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Performing the Temple of Liberty

Slavery, Theater, and Popular Culture in London and Philadelphia, 1760–1850

Jenna M. Gibbs

Publication Year: 2014

Jenna M. Gibbs explores the world of theatrical and related print production on both sides of the Atlantic in an age of remarkable political and social change. Her deeply researched study of working-class and middling entertainment covers the period of the American Revolution through half of the next century, examining controversy over the place of black people in the Anglo-American moral imagination. Taking a transatlantic and nearly century-long view, Performing the Temple of Liberty draws on a wide range of performed texts as well as ephemera—broadsides, ballads, and cartoons—and traces changes in white racial attitudes. Gibbs asks how popular entertainment incorporated and helped to define concepts of liberty, natural rights, the nature of blackness, and the evils of slavery while also leading to widespread acceptance, in America and in Great Britain, of blackface performance as a form of racial ridicule. Readers follow the migration of theatrical texts, images, and performers between London and Philadelphia. The story is not flattering to either the United States or Great Britain. Gibbs's account demonstrates how British portrayals of Africans ran to the sympathetic and to a definition of liberty that produced slave manumission in 1833, yet incorporated an increasingly racialized sense of cultural superiority. On the American stage, the treatment of blacks devolved into a denigrating, patronizing view embedded both in blackface burlesque and in the idea of "Liberty," the figure of the white goddess. Performing the Temple of Liberty will appeal to readers across disciplinary lines of history, literature, theater history, and culture studies. Scholars and students interested in slavery and abolition, British and American politics and culture, and Atlantic history will also take an interest in this provocative work.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Early America: History, Context, Culture


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xiv

Every first-time author owes a primary debt to her teachers, and my debt is unusually deep. When, in 1996, I decided to leave behind a career in the theater to go back to school and acquire a bachelor’s degree, I had the good fortune to take my first undergraduate history classes at Moorpark College, California, with...

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Introduction: Political and Cultural Exchange in the British Atlantic

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pp. 1-12

Come with me and stroll along the Thames River to the Haymarket Theatre Royal on August 4, 1787. Shackled African slaves are being marched to Greenwich, where a ship will transport them to the Americas. The streets teem with pedestrians, peddlers, and pickpockets; bawdy drunks spill out of taverns; rakes and...

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Part One. Slave-Trade Abolition: Pageantry, Parody, and the Goddess of Liberty (1790s–1820s)

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pp. 13-16

Transatlantic abolitionist, revolutionary, and pamphleteer Thomas Paine envisaged the origins of republican liberty in a poem first published in the Pennsylvania Magazine in June 1775 under the pseudonym “Atlanticus.” The “Goddess of Liberty,” he enthused, had descended from the heavens in her “chariot of light”...

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Chapter One. Celebrating Columbia, Mother of the White Republic

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pp. 17-51

On December 26, 1807, just as Congress passed legislation to ban the foreign slave trade, Philadelphia’s New Theatre on Chestnut Street performed The Spirit of Independence, which featured “a grand emblematical transparency of the GENIUS OF AMERICA” and a “characteristical dance” set in the “temple of liberty...

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Chapter Two. Abolitionist Britannia and the Blackface Supplicant Slave

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pp. 52-86

James Thompson’s “Rule Britannia,” a poem glorifying empire, militarism, and commerce, was set to music and turned into a nationalistic anthem by Thomas Augustine Arne in 1740. The anthem took on new antislavery resonance in 1807 as Great Britain abolished the slave trade and fought Napoleon. Artists, abolitionists...

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Chapter Three. Spreading Liberty to Africa

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pp. 87-114

After slave-trade abolition, Philadelphians and Londoners developed idealizations of Britannia, abolitionist empress of the sea, and Columbia, mother of the white republic, and imagined them saving the African continent from war, paganism, and the interior slave trade. Indeed, Anglo-American redemptive liberty...

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Part Two. Emancipation and Political Reform: Burlesque, Picaresque, and the Great Experiment (1820s–1830s)

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pp. 115-118

“Although much has already been written on the great experiment . . . on the other side of the Atlantic, there appears to be still room for many interesting details on the influence which the political system of the country has produced on the principles, tastes, and manners, of its domestic life.”1 Thus wrote Fanny...

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Chapter Four. Black Freedom and Blackface Picaresque: Life in London, Life in Philadelphia

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pp. 119-151

In the 1820s, transatlantic exchange gave rise to a new picaresque “urban spectator” theatrical genre. Adapted from comic prose sketches and cartoons, William Thomas Moncrieff’s play Life in London or, Tom and Jerry debuted to instant acclaim at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1821 and Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street...

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Chapter Five. Transatlantic Travelers, Slavery, and Charles Mathews’s “Black Fun”

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pp. 152-176

At almost exactly the same time that William Thomas Moncrieff’s Life in London play and Edward Clay’s Life in Philadelphia series took London and Philadelphia by storm, Charles Mathews was pioneering a proto-vaudeville genre on the 1820s transatlantic stage. A London comic actor and mime, Mathews developed...

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Part Three. Radical Abolitionism, Revolt, and Revolution: Spartacus and the Blackface Minstrel (1830s–1850s)

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pp. 177-180

“We are not merely Britons, but cosmopolites. We go to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south, to seek for misery and to endeavour to relieve it.”1 So declared a delegate at the first ever World Anti-Slavery Convention, held in London in 1840. The spokesman’s proud boast echoed Paine’s 1776 poem extolling...

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Chapter Six. Spartacus, Jim Crow, and the Black Jokes of Revolt

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pp. 181-212

“Where will it end? Revolution on the back of Revolution for a century yet?” Thomas Carlyle despaired in 1830 as the aftershocks of another revolution in France reverberated throughout Europe.1 His anguished question was not rhetorical. The July Revolution in France had brought down the would-be absolutist...

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Chapter Seven. Revolutionary Brotherhood: Black Spartacus, Black Hercules, and the Wage Slave

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pp. 213-244

In the tumultuous 1840s and 1850s, the antislavery and democratic forces first unleashed in the Atlantic world by the American, French, and Haitian revolutions of the late eighteenth century were further inflamed by radical agitation and sociopolitical unrest. Labor conflicts and economic hardship convulsed London...

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Conclusion: Uncle Tom, the Eighteenth-Century Revolutionary Legacy, and Historical Memory

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pp. 245-256

In 1853, British abolition societies solicited popular support and raised £1,930 for the American emancipationist cause through the “Uncle Tom Penny Offering,” the collection of one penny from every reader of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.1 Initially published in the United States in serial form in the National...


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pp. 257-296

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 297-302

My research for this book began by locating collections of printed and manuscript plays; digital and archival cartoons, playbills, broadsides, and ephemera collections; and printed travelogues, diaries, memoirs, and theater calendars. I also examined newspapers and journals, sermons and hymns, poetry and speeches, and other printed and manuscript...


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pp. 303-313

E-ISBN-13: 9781421413396
E-ISBN-10: 1421413396
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421413389
Print-ISBN-10: 1421413388

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 22 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Early America: History, Context, Culture
Series Editor Byline: Joyce E. Chaplin and Philip D. Morgan, Series Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 879527275
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Performing the Temple of Liberty

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Theater -- England -- London -- History -- 18th century.
  • Theater -- England -- London -- History -- 19th century.
  • Theater -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia -- History -- 18th century.
  • Theater -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slave trade in the theater.
  • Race in the theater.
  • London (England) -- Social life and customs.
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) -- Social life and customs.
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