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Violence and the Body Politic in Seventeenth-Century New England
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Violence and the Body Politic in Seventeenth-Century New England
James Schramer
Youngstown State University
Timothy Sweet
West Virginia University
James Schramer

James Schramer is editing a collection of travel writing, and working on a manuscript that analyzes the role of the citizen-soldier in early American literature.

Timothy Sweet

Timothy Sweet is the author of Traces of War: Poetry, Photography, and the Crisis of the Union (Johns Hopkins 1990) and is currently working on a study of the positioning of Native Americans with respect to American pastoralism.


1. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse argue that "representation" may in itself constitute a form of violence, especially when the effect of representation is the "suppression of difference" (8). Our study expands this observation by examining a specific historical manifestation of the violence of political and theological representation. Richard Slotkin has demonstrated that violence lies at the core of the American experience; however, he is more concerned with the hero's regenerative experience of violence than he is with examining how the Puritan state used a rhetoric of violence to legitimate state-controlled and -directed violence. Slotkin locates violence within the individual spirit; we situate violence within the state, imagined as a body politic that enacts and controls violence through the rhetorical tropes we discuss. Rather than being internalized, state-sanctioned violence is externalized and directed at those deemed enemies of the body politic.

2. Kibbey argues that Puritan theological writings employed a concept of figura that "defied the conventional metaphoric opposition between 'figurative' and 'literal.' The configuration or shape was simply there, and its defining property was the dynamic materiality of its form" (3). The Puritans "fetishized" the Pequot body, regarding it as a "source of meaning," which had to be destroyed, because the Pequots were "living images of opposition to the New England Puritan living images of grace" (103, 102). We find that political discourse also conflated the literal and the metaphorical. The question of political identity was, as our analysis will show, much more conflicted during King Philip's War than it was during the Pequot War; consequently, the distinction between literal and metaphorical violence was subject to greater ambiguity.

3. For more on the historical development of the figure of the body politic see Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Although he acknowledges his debt to F. W. Maitland's studies of the royal corporation (see Selected Essays, Cambridge, 1936), Kantorowicz finds them lacking (vii). Maitland was aware of the theory of the King's two bodies, but he limited himself to exposing its ludicrous implausibilities. Kantorowicz examines the importance of this "heuristic fiction" to the development of medieval political thought (5). He carefully distinguishes between the idea of the body politic as a political reality and the abstract personification of the state as a persona ficta. "To put it succinctly, the regnum or patria was not 'personified'—it was 'bodified'" (270-71, author's emphasis). In Love's Body, Norman O. Brown psychoanalyzes Kantorowicz's model of the body politic. This extrapolation from the individual psyche to the state provides an important frame for the analysis of Puritan violence against Indians, but is limited by its reliance on the Oedipal paradigm. According to Brown, Freud's recognition that the ego is not substance but representation implies that "the primal form of politics [is] not domination (repression), but representation" (110). Brown conflates the individual and the state, asserting that "there is only one psyche, in relation to which all conflict is endopsychic, all war intestine. The external enemy is (part of) ourselves, projected, our own badness, banished" (162). For Brown, war is a process of ego-formation operating simultaneously at the levels of the individual and the state.

4. Johnson's protagonist is the Massachusetts Bay Colony which, Jennings points out, competed with Connecticut as well as with the Pequots and Narrangansetts for control over the Connecticut valley. See Jennings 178-79 and passim.

5. According to Captain John Underhill's firsthand account, "Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their partners" (qtd. in Slotkin, Regeneration 76).

6. Many...