- Liberalism and the Culture of Security: The Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric of Reform by Katherine Henry
In Liberalism and the Culture of Security Katherine Henry traces the ways ideas of nineteenth-century liberal citizenship were rooted in what she terms a “rhetoric of protection.” This rhetoric, which she traces from the beginnings of the republic to the late-nineteenth century, focuses on the importance of self-protection in the face of tyranny. Drawing on theories of “negative liberty,” Henry argues that the citizen becomes defined by vulnerability to tyranny, thus the need for protection. Not surprisingly, then, this rhetoric was appealing to reformers such as abolitionists and women rights’ advocates—though, as Henry shows, this rhetorical strategy can be used for a variety of political purposes.
Henry uses the Declaration of Independence as a touchstone for this rhetoric, and then examines how it was adopted and transformed by abolitionists—Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Horace Mann—and even by anti-abolitionists, such as Caroline Lee Hentz. She goes on to examine the opposing ways Catherine Beecher and Angelina Grimké used such rhetoric to grapple with the parameters of domestic life. Then Henry explores the ways turn-of-the-century debates over racial issues and segregation employed the rhetoric of protection to represent various images of vulnerability: e.g., whites as vulnerable to blacks; the South as vulnerable to northern lawmakers; and, in the case of Ida B. Wells, free blacks as vulnerable to whites. The chapter also examines how Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in Iola Leroy (1892) transformed this rhetoric to imagine a power in vulnerability. In her final chapter, Henry probes the vulnerabilities of liberal privacy in the face of publicity in Harper’s articles and Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886).
A notable thread in Henry’s readings is the complex relationship she draws between public and private spheres. Seemingly responding to Amy Kaplan’s 1998 call that the idea of the “domestic” include concepts of household and homeland, Henry’s work explores parallels between the “domestic” realms of home and nation as used in this rhetoric: the government “protects” its citizens much like, in the ideology of paternalism, the (good) father protects his family members. She also highlights the contradictory nature of the domestic sphere: it is to be protected from the public and yet requires a public platform in order to gain protection.
Another provocative point in Henry’s model is that the vulnerable [End Page 93] citizenship formulated through this rhetoric is an embodied citizenship. She argues that early American rhetoric is a departure from the classical model of the abstract, disembodied citizen; the citizen in Henry’s model is vulnerable—and powerful at times—precisely because embodied.
Henry’s study provides a useful lens through which to read many nineteenth-century texts. Given that, it could be clearer why she focuses on some of the texts she does. Fascinating, however, is how we can see this rhetoric operating currently; take, for example, contemporary gun law debates: those advocating for new laws see citizens as vulnerable to the powerful National Rifle Association; those arguing against new guns laws present gun owners as vulnerable to federal lawmakers. The rhetoric of protection, it seems, is all around us. [End Page 94]