Academic journal article American Drama

Language of Assent: Republican Rhetoric and Metaphors of National Redemption in American Revolutionary Drama

Academic journal article American Drama

Language of Assent: Republican Rhetoric and Metaphors of National Redemption in American Revolutionary Drama

Article excerpt

More than two hundred years ago, the French immigrant Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in an attempt to define the essence of the new nation at the time of the American revolution, posed the classic question of American nationality in his most widely read and most frequently anthologized Letter III of his Letters from an American Farmer (1782):

      What then is the American, this
   new man? He is either a European or the
   descendant of a European, hence that
   strange mixture of blood, which you will
   find in no other country.

      He is an American, who leaving
   behind him all his ancient prejudices and
   manners, receives new ones from the new
   mode of life he has embraced, the new
   government he obeys, and the new rank he
   holds.

     The American is a new man, who
   acts upon new principles; he must therefore
   entertain new ideas and form new
   opinions. From involuntary idleness,
   servile dependence, penury, and useless
   labor, he has passed to toils of a very different
   nature, rewarded by ample subsistence.
   This is an American (643-4).

Crevecoeur's optimistic social concept of America's rising empire as a land that heralds human achievement and personal happiness, as a distinctive society that combines natural abundance with political and spiritual triumph, actually echoes the general attitude of the time towards the creation and promotion of a deserving and satisfactory national identity. From the pre-revolutionary literary activity--the pamphlets, essays and plays that attempted to capture the political climate of the period--to Thomas Jefferson's sentimental but highly assertive Declaration of Independence and his "self-evident" truths, the shaping of a collective identity, the formation of America's political and cultural personality, becomes inextricably linked with the national effort to create a consensus literature for a diverse citizenry, a political discourse that would encompass the particularity of difference and would override any lurking fears of collapse and failure. In a letter to Jefferson in 1815, quite a few years after the American revolution, John Adams retrospectively acknowledges the profound impact of the literary activity of the time on public opinion confirming the widespread view that the revolution was primarily an ideological, constitutional struggle, not just a military, political conflict:

   What do we mean by the Revolution? The war?
   That was no part of the Revolution; it was only
   an effect and a consequence of it. The
   Revolution was in the minds of the people, and
   this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the
   course of fifteen years before a drop of blood
   was shed at Lexington (Bailyn 1). (1)

>From the perspective of ideological consensus, it has been tempting to explore the ability of American society during the revolutionary period to turn its myths into power and ideology, to secure assent through language, to open up and embrace an enormous diversity of people. Sacvan Bercovitch connects history and rhetoric- that is "conquest by arms and conquest by the word"--and argues that the "discovery of America is the modern instance par excellence of how these two kinds of violence are entwined; how metaphor becomes fact, and fact, metaphor; how the realms of power and myth can be reciprocally sustaining; and how that reciprocity can encompass widely disparate outlooks" (1993: 71). For the leaders of the revolution, it proved a formidable task not only to transform the cultural identity of Americans, their provincial outlook, but also to introduce an alternative discourse that would transcend social/cultural distinctions and class barriers and create a sense of national unity. How could they convince the American people that they were fighting a national war of national liberation when the majority of the colonists remained neutral to the political circumstances or even friendly to the king and actually regarded England as their mother-country with whom they shared unbreakable bonds? …

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