- Personal and Political:Love’s Revolutions in Recent Historical Research
The contemporary relevance of these books’ shared subject—the dynamic relationship between a subjective emotion like love and a particular political context—makes it easy to forget that not too long ago disciplinary rigor demanded that historians ignore the personal in analyses of the political. Starting in the 1970s, feminist scholars argued that the personal and subjective were essential elements in a political reading of the past, and current high levels of interest in the history of emotions attest to the vision of those pioneers. The four books under review demonstrate more specifically how far such ideas have come. Across widely varied historical contexts, each persuasively explores the two-way relationship between intimate personal experience and broader political processes.
Richard Godbeer’s study of love between men in eighteenth-century America raises deep questions about the historically shifting boundaries between friendship, love, and sex. An exploration of loving but chaste friendships between men, the book argues that in post-revolutionary America, this form of sociability functioned as a conceptual foundation for the new republic. Such friendships were “a way of encouraging empathy between citizens in a society that no longer cohered through shared loyalty to a monarch,” and they took their place in “a new national family bound [End Page 194] together by parental affection, marital friendship, and loving brotherhood” (12). In short, the book foregrounds loving male friendships as a key element of the new political fabric, a form of “elective kinship” with a symbolic role in the spectrum of familial bonds.
Opening with three strikingly emotional excerpts from correspondence between American men in the 1760s, 1780s, and 1790s, Godbeer confronts a problem raised by the subsequent conflation of love and sex. Although the concept of homosexuality only emerged a century after Godbeer’s subjects expressed their deep feelings for one another, modern ideas make it difficult to read such passionate exchanges without assuming that sexual desire played a part. In some cases sexual attraction may have been a factor, and Godbeer treats these instances with wry and sometimes amusing dexterity. But in the main this is a convincing exploration of how men experienced and expressed non-sexual love for each other at a time when it was possible to do so without attracting suspicion or opprobrium.
The Overflowing of Friendship is based on extensive research among letters, diaries, periodicals, sermons, and political tracts. Its structure reflects the way that early Americans perceived their world as radiating from the personal to the local, regional, and national, to the universal. Godbeer’s writing is elegant, deftly revealing a deep knowledge of the lessons of cultural history, but allowing the characters and relationships independence from stringent theoretical foundations. Chapter 1 explores the intense friendship between John Mifflin and Isaac Norris (both twenty-seven), in 1780s Philadelphia. The friends anticipated reunion after Norris’s three-year sojourn in Europe in terms that would now be appropriate for a passionate sexual affair. Yet at the time, this friendship fitted perfectly within the expectations of both men’s familial and social networks, when sex between them would surely have been frowned upon. Chapter 2 moves from one intense friendship to a range of social bonds, showing that Mifflin’s and Norris’s sentimental effusions were far from exceptional. Godbeer traces friendship networks between professional men after they left college...