Cradle of Liberty: Race, the Child, and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to W. E. B. Du Boisby Caroline Levander
Throughout American literature, the figure of the child is often represented in opposition to the adult. In Cradle of Liberty Caroline F. Levander proposes that this opposition is crucial to American political thought and the literary cultures that surround and help produce it. Levander argues that from the late eighteenth century through the early twentieth, American literary and political texts did more than include child subjects: they depended on them to represent, naturalize, and, at times, attempt to reconfigure the ground rules of U.S. national belonging. She demonstrates how, as the modern nation-state and the modern concept of the child (as someone fundamentally different from the adult) emerged in tandem from the late eighteenth century forward, the child and the nation-state became intertwined. The child came to represent nationalism, nation-building, and the intrinsic connection between nationalism and race that was instrumental in creating a culture of white supremacy in the United States.
Reading texts by John Adams, Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Augusta J. Evans, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, William James, José Martí, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others, Levander traces the child as it figures in writing about several defining events for the United States. Among these are the Revolutionary War, the U.S.-Mexican War, the Civil War, and the U.S. expulsion of Spain from the Caribbean and Cuba. She charts how the child crystallized the concept of self—a self who could affiliate with the nation—in the early national period, and then follows the child through the rise of a school of American psychology and the period of imperialism. Demonstrating that textual representations of the child have been a potent force in shaping public opinion about race, slavery, exceptionalism, and imperialism, Cradle of Liberty shows how a powerful racial logic pervades structures of liberal democracy in the United States.
“In this rich combination of cultural history, literary criticism, and social critique, Caroline F. Levander argues that the idea of childhood has figured centrally in American liberalism’s entanglement with racial inequality. Levander reveals that from the late eighteenth century to the present, the belief in a natural path of human development from childish dependency to adult autonomy has both derived from and contributed to racial and gender hierarchies that have been constitutive of U. S. national identity. Cradle of Liberty takes on an impressive array of writers, including novelists, social theorists, and philosophers, in telling the story not only of those whose engagement with the concept of the child contributed to the nation’s limited conception of liberalism, but also of those whose critiques of prevailing assumptions may provide us with strategies to increase liberalism’s capacity to deliver social justice in our own time.”—Kenneth Warren, University of Chicago
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CRADLE OF LIBERTYRace, the Child, and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to W. E. B. Du Bois
By Caroline F. Levander
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE CHILD AND THE RACIAL POLITICS OF NATION MAKING IN THE SLAVERY ERA
In his famous critique of slavery, Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754), John Woolman emphasizes how arbitrary, if well entrenched, the association of slavery with "colour" has become in the Colonies by asking his reader to consider the plight of a child. The suppositional child to whom Woolman draws his reader's attention is a "white child" who, abandoned by the death of its parents, comes under the power "of a person, who endeavours to keep him a slave." The sense of outrage this image of an enslaved white child provokes in individuals otherwise untroubled by the idea of the "many black [who] are enslaved" is, according to Woolman, the direct result of the generally accepted, if "false," idea in the Colonies "of slavery being connected with the black colour, and liberty with the white." Woolman uses a child to explain how "colour," and the ideas of essential racial difference that have become associated with it "through the force of long custom" may justify slavery, but in so doing he hopesto convince his readers that these "false ideas [that] twis[t] into our minds" finally undermine the Colonies' abiding commitment to liberty. Over a hundred years later, as the nation goes to war to determine the fate of slavery within its borders, the popular carte de visite of "Rosa, Charley, and Rebecca: Slave Children from New Orleans" (figure 4) uses the child to ask its viewers the same question: how can a nation that is, as Lincoln asserts in the Gettysburg Address, "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" condone slavery? Not so much protecting the three seemingly white children it cloaks as indicating their vulnerability to the slave institution the nation continues to countenance, the American flag comes to symbolize the contingency, rather than the unprecedented ascendancy, of freedom in the new nation, and the disjunction between the children's racial identity and the surface color of their skin makes palpable the final inadequacy of race to justify slavery in a nation that is founded on principles of freedom.
As these exemplary representations suggest, the child that is consistently featured in a wide range of political tracts and popular narratives from the Revolutionary era to the Civil War operates as an important ideological site for representing the shifting conceptual place of race within the new United States. While Russ Castronovo, Jay Fliegelman, and Ronald Takaki, among others, have documented how the Colonies' political separation from Great Britain was compared to a child's inevitable separation from its parent, and thus how the child operates as a powerful icon of a new nation in U.S. political rhetoric, such repeated representations of the child not only help to create a cohesive national identity but also, as Woolman's account and the image of Rosa, Charley, and Rebecca make clear, more particularly register theextenttowhichthisnationalidentityhasbeenshotthroughwitharacial subtext that constantly threatens to undermine, even as it enables, a unified account of U.S. nation formation. The white child featured in political texts therefore not only represents a coherent narrative of the nation's political origin that is subsequently challenged in the antebellum era by black as well as by white social commentators, as scholars like Castronovo have importantly pointed out, but also registers in its representation of race the inherently fractured and contradictory nature of the nation it exemplifies. In so doing, the child functions as a particularly rich discursive site that both authorizes a distinct national identity and, in its depiction of the integral, complicating place of "colour" in that identity, reveals the conceptual instabilities that have been embedded within the nation since its inception.
The child's capacity to represent race as both constituting and complicating U.S. national identity deserves particular attention at the current critical moment, when a wealth of scholarship has, on the one hand, identified the centrality of race to national formations and, on the other hand, undertaken to theorize the child's ideological significance to U.S. public cultures. While "race and nation are never very far apart," as Etienne Balibar has pointed out, they exist in particularly close proximity in the case of the United States. There, as Stephen Jay Gould has noted, the nation's founding document, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, and the widespread publication of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, a treatise on racial classification and taxonomy that would provide much of the foundation for contemporary racial categorization, appear at precisely the same historical moment. Such a convergence points to the ways in which the genesis of the United States, like that of many modern nations, depends on what Charles Mills has described as an obscured racial, as well as sexual, contract that partitions "human populations into 'white' and 'nonwhite'" individuals and that transforms a citizenship of "we the people" into one of "we the white people." Yet the wealth of recent studies that have assessed the child's political significance to a wide range of U.S. public cultures thus far has not assessed how the child's capacity to forge founding alliances between race and the new nation may prove crucial to the political work it subsequently accomplishes in public life. The recent work of Lauren Berlant, Gillian Brown, James Kincaid, and Michael Warner, for example, has tended to overlook how the racial meanings historically inhering in the child they take as their subject may in fact help to shape the numerous political cultures to which they show that the child richly contributes. However, charting the crucial role the child has historically played in transforming nonwhites into racial others from the early national period through the nineteenth century creates an important cultural context for understanding the child's ongoing significance to these wide-ranging U.S. social formations. Excavating the child's conceptual centrality to the constitution of a tacitly racialized infant nation explains, for example, why the ideal type of "patriotic personhood in America," as Berlant has noted, continues to be the "infantile citizen." Therefore, if the comparison of racial others to children is widely recognized, analysis of the child's role in instantiating race as an integral, enduring, and complicating element of U.S. national identity creates a crucial context for understanding its enduring cultural power.
The following pages will explore how these repeated discursive representations of the child work initially to install and then to reinforce race as a founding, unstable element of the new nation. Indeed, the depictions of the child consistently featured in various popular narrative forms in the roughly hundred-year period between the wars represent a primary, and increasingly urgent, national question of where freedom ends and slavery begins as a drama of racialized bodies that might have various desired outcomes but is nonetheless unimaginable in terms other than those of essential racial difference. Thus, regardless of which side of the slavery debate it is representing, the child operates as a powerful vehicle for establishing a logic of racial difference that links slavery to black bodies and liberty to white ones in order to found the nation and then reinforce its organizing racial ideals as it eradicates slavery. By representing national identity in explicitly racialized terms, the child featured in a wide range of texts helps to consolidate one of the largest shifts in thinking about identity in the history of the United States. Indeed, the success of this project appears so total that by 1857 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney can argue for the majority in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford that African Americans are "so far inferior, that they ha[ve] no rights which the white man [is] bound to respect." Yet if this juridical declaration seems to suggest that ideas of essential racial difference have been firmly established as part of the natural order by mid-century, in what follows I chart how the figure of the child proves so integral to the process through which such ideas come to be perceived as natural in the first place that, even after slavery is abolished, color continues to operate as a powerful organizing principle of U.S. national identity. Consistently overlooked in Judge Taney's oft-quoted and infamous answer to the question of the individual's place in a racial state is the conceptual importance of the child-the fact that Scott's case hinged on his two children, Eliza and Lizzie. Born on board the steamboat Gipsey, north of the line of the State of Missouri, Eliza, like her sister Lizzie, who was born in the State of Missouri, posed the greatest challenge to Taney's question about race and citizenship-in short, about whether "a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country" but who is "born of parents who become free before [her] birth" can be a "citize[n] of a State, in the sense in which the word citizen is used in the Constitution."
"A CHILD BLENDS IN HIS FACE THE FACES OF BOTH PARENTS"
By the time that Ralph Waldo Emerson made this claim in 1856, ideas about racial identity and concerns about the social cost of obscuring clearly defined racial differences were well-established topics of popular discussion and were widely acknowledged to have national significance for the future of U.S. political culture. If the child is literally a composite of its parents' bloodlines, as Emerson suggests, the characteristics associated with particular bloodlines made questions of blending them finally questions of prime significance to the present and future political well-being of the nation. When Emerson states that the very "fortunes of nations" depend on "the deep traits of race" inhering in their inhabitants, he summarizes along standing popular view that a nation's success is a direct result of the characteristics of the race that inhabits it. Happily for the United States, the nation's "Fair Saxon" people have historically ensured its "democratic principle" with the "decision and nerve" that are as unique to their racial makeup as their "fair complexion, blue eyes, and open and florid aspect." With their "fair hair, blue eyes, and ... fine complexion," these Anglo-Saxons are "the only race which truly comprehends the meaning of the word liberty," and they therefore use the incomparable "resources of mental and moral power that the traits of the blonde race betoken," according to social commentators like Robert Knox, to "hit on that capital invention of freedom." Given the mission, according to James D. Nourse, "of reconciling order and liberty, and teaching mankind the science of government," the Anglo-Saxon founders of the nation create "a government that has been formed so entirely for the good of the people," according to Francis Lieber, that "never in the history of the world has so much wisdom and humanity been shown in ... civilization." Thus, the child featured in figure 5-a child who, as George Bancroft reminds readers of Literary and Historical Miscellanies (1855), "inherits" not only "the physical" but the "moral characteristics of the race to which it belongs" and thus its "true instinct for liberty"-epitomizes an explicitly Anglo-Saxon commitment to, and expression of, liberty in the new nation. The "unquestionably ... distinguished ... aptitude for free institutions" and "unconquerable love of liberty" that the child featured in the carte de visite represents for its viewers therefore forms the very foundation of, as well as the justification for, "our American liberty," as Nourse writes in Remarks of the Past and Its Legacies to American Society.
Such popular nineteenth-century commentaries on the racial origins of the nation are a direct outgrowth and extension of early national political discourse, which consistently likens the Colonies to a child wrongfully enslaved because of its Saxon, freedom-loving blood. Indeed, in a wide range of political narratives, the nation's founders use the image of a child to advocate for the establishment of an autonomous political entity that is based on, and fully realizes, the Anglo-Saxon love of freedom inhering in its inhabitants. By persistently imagining the Colonies to be a child that is wrongfully enslaved because of its racial identity, the nation's founders describe the emergence of an autonomous political entity as the logical result of the race of its inhabitants. As the "common children" of their "brethren of Great Britain," the Colonists, according to James Otis, should exist in "a state of equality and perfect freedom" with their parent country. "Descended from the same common ancestors" as the people of Great Britain-"great and glorious Ancestors" who, according to the conveners of the First Continental Congress, "participated in all the rights [and] liberties" of free government and not only "maintained their Independence" but also transmitted "the blessings of Liberty" to all their offspring-the colonists have a biologically inherited predisposition to pursue liberty and protect freedom. Indeed, it was because of this biological imperative that their "forefathers ... left their native land, to seek on these shores a residence for freedom" and thereby extended the Anglo-Saxon love of liberty to new parts of the world. Ever "born the heirs of freedom," according to Congress, these early colonists "retain[ed] the strongest love of liberty" shown only by the "pre-eminent rank of English Freemen" as they built a new colony in America. As Congress declares in 1775, it is this illustrious Anglo-Saxon "ancestry," and none other, "from which we derive our descent."
Yet even as this shared racial heritage does not stop Great Britain from planning to "enslav[e]" rather than encourage the freedom of its "fellow subjects in America," the racial characteristics of the Colonists ensure that they will pursue freedom even if they must finally break from the parent country. After asking the people of Great Britain if "the descendants of Britons [shall] tamely submit" to "nothing less than "a ruinous system of colony administration" that is expressly calculated for "enslaving these Colonies," the Continental Congress asserts that their shared Saxon "spirit of freedom," as well as "the memory of our gallant and virtuous ancestors," makes "surrender[ing] those glorious privileges for which they fought, bled, and conquered" unthinkable. Able to imagine because of this racial heritage "nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery," the Colonists are therefore able to do nothing less, according to "A Declaration by the Representatives Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms," than resolve "to die Freemen rather than to live Slaves." Moving from the desire for the "Peace, Harmony, and mutual Confidence, which once happily subsisted between the Parent Country and her Colonies" to an unwavering commitment to "disarm[ing] the parricide which points the dagger [of slavery] to our Bosoms," Congress uses the image of the child on the verge of enslavement to insist that the Anglo-Saxon identity of the Colonies' inhabitants justifies their conclusion that "our attachment to no Nation on Earth should supplant our Attachment to Liberty."
The racial characteristics of the enslaved child Colonies require that they not only break from Great Britain but continue to distinguish the inchoate nation the Colonists create from all others. Indeed, the founding fathers emphasize the extent to which racial characteristics operate as an organizing principle of nationhood when they try to convince other nations that, by not permitting the Colonies to enjoy in quiet "the inheritance left us by our forefathers" but "forging Chains for her Children" in America, Great Britain has relinquished all right to govern the Colonies. In its July 1775 "Speech to the Six Confederate Nations, Mohawks, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senekas, from the Twelve United Colonies," for example, Congress uses the story of a child who "carries a little pack" for its parent to emphasize the new nation's loyalty to the racial tradition that its father fails to keep. After telling the six Indian nations that the king of England assured "our fathers" that the "covenant chain which united" them would ensure that "their children should be his children," the Congress describes how such a father forgets the racial ties that should bind him to this child. Convinced by a jealous group of servants that the child walks too easily, the father enlarges the child's pack, heedless of its request that "the pack might be lightened." The child "takes it up again" obediently, but when he finds himself staggering under its weight and asks once more for relief to no avail, he throws off the pack instead of allowing it to "crush him down and kill him." In so doing, this child representative of the Colonies is not so much disobeying as pleading for justice and defending "the old covenant-chain of the fathers" that bound them in a racial tie the parent has disregarded. Therefore, when this "child" representative of "America" finally takes up the "hatchet" against its father, it does so, according to the Congress, not for "conquest" but, instead, to protect and assert the love of liberty that is in the blood it shares with the stubborn parent who ignores the dictates of its racial heritage. So racially dissolute as to be able to destroy those who are "of the same blood as themselves"-indeed, capable of a "black and horrid design" against liberty that calls into question its own racial purity-Great Britain will treat non Anglo-Saxons even more cruelly, Congress tells its nonwhite audience to persuade them to support the Colonies.
Excerpted from CRADLE OF LIBERTY by Caroline F. Levander Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Caroline F. Levander is Professor of English and Director of the Humanities Research Center at Rice University. She is the author of Voices of the Nation: Women and Public Speech in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture and a coeditor, with Carol J. Singley, of The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader.
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