- ResponseDefamiliarizing the Revolution
The three essays on Loyalism assembled in this issue of Early American Literature demonstrate a number of critical strengths: historical and theoretical awareness, close attention to literary form and literary history, wide-ranging command of the Revolution (or Rebellion) and its aftermath, and transatlantic and transnational perspectives through which to reconsider this most “American” of events. Each one admirably refuses to be a revisionist, and makes more pressing critical claims than the need for the inclusion of the Loyalists in the canon. While employing historicist methods, each refuses to see history as simply the stable foundation that the literature of politics reflects or reinscribes. Instead, these essays put literary form and political affiliation into new, complex, and constitutive relations. While Christopher Hunter’s and Rachel Trocchio’s essays defamiliarize the Revolution as the subject for literary study, John Garcia reintroduces a familiar figure in the early American canon, who now, writing later in his life from the Canadian Borderlands, looks different to us as a Loyalist.
Christopher Hunter and Rachel Trocchio have discovered new ways to approach familiar genres of the Revolutionary era. Hunter’s analysis of William Smith’s “Catonian Loyalism” recasts the meaning in British America of the Roman literary persona derived from Joseph Addison’s play (as well as from the reprinting of Cato’s Letters in the colonies). Despite his own Whig political values, Smith appropriates the Cato persona not to refurbish American national patriotism (as it later would during the war in the production of Cato for George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge), but rather to model moral and cultural values around which British American identities ideally would cohere. Hunter takes us through distinctive phases of the Cato trope, showing first how Smith’s Patriot antagonists took control (and perverted) his virtuous persona, invested it with the depth and motivations of “character,” and finally turned the trope of Cato [End Page 619] against him by transforming it from Roman paragon to African American slave. Hunter’s deft, original analysis of this racist turn has wider implications, I believe, for traditional accounts of the paradoxes and hypocrisies of a republican political revolution that legitimized racial slavery. In this case where Thomas Paine and local Patriots were chastising the Loyalist Cato, the subject of African American slavery does not elicit tortured negotiations of the Revolution’s foundational contradictions (as described influentially by such historians as Edmund Morgan and Gary Nash). Rather the patriotic association of political slavery with racial slavery enables the racialization of American Loyalists (i.e., you oppose the movement for freedom because you’re no better than African slaves). This dynamic of “naming practices and racist condescension” not only implicates Paine and his cohort but suggests the degree to which the racialization of liberty and slavery was well under way by the time the Federalist (“the mixed character of persons and property”) and the US Constitution (“such persons”) later euphemized slavery in the US Republic.
While Hunter shows us the ontological slipperiness of persona and character, Rachel Trocchio presses the equally protean issue of what counts as historical truth. Her powerful rhetorical analysis of Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion (1781) makes a bold, counterintuitive claim that unsettles traditional ideas about Loyalist suspicions of the imagination. By imaginatively opening up history and recasting it in the subjunctive mood, and thereby engaging alternative possibilities (which is not exactly the world of “alternative facts” the Trump era has imposed on us), Oliver is able to paradoxically stabilize norms of character and morality. In this nuanced account of the Loyalist literary imagination, Oliver rhetorically reframes history by imagining otherwise, by mobilizing the conditional and “deontic” modes and counterfactual possibilities to make the account a hall of mirrors the reader is forced to morally engage. Dynamic perspective and conditional directive work to recover values that appear hopelessly lost. Loyalist subjunctives “wrest imaginative self-fashioning away from the purview of the Rebellion and lay it at the feet of an older vision of character.” Trocchio’s account captures what I sense is the chronic tension in Loyalist political discourse between its self-righteous political realism and its...