restricted access Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898 (review)
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Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776–1898. By Elizabeth D. Samet. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8047-4725-3. Notes. Index. Pp. xii, 273. $55.00.

Elizabeth D. Samet, associate professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy, has undertaken an ambitious literary analysis of "obedience as a cultural motif" in American history (p. 9). In Willing Obedience, Samet offers a far-ranging examination of the means and methods by which Americans reconciled their obedience to the state or other larger entity with their own individual or group liberties and responsibilities. Samet draws upon and [End Page 968] juxtaposes the writings of a handful of elite Americans in fleshing out her picture of a citizenry struggling between the contending demands of obedience and liberty. According to Samet, the "soldier, whose relationship to authority only seems transparent," stands "as a metonym for the situation of all citizens in a republic" (p. 9). He is representative of the duality of Americans' national character and their relationship with authority—citizen and soldier, autonomy and obedience.

Samet's methodology is informed by Ernst H. Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). Like Kantorowicz's monarch, "invested with two bodies—a fallible body natural . . . hedged in by a divine political suprabody," Samet proposes that Americans also possessed two metaphorical bodies, those of the citizen and of the soldier (p. 3). However, unlike the mediaeval monarch whose "two bodies worked . . . in concert," Samet argues that the American republican identity existed in an irreconcilable state of conflict between the citizen's obligation to exercise and defend liberty and the soldier's necessary surrender of it to obedience (ibid.). This unresolved conflict between the contending identities harks back to an older, deeply rooted contest in American colonial and English Commonwealth history, the struggle between liberty and grasping power. Thus the conflict between American citizens' two bodies can be understood as part of a larger pattern coursing through American history.

Willing Obedience is an interesting, often engaging book that straddles the line between cultural and intellectual history on the one hand and literary criticism and textual exegesis on the other. It is also a troubling work and a challenging read that is not recommended for a general audience. By harnessing her limited primary evidentiary base to the larger historical questions that she considers, Samet's claims become bold, even sweeping. But perhaps troubling is too forceful a word. It is not that Samet's basic argument is unsound or without some basis, but rather that her claims, while credible, simply lack the kind of depth and breadth of primary evidence and research that would be expected and demanded in a historical study, especially one that makes such far-reaching claims for a period of 122 years. Put simply, Willing Obedience is too much focused on the voices of the elite. The voice of the common citizen and soldier is but a faintly heard whisper.

Ricardo A. Herrera
Mount Union College
Alliance, Ohio