Ever since the founders drafted "We the People," "we" have been at pains to work out the contradictions in their formulation, to fix in words precisely what it means to be American. Constituting Americans rethinks the way that certain writers of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century contributed to this project; in doing so, it revises the traditional narrative of U.S. literary history, restoring an essential chapter to the story of an emerging American cultural identity. In diverse ways, very different writers—including Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Harriet Wilson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Gertrude Stein—participated in the construction and dissemination of an American identity, but none was entirely at ease in the culture they all helped to define. Evident in their work is a haunting sense of their telling someone else’s story, a discomfort that Priscilla Wald reads in the context of legal and political debates about citizenship and personhood that marked the emergence of the United States as a nation and a world power.
From early-nineteenth-century Supreme Court cases to turn-of-the-century Jim Crow and immigration legislation, from the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln to the historical work of Woodrow Wilson, nation-builders addressed the legal, political, and historical paradoxes of American identity. Against the backdrop of their efforts, Wald shows how works such as Douglass’s autobiographical narratives, Melville’s Pierre, Wilson’s Our Nig, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, and Stein’s The Making of Americans responded, through formal innovations, to the aggressive demands for literary participation in the building of that nation. The conversation that emerges among these literary works challenges the definitions and genres that largely determine not only what works are read, but also how they are read in classrooms in the United States today.
Offering insight into the relationship of storytelling to national identity, Constituting Americans will compel the attention of those with an interest in American literature, American studies, and cultural studies.
About the Author
Priscilla Wald is Assistant Professor of English at Columbia University and a contributing editor to American Literary History
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Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form
By Priscilla Wald
Duke University PressCopyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Neither Citizen nor Alien
National Narratives, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Self-Definition
From the vantage point of his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass expressed resentment toward his former associates, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his colleagues, who had commissioned Douglass's first written account of his enslavement, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). The abolitionists needed Douglass, and they knew it, although a number of them privately lamented their dependence on the articulate, dashing fugitive slave who, to their minds, manifested a dangerous intractability. The impassioned and ambitious Douglass was reluctant to circumscribe his account of his experiences as a slave in accordance with the story his associates wanted him to tell. They wished to use his testimony to win converts to a political cause that they defined; he wanted the liberty to interpret and condemn as well as to represent the anguish of a man in chains. "It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs," he recalled in 1855; "I felt like denouncing them." Eager to offer his oratorical gifts to the abolitionist cause, he was nonetheless troubled by the constraints imposed upon his authorship by white abolitionists.
Ironically, the abolitionists were troubled by Douglass's gifts. By all accounts a man on fire, Douglass gave speeches alive to the nuances of words and timing. They are tactile, gripping. Yet the dazzling speaker was hard to reconcile with the degraded protagonist he was forced to portray. Douglass reports in My Bondage and My Freedom that, at the behest of his associates, he put aside his frustration and wrote the 1845 Narrative in order to demonstrate how Frederick Douglass, lowly slave, became Frederick Douglass, commanding orator, thereby establishing his authenticity for a doubting public.
The Narrative, however, does not entirely confirm the description of the author's obedience and acquiescence offered in My Bondage and My Freedom. Despite his commitment to his cause and his admiration and affection for his white antislavery brethren, Douglass could not suppress his discomfort with the curtailments of his story, nor with the conception of a dependent black self that this account required. Douglass, in other words, never fully acceded to the prescripted abolitionist narrative. His discomfort surfaces, as I shall demonstrate, in textual disruptions: a revealing word, a surprising juxtaposition, an awkward sentence through which the repressed—or the suppressed—returns. These disruptions shape his narrative, as they tell an alternative story about his enslavement and his authorship.
Douglass's partial mischaracterization of the Narrative in the later work is not surprising. My Bondage and My Freedom also tells two stories, and his parallel struggle for authorial control in that work is evident in similar textual disruptions, some of which are produced by his use of passages from the earlier work itself. The freer and more comfortably American self to which the author of My Bondage and My Freedom lays claim is still struggling with a story not fully his own. In both personal narratives, the bid for authorial control corresponds to the quest to become a more integrated and accepted American. But the tale of a descendant of Africans claiming a place within the constituted body of "We the People" was an especially disturbing and perplexing one for a mid-nineteenth-century white audience. The status of the descendants of Africans—and of other nonwhite subjects—in the emerging nation was inseparable from other unresolved issues surrounding the Constitution. Debates on the status of indigenes and descendants of Africans could not avoid addressing whom the founders had intended to include in "We the People," what entity they had legislated into existence with the Constitution, and the very role of that Constitution in the ongoing governance of the United States. Douglass's desire to address those questions was as troubling to many antebellum audiences as the actual content of any story that he might tell. He wished to make those audiences experience the anguish not only of a man in chains, but of a man thinking in chains. He insisted that they recognize him for what he was: a rational human being deprived of natural rights and conventionally defined as property. In effect, Douglass embodied a human being excluded from personhood. Explicitly, he asked his audiences to recognize the incompatibility of the practice of slavery and the principles of equality and liberty laid forth in the Declaration of Independence. Implicitly, his personal narratives addressed curtailments of liberty less visible than enslavement, curtailments made evident in his struggle to tell his story.
The story of a freer American self told in My Bondage and My Freedom itself emerges as part of the narrative of American personhood with which he struggles. The "freedom" of that story, and of the self to which it attests, overlooks the conventions that limit even as they enable any writer's story (and experience of selfhood). For Douglass, the limitations of those conventions are especially significant, since they prevent in particular the story that he as a black man wishes to tell about the relationship of enslavement and racism to personhood in the United States. Douglass shows not only how the freer story is only partially available to him, but also how it contributes to his lesser status, to the subordinate black selfhood that he cannot accept. The cultural importance of that story, and the free selfhood that it articulated, made indirection an important part of an alternative story. Accordingly, Douglass represents his self as a story that could not be fully told.
This chapter contextualizes Douglass's narratives within both the anxious responses to the efforts of nonwhite subjects to tell their stories in two Supreme Court cases and the use Abraham Lincoln made of a similar anxiety in his speeches. The Courts of two politically-divergent Supreme Court justices, John Marshall and Roger Taney, addressed the indeterminate status of indigenous tribes and descendants of Africans, respectively, in Cherokee Nation v. the State of Georgia (1831) and Scott v. Sandford (1857), more commonly known as Dred Scott. Recognizing the importance of definition as a function of the law, both Courts legislated the unrecognizability of the nonwhite claimants by labeling them "neither citizens, nor aliens." Both the Marshall and the Taney Courts thereby adjudicated the inability of those subjects to tell their stories officially in the highest court of the land.
In the stories they sought to tell and in their desire to tell them, the Cherokee plaintiffs and Dred Scott asked for recognition by the law of the United States. Yet in both cases, the stories and the very presence of these subjects troubled "the constituted 'we'" that James Boyd White calls "the great achievement of the law." The law constitutes a "we" through an official story, beginning with a founding moment that generates a code of laws and principles expressive of the spirit of the "we." The Constitution's "We the People," for example, spontaneously speaks itself into existence, and the law at once articulates and performs its spirit. Radically differing versions of the official story, therefore, pose a threat to its authority. Since the new government claims to derive its authority from the consent of the governed, then anything that calls into question the nature of that consent or what is meant by the governed could seriously challenge the authority of the government. The stories and the presence of the Cherokee people and of the descendants of Africans constituted such a challenge. Neither group was unambiguously included among the people by and for whom the Constitution was framed, and such an inclusion would make the "we" altogether unrecognizable to themselves. These groups represented human beings who had not consented to the laws by which they were bound, human beings, that is, excluded not only from citizenship, but also from certain basic natural rights and thereby from the personhood defined by those rights.
Exclusions troubled the new republic from its founding moments and posed an ongoing problem in the emerging nation. Race was a significant but certainly not the only factor limiting legal representation and existence. A playful yet revealing exchange between leading political figure and future president John Adams and his wife Abigail in the spring of 1776 discloses another such exclusion and ostensible motivation for it. Anticipating a declaration of "independancy," Abigail Adams hoped that the inevitable "new Code of Laws" would be more inclusive than its predecessor. She cautioned her husband to "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited Power into the hands of the Husbands," she advised. "Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation." Abigail thus extended the logic of revolutionary rhetoric.
John's response, although patronizing, speaks to the complex anxiety raised by groups to whom the full rights of personhood did not extend. John "cannot but laugh" at his wife's "extraordinary Code of Laws," but his words express concern. "We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented." Beneath his teasing tone, he expresses a general fear of uprisings, concern over how to establish a new code of laws with authority and how to keep claims of rights violations made by British colonists leading the rebellion from extending to those groups not included among their ranks. To distinguish white women from their male counterparts, for example, Adams turns them into "another Tribe," a phrase suggestive of the "Indians" who threaten to slight "their Guardians." Abigail herself had concluded her letter with a declaration of dependency, asking her husband to "Regard us ... as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness." Her words echo a rhetoric of guardianship deployed by the British colonists to mark at once their benevolence toward and their superiority to many excluded groups, among them white women, children, slaves, and indigenous tribes.
More than half a century after John and Abigail's exchange, John Marshall would label indigenous tribes "domestic dependent nations" under the guardianship of the state. Although wards cannot lay equal or immediate claim to the status and rights of their guardians, they can expect to grow into independence. Not so for many of the wards of this state, however, be they white women, Indians, or any of a number of groups variously excluded. In particular, lawmakers summoned conceptual differences concerning the nature of personhood when dealing with the indigenous tribes or the descendants of Africans. Yet despite the potency of those arguments, as Cherokee Nation and Dred Scott made clear, no task put a greater strain on the fragile authority of "We the People" than the need to explain why certain groups were deprived of the natural and conventional rights that justified nineteenth-century American government. Government policies that removed tribes from their land or that enslaved Africans and their descendants challenged the language of liberty through which the colonies had sanctioned their rebellion and the Constitution founded its "more permanent Union." The presence of people obviously excluded from the "inalienable rights" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" enumerated by the Declaration of Independence bore witness both to the conventionality of natural rights and to the vulnerability of persons subject to that conventionality. In question was the right of the government to disfranchise human beings who had committed no crime. Their presence invoked an anxiety evident in a query posed with increasing frequency in the political oratory of the Jacksonian and antebellum periods: what keeps the government from making white men slaves?
Disfranchised human beings represented more than the Union's inadequate protection of rights. Those deprived of natural rights in particular embodied—or disembodied—a challenge to the conception of personhood articulated in the founding texts. Understanding how the presence of enslaved people represented such a challenge, Thomas Jefferson had worried about the security of liberties viewed as other than "the gift of God ... not to be violated but with his wrath." Those liberties were God-given because the self was a gift from God. Despite his devotion to the ideals of a rational Enlightenment ideology, Jefferson here expresses pragmatic concern for the permanence of ideas premised on reason rather than divine authority. Even when secularized, the belief in natural rights retained the fervency—and authority—of the religious conviction from which they had derived. "Being is a right inherent in us by birth," wrote William Blackstone in the 1760s, "and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of free will." But rights have no practical meaning independent of their enforceability, which is the role, and the sacred trust, of government. "Every man, when he enters into society," Blackstone continues, "gives up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase" (BC, 121). Embodying the alienability of natural rights—and the consequent denial of the personhood defined by those rights—the disfranchised pointed to the power of government to violate its sacred trust. The bestowal of citizenship and protection of liberties that were the recognized tasks of the law seemed to collapse into a conferral of personhood from which even a white native-born American man might well worry that he may one day be excluded as other groups were already excluded. The decisions in Cherokee Nation and Dred Scott exhibited that process of exclusion and, as I shall argue, amplified rather than resolved the uncanniness of the litigants for a white American public.
In the triumphant Unionist narrative he shaped, Abraham Lincoln made rhetorical use of that uncanniness. His speeches presented a narrative of Union—specifically, his narrative of Union—as a prerequisite for social existence. Through careful rhetorical maneuvering, social existence in turn became the mark of any meaningful existence. Lincoln, in other words, made meaningful existence contingent upon his narrative of Union, and he used the uncanniness of human beings excluded from personhood to demonstrate the fate of any subject excluded from that Union. But he never resolved the question of the status of descendants of Africans within that Union. They remained haunting presences, symbols of exclusion at once necessary to his narrative and threatening to disrupt it.
My discussion of Lincoln precedes my discussion of Douglass in this chapter because I want to underscore what is at stake in Douglass's efforts to tell his own story. By the time he wrote My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass had begun to subscribe to a Unionist narrative similar, in general terms, to the one Lincoln later brought to the White House. As his nomination and election suggest, Lincoln's version of the Union, one less radical than Douglass's, was probably the most radical version acceptable to the voting American public, and even that version precipitated a war. Lincoln's narrative and responses to it thus make clear the strength of the forces Douglass sought to challenge. The constraints on the story that Douglass can tell even in My Bondage and My Freedom correspond to the limitations placed on the experiences and expressions of personhood by a Unionist narrative. Those constraints, although made most obvious by a descendant of Africans, nonetheless had more widespread implications; they bore uncanny witness not only to the shaping (and misshaping) of the selfhood available to Douglass, but to the legislating of personhood in general by a national narrative.
Legislating Personhood in the Emerging Nation
Together, Cherokee Nation and Dred Scott represent a contest of narratives each trying to legitimate a version of the official story of the nation, and each complicated by the presence of human beings who embody its unresolved contradictions. The more the Courts attempted to evade or explain those contradictions, the more apparent they made them. I am suggesting, and I shall demonstrate in what follows, that these cases made apparent how much an official story actually determines the shape of the nation and how difficult it is, therefore, to tell a markedly different version of that story. Central to each official story is a carefully circumscribed conception of personhood.
Excerpted from Constituting Americans by Priscilla Wald. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Neither Citizen Nor Alien: National Narratives, Frederick Douglass ,and the Politics of Self-Definition 14
2. "As From a Faithful Mirror": Pierre, Our Nig, and Literary Nationalism 106
3. "The Strange Meaning of Being Black": The Souls of Black Folk and the Narrative of History 172
4. A "Losing-Self Sense": The Making of Americans and the Anxiety of Identity 237
Coda: An American "We" 299
Selected Bibliography 353