culmination of her protests, which have been heard but not heeded. Fanny’s powerful show of sensibility affronts Geraldine’s near-parodic pursuit of duty and actually incites a response, suggesting the possibility that sensibility may function as a form of political protest.

However, Fanny’s sensibility is misread by Geraldine and Bethel, who see it not only as a sign of conventional (irrational) femininity, but also as being fear-driven and anti-Jacobin. For Desmond, this is decidedly anti-revolutionary. Geraldine appeals to Bethel, stating:

This dear girl is so unfortunately full of sensibility and affection, that it is impossible to pacify her. She fancies I go to meet anarchy and murder in France; and on seeing me packing… she has relapsed into the wildest expressions of sorrow. I wish you would try… to reason her out of these groundless apprehensions. (303)

Curiously, Geraldine suggests that Fanny’s reaction is inspired not by the injustice of her situation but rather by “groundless apprehensions” about the dangers in France, implicitly aligning Fanny with Burkean conservatism. Fanny’s sensibility, interpreted by Geraldine as anti-Jacobin, is thus repudiated. The sudden association of Fanny’s sensibility with Burkean conservatism and public fear is further solidified by the fact that Bethel, Burke’s fictional counterpart, agrees with Fanny’s purported “apprehensions,” further undermining any revolutionary reading of Fanny’s sensibility.

One potential political commentary that emerges from this scene is the inefficacy of sensibility as protest for women, which also makes a broader statement about the options women in crisis had during this era. When Geraldine departs, Fanny is once again “sobbing bitterly,” and Bethel is moved by the scene but says that he has no time to “[indulge] useless sympathy” (307). Rather, Bethel has used his resources in order to offer Geraldine some provision for both finances and her physical safety. Bethel possesses agency and access to resources to assist Geraldine on her journey; Fanny has only tears, which are construed as almost harmful, as when Geraldine says, “Do not destroy me… by your affection, which is now almost cruelty” (307). Compared with men’s economic agency, Fanny’s sensibility is presented as an ineffective recourse.

While Smith hints at the possibility of sensibility as protest, the potential for misinterpretation is high. Insistent misreading of female sensibility further marginalizes non-privileged bodies by reinscribing them as apolitical. The refusal to recognize sensibility on behalf of political and revolutionary causes in women, for example, is not only a refusal of political agency on the public level, e.g. political representation in the National Assembly, but—perhaps even more dangerously—privately, in that it denies female agency: the authenticity of a woman’s own experience that is engaged with politics and/or revolution. In thinking about what constitutes the revolutionary in this course, I increasingly question how much the revolutionary requires recognition by others: can the revolutionary exist in the individual, or must there be recognition and exchange? In Desmond, sensibility is too easily misread on a woman’s body to register as revolutionary.

Mellor, Anne. Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780-1830.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Print.
Miller, Mary Ashburn. “Mountain, Become a Volcano: The Image of the Volcano in the
Rhetoric of the French Revolution.” French Historical Studies 32.4 (2009): 555-
585. Print.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: G. Bell & Sons, 1892. Print.
Smith, Charlotte. Desmond. Eds. Antje Blank and Janet Todd. New York: Broadview
Press, 2001. Print.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English
. New York: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.

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The Many Lives of Fortune Freeman

This is a blog about people in revolution. Specifically, it’s a blog about documents and what they can and cannot tells us about the people who participate in revolutions. It is inspired by something Kathleen DuVal said at our November symposium: “War creates documents.” This struck me as a profound truth about the way many historians study revolutions. The most bountiful manuscript collections related to the American Revolution, for example, owe much of their abundance to wartime documentation. George Washington’s eight years of wartime correspondence are more voluminous than the rest of his life combined. Similarly, the Papers of the Continental Congress devote volume after volume to collecting and organizing materials tracing the course of the war. Historians do not always study revolutionary war. But they owe much to its largesse.

Fortune Freeman's Discharge, 1783 Wartime documents offer unique opportunities to examine individual lives during revolution. In a period where ordinary people left few documents providing detail about their lives, military service created a vast paper trail that once reassembled allows us to reconstruct the experiences of those who are often silent in the documentary record. In this scenario, even the seemingly mundane can turn out to have incredible significance.

During the course of dissertation research, I came across the document pictured to the left (courtesy of the National Archives and Fold3.) Found in federal pension records from the nineteenth-century, this soldier’s discharge from December 1783 is a relatively unremarkable document except for the fact that the soldier in question turned out to be former slave with the felicitous name of Fortune Freeman. Living in New York City in 1818, Freeman appeared before a city judge to attest that he was “extremely poor” and needed “the assistance of my Country to prevent my being dependent on charity.” His net worth was less than ten dollars; his only belongings clothes “all old & nearly worn out.” As proof of his military service during the American Revolution, he produced his discharge. The court clerk (who described Freeman as “a black” in the record) sent the materials to Washington DC for review. Fortune Freeman soon received a standard soldier’s pension of eight dollars per month. [1].

Freeman’s life turned out to be a bit of a mystery. Hoping to learn more about his background, I dug into the comprehensive seventeen-volume index Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War. To my surprise, I found no less than four men named Fortune Freeman serving in the Continental Army between 1777 and 1783. To my even greater surprise, not one seemed to be the individual who applied for a pension in 1818: all were serving in different regiments and at different places than those claimed in Freeman’s pension application. Further research into extant army muster and pay rolls has led me to believe that Fortune Freeman was originally a slave from Essex County, Massachusetts named Fortune Conant. He served in the Continental Army for two different terms totaling six years. Significantly, enlistment documents for his second term of service list him as Fortune Freeman, indicating that he probably earned freedom through military service.

Fortune Freeman’s discharge is a simple document. It lists his name, his regiment, the date of his discharge, and not much else. There are thousands just like it scattered across the millions of papers in the pension files, but this one turned out to be a treasure trove. Whereas I began my quest searching for one man, this document revealed the Revolutionary stories of five different African-American soldiers each with their own unique wartime experiences.

But if Fortune Freeman opened new doors, others remain firmly and frustratingly shut. Each of the five men discovered through this single document remain otherwise invisible in the historical record. Massachusetts town and census records contain few references to men named Fortune Freemen, let alone for several different ones. Fortune Freeman’s life in New York City is equally obscure. He doesn’t appear in city directories or on the decennial census schedules. Even the federal government eventually lost track of him: an undated, handwritten note on his pension record reads “Time of death not on file.” Ultimately, their lives before and after the American Revolution are unknown. Each survives in the historical record solely through materials created to document their military service. This speaks not only to the importance of wartime documentation in tracing people in revolution, but also to the significance of the Revolutionary War in each of these eighteenth-century lives.

[1] All quotations from documents in the pension file for Fortune Freeman, File S43572, National Archives Microfilm Publication M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files.

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