Saturday, May 2, 2009

Rachel Hope Cleves' "The Reign of Terror in America"

Rachel Hope Cleves is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Northern Illinois University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery, and reported the following:
P. 99 of The Reign of Terror in America begins with “rivers of blood” and the terrifying image of infants “carried to be drowned, stuck on the points of spears” while “the hands of mothers, stretched out for mercy to their tender babes were chopped off.” In other words, it’s the perfect place to drop in!

The Reign of Terror in America is an exploration of how conservative fears of the violence of the French Revolution reshaped American political culture during the early nineteenth century. Haunted by “anti-Jacobin” imagery of French revolutionary violence, northeastern Federalist politicians and Calvinist clerics launched a rhetorical offensive against social violence in the United States -- including the violence of slavery and war. However, like all violent language, anti-Jacobinism had the power both to repulse and to seduce. At the end of my book, I explore how French Revolutionary imagery not only inspired critiques of the violence of slavery, it created a rationale for the violent destruction of the slave system. Driven to my research by an interest in non-violence, I regret the seductive qualities of the language I describe. Even today, the French Revolution retains its metaphoric power both to criticize and rationalize violence. When Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006, several American newspapers editorialized the hanging as a fit end to the leader’s “Reign of Terror.”

P.99 opens at a critical point in the book. We are in a section entitled “New Words, New Sounds,” which describes how terror of the French Revolution inspired the creation of an “American Gothic mode of writing” that both recorded and enacted violence. I begin p.99 with an example from a 1798 anti-Jacobin sermon delivered by the Massachusetts Congregationalist minister David Osgood. Osgood has a significant place in my book because he was the childhood pastor of the famous abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who would later use French Revolutionary imagery both to attack slavery and to defend violence against slave holders (Child once wrote that she wished she was a “Charlotte Corday” who could assassinate the slave power). Here is the bipolar legacy of the “reign of terror” in America -- and the bipolar power of The Reign of Terror in America. It is Osgood’s words that opened this reflection, and that I hope served the purpose of both repulsing you, the reader, and drawing you in.

Osgood’s example leads to a discussion of how American anti-Jacobinism fit into a broader “Atlantic political culture.” This is a fascinating topic and vital to my argument, but would take too many extra words to discuss here. Instead I will leave you with Osgood, hoping that for all the right reasons, and none of the wrong, you choose to read on.
Read an excerpt from The Reign of Terror in America, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

Visit Rachel Hope Cleves' faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue