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  • "Learn to Love Your Book":The Child Reader and Affectionate Citizenship
  • Courtney A. Weikle-Mills (bio)

In one of the first children's books to cross the Atlantic, The Child's New Play-Thing (1750), a child character asks how he is to become a good citizen. The answer: he must learn to "love his book" and to keep company only with other children who do the same (73). This lesson signaled a relatively new posture that child readers were asked to take, but by the end of the century, "loving one's book"—referring sometimes to the Bible, but just as often to one's primer or favorite children's story—had become a pervasive idiom for all forms of moral wholesomeness, revealing a deep cultural investment in affectionate relationships. The rhetoric of affection permeated not only the relationship between reader and author, but a variety of hierarchical bonds, including those between children and parents, servants and masters, and citizens and law.

Historians have often linked this new emphasis on affection with the increased "liberty" of the child, the reader, and the citizen in general, an argument that echoes what many political theorists and pedagogues were claiming at the time. In what follows, I suggest that the simultaneous rise of affectionate readership and the assertion that citizens were "free" was not coincidental. The rhetoric of free citizenship that gained currency in the eighteenth century and contributed to the formation of the American nation was intensely dependent on the status of child readers and their affections. As a result, the concepts of affection and freedom, childhood and citizenship, literacy and liberty have remained entangled well into the twenty-first century.

Thus, as Jay Fliegelman first argued in Prodigals and Pilgrims (1982), the child is a particularly generative focal point for understanding the formation of an American political and literary ethos. In the initial effort to reclaim early republican texts from obscurity, scholars eager to combat long-standing [End Page 35] assertions that the early nation and its literary productions were "childish" downplayed Fliegelman's claims about the centrality of children.1 But as the study of early American literature has left its infancy, children and their books have been used more and more frequently to illuminate key elements of American literary and political history, such as the influence of Lockean pedagogy (Gillian Brown and Holly Brewer), the development of an American politics of sentiment (Karen Sánchez-Eppler), the convergence of text, sound, and image in the training of American readers (Patricia A. Crain), and the negotiation of a contested national landscape (Martin Brückner and Anna Mae Duane). I further identify the child's part in shaping early national practices of sympathy, literacy, and political identity by tracing the ways in which, through new modes of reading, children's affections and citizens' freedom came to be intrinsically linked. This fantasy of a republic of children aligned public and private arenas of political participation, creating what I call "affectionate citizenship," or the imagination that the citizen's allegiance to the state was freely given and based on love. Affection, as a tool of citizen-making, both enabled and concealed limitations in the citizen's freedom, making the obedient child an apt representation of the ideal subject.

Like many scholars who explore American citizenship, I turn my attention first to John Locke, the most influential political and pedagogical thinker read by the nation's founders.2 Children were an integral part of Locke's theoretical apparatus. In addition to including extensive analyses of childhood in his political works, he wrote a popular theory of the developing mind, An Essay on Human Understanding (1690), and an influential work on child governance, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). As Locke's continued preoccupation with the child might suggest, his viewpoint on childhood was fraught with contradictions, the most significant of which involved his conflicting representation of the relationship between children and citizens. He argued that parental power and political power were distinct, while simultaneously establishing the status of the child as the supreme measure of the citizen's freedom. Through a close analysis of Locke's work, I argue that he equates childhood and...


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