- Apply Liberalism Liberally:Incest and the Troubled American State
In two very different books, historians Brian Connolly and Gary Gerstle put the tension between freedom and coercion at the core of the American experience. Connolly’s focused intellectual and cultural history explores the varied discourses surrounding the prohibition against incest in the first half of the nineteenth century. Gerstle’s interpretive synthesis charts the history of the American state from the late eighteenth century through the early twenty-first century. For these scholars, aspects of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century liberalism loom large in their approach to and conclusions about the past. A cultural ethos arising from socioeconomic change for Connolly, liberalism explains both why and how Americans living in the early republic discussed incest. A constitutionally enshrined political ideology for Gerstle, liberalism more than any other factor explains the troubled history of the nation’s governance. These works illuminate much about their subject matter while also revealing some of the strengths and weaknesses of scholarly reliance on liberalism as an interpretive trope. In a larger sense, both point to the continued paradigm-shaping power for some historians of Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (1955).
Brian Connolly’s complicated monograph asks scholars to do something that should be simple: to think historically about the prohibition against incest in the United States. Far from being static and timeless, the reasons for and application of the incest prohibition have changed over time. And no time was more transformative, he argues, than the early nineteenth century. During that era, “everywhere someone looked someone else was worrying about the incestuous state of the nation” (p. 4). Connolly seeks to explain the [End Page 50] early republic’s obsession with incest and contends that it is best understood as a product of the cultural quagmires that beset liberal society. Indebted to the classic historiography of the liberalism-republicanism debate, Connolly accepts the emergence of the “liberal subject” as a historical “problematic” of the early republic (p. 2). As market revolution and mass democracy gave rise to highly mobile, independent male citizens who actively participated in public life, anxieties emerged. Most fundamentally, would the period’s unrestrained individual liberty devolve into licentiousness and threaten the stability of the nation? In this world, the private middle-class family was the place for men to find their greatest fulfillment, but it was also the leading institution that would stymie libertine excesses and maintain social order. But was the sentimental family up to the challenge? What if the family became internally corrupted by erotic desire? Incestuous families could spell disaster for the nation.
Such trepidations, Connolly argues, informed diverse cultural players as they discussed and debated the incest prohibition in the early nineteenth century. The time was especially ripe for it. Until the late eighteenth century, the Bible’s Levitical prohibitions and the corresponding Anglican Table of Kindred and Affinity had served as the bedrock authorities for the incest injunction. By the end of the nineteenth century, anthropology and psychoanalysis would provide a new basis. But in between, the motors of liberalism, Connolly contends, opened the door for repeated rearticulations. Protestant theologians, judges, legal scholars, phrenologists, physiologists, fiction writers, and antislavery activists all offered varied explanations for why and how incest should be prohibited. According to Connolly, these commentators were not exchanging intellectual fluids. They often acted without knowledge of or engagement with one another. This meant that no single, universal foundation for the incest prohibition emerged in antebellum America. Nonetheless, Connolly maintains, liberal society’s unbridled public and erotic private spheres structured the otherwise disparate discourses.
Five analytically rich chapters separately unpack the key arenas—literature, theology, law, phrenology, and antislavery writings—in which the incest prohibition was discussed. Chapter one illuminates incest’s centrality in works of prescriptive literature and sentimental fiction...