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  • Revolution, Counterrevolution, and Natural Law in Billy Budd, Sailor
  • Philip Loosemore (bio)
Hans Morganthau [sic]:

What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position within the contemporary possibilities?

[Hannah] Arendt:

I don't know. I really don't know and I've never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am a conservative, and the conservatives sometimes think I am left or I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn't care less. I don't think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing. 1

Near the opening of Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), the great moral parable and political allegory left unfinished at Herman Melville's death in 1891, the naive and good-hearted merchant sailor Billy Budd, a so-called Handsome Sailor whose one "imperfection" is a liability to stutter under the stress of "sudden provocation," is pressed into service aboard the Bellipotent, a massive warship fighting against the fleet of the French Directory in the summer of 1797 under the command of the strict but upright Captain Edward Vere. Anxiety is elevated and discipline harsh aboard the ship, for it is just a few months since the mutinies of the Spithead and the Nore. Though Billy is generally very well liked in the service, for mysterious reasons he arouses antipathy in the Bellipotent's master-at-arms, John Claggart, who proceeds to "lay little traps" for Billy, including sending an afterguardsman one night to provoke him with whispers of mutiny. At length, Claggart lays before Vere a false accusation of Billy's suspicious behavior and intention to mutiny. When Vere arranges for Claggart to repeat the accusation to Billy's face, a tongue-tied Billy unintentionally kills the master-at-arms with a blow to the head that substitutes for the utterance he cannot make. Cognizant [End Page 99] of the potential for rebellion among the crew, Vere coerces his drumhead court into delivering a guilty verdict and sentence of execution. Despite everyone's compassion for the fundamentally loyal Billy Budd, the latter, exclaiming "God bless Captain Vere!" at the penultimate moment, is hanged at dawn.

It would never be possible to determine once and for all whether Billy Budd, Sailor sympathizes more with the commencement and expansion of radical reform in the name of the revolutionary rights of man, or with its containment; whether the novella is finally Melville's "testament of resistance" or "testament of acceptance." 2 Much as Billy Budd himself is at once the embodiment of British loyalism (upon his "forced enlistment," he "with . . . loyalty makes no dissent") and also the exemplary figure or "jewel" of the Rights-of-Man, so the novella as a whole seems to stand on both sides of the opposition between antiradical or "old" Whig ideology and French revolutionary theory that Melville reconstructs, an opposition alluded to in the narrator's well-known reference to Edmund Burke (antiradical defense of the achievements of the Glorious Revolution) and Thomas Paine (defense of the natural rights theory of political authority): "The hardheaded Dundee owner [of the Rights-of-Man] was a staunch admirer of Thomas Paine, whose book in rejoinder to Burke's arraignment of the French Revolution had then been published for some time and had gone everywhere." 3 Melville at once sympathizes with and closely interrogates both of his most direct political intertexts. Setting the novella in the immediate aftermath of the Nore mutiny, he also draws out the implications of the British debate from the perspective of 1797 and the unleashing and harsh repression of revolutionary terror, employing the mutiny as a trope for radicalism ("the enemy's red meteor of unbridled and unbounded revolt" [BB, 54]) and the reaction as a trope for authoritarian repression ("Final suppression, however, there was" [55]).

But if, in the novella, monarchical authority repeatedly wins out over popular uprising, Melville's concern is clearly with the ways in which the currents of revolution and counterrevolution, popular sovereignty and authoritarian order, the violence of radical liberty and the...


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