Violent Passions: Anti-Jacobinism and the Early American Republic

Pam Perkins
University of Manitoba

The high temperature of American political rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2010 elections attracted a range of dismayed commentary, much of it focusing on what the author of a letter published in the November 8, 2010, issue of The New Yorker called the “general debasing of protest and logical argument” in contemporary politics. Implicitly or explicitly, much of this commentary was underpinned by a somewhat wistful longing to recover the supposed decorum of an era of more thoughtful, reasoned political discussion. If such an era ever existed, it was most emphatically not in the years of the early Republic, despite a tendency to turn back to the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries as exemplars of soberly high-minded adherence to strictly rational principles of government. As Rachel Hope Cleves shows in her important and compelling study, The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery (Cambridge, 2009), early twenty-first century American political language hasn’t strayed as far as one might think from the debates that shaped the early Republic: the knee breeches and tricorne hats donned by the vociferously angry Tea Party demonstrators of the summer and autumn of 2010 in a bid to claim the mantle of the revolutionary generation might not have been quite as incongruous as opponents would tend to assume, given the impassionedly violent rhetoric of two hundred years ago. Cleves’s detailed analysis of American political language in the years during and immediately after the French Revolution offers a fascinating and often startling insight into the “tendency to render passion predominant over reason” (181) that, as she shows, has marked American politics from the very early years of the Republic.

Cleves’s starting point in this study is what many readers might assume would be the unpromising figures of the Federalist-Calvinist New England ministers who flourished in the years on either side of 1800. These men were, in many ways, on the losing side in any battle to engage historical sympathies. Their political elitism, as they adhered vigorously to the doomed Federalist principles of John Adams rather than to the more inclusively democratic ideals of Thomas Jefferson, and their starkly pessimistic religious vision of human depravity makes their world view at best foreign and at worst distasteful to twenty-first-century sensibilities. One of Cleves’s most impressive achievements in this book is to show how these now usually overlooked clergymen—among them David Osgood (1747–1822), Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), Lemuel Haynes (1753–1833), and Elijah Parish (1762–1825)—contributed to shaping American political discourse both in their own and in succeeding generations. As Cleves argues, it was precisely the fears of human depravity and irrational violence that drove men of this class and generation to visions of humanitarian reform—most notably in their almost unanimous opposition to slavery. In her words, these “early national Federalists and Calvinists were motivated by a deeply negative view of human nature to create reform movements that would ameliorate human violence and control threats to the social order, from their fearful negativism sprang humane efforts to reform society” (56). Yet as Cleves also demonstrates through her extensive study of sermons, tracts, newspaper articles, and other ephemera, at the same time as these men and others like them used education and reform movements in an attempt to shield America from the effects of violent irrationality, they relied upon nightmarishly vivid evocations of the violence that they feared in order to strengthen the rhetorical impact of their prose.

Literary critics and historians working on British political discourse of this era will not be entirely surprised by Cleves’s arguments and conclusions. Over the last two decades, there has been an array of work showing how debates about the French Revolution shaped British popular culture, and the complex shades of political thought that flourished within the polemically over-simplified opposition of “Jacobin” and “anti-Jacobin” have been teased out by a number of writers. Hannah More—mentioned in passing by Cleves as an influence on some of the younger writers she discusses—might have been vehemently conservative in many of her ideas and values, but she was also, like Cleves’s clergymen, an unwavering opponent of slavery. Edmund Burke, likewise, has gone down in history as one of the most early and outspoken British enemies of the French Revolution, but as critics such Frans de Bruyn and Tom Furniss (among many others) have demonstrated, his denunciation of Revolutionary violence is couched in some of the most memorably violent rhetoric of the era.[1] The degree to which the French Revolution also influenced American political debate is underscored by the second chapter of Cleves’s study, which demonstrates how thoroughly these now-familiar narratives of French revolutionary violence permeated the structure and style of American arguments about democracy and republicanism. Yet even if the New England voices that Cleves foregrounds in her study can be read as part of a transatlantic Anglophone backlash against French radicalism, Cleves demonstrates that there are still important ways in which American anti-Jacobinism remains distinct from the British version. Most obviously, perhaps, British writers tended simply to link republicanism and violence, while Americans had a potentially more tricky path to walk as they attempted to use their violent rhetoric “to paint Republicanism as the pacific middle road between the brutality of monarchy and the savagery of democracy” (99). Even more importantly, the extreme violence of American anti-Jacobin rhetoric—which Cleves catalogues in sometimes gruesome detail—risked invoking precisely the sort of violent passions that it was attempting to delegitimize. Citing a 1798 oration that proclaimed that histories of the French Revolution, like the events themselves, would have to be “written in lines of blood,” Cleves argues that “to write in lines of blood is both to record and enact violence” (96). The problem was that at a time and in a place that political orators were also insisting that a “people that governs itself ought to be always calm and temperate” (181; Cleves is quoting an 1813 pamphlet by Clement Clarke Moore), the use of violent anti-Jacobin rhetoric to inflame patriotic sensibilities raised particularly vexing challenges for American writers.

Cleves’s discussion of the impact of Revolutionary-era politics and pamphleteering on American political ideology is a valuable contribution in itself to the growing field of transatlantic Enlightenment and Romantic studies, but the most original and intriguing sections of the book are the discussions of the way that anti-Jacobin rhetoric underlies other, more peculiarly American, political developments. Most generally, perhaps, Cleves traces significant aspects of the Abolitionist movement back to the violence of the anti-Jacobin debates. Her last chapter, “Growing Up Anti-Jacobin,” looks at the generation of New England abolitionists born in the first decades of the nineteenth century and convincingly links their rhetorical violence to the anti-Jacobinism which permeated their childhoods. (Theodore Dwight Weld, for example, was the son of an anti-Jacobin preacher; Lydia Maria Child was a member of Osgood’s congregation.) Cleves suggests that foregrounding this anti-Jacobin context “provides a new answer to the perennial historical riddle: why did so many abolitionists come from conservative families?” (234). Her answer is that the sort of anarchic violence that the Abolitionists saw as both the cause and a result of slavery also underlay the nightmare visions of violent social breakdown driving early nineteenth-century anti-Jacobinism. The specific rhetorical echoes to which Cleves points—she documents a surprising reliance on invocations of guillotines, Robespierre, and Charlotte Corday, among other Revolutionary tropes and figures, in mid-nineteenth-century Abolitionist writing—are perhaps less interesting than her more general argument about the continuing resonance of violent evocations of human depravity in the most important humanitarian movement in nineteenth-century America.

One of the central ideas unifying of the book is, in fact, the difficulty either of dividing American political movements into neatly opposed camps or of mapping out a tidily progressive history of the gradual triumph of humanitarianism and democratic ideals over the stern Calvinism of the New England Federalists. The Abolitionist movement might be the most important example of subterranean intellectual continuities between the conservative reaction of the Federalist era and later, more progressive movements, but the most surprising and unfamiliar material in The Reign of Terror in America is probably Cleves’s analysis of the opposition to the War of 1812 and its influence on the nascent peace societies. The War of 1812 might well be, as Cleves points out, one of the least remembered of American wars; indeed, it is probably one of the few wars in history remembered by both sides, however hazily, as a victory. That amnesia might arise in part from the fact that at its inception it was also one of the most unpopular wars that America ever fought: a considerably larger percentage of Congressmen voted against going to war in 1812 than voted against going into Iraq in 2002 (156). In 1812, however, it was the more conservative party that was anti-war. As Cleves demonstrates, the violent anti-Jacobinism of the previous decades led smoothly into the Federalist opposition to the War of 1812, and, as it did so, “pushed the boundaries of legitimate opposition to a new extreme” (186). The rhetorical attacks on the pro-war government were Burkean in their evocation of blood-soaked anarchy, but the context—directed as they were not against an external enemy but rather against the writers’ own government and its military—makes them genuinely shocking, even to twenty-first-century eyes. At least two ministers, Samuel Mead and Noah Worcester, used a national Fast Day mandated by the president to proclaim that American soldiers “would come before God guilty of murder” (163), echoing rhetoric that Parish and Osgood had been thundering from their pulpits from the very beginning of the war. Unsurprisingly, this sort of rhetoric sparked outrage on the other side, with verbal assaults flaring up on occasion into physical violence: in July 1812, a Revolutionary War veteran died during a mob attack on a Baltimore jail sheltering some Federalist opponents of the war. Yet the Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing, perhaps the most distinguished of these anti-war clerics, insisted that the idea that once “war is declared all opposition should therefore be hushed” is a “sentiment more unworthy of a free country” than almost any other than could be imagined (188). In “push[ing] the legitimacy of opposition speech” as far as they did, Channing and his contemporaries were balancing on a knife’s edge between protest and sedition (156), and while it might be tempting to see hypocrisy or ideological incoherence in this conservative attack on American government policy, Cleves demonstrates the ways in which this almost forgotten moment in American history helps one to understand the complex interrelationship between the violent counter-revolutionary rhetoric of the 1790s and the later growth of humanitarian and pacifist resistance to now more familiar social and political abuses.

This book is a deeply scholarly investigation of a neglected corner of American history—Cleves has obviously immersed herself in Federalist sermons, polemics, and propaganda—that has as much to offer literary critics as it does to historians. Admittedly, Cleves’s treatment of more conventionally literary texts is sketchy: almost the only works of fiction that she mentions are Royall Tyler’s Algerine Captive (1797) and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), and she dismisses the latter, in a little more than a page and a half, as straightforward political allegory, with the seductive outsider Carwin standing in as “the unfettered voice of the Enlightenment” undermining the Wielands, the embodiments of “the American nation” (102). Likewise, Cleves’s characterization of much of the political material that she discusses as “Gothic” seems a little vague: while the term is both broad and flexible, by the end of the book it has become little more than a synonym for “violent.” That said, one of the things that Cleves achieves in this study is a widening of our understanding of the literary culture of Federalist New England. There probably aren’t many readers who thrill to the thoughts of sitting down with a stack of late eighteenth-century Calvinist sermons, but Cleves demonstrates the degree to which our understanding of the world of Brockden Brown, Tyler, and other such relatively familiar literary figures can be illuminated by this seemingly unpromising material. Even more generally, she shows how these overlooked religious and polemical works illuminate the wider American political culture, then and now. References to contemporary issues aren’t forced or over-stressed, but they are there. As Cleves explains in her preface, this is in some ways a deeply personal book, growing out of her own encounters with violence and dedicated to victims of two school shootings that touched her own life. In attempting to understand how writers two hundred years ago, working from a perspective that has become deeply unfamiliar and probably uncongenial to most readers today, made sense of the violence marking their own society, Cleves offers a new and valuable perspective on a fascinating and important subject.


[1]  See Frans de Bruyn, The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke: The Political Uses of Literary Form (Oxford, 1996), and Tom Furniss, Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender, and Political Economy in Revolution (Cambridge, 1993).