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  • Constituting American Masculinity
  • Jeff Osborne (bio)

Narratives of the American eighteenth century almost always turn around the rejection of paternal authority and the practice of deference.1 Connecting the antipaternalistic themes of Enlightenment thought to the rhetoric of the American Revolution, Jay Fliegelman writes: "At every opportunity Revolutionary propogandists insisted that the new nation and its people had come of age, had achieved a collective maturity that necessitated them becoming in political fact an independent and self-governing nation" (3-4). The intensifying critiques of patriarchy, borrowed from Locke and the republican tradition, that developed in avenues as varied as pedagogy and politics were, according to Fliegelman, the essence of a "cultural revolution . . . in the understanding of the nature of authority that affected all aspects of eighteenth-century culture" (5). The importance of Fliegelman's analysis is that he traces the diffusion of paternal authority from a rationalistic social order to affective bonds, indicating along the way that the care and affection that defined the "new" father's authority did not make him any less authoritative.

Although in the wake of the Revolution democratic local-level social relations moved toward displacing and replacing colonial forms of paternal authority, the Federalist nationalist program of the 1780s aimed to reassert such authority's power, albeit in new form.2 In other words, despite the cultural revolution Fliegelman identifies, "the rebellion of sons did not eliminate the need for patriarchal authority" (Kimmel 19), and the rejection of paternal authority in the name of a new fraternity was not decisive.3 Rather the Revolution's sacrifice of the father cleared the way for a new form of paternal authority, a passage from an explicit [End Page 111] and hierarchical patriarchal control to a more subtle and institutionalized network of control only disguised as "fraternal."4 By subjecting the populace to their desire for security, the Federalist project converted citizens as a heterogeneous collective into "the people" as a virtualized concept void of difference, reinvesting the ideal of the father in the fantasy of the people as a unified, fraternal, and contractual whole.5

If we attend to the ways eighteenth-century American men deployed republican ideology in their efforts, first, to conceptualize the American Revolution and, then, to participate in the heated debates over the constitution, we can better understand how the concept of masculinity (or, to put it in the language of republican virtue, manliness) functioned to perpetuate paternal control. In other words, resolving the paternalistic paradox—how the political desire that initially aimed at undermining paternal and patriarchal authority during the Revolution transformed into a desire to revive, even if in new form, that same authority during the constitutional period—requires that we explore two transformations that occurred during the last half of the eighteenth century. First, we need to understand how the republican tradition did not represent an intact and univocal voice in early America. Instead, we need to explore how the colonists' rhetorical deployment of republican ideals changed from the revolutionary period to the constitutional period. Political theorists and historians like Sheldon Wolin, Saul Cornell, Ruth Bloch, and Christopher M. Duncan argue that the use of republican theory during the 1760s and 1770s functioned alongside a fairly radical egalitarian and democratic theory of political participation and that it was only in the Federalists' nationalist desires that republican theory in America was decoupled from this theory. Second, we need to trace within this ideological transformation a collateral rhetorical transformation in the use of concepts of masculinity. In the revolutionary period the notion of manliness remained fiercely coupled to the republican insistence upon liberty. In the often volatile debates over the constitution, however, the notion of manliness underwent a necessary change in the rhetoric of the Federalists. The proponents of national government had to overcome the idea of manliness as liberty from subordination precisely because the rhetoric of their nationalist program had to define liberty by way of the security of political subordination. In short, although notions of masculinity used by both sides during the ratification debates often drew upon the same republican tradition, I intend to argue that there were significant differences between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in both the...


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pp. 111-132
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