Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

On Writing the History of Violence

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

On Writing the History of Violence

Article excerpt

"We are happily removed far from the scene of confusion and blood." The Reverend Joseph McKeen spoke these words to his Massachusetts congregation at a Fast Day service in April 1793. From the pulpit, and in their parlors, McKeen warned parishioners about the Reign of Terror then engulfing democratic France. Mobs and demagogues had overthrown the bulwarks of social order and were committing thousands to the guillotine. McKeen predicted that a generation would die in the "horrid scene." The turbulence of bloodshed may have seemed distant to his parishioners, sitting peaceably at home or in the meetinghouse. But McKeen cautioned that "factious spirits" threatened to involve the United States in "the calamities of anarchy and war." He struggled to impress the proximity of violence upon his listeners. "Let us not think that we are in no danger," he pleaded. '

We are happily removed far from the scene of confusion and blood.

My words cut the blank page. I have in mind another bloody scene, which could have cut my voice, and left silence in its place. Ten years ago, when I was a student at Simon's Rock College, in Massachusetts, a classmate used an assault rifle to fire his way methodically through the campus. In my housing unit the phone rang, the resident advisor warned me and my housemates that someone was shooting a gun. The phone rang again, a friend told us that the shooter was Wayne Lo-someone whom I had long feared. Wayne and I had gotten in many classroom arguments, ana I personally represented for him the intolerable corruption of our profane and permissive school. I felt my flesh calling out to his bullets. I locked the front door and cowered beneath the windows. Wayne wounded a security guard, killed my teacher, killed my friend, wounded three other students, and just barely missed many more, before his gun jammed and the SWAI team came, to take, him, away.

It is my memory of violence, of that greedy demon reaching out for me, that has propelled my research into the past arid acquainted me with the frightened minister whose words I have appropriated. But it is my historical research into the surprising consequences of the American conservative reaction to the violence of the French Revolution that has led me to write about my personal experience. Political engagement with a subject often provides an entry point for reflections on historical meaning; in this essay, I use a series of correspondences between my personal and academic narratives to demonstrate how emotional engagement can be a valuable entry point as well. I will interweave an academic history of writing about violence with a personal history of violence, and draw from each to argue that rhetoric has the power to overreach limited origins and change ethical perceptions. The gothic language that early national conservatives used to condemn French democracy transcended its context and became a powerful ingredient in progressive nineteenthcentury reform movements. When authors and orators warned about the proximity of bloodshed to arouse audiences, they made violence a pressing problem that demanded redress. I have learned from this history that descriptions of violence are not limited by their sensationalism. For ten years I resisted writing about my experience during the shooting, because I feared creating a titillating narrative that would exploit the victims. I have changed my mind, in the hope that using my story to arouse readers to a sense of bloodshed's proximity will persuade this audience to take violence more seriously as a pressing historical problem that demands study.

Most American citizens embraced the French Revolution during its early phase as a positive reflection of their own political progress.2 But as news of the Revolution's disorder and violence began reaching America, a gradual attrition of opinion occurred among conservatives.3 The American conservative turn against the French Revolution began as early as 1790, when John Adams published a series of essays entitled Discourses on Davila in the Federalist newspaper, the Gazette oj the United States. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.