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  • Cause and DefectPeter Oliver’s Subjunctive Loyalism
  • Rachel Trocchio (bio)

One of the piquancies of reading Peter Oliver’s 1781 Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion lies in its manner of insisting that at any number of points the Revolution could have been averted, or staunched. “It is much to be deplored,” Oliver laments at the outset, “that the Springs of the English Government too often lost of their Elasticity; which, perhaps, had they have been in many Cases wound up, would have had Force enough to have prevented the present Rebellion” (26). Hardly have we gone past the gate—the “Porch,” as Oliver figures his introduction (9)—than we are presented with these weltering conjugations of the verb to be: had they have been; would have had; elsewhere it may or it must; otherwise I hope or I promise. These phrases, I will suggest, ask us to entertain an alternate history, in which the mechanisms of British imperial power were effectively discharged, and the Revolution was cut off at the root. Reality being what it is, or was, such cognitive play cannot endure. Oliver did not, after all, claim to write a fiction but a history of the Rebellion, in which “I promise . . . that I will adhere most sacredly to Truth, & endeavor to steer as clear as possible from Exaggeration; although many Facts may appear to be exaggerated, to a candid Mind, which is always fond of viewing human Nature on the brightest Side of its Orb” (9). In light of his affiliation with the losing side and the events of his personal history,1 Oliver’s use of the subjunctive rings melancholic. His phrases splinter wit into woeful protest, whether they appear as an avowal (“I promise”) or take the form of an apology to an idealism so bewildered by the late turn of events as to believe they “may . . . be exaggerated.” That such a well-nurtured colony has descended into rebellion, “this surely, to an attentive Mind, must strike with some Degree of Astonishment; & such a Mind would anxiously wish for a Veil to throw over the Nakedness of human Nature” (3; emphasis added), Oliver tolls, with a moral urgency that foregrounds the relatively un-controversial claim with which I begin: the subjunctive is the fundamental verbal mood underlying Oliver’s “Tory View.” [End Page 559]

This essay considers the nature and effect of Oliver’s style in the Origin and Progress as a point of entry into the larger phenomenon of subjunctive Toryism. Particularly, it argues that Oliver’s subjunctives constitute a distinctive mode of Loyalist historiography that fashions new forms of Loyalism exactly insofar as they concede the reality of Loyalism’s loss. Here, for example, is how Oliver begins his “portrait” of John Hancock:

His Mind was a meer Tabula Rasa, & had he met with a good Artist he would have enstamped upon it such Character as would have made him a most usefull Member of Society. But Mr. Adams who was restless in endeavors to disturb ye Peace of Society, & who was ever going about seeking whom he might devour, seized upon him as his Prey.

(40; emphasis added to subjunctive phrases)

Given Loyalist suspicions about the mutability of language, and given, as Edward Larkin reminds us, that Oliver chronicles Patriot use of shape-shifting rhetoric (“Seeing through Language” 428–29), it is striking that Oliver’s character sketch should dwell in a grammatical mood generally understood as world opening. As a range of linguists, anthropologists, cultural historians, and literary critics have told us, the subjunctive is deployed for the making of both lived communities and possible worlds.2 A normative instance of the mood occurs in the Declaration of Independence, whose concluding lines state that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States . . . and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.” Technically a modal auxiliary verb with the infinitive to be, ought here represents the present subjunctive: it posits an “otherwise” to a nonideal world. In stating that alternative, Jefferson’s language insists that it has already come to pass. For the...


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