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  • The Aesthetics of The Federalist
  • Joseph Fichtelberg (bio)

For Jeff Richards

On February 16, 1788, the Federalist Pennsylvania Mercury published a diatribe by a writer calling himself "Centinel." The writer was not the celebrated polemicist Samuel Bryan, whose work had been circulating throughout the nation for months. This Centinel was an ironist, a highly self-conscious writer who spoofed his namesake's earnest objections even as he voiced them. "Rouse then, my countrymen," he demanded:

Rouse, ye Shayites, Dayites, and Shattuckites!—Ye insurgents, rioters, and deserters! . . . Be not such a parcel of stupid, dunder-headed, blunder-headed, muddle-headed, puddle-headed, blockheads—Such a tribe of snivelling, drivelling, sneaking, slinking, moping, poking, mumping, pitiful, pimping, pettifogging, poltrons,—such a set of nincumpoops, ninyhammers, mushrooms, jackasses, . . . shitepokes, and p—ssab—ds.1

The Federalists would not only savage liberty, Centinel warned, but also plague the body politic—"purge you and bleed you, glister you and blister you, drench you and vomit you . . . draw your teeth, tear your hair . . . punch you in the guts, and kick you in the breech" (DHRC 16: 135). The Constitution threatened more than tyranny, Centinel insisted. It promised an old-fashioned horse whipping.

The real force of the diatribe, however, involves art as much as politics. Centinel's Rabelaisian satire, his grotesque accumulation of crudities, mocks not only his Antifederalist opponents but, as in all good satire, the language of politics itself. His rhetorical excess invites even Federalists to consider the absurdity of their political claims, the overheated rhetoric that had dominated newspaper commentaries and pamphlets for the better part of a year. This self-reflexive quality, the sense that Centinel was both attacking and demurring, is most powerfully conveyed through his visceral language. The spewing, smashing, and leaking of bodies sharply undercuts the political logic it refracts, suggesting that the great constitutional [End Page 89] debate involved more than the lawyerly disquisitions of a Publius or a Brutus. Rather, the debate was shaped by the passions, rooted in physiology, and subject to the excesses of language. If, as Terry Eagleton has argued, eighteenth-century aesthetics is a discourse of the body (13), then Centinel's screed is a meditation on the art and limits of politics.

Until recently, to consider the grave business of Constitution building in relation to aesthetics would have seemed as absurd as a Rabelaisian catalog. In the last twenty years, however, several writers have sought to restore aesthetics to the vital role it played when it emerged in the eighteenth century—when, as Marc Redfield notes, the era's leading political theorists wrote treatises on this new discipline (11-12). To take up aesthetics in that era, Eric Slauter argues, was to lay claim to a science of taste, to the ideal of a rational, demonstrable order of responses applicable both to the arts and to politics. Friedrich Schiller's assertion that "[b]eauty resolves the conflict of natures . . . in the intricate totality of society" (137) is only the most luxuriant statement of a contemporary commonplace. Order and beauty were legible in all the works of man.2

Slauter's important study, The State as a Work of Art, has provided the most powerful statement of this recent emphasis. For Slauter, political commentary on the Constitution during the ratification debates was an exercise in what contemporaries like Noah Webster called the beauties of taste. The doctrine of "constitutional taste" (16) maintained that social design was a function of heightened perception, the disciplined apprehension of structure that began with the arts and found its natural culmination in politics. The ideal polity had the same artistic structure as a well-designed building, a "static work of legislative art," judged for its "formal beauties" (41). In post-Revolutionary America, Slauter maintains, "depictions of government that reference the human body gave way to depictions of a depersonalized political apparatus" (41). Precise, impersonal design, the balance of forces in rigorous proportion, became the measure of the modern state. Slauter's thesis reflects, in part, the extraordinary influence of Michael Warner's The Letters of the Republic. For Warner, political expression involved a double dissociation—an "incorporat[ion] into the meaning of the printed object" and an assumption...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-147X
Print ISSN
0012-8163
Pages
pp. 89-119
Launched on MUSE
2014-03-09
Open Access
No
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