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American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 276-310



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"A Dowry of Suffering":
Consent, Contract, and Political Coverture in John W. De Forest's Reconstruction Romance

Gregory S. Jackson

In 1867, John W. De Forest, the newly appointed district chief of the Freedmen's Bureau in Greenville, South Carolina, expressed regret for what he perceived to be the overly harsh and coercive nature of federal Reconstruction policy. As a Union army veteran who had served as both soldier and correspondent under Generals Butler, Phelps, and Sherman, De Forest's concern for Southern rights and liberties under Reconstruction seems at first glance surprising in light of the oft-reported narrative of deep postbellum hostility between Northerners and Southerners. In fact, however, De Forest joined a number of Americans who sought toachieve a national reconciliation based on some form of mutualconsent and affection between the former warring parties. Inspired by what he believed to be the need for a more equitable rapprochement between North and South, De Forest engaged in numerous literary ventures to advance themes of intersectional reconciliation.

De Forest's experience as a soldier, a Department of Defense agent, a congressionally appointed Reconstruction deputy, and a Northerner whose wife had deep Southern ties gave him a broad vantage from which to evaluate the possibilities for national reconciliation. By the late 1860s, he had come to oppose congressional radicals' punitive Reconstruction agenda, sternly warning Northern readers about the bleak prospects for a nation reconstructed in form but not in function, "in head but not in heart." For De Forest, employing conventional instruments of political allegiance—mandated loyalty oaths, revised and coercively ratified state constitutions, and prescribed ballot outcomes—merely [End Page 276] disguised postwar sectionalism and did little to heal the national schism. In his memoir A Union Officer in the Reconstruction (c. 1867-85), he acknowledged that federal policy may have used proper legal and civil standards to coerce Southern consent but lamented that neither those who experienced nor those who enforced such coercion would perceive it as the democratic rule of law. 1 National reconciliation, he argued, required a unified vision of the nation as family, not a citizen obligation based on ineluctable economic and political ties. A "heartfelt" reconciliation required consent through a gentle wooing of a "frail and conquered region"; coerced obligation only suppressed, even as it heightened, sectional animus.

De Forest's growing concern with what he perceived to be Congress's unduly authoritarian contractual formalism led him to engage one of the most vexing dilemmas of modern political theory: the nature of the contract between citizen and state. De Forest, echoing the sentimental turn of his time, increasingly looked askance at coercive understandings of social contract, searching instead for a model of obligation that would promote a more meaningful restoration of the national family's severed bonds. Alongside this evolution came a shift in the tone of his journalism from terse, descriptive editorials to passionate sentimentalism in his last political essays. His concerns about national healing emerged soon after the war's end. In 1867, while Acting Assistant Adjutant General in the Veteran Reserve Corps, he turned to a popular genre of postbellum reconciliation romance with the publication of Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867). De Forest found the sentimental particularly salient for staging the contradiction of consent and coercion at citizenship's core. 2 Many writers, Northern and Southern, sought to bridge the national schism by crafting allegories of national unification that drew on sentimentalism's broad diffusion throughout American culture. While these writers' diverse politics presented competing visions of national reconciliation, they all shared a desire for just that end.

The use of marriage as a model for social contract provided the most significant unifying theme of all reunion romances. These novels each partook in a tradition of political analogy that used marriage to represent how either the citizen or the state, like the spouse, consents for life to a binding obligation. For De Forest, romance plots of love and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 276-310
Launched on MUSE
2003-05-09
Open Access
No
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