The Republic: Issue 2 – The Common Good
Issue 2, Spring/Summer 2001
Author: Peter Linebaugh
Some of the ideas of this essay were germinated with Iain Boal as we followed Tecumseh’s route along the Thames (Ontario) and the Scioto (Ohio), then developed at Professor Louis Cullen’s modern history seminar, Trinity College, Dublin (November 2000), and subsequently clarified in discussion with Staughton Lynd in Youngstown, Ohio.
‘… he had heard his father say she was a spoiled nun and that she had come out of the convent in the Alleghanies when her brother had got the money from the savages for the trinkets and the chainies. Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell.’
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York, 1916).
I write in the aftermath of the November 2000 US election whose corrupted result has thrown a mantle of suffused silence upon the once garrulous republic. More immediately, I write in the week that the indigenous people of Mexico, led by those of Chiapas, left the forest and marched to the city, where they entered the congress of the Mexican republic and made their voices heard after centuries of silencing. In north America, we are once again revisiting under the leadership of ‘the people of the colour of the earth’ the political meaning of a republic and the lineaments of US imperialism. What follows are some notes designed to help us to escape the impasse of the imperialist pall of silence and to renew, if possible, the discussion of historical materialism with its raison d’être of equality of goods within the earthly commons.
Col. E.M. Despard, the United Irishman, was executed in February 1803 for conspiracy to topple the British crown and empire. Long regarded as an adventurist, if not crazed, did he not know that revolution in France, England and Ireland was over? [Having served with distinction in the British army in the West Indies, Despard was suspended on a frivolous charge. Seeking compensation, he was later thrown into prison. On his release, he formed a plot to assassinate the king. Along with six associates, he was drawn on a hurdle, hanged and beheaded.] I shall bring together three texts from the years 1802–03 with a view to exploring some of the forces at play in the period (what is it that we do not know?). The texts are, one, ‘Lithconia’, a political romance appearing in United Irish circles of Philadelphia; two, a study of the Ohio Indians by Constantin Volney, the French intellectual and ideologue; and three, some Indian stories which were published in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy by John Dunne.1
These will help us understand the full expanse of revolutionary discussions because, like Despard, both Dunne and Volney brought to Europe from indigenous America messages which renewed European debates at a tender point: private property. The appropriation of common lands by private proprietors was challenged in practice by the commoners of those lands and in theory during the French revolution, during the United Irish rebellion of 1798, and by the indigenous people of the American Great Lakes or the pays d’en haut, as the region has been termed by Richard White.2 It is White, also, who introduces the idea of the village republic to characterise the mixed human settlements of the middle ground, autonomous from European empires or USA. In Belfast, you could read that the Indian villages of the Old Northwest (Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) were also places of runaway slaves.3 In Ireland, Kevin Whelan in an essay on the United Irishmen and popular culture calls attention to ‘the republic in the village’. Thus, from opposite sides of the Atlantic, scholars recently have applied the expression ‘republic’ to settings where it had not heretofore been applied, and in doing so its meaning has been enlarged.4
It so happens that Friederich Engels located in precisely these years the appearance of both the modern working class and the birth of socialism, though this, to be sure, in its utopian rather than ‘scientific’ form. According to Engels, modern socialism is the direct product of the recognition of class antagonism between proprietors and non-proprietors; it also appears as the logical extension of the principles of reason, equality, and justice of the French enlightenment. Against the rampant crime, prostitution and cheating of the time, Engels delighted ‘in the stupen-dously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering’. Engels found the birth of the industrial working class in 1800–2. He neglected women workers, the slaves of the plantations and the indigenous peoples. Their unpaid labours provided essential products to capitalism. The women reproduced labour-power. The slaves produced sugar. The indigenous people preserved the ‘natural’ products (the animals of the forest). In all three cases, their labours appeared as free gifts—gifts of love, gifts of race, gifts of nature. The master narrative is merely the narrative of the masters: the mistresses, the mastered, and the masterless have a story to tell. We have a century of scholarship about African-American slavery; we have the scholarship of women’s history; and we have the ‘new Indian history’. None of this did Engels have or know.5
He does not recognise the stadialism [the theory that history can be divided into a sequence of stages, progressing forward from a state of nature to civilisation] of the Scottish enlightenment.6 The problematic of historical stages was developed in the Scottish enlightenment by, among others, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, William Robertson and Adam Smith, in the aftermath of the defeat of the Scottish highlanders who, according to theory, were living somewhere between the savage and the barbarian stages and thus their defeat was inevitable and progressive. Savages, as hunters and fishers, were without property; barbarians, as pastoralists and herdsmen, had moveable property; only civilization depended on real estate. As Ferguson expressed it, echoing Rousseau, ‘He who first said, “I will appropriate this field; I will leave it to my heirs”, did not perceive that he was laying the foundation of civil laws and political establishments’. Ferguson might have added that this same act of appropriation was that of a patriarch or that the patrilinear succession of private property required the monogamous marriage with its gothic opacity and subordination of women to a ‘separate sphere’.7
2. The Lithconian republic
Jefferson, at the head of the party of republicans, was swept into the White House in the election of 1800. He allied with the Indian-haters and secessionists of the western frontier who were in the midst of the 40-year war (1772–1812) to take the Indian lands of the old northwest. In 1801 he outlined his dream of a white continent that could not contemplate ‘either blot or mixture on that surface’. The years 1802–3 were decisive in the formulation of his Indian policy—trade monopolised at federal factories, inevitable ties of indebtedness, surreptitious and violent alcohol dealing, the depletion of forest resources which had sustained the fur trade, introduction of patriarchal agriculture, land cessions, forced removal if incorporation was resisted, and acquisition of the whole northern continent. A recent scholar concludes, ‘the Jeffersonian vision of the destiny of the Americas had no place for Indians as Indians’.8
Jefferson was a scholar as well as a land-grabber. His only publication provided a studious investigation and stratigraphic analysis into the Indian burial mounds that used to characterise the north American human landscape.9 He also collected Indian vocabularies as a means of investigating the origins of Indian peoples (he had twenty-two of them in 1803), though there is no evidence that he spoke any Indian language. Duplicitous, subtle, implacable, a secret land speculator, a ruthless zealot with the appearance of benevolence, his smile surely was a sign of danger. He was Chief of the Long Knives who chopped up history into fixed stages.
During the 1790s students at Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, and William and Mary read Volney, suspected authority, and believed that ignorance, fear, poverty, and superstition were rooted in political and ecclesiastical authority.10 Elihu Palmer published Principles of Nature; Or, a Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species in 1801. ‘Reason, righteous and immortal reason, with the argument of the printing types in one hand, and the keen argument of the sword in the other, must attack the thrones and the hierarchies of the world, and level them with the dust of the earth; then the emancipated slave must be raised by the power of science into the character of an enlightened citizen …’, wrote Reverend Robert Hall in his Modern Infidelity Considered with respect to its influence on Society (1801). American deists campaigned for freedom of conscience, abolition of slavery, emancipation of women, universal education, and the end of economic privilege. Deism ‘solicits the acquaintance of peasants and mechanics, and draws whole nations to its standards’. With class privilege threatened, Jefferson and Volney, once deists themselves, attempted to cover their tracks.
Before 1798, the United Irish were curious about the American Indians; afterwards, as exiles, they had opportunity to learn from them. ‘I will go to the woods, but I will not kill Indians, nor keep slaves’, vowed Archibald Hamilton Rowan.11 John Binns ‘expected that among the people, even in the large towns, I should occasionally meet one of our red brethren with his squaw lovingly on his arm. I expected to find the white men so plain and quakerly in their dress that I had the lace ripped from my necker-chiefs, and the ruffles from my shirt’. It was known in Ireland that many white men disguised themselves as Indians, especially around the Great Lakes; well-enough known for Waddy Cox to report it without surprise.12
The Temple of Reason was first edited by Dennis Driscoll, an Irish exile of 1798.13 The editor after April 1802 was John Lithgow. Taking a leaf from the book of Thomas Spence, whose ‘Spensonia’ advocated a system of common ownership of land and resources, Lithgow named his political romance ‘Lithconia’. It was a coded intervention in an international political discussion. ‘Equality: A Political Romance’ began to appear in The Temple of Reason on 15 May and thenceforth for seven numbers into the summer of 1802. The editors dedicated it to Dr. James Reynolds of Co. Tyrone, the United Irish emigré who on the occasion of George Washington leaving office said there ‘ought to be a jubilee’, at a time when the term referred to a) release from debts, b) return of land, and c) abolition of slavery—a precise program to satisfy frontiersman, Indian, and slave.
With blithe disregard of the prevailing orthodoxy, the author merely inverted the stadialist fairy tale of orthodox opinion. ‘The Lithconians are not a people that are progressing from a state of nature, to what is vulgarly called civilization; on the contrary, they are progressing from civil society to a state of nature, if they have not already arrived at that state: for in the history of the country, many and surprising revolutions are recorded.’ Its history began as ‘a small island in few leagues from the continent of Europe’. Love, friendship and wealth are attainable for all. Prostitution is removed by the abolition of private property and the patrilineal lines of descent. ‘Here the laws do not make the trembling female swear to the father of her child.’ Dancing on the green commences every day at four o’clock. Music is the principle branch of liberal education. A printing press is open to all in every district. There is no money in the country. The lands are in common, and a few hours of labour is required of all. As for children, ‘no such words as mine and thine are ever heard’. No markets, no shopkeepers, no debtors, no creditors, no lawyers, no elections, no embezzlement, no theft. Machines are permitted; railways are widespread.14 ‘The laws are not contained in huge volumes–they are written in the hearts of Lithconians’ (an antinomian view propounded by William Drennan). The Temple of Reason folded on 19 February 1803, three days before Despard suffered his last and a day after Jefferson privately wrote his extraordinary letter to Benjamin Hawkins about the Indians: ‘I have little doubt but that your reflections must have led you to view the various ways in which their history may terminate’. The best that the Indians can do is to sell their land and become US citizens. The chiefs can get rich, the men will take the plough, women give up the hoe, exceptional souls may go to college, and the whiskey keg is full for the rest.15
The hanging and decapitation of Despard, the closing of The Temple of Reason, and the termination of Indian history (at least as imagined by President Jefferson) thus all took place within a few days of each other. This is not to say that European proletarian insurrection, or American utopian socialist discussion, or native American resistance were crushed—no, not at all—but it is to suggest linkages among the three themes to a common project. A recent scholar dismises the work as a ‘utopian socialist’ tract. Certainly, the authors of Lithconia did not think it was impractical: ‘The genuine system of property to be spoken of, as no visionary phantom, but as a good, which might be realised’.
3. Tecumseh and the commonist project
The French revolution went about as far as it could in the summer of 1793 when, on the one hand, it restored communal lands without respect to gender and inclusive of domestics and labourers but, on the other hand, in March 1793, it prescribed the death penalty for whomsoever should propose an agrarian law. Although the idea of levelling distinctions based on wealth could be found in the cahiers de doléance of 1789, the exploration of proto-communism could not begin to be aired until after the proclamation of the republic and the execution of the king. The Manifesto of the Equals, intending to establish ‘The Republic of Equality’, addressed the ‘People of France’ in 1796: ‘the land is nobody’s personal property. Our demand is for the communal ownership of the earth’s resources’. Gracchus Babeuf (1760–97) wrote of this republic, ‘such a régime will sweep away iron bars, dungeon walls, and bolted doors, trials and disputations, murders, thefts and crimes of every kind; it will sweep away the judges and the judged, the jails and the gibbets–all the torments of body and agony of soul that the injustice of life engenders; it will sweep away enviousness and gnawing greed, pride, and deceit … ; it will remove–and how important is this!–the brooding, omnipresent fear that gnaws always and in each of us concerning our fate tomorrow, next month, next year, and in our old age; concerning the fate of our children and of our children’s children’.17
The Poor Man’s Catechism in Ireland (1798) called for a return of the common land—‘It is not possible that God can be pleased to see a whole nation depending on the caprice and pride of a small faction, who can deny the common property in the land to his people, or at least tell them, how much they shall eat, and what kind; and how much they shall wear, and what kind’—and, in The Cry of the Poor for Bread, John Burk wrote, ‘oh! lords of manors, and other men of landed property, as you have monopolised to yourselves the land, its vegetation and its game, the fish of the rivers and the fowls of heaven … in the present condition of things can the labourer, who cultivates your land with the sweat of his brow, the working manufacturer, or the mechanic support himself, a wife and five or six children?’ Such voices were silenced in Ireland after 1798 but not in America where, in 1803, Joseph Brant, the Iroquois leader, wrote,18 ‘… we have no law but that written on the heart of every rational creature by the immediate finger of the great Spirit of the universe himself. We have no prisons—we have no pompous parade of courts … we have no robbery. under the colour of law–daring wickedness here is never suffered to triumph over helpless innocence—the estates of widows and orphans are never devoured by enterprising sharpers. Our sachems, and our warriors, eat their own bread, and not the bread of wretchedness … The palaces and prisons among you form a most dreadful contrast. Liberty, to a rational creature, as much exceeds property, as the light of the sun does that of the most twinkling star: but you put them on a level, to the everlasting disgrace of civilization … ’.
Tecumseh [a leader of the Shawnee who believed that the land belonged to all Indians and who wanted to create an Indian nation stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico] refused to enter the house of Governor W.H. Harrison in August 1810, insisting on meeting in the open air. ‘The earth was the most proper place for the Indians, as they liked to repose upon the bosom of their mother.’ Reposed, he spoke eloquently, and his words were translated in an English diction whose origins arose in the seventeenth-century transformations of land associated with enclosures and the resistence to them. ‘You wish to prevent the Indians from doing as we wish them, to unite and let them consider their lands as the common property of the whole’—as militants had argued for three decades.19 ‘Since my residence at Tippecanoe, we have endeavoured to level all distinctions, to destroy village chiefs by whom all mischiefs are done. It is they who sell the land to the Americans.’ ‘The way, the only way to stop this evil is for the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now—for it was never divided, but belongs to all. No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers … Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?’ The resonances with the seventeenth-century revolution in England become explicit: ‘when Jesus Christ came upon the earth you killed Him and nailed Him to the cross. You thought He was dead, and you were mistaken. You have Shakers among you and you laugh and make light of their worship’.
Tecumseh was killed in battle on the River Thames, Ontario, in 1813, but his brother, the one-eyed prophet Tenskwatawa, escaped to Canadian exile. In 1824, a young proto-ethnologist of the Indian Department sought him out to answer a government questionnaire. He was now an object of study. Stories and dreams, once so powerful, had lost their force. Nevertheless, Tenskwatawa attempted to tell a story; stories could be tested against action, but in defeat they lose the sense of belonging to history and become timeless traits of the sauvage, as if the story too were dead. Volney announced the return of the sauvage. ‘These men’, he wrote ‘are in the actual state of wild animals’. But which animals?
4. Turtle’s students: Volney the apostate
Constantin-François Volney [a French scholar and zealous reformer, elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1789 and later thrown into prison until the downfall of Robespierre], a conscious victor of history’s stages, rode no triumphal chariot—he was wrapped up in a blanket at the back of a wagon bouncing through the forest, on the road from Cincinatti up to the Maumee River that General Wayne had made three years before. Riding in ‘a convoy of money’, he feverishly clung to his portable escritoire, his pens and ink bottles. Back at Fort Vincennes, he got his ethnology from a liquor salesman and refused to leave the palisade to converse, himself, with the beseeching Indians. He observed, in disgust, an Indian stabbing his wife to death ‘within twenty steps of me’ and assumed his reader would not wonder whether he intervened to stop it. But he had fallen ill, unable to complete his rendezvous with William Wells, the interpreter and ‘white Indian’. His own English was shaky. He returned east, seasick on Lake Erie, his researches brought to a halt, and memories of ghastly filthy settlement behind him. He is a globaliser. A savant, an ideologist, Napoleon will be his employer. He was looking for land and ‘at the same time correcting prejudices formed during a period of enthusiasm’. He has apostatised.
His revolutionary ‘enthusiasm’ was expressed in Ruins; Or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, published in 1791, which provided a narrative of human history without gods or magic and placed the people at the centre of hope against the cupidity and perfidy of the rulers, be they priests, soldiers, or lawgivers. Furthermore, the book put the origins of civilisation in the Nile, a view unaccepted by subsequent European historiography, and thus the book was kept in print by pan-African publishers, while it dropped out of print by white publishers. This was the book beloved by the Shelleys, Percy and Mary. Mary wrote of Dr Frankenstein (1817) who created the monster without a name. ‘My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? When did I come? What was my destination?’ Engels would recognise the dawning of class consciousness. Is he the industrial working class at the moment of its making? Is he the racial ‘other’ at the moment of expanding slavery? The monster escapes, and at the window of a lonely mountain cottage he listens to the poor cottagers read Volney aloud, learning of the extermination of the first peoples of America, the dispeopling of Africa and the sale of its inhabitants, and ‘the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty’. The monster listened and wept. Volney’s tears, by this time, were dry. He embarked in 1795 for America, to find an asylum for his declining years. Once there, he decides to remain in consequence of ‘the facility of acquiring landed property’. Volney is obsessed by property. No right of property exists among the savages, he says. ‘The land … is undivided among all the nations, and remains in common’, as is still the case in parts of France, Spain, Italy and Corsica. He refers to Sir John Sinclair’s Essay on Commons and Waste Lands and the enclosures of England and Scotland. ‘The abolition of these commons should everywhere be the first law.’ Agriculture, industry, and individual and national character depend on enclosure. ‘The most radical and active cause [of barbarism and savagery] is the undivided and common state of the greater part of its territory.’20
He published Tableau du climat et du sol des États-Unis d’Amérique in 1803, which was translated into English by the novelist Charles Brown the following year. It has the warmth of an investor’s report. The background is knowledge that climate and weather are, to a degree, affected by human action; the clearing of woods, especially, affected soil temperature, inland breezes, and the fluctuation of seasons. Drought keeps pace with clearing.21 The gothic is the attitude of overwhelming forces of death, famine, war, and pestilence. Charles Brockden Brown published a gothic novel called Edgar Huntly or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1801). It compares and contrasts parallel stories of an Irish immigrant, Clithero, who assassinated his landlady’s brother and believed he had killed her, and a Pennsylvania Indian-killer, Edgar Huntly. He has an eight-page appendix vocabulary of the language of the Miami Indians. He had nine or ten visits in January and February 1798. ‘This incident furnished me with a more fortunate opportunity, than I could have expected, not only affording me an interpreter to communicate my ideas, but the mouth of a native to give me the sounds in all their purity.’ The collecting of words like this already objectifies and distances Little Turtle [a leader of the Miamis, who fought many battles against the Americans and also led a united group of Indian tribes including Shawnee, Delaware and Wyandots]: his language is not a means of dialogue or an exchange of meanings; it is a bunch of sounds for unilateral appropriation. The European has ideas, and the Indian has sounds.
Wells describes the ‘middle ground’ or the many whites who join the savage life—children, Canadians, ‘men of bad character’, and libertines. The village republic is a political unit whose members originated from several tribes or ethnicities. These are not the imaginary sauvages of Rousseau or Chateaubriand. They are without hierarchy, order, or authority. The architecture is frame and bark; its people are European and Algonquian.22 Women would determine whether hostages were an acceptable alternative to war. The village republics contained runaway slaves, too. Thus the first article of the 1785 Treaty of Fort M’Intosh provided that the Indian sachems provide three hostages until prisoners had been returned to the US, white and black. Thus the image of common children from a common mother expressed the heterogeneous nature of kinship. The Indian confederacy of 1786 met at Brownstown, where Brant enunciated his famous principle of Indian unity and common land as a ‘dish with one spoon’. To Volney it was all separate: isolated dishes with many knives and forks. ‘They live wholly in their feelings, little in remembrance, not at all in hope.’ ‘Theirs in fact is an extreme and terrible democracy’. ‘These men are actually in the state of wild animals and birds …’ Which is it, actually, animals or birds?
Volney praises Turtle, who ‘has been led by the nature of things, to discover the essential basis of the social state in the cultivation of the earth, and, as an immediate consequence, in landed property’. Volney claps his hands and turns to Rousseau, ‘who maintains that the deprivation of the social state originates from the introduction of the right of property’. The true picture of savage life, Volney says, ‘is a state of non-compact and anarchy, in which wandering, unconnected men are moved by violent necessities’. ‘After this let sentimental dreamers come forward and boast the goodness of the man of nature.’ Volney had a bad experience in the prisons of the Jacobin republic.
Will Napoleon honour the land transfers of the revolution? Will Washington and Adams open the Ohio to the unpaid veterans, who showed in the Whiskey Rebellion that instead of fighting the Indians they might fight the great landowners like Washington? Will Pitt authorise the parliamentary enclosure acts? Will the sugar plantations of the slaves still grind amid the transfer of flags from one to another European? Was the terror of the Orange Order enough to hold back the advance of an outraged peasantry, whose independence was reduced to service occupations? Will the Act of Union guarantee private property from the fairies of the night?
5. Turtle’s students: John Dunne the antiquarian
John Dunne spoke at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street, Dublin, in May 1802. John Dunne was the son of a native of Lurgan, Co. Armagh, who became a dissenting minister at Cooke Street, Dublin; a class-mate of William Drennan; a graduate of Glasgow University; a leading member of the bar; and a member of the Irish house of commons for Randalstown, Co. Antrim from 1783–97, under the patronage of John O’Neill, a whig.23 He became a unitarian, and, like Coleridge and thousands of others of the hopeful young, he was filled with projects for changing the world. Let Archibald Hamilton Rowan introduce him further: ‘disgusted by the turbulent and sanguinary scenes of civilised life at a time when his professional reputation would have seated him on the bench, he was led by a romantic wish to become acquainted with men in the savage state. Accordingly he crossed the Atlantic, and for a time conformed to the manners and customs of an Indian tribe’.24
The guns between France and Britain were silent in May 1802. The Peace of Amiens brought a lull in the struggle between the European titans, though not in the agony of the slave revolts of Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue, nor the nocturnal arson against the machines of industrial England, and the groans remained from the prisons and exile. A year earlier, the first parliament of the ‘United Kingdom’ met: Dunne was speaking to Irishmen who had their independence taken away (the Act of Union went into effect a year earlier, January 1801), a final act against the bid for freedom launched in 1798, which was crushed with greater casualties than were visited on France by the Jacobin terror. If the French revolution offered a universal ethical reprise from the ancien régime in its slogans of possibility—liberté, egalité, fraternité—these same slogans had to be translated, as it were, into the vernacular of other countries if their universality was to be realised. In Ireland this became the project of the United Irishmen, whose demands for the emancipation of catholics and independence from England were formulated within the effervescence of cultural nationalism—the harp re-strung at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, the folk songs, Éireann go brách, and an antiquarian validation of a vernacular Gaelic civilisation. Ledwich published a second edition of Antiquities of Ireland in 1803, as part of the respsonse to the scholarly work of the Catholic Committee, which was active in discovering and preserving Gaelic culture. Gaelic antiquaries were assisted by Anglo-Irish liberals of the Royal Irish Academy, which encouraged Celtic studies since its founding in 1785. They used the remote past to achieve social and civic parity; it proved that they were at least on the same footing as the conquerors.25 Ledwich argued that the association of Gaelic, catholic and radical political views was dangerous. The project was defeated by government in London and Dublin in policies of maleficent sectarianism, military repression and cultural regression.26 The political diaspora followed, to the mines of Prussia, to the factories of Lancashire and Yorkshire, to become hewers of wood and drawers of water in London, vanished in the fleet, or exiled in America. Off the banks of Newfoundland, near the end of his voyage of exile, James Orr (1770–1816), United Irishman, sang:
How hideous the hold is!—Here, children are screaming,
There, dames faint, thro’ thirst, with their babes on their knee;
Here, down ev’ry hatch the big breakers are streaming,
And, there, with a crash, half the fixtures break free:
Some court—some contend—some sit dull stories telling—
the mate’s mad and drunk, and the tar’s task’d and yelling:
What sickness and sorrow, pervade my rude dwelling!—
A huge floating lazar-house, far, far at sea.
Drennan’s Letters of Orellana, an Irish Helot (Dublin, 1785), which began as a series of letters in Belfast, took its name from indigenous Americans. ‘The freedom of your present mutilated constitution is only to be found in the Utopia of a fanciful Frenchman, or the political reveries of a Genevan philsopher. By those wretched multitudes, I swear, who wander with their fellow bruits through the fertile pasturage of the south, by those miserable emigrants who are now ploughing a bleak and boisterous ocean—the democratic spirit of the constitution is no more!’ Contrast Drennan’s generosity (exiles and ‘fellow bruits’ are within the constitutional pale) with the Irish barrister, Herman Blennerhassett of Co. Kerry, a visitor to Paris in 1790 and ‘thoroughly read in the political writings of Voltaire, and a disciple of Rousseau’. In 1798, he purchased an island in the Ohio River, ‘lucrative in the hands of a capitalist, with 40 or 50 negroes, who would engage in raising hemp or tobacco’. He was explicitly praised as an Indian fighter.27
Dunne knew ‘from a thousand sources’ that they hunted and fought and sported. But did they also exercise memory, invention and fancy? Did they laugh and weep at fictitious tales? Did they conjure up ‘the forms of imaginary beings to divert and instruct them’? He obtained the friendship of Little Turtle, who adopted him ‘according to their custom, in the place of a deceased friend, by whose name I was distinguished …’ Thus, like Lord Edward Fitzgerald who received a Seneca name, Eghnidal, in Detroit in June 1789, John Dunne now possessed a dual identity. ‘I wish I could make the Indians here speak’, he lamented to the academicians. Their discourses are forcible, feeling, and expressive in tone. ‘The Indian lyre is unstrung’, he writes, alluding to the slogan of the United Irish of cultural liberation, the harp restrung. ‘How then can I exhibit examples of Indian speech?’ Dunne spends several weeks at Niagara Falls, where he is moved to compose poetry in the Algonquian language. He searches for insight into ‘the workings of the Indians mind’. Little Turtle could extend his imitations even to animals.
The Indians are degenerating and wasting away; in half a century they will be extinguished. He hopes these stories ‘may furnish an additional motive to treat them with humanity’. ‘It is a part of the destiny of an unlettered people, to write their memorials with the pen of a stranger. They have no alternative, imperfect representation, or blank oblivion.’ But of whom are we speaking? ‘Who are these evanescent tribes? And in what class of created beings is posterity to place them?’ He does not answer the questions; he records their answers. The Abenaki will say he is the man of the land; ask the Illinois, he will say he is a real man; ask the Algonquin speakers, they will say they are doubly men. The Spaniards will say barbarian, and the Canadian will say savage. Ask the wise men of Europe who, though they have never even seen the smoke of an Indian village, will ‘dogmatise and write volumes upon their nature, powers and capacities, physical, moral, and intellectual; these men will tell you they are an inferior race of men’. ‘To what opinion shall we hold? What constitutes a man? What energies entitle him to rank high in his species?’
At first he compares the Indians to Homer, or rather to the precursors of Homer. The stories might have ‘beguiled the hours at the ships or the tents at the Scamander’, the river of Troy flowing into the Hellespont where two continents meet.28 Homer is the poet of the heroic stage of history, ‘while the Indian is yet in his infancy, and in the gristle’ (scant agriculture, poor pasturage), using a phrase of Americans that Burke employed a few years earlier: ‘a people who are still, as it were in the gristle not yet hardened into the bone of manhood’. The transition from the woods to the farm was also an ancient figure of rhetoric of Cicero and Horace. Corresponding to the economic bases in this transition, there loomed above, so to speak, a cultural superstructure of the transition from song to writing or from speech to letters. Eloquence, said Cicero, not reason, drew men from sylvan retreats to build the city. Orpheus, claimed Horace, sang men from roaming the woods to the building of the city. Dunne tells several stories. One is a racial one of envy and colour change. Another is sexy but is in Latin. A third is a trickster tale. However, it is the first story I want to tell.
6. The red-crested bird and black duck
A man separated himself from ‘the society of his fellows, and took up his abode in a desart place, in a remote part of the wilderness’. He hunted by day, and in the evening he imparted a portion of food to his brother whom he had imprisoned in a gloomy cave. ‘This unfortunate brother, from having his hair of a fiery red, infectious to the touch, was known among the men of his nation by the name of the red man.’
The younger brother is the figure of dispossession in societies where primogeniture prevails such as Europe. The infectious red hair is symbolic of ethnic origin and of the Jacobin revolutionary who wore the bonnet rouge or red Phrygian cap of liberty, which had made its appearance as a signifier of revolutionary militance in the early months of the French revolution. In the contest of symbols for dominance over the head, it had replaced the crown. Indeed, a ‘battle of the bonnets’ in October 1793 pitted républicaines of the Club of Revolutionary Women, who boldly wore the cap of liberty, against the Jacobin men, who feared that the demand for pistols would follow.29 The title page of the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy portrayed two women, Brittania and Liberty, seated next to a pike with the bonnet rouge on top.
After many winters, the hunter grew lonely. He went to a village. He approached a wigwam on its perimeter, and, finding a widow, he presented her some deer-meat for dinner. The next day he hunted and brought her a whole deer, and invited her to share it with the villagers. It was given to be understood ‘in whispers by the women that a great hunter whom she was bound to conceal, who appeared to come from some distant country, was the providore of her bounty’. His presents ‘excited the curiosity of the whole nation whose joint efforts scarcely equaled the success of this single hunter, notwithstanding their superior knowledge of the best hunting grounds’.
Let the solitary hunter stand for the isolated individualist: the ‘providore’ of prolific productivity, the yankee, the capitalist, the inventor, the symbol of the industrial revolution. At the same time, the Indians had two things to sell—furs and land—and each became their undoing. Furs were traded for alcohol; land bribed away. The Indians are the first example Thomas Malthus provides, in 1798, of his population thesis that ‘misery is the check that represses the superior power of population and keeps its effects equal to the means of subsistence’. Women, children, and the old are the first to suffer, he argues, in this ‘rudest state of mankind’ or ‘the first state of mankind’, where hunting is ‘the only mode of acquiring food’.30 By 1803, this was no longer possible. The actual conditions of the forest hunt in the lands of the Ohio, Monogohela and Wabash were of diminishing game and severe competition of hunters, red and white. In fact, in 1798, the Indians of the Ohio were in an advanced politico-economic relationship with imperial Europe, considerable commodity trade, capital intensive agriculture, massive drug addiction (alcoholism), and incubatory racial separations. Malthusian law is not a demographic hypothesis but an episode in a fictional narrative of termination.
The hunter expressed his desire for a wife, and the chief’s brother obliged his wish to form an alliance with his sister. They married; they feasted; ‘thus the moons rolled away’, until he returned to take her away to ‘the seat of solitude’. Again, he passed the days hunting. She noticed that after dinner he tiptoed away, carrying the tongues and marrow of the animals he killed. Not many days passed before her worry grew, and, against his commands, she stole away to the spot where she had seen him descend into the cavernous prison. His brother heard her approach. ‘The sound of her feet upon the hollow ground, roused the half torpid senses of the subterraneous inhabitant and drew forth his groans’. She recognised him as a brother. ‘She learnt his story, she wept over his sufferings, she administered to his wants, her conversation like a charm gave him new existence.’ She induced him to clamber out into the sunshine.
The ‘underground’ was a vivid reality to the miners of the industrial revolution, and it was a figure of speech of the repressive years of the first decade of the nineteenth century, applied to the Luddites. We can compare him to the Irish political prisoners of St. George who will be released in June 1802 or to Michael Dwyer in the caves of the Wicklow mountains. Much of the chase in Edgar Huntly takes place underground, in mountainous caverns or caves. According to a note to the public at the beginning of the novel, it is such settings of the western wilderness as well as Indian hostilities that must distinguish American literature.31 The ‘underground’ and the ‘wilderness’ thus possessed both a geological or geographical presence and a construction of political imagination.
Her humanity was engaged: she separated the clotted knots of his hair; she removed the clammy concretions on his forehead. An alliance, in effect, is made between the dispossessed younger brother, the figure of the Jacobin or the United Irishman, and the woman seeking her own subsistence and longing for her own community of women’s labour.
Her husband observed her hands stained with red. She sank into despair, to be roused when her husband held before her, suspended by his long red hair, the severed head of her brother. The air resounded with her screams. He fled into the moonlit forest, coming at length to an ancient oak hollowed by lightning, where he hurled the head with its fiery tresses. Then, with wolfish yelps, he began to transmogrify, ‘adding to his nature what alone was wanting, the shape and figure of a wolf’. Homo homini lupus. She has lost the source of her food. His productivity still depends on murder and oppression. ‘Some human beings must suffer from want’, Malthus concluded. ‘All cannot share alike the bounties of nature.’
Indeed, on the frontier, far from the plantations of Monticello, the merchant houses of New York, or Independence Hall of Philadelphia, ‘murder’, to quote Richard White, ‘gradually became the dominant American Indian policy’. The lex talionis prevailed. Whiskey was the poor man’s medium of exchange, solace, capital investment and drug to deal to his enemies. Volney observed it with disdain, disgust and distance. John Heckewelder, the Moravian missionary, wrote, ‘when the object is to murder Indians, strong liquor is the main article required; for when you have them dead drunk, you may do to them as you please’. Lithconia mocked the subject: ‘… murder was but a lean trade, though it was, of all others, the most honourable’. Jonah Barrington recalled the first two questions of a young man: What family is he from? Did he ever blaze?32 General Wayne encouraged dueling in the army of Ohio—for instance, Lieutenants Bradshaw, a gentleman physician, and Huston, a weaver, both Irishmen, killed each other in a duel.33
Meanwhile, the days passed in near lifeless despair. She heard a distant sound. She listened, she was aroused, she recognised the voice of her brother calling. He was telling her where to find berries. She ascended the tree and with a cord of twisted bark drew forth the head. She placed it in her bosom, and he became her counsellor, providing subsistence by felling deer or caribou with a glance of his eye. ‘The storm was now passed over, and a better world seemed to open through the separated clouds. The wants of hunger supplied, the fears of danger banished …’ She only missed ‘the cheerful buzz of the village, the labours of the field sweetened by the converse of her companions’. This is the collective labour of the commons, practiced in the Great Lakes, Ireland, and England alike, prior to enclosures, clearance, and conquest. The absence of the market, the entirely incidental character of private tenures, and the communal work with hoes and digging sticks is the picture of women among the Seneca people.34
The red man attempted to deflect her attention: ‘Did he show her the beauties of the wilderness, she was blind; did he warn her of the dangers of the frequented village, he spoke to the winds’. He relented on condition that she hide his head from the view of all mortals. So, clasping ‘the friendly head still closer to her bosom and associating it with her heart’, she made her way to a village. Her longing for the village was thus a return to a specific culture, the village republic of the pays d’en haut.
Charles Brockden Brown worked with this theme in Edgar Huntly: his two protagonists, the Irish cottier and the frontier squatter, had distinct relationships to women who control the land. Clithero was beholden to Mrs. Euphemia Lorimer, an absentee landlady in Dublin, who, having his parents for tenants, promoted him to steward. In contrast, Huntly’s parents had taken lands from the Delware Indians (or Lenape people) who murdered his parents but without regaining their land. His uncle squatted on the clan’s village and drove them into Ohio. Refusing to budge was only Old Deb, or ‘Queen Mab’, who maintained her sovereignty by weeding her corn and keeping companionship with three domestic wolves. Towards the end of the novel, the two themes are brought together as Clithero finds shelter in Queen Mab’s mountain hut, and Huntly seeks to protect Euphemia Lorimer, now resident in New York as her own country ‘contained a thousand memorials of past calamity, and … was lapsing fast into civil broils’. Queen Mab, it transpired, had directed underground attacks to recover her people’s patch of the commons, while Mrs. Lorimer formed connections with capital-appropriating wealth in Ireland, India, and America.
In the village, she joined a numerous assembly of women gambling. A brooch, a ring, and the ‘trinkets and chainies’ were at stake. Enticed by the passion of play, the inevitable followed: her cloak opened and the head dropped from her bosom down a hill into a river below. As she chased after it, she saw the head transform itself into a rare bird whose dusky plumage was surmounted by a tufted crown of red feathers, while she, herself, was transformed into a black duck. Among the Miami, Dunne explains, the red-crested bird is the forerunner of calamity, while the black duck is so despised that its feathers are never used for totems of war but it is only devoured as food, and then only in ‘seasons of extreme famine’.
‘What constitutes a man? What energies entitle him to rank high in his species?’ Who are these evanescent tribes? And in what class of created beings is posterity to place them?’ These were Dunne’s questions; Volney’s conclusion: ‘These men are actually in the state of wild animals and birds …’ It is a story of mutilation and of organic, inter-species reproduction. In the context of diminished game reserves, considerable corn production, and strategic reliance on European trading items, it is unpersuasive to pass off the story as one belonging to a society of hunters and gatherers, though certainly the nativist revivals (Neolin in the 1760s, Handsome Lake in 1802, Tenskwatawa in 1809) resisted the fur trade.
Gambling is the agent of corruption. Commodity exchange and the appeal to fortune subverted the community that she had hungered for. But the magic of the story is one of transformation and continuity: the Jacobin sans-culottes and his nurturing female sister persist, despite money, despite decapitation. The possibility of insurrection remains; survival even in famine is possible. Little Turtle and his people knew famine and defeat (Battle of Fallen Timbers 1794), and the listeners to Dunne’s story remembered the famine of 1800–1 in Ireland, the killing of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the defeat of the Wexford Republic of 1798. We have listened to a story among the defeated.
7. Whose story?
Whose story was this? Little Turtle, the Miami chief, spoke to John Dunne, the jurist of Armagh, and between them was William Wells, interpreting. When we learn that Wells was captured in 1784, as a thirteen-year-old boy, by the Miami Indians, who raised him and named him Apeconit, meaning ‘wild carrot’, on account of his red hair, we realise there is another story here than the one Dunne is telling in Dublin. Further, when we learn that William Wells also married a chief’s daughter, Manwangopath, or Sweet Breeze, the daughter of Little Turtle, the story-teller himself, it is clear that the story of the red-crested bird and black duck is also a complex story of a multi-ethnic family from the border country.35 John Dunne was thus present at an intimate family gathering. It was also a political family. In October 1791, Little Turtle defeated General Harmar twice, and then, in November 1791, with war whoops sounding like the ringing of a thousand bells, the governor of the Northwest Territory, General Arthur St. Clair, and his army of the Federal Government of the USA succumbed to Little Turtle and the braves who followed him. The battlefield casualties were found with earth placed in their mouths; thus did the warriors of Little Turtle try to satisfy the land-hunger of the Long Knives.
Satisfaction was short-lived. In 1794, the Indians of Ohio were decisively defeated by ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (Toledo, Ohio), and Wells, now working for the Americans, led a team of eight translators at the 1795 Treaty of Greenville that grabbed the land that became the fat State of Ohio (1803). On the one hand, he had to make comprehensible such abstract redundancies as ‘the said Indians do hereby cede and relinquish forever’ or racial categories like ‘any citizen of the United States, or any other white person or persons’. On the other hand, he had to provide legal abstraction or equivocation ‘to bury the hatchet’ or ‘to collect the bones of your slain warriors [and] put them into a deep pit’.36
The Turtle addressed President Jefferson in January 1802, translated by Wells. Jefferson preferred, despite his leadership of the Republican Party, the patriarchal family as his model of close human encounter; here he could rule, unopposed by different opinions. So, of the 26 paragraphs of the speech, 24 begin with direct address of ‘Father’, one begins ‘my Father’, and one begins ‘My Father and Brothers’. The volume of rum into the region, essential lubrication to the land cessions, doubled between 1800 and 1803.37 ‘Father, When our white brethren came to this land, our forefathers were numerous, and happy, but since their intercourse with the white people, and owing to the introduction of this fatal poison, we have become less numerous and happy.’ ‘Father, the introduction of this poison has been prohibited in our camps, but not the towns, where many of our hunters, for this poison, dispose of not only their furs, etc., but frequently of their guns and blankets and return to their families destitute.’38
The Turtle died in 1811 at Well’s house, asking only to be taken outside to die in the orchard. Wells himself painted his face black, as was the Miami custom when facing certain death, and was killed in 1812. As his niece watched on, a warrior chopped off his head, and another cut out his heart and devoured the organ of courage. ‘The spirit, the true life of any animal, resided in the heart and blood of the beast.’39 Wells was an intermediary and a great translator. He once spoke in the Wabash language to a large bear he had wounded. The Moravian missionary, John Heckewelder, asked him what he said. ‘I told him that he knew the fortune of war, that one or the other of us must have fallen; that it was his fate to be conquered, and he ought to die like a man, like a hero, and not like an old woman; that if the case had been reversed, and I had fallen into the power of my enemy, I would not have disgraced my nation as he did, but would have died with firmness and courage, as becomes a true warrior.’
In 1802, he was appointed to issue treaty annuities and promote ‘civilisation’ among the Indians. He had to share authority with the factor of the Indian trading house at Fort Wayne, John Johnston, who was an Irishman. Born in 1775 near Ballyshannon, he came to USA in 1786, moved to the Alleghanies and became a provisioner of oxen and pack horses to the Americans.40 In 1801, as the Quakers began their work among the Miamis, Johnston married a Quaker woman. Their ploughs were furnished by the Society of Friends and a £100 gift from an ancient female friend from Cork. In 1802, Johnston opened the book containing the first records of the fur trade at Fort Wayne ($13,320 = deer, raccoon, bear, otter, beaver, mink, muskrat). His second marriage was to a Chippewa woman. Their daughter, Jane, married Henry Schoolcraft, a prodigious collector of Algonquian tales, who, after an evangelical conversion, became a violent critic of Indian superstition and sloth. Schoolcraft advocated Indian removal: the tales collected dust on the shelf, and the marriage fell apart.
Wells, Turtle and Dunne understood one another. Just as Lord Edward Fitzgerald learned something from Joseph Brant about ‘the dish with one spoon’—a unified Ireland of catholic and protestant; so, about ten years later, John Dunne brought back to Dublin something about survival and transformation in a period of traumatic catastrophe. His writing style is refined, conscious of high decorum. The style of abstractions was that of universals, supposedly unavailable to savages. The style of ‘particles’ (conjunctions, prepositions and connecting adverbs) was the style expressing relations among substantives, and again was believed to characterise the superior mind of Europeans. Primitive language was concrete not abstract, emotional not reasoned, metaphorical rather than systematic.41 It is more than an act of translation; it is a deliberate cultural decision with political implications. He writes in the prose of the authentic nation, like that of his class-mate at the University of Glasgow, William Drennan. Dunne wants his listeners to pay attention to the story. To Dunne, such stories in the first place prove that the Indians are of advanced mental development, contrary to the view of European philosophers. In the second place, those who excel in narrative invention and embellishment have a character comparable to the minstrels of Europe. Finally, the subject, manner, image and lesson prove them ‘to be the spontaneous productions of the soil’.
The stadialism of Jefferson and Volney has not been transcended, though it has been refined with racial determinants in the nineteenth century and structures of rationality in the twentieth century. Johannes Fabian showed that the European travellers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries assumed an equivalence between ‘further away’ and ‘longer ago’. Darkest Africa, deepest Amazonas, dreaded Mississippi, and desperate Pacific islanders were both geographic regions and stadial episodes of time. In contrast, Fabian propounded a notion of undistanced, coeval time, with a shared present.42 As George Caffentzis has written, ‘Only by acknowledging that intellectual transmission is not simply a matter of diffusion from centre to periphery can the stages metaphor be transcended’.42 (It was Brecht who said that wisdom was passed by word of mouth, and that new transmitters passed the old stupidities). There was an active argument; an energetic discussion. The reality was contested. The complacent acceptance of multiple discourses is a sophisticated elision if not élitist evasion of that conflict.
In the terms of Volney and Jefferson, the red-crested bird and black duck might have evolutionist, scholarly interpretations, but they would not be part of a dialogue: the Indians were defeated at Fallen Timbers, their land was taken at the Treaty of Greenville, their stories now were groundless. To an Irish audience, in the throes of the loss of political independence, widespread famine, recurring pestilence, and repression of spirit, the story had a totally different meaning. James Connolly wrote, ‘the sympathetic student of history … believes in the possibility of a people by political intuition anticipating the lessons afterwards revealed to them in the sad school of experience’.44 What Connolly meant by sympathy or intuition, Luke Gibbons finds, ‘these agrarian reformers were captivated by the co-operative potential of Irish agriculture, and looked to the existence of a pre-conquest Gaelic commonwealth, a form of Celtic communism, to establish a native pedigree for their co-operative ideals’.45 Time is non-linear, if not coeval.
If we jettison the evolutionary scheme of stadialism, does history revert to ‘a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence’, as Engels feared? Though the industrial proletariat was in the gristle itself, at the machine in the factory of the city, it had allies among the slaves in revolt, the indigenous people in retreat and the commoners in resistance. Adding them surely alters the dialectics. Older cultural forms like the animal tale gathered a magical political realism. The cultural nationalism could not easily be expressed when the grounding of it was being ‘ceded and relinquished forever’, a bird-and-duck phrase of its own. Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur, Marx quoted to explain the equivalence of the slave trade and the labour market, of Kentucky with Ireland—the names are changed but the story is told of thee.46 Dunne helps us to understand that the allegory is a code of survival. It can be understood as an appeal to the materialist world (described in words of substantives) that is historically shared among the res publica—hoes, dishes, spoons, ducks, or birds.
Peter Linebaugh is professor of history at the University of Toledo, Ohio and is currently visiting professor at Bard College, Annandale, New York. He is author of The London Hanged (1991) and The Many-Headed Hydra—Sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press/Verso 2000), co-written with Marcus Rediker.
9 David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Idendity (New York: Basic Books 2000). Jefferson began writing Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, but they were not published until 1787.
20 Here his path crossed with Napoleon and Buonarroti: Napoleon dissolved Babeuf’s conspiracy of the equals; Buonarroti defended the ‘ancient customs’. Volney tried to establish ‘a rural establishment of a singular kind’–a plantation? Yes, he purchased in 1792 a domain, ‘Little India’ it was called, for cotton, coffee and sugar cane.
29 Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley, 1984), p.59. Also, Madelyn Gutwirth, The Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 1992), pp. 298 and 302.
43 George C. Caffentzis, ‘On the Scottish Origin of ‘Civilization’’, in Silvia Federici (ed.), Enduring Western Civilization: the Construction of the Concept of Western Civilization and Its ‘Others’ (Westport Connecticut: Praeger 1995), p. 33.
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