- The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery
Violence, French Revolution, Jacobinism, Anti-Jacobinism, Antislavery
Several years ago, Rachel Hope Cleves wrote eloquently in these pages about how violence had affected her life personally and shaped her as a scholar intellectually ("On Writing the History of Violence," JER 24 [Winter 2004]). In some ways, this book is a fuller, more developed rumination on those same themes. But it is also much more: a provocative, resonant first book about significant topics both timely and timeless.
While scholars have long noted the impact of the French Revolution on U.S. politics in the 1790s, Cleves argues that, from the first decade of the new government through the end of the Civil War, a French Revolutionary discourse dominated American politics and religion and was reflected in newspapers, letters, periodicals, poetry, fiction, drama, and pedagogical materials. Propounded mainly by New England Federalists and Calvinists, this strain produced numerous denunciations of "violent Jacobinism" (2), an imprecise, catch-all term of opprobrium that provided the basis for a deep and long-lasting anti-Jacobin persuasion that lingered long after the French Revolution played itself out. In short, she tracks the growth of "the anti-Jacobin sensibility" (234) and its surprising but powerful effect on antebellum American life and culture. Her book traces "the vital role that the fear of democratic violence played in the genesis of abolitionism, the antiwar movement, and support for public education" (9). As a fascinating subtheme, the work also interrogates the power of words, specifically the links between violent language and violent acts. Indeed, Cleves writes that "the power of violent words as an instrument of battle is what drives" her book (13). [End Page 709]
While some welcomed the democratizing potential of the French Revolution in the 1790s, American conservatives reacted with horror. From Federalist podiums and Calvinist pulpits across New England came potent, visceral counterattacks on the destabilizing democratic excesses in France. Cleves argues that to anti-Jacobins the violence and bloodshed of the French Revolution suggested how quickly a republic could devolve into anarchy, and it galvanized them into action. Anti-Jacobinism arose as a warning that violence by individual citizens and by the state could destabilize the social order in the United States.
Calvinists and Federalists tended toward pessimism about the future and believed in man's fundamental depravity; hence, their skepticism about democracy and their support for strong institutions and the use of force to check democratic passions and violence. When news of horrific violence reached the United States, anti-Jacobins emphasized the bloodthirsty and the grisly in their denunciations of French excesses, connecting them to democracy run amok. They turned their animosity toward American democrats who they believed spoke the same French democratic language of bloodshed. In the process, they decoupled the American and the French Revolutions but then linked American and French democrats, attacking them through the language of bloodshed and displacing anti-Jacobinism from external to internal enemies. To Federalists, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 seemed vital national security measures when viewed through these lenses.
But even as they denounced violence, Federalists and their Calvinist supporters did so in an expressive language of violence that curiously, for a movement decrying riotousness, was dripping in blood. Anti-Jacobins developed a vocabulary and rhetoric of sensationalism to shock readers emotionally, emphasizing the most horrific, depraved, and bloody scenes they could. Early American literature reflected this Gothic strain also, as Cleves shows in a close reading of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland. And she reminds us, "To pick up the pen and write in lines of blood is a violent act" (103).
While both Federalists and Calvinists lost influence in national politics with the Jeffersonian triumph after 1801, the anti-Jacobin sensibility they created soon transformed itself. Attacks on democratic violence were replaced with critiques of slaveholder violence and the depravity of slavery. Furthermore, those attacks came in the violent language of anti-Jacobinism...