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  • Hope Leslie and the Grounds of Secularism
  • Ashley Reed (bio)

In Catharine Maria Sedgwick's 1827 historical novel, Hope Leslie; or Early Times in the Massachusetts, the eponymous Hope, her adoptive father, William Fletcher, and local patriarch Mr. Holioke stand atop a mountain on the outskirts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and contemplate, in the valley below, "sites for future villages, already marked out for them by clusters of Indian huts."1 The three white settlers imagine a process by which the spirits of dead white Christians have already taken possession of the land despite the fact that living Indian bodies currently inhabit it. But the white settlers do not picture the violent, on-the-ground mechanism by which "future villages" will eventually replace these Indian huts. Instead, Hope imagines the air "filled with invisible intelligences" while Holioke, not normally given to flights of fancy, avers that "the spirits of those who have died for liberty and religion, have come before us to this wilderness, and taken possession in the name of the Lord" (104). Discovering signs of recent Native religious activity, notably a "pyramidal pile of stones" forming a "rude altar" strewn with "relicts of Indian sacrifices," Hope offers to "stand sponsor" for the mountain while the two men "[consecrate] it to the Lord" and "christen it Holioke" (104, 105). [End Page 89]

Describing the day's outing later in a letter to Fletcher's son, Everell, Hope regrets that the mountain and the valleys below "have been seen and enjoyed only by those savages, who have their summer homes in them" (104). Until the Puritans arrived, the landscape was a local feature only. Now that the universal spirits of "liberty and religion" have claimed the area, it has become part of the greater imagined realm of Protestant Christendom, and the eventual disappearance of the local inhabitants—and their gods—can be taken for granted. The claims made by the "spirits of … liberty and religion" supersede any made by the Indigenous people already living on the land, or by those peoples' particular deities. Liberty and religion, the settlers assume, are values shared universally by all peoples, while the natives' claim to the land, if they ever had any, is only local and particular.

This scene succinctly encapsulates the history of Western secularism as the anthropologist and cultural theorist Talal Asad describes it. Secularism, according to Asad, "replac[es] conflicting perspectives by unifying experience": it is a territorial process by which local customs, traditions, and peoples are subdued, then replaced by ostensibly universal subjects who have transcended such local peculiarities.2 Unlike Charles Taylor's concept of Western secularism, framed in terms of cognitive attachments as "a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others,"3 Asad's model of political secularism acknowledges the violent territorial processes by which Western secularism supplants local peoples and cultures and then erases the memory of those processes through appeals to transcendent goods.

In the United States, those violent territorial processes have proceeded by way of settler colonialism, that "distinctive, and particularly invidious, species of colonialism" that is "very often fueled by religious narratives [End Page 90] such as those of chosen people, exile, holy land, cities on hills."4 First disambiguated by the anthropologist Patrick Wolfe,5 settler colonialism is structurally distinct from the more common form of colonial enterprise, sometimes called "extractive colonialism" or "franchise colonialism," in which "an exogenous power establishes its authority over a subordinated population to extract wealth and resources from the colonized territory." While "occupation colonies" or "exploitation colonies" (as they are also sometimes called) rely on Native labor to facilitate wealth extraction, settler colonies "see[k] an end or completion of the colonial project via the elimination of the indigenous population and its replacement by a settler population."6 Settlers, then, as Anna Johnston and Alan Lawson have asserted, are better called "settler-invaders," since settler colonialism's end goal is not to extract wealth for transfer to the metropole but to eliminate native inhabitants and to "[expropriate] … indigenous land."7

This essay brings together scholarship on North American...


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pp. 89-132
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