Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 48, Number 2, Summer 1992
pp. 1-32 | 10.1353/arq.1992.0016
JAMES SCHRAMER AND TIMOTHY SWEET Violence and the Body Politic in Seventeenth-Century New England The new England puritans waged the Pequot War and King Philip's War, the central events of what Francis Jennings has aptly named the First and Second Puritan Conquests, primarily to acquire land in the Connecticut River valley. They did not always explicitly admit their self-interested motives, however. Instead, they developed an ideology that prescribed certain political and theological rationalizations for their conquests. In this essay, we analyze the Puritans' rhetoric of rationalization, focusing on the ideology represented by the figure of the "body politic." By importing to the New World the figure of the polis as a single body engaged in a struggle for self-preservation, with the ruler (ultimately God) as its head, the Puritans came prepared to enact a violence of externalization. At crucial historical moments they employed material violence and representations ofviolence, both deriving from the ideology of the body politic, to construct and then suppress difference in the form of Indians, the other of the polis. This difference became the object of a state-produced and, as our analysis will stress, a state-producing narrative of violence manifested in the Pequot War and King Philip's War.1 During King Philip's War especially, the Puritans attempted to strengthen this state-producing narrative of violence through infusions of a theological narrative in which the process of individual sanctification was modeled as war. This merger of theological and political narratives , which provided stronger ideological justifications for the killing Arizona Quarterly Volume 48 Number 2, Summer 1992 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004-1610 James Sehramer and Timothy Sweet of Indians than did either narrative alone, was possible because of the structural similarities in these narratives. In each instance, the desired configuration of self-identity was produced by metaphorical or literal violence. In the case of the individual saint, the metaphorical violence was directed against sin; in the case of the body politic, externalized and literal violence was directed against political enemies. However, the agent of that literal violence, the body politic, was itself also a figurai representation of the polis. During crises this rhetorical ambiguity invited conflation of the literal and figurai in both theological and political discourse. The intertextual relations between political and theological narratives became especially evident during the greatest crisis of seventeenth-century New England, King Philip's War. The scope of the literal violence that the Indians enacted against them caused the Puritans to lose sight of the boundaries they had erected between metaphorical and literal expressions of violence. Accounts of King Philip's War reveal a desire to maintain a distinction between literal and metaphorical violence as well as a realization that this distinction is necessarily blurred by any attempt to conceptualize or represent violence in terms of a narrative of the body politic. That the Puritans saw themselves as chosen by God to purify Christianity and prepare the world for the reign of Christ affected both their theological and political behavior. As Anne Kibbey has demonstrated in her analysis of the Pequot War, the tradition of Puritan iconoclasm explains much of their violence against the Indians. Examining the slaughter of the Pequots, Kibbey argues that the "decision to commit genocide follows directly from the assumptions of iconoclastic prejudice " (103-04). The destruction of church icons during the Protestant Reformation gave the Puritans a cultural precedent for violence against the Pequots: once the Pequots were identified as icons—material embodiments —of evil, Puritan theology prescribed a literal iconoclasm: a destruction of the material form, the body. We find, however, that the ideology of the body politic, with its ties to theological discourse and its problematic conflation of the literal and the figurai, prescribed even more directly the Puritans' actions toward the Indians and their conceptions of communal identity. Unlike iconoclasm which, Kibbey emphasizes , differentiated the Puritans from the rest of Christendom, the view of the state as a body politic was common in England and other European countries and was particularly effective as a means of conceptu- Viohnce and the Body Politic alizing not only political action but also political identity.2...