Bound by "the principles of 1776": Dilemmas in Anglo-American romanticism and Douglass's The heroic slave

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Author: Kelvin C. Black
Date: Spring 2017
From: Studies in Romanticism(Vol. 56, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,968 words
Lexile Measure: 1900L

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THE PUBLICATION OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS'S 1853 HISTORICAL NOVELLA The Heroic Slave based on Madison Washington's 1841 slave uprising onboard the Creole, a U.S. slave ship bound for New Orleans, came just two years after his change of opinion on the pro-slavery character of the United States Constitution. This change in Douglass's interpretive approach to the document was marked by two literal and very public shifts in allegiance: the first was from William Lloyd Garrison's radical, yet nonviolent, abolitionism to Gerrit Smith's reformist abolitionism, which was more capacious in its thinking regarding the means by which slave liberation could be achieved; and, following from the first, Douglass's second shift in allegiance saw him go from a principled skeptic of the Revolutionary ideals that supposedly lay at the foundations of the American Union, to a forceful, though I believe strategic, defender of the Revolutionary principles the vast majority of nineteenth-century Americans believed to be enshrined in the Constitution. Whereas Douglass previously, and Garrison still, saw an irreparable flaw in those foundational principles given the Constitution's legalization and martial defense of slavery, Douglass now saw in the Constitution a document in reconcilable contradiction with its preamble, the aspect of the document in closest sympathy with the Declaration of Independence and the best illustration, he and Gerrit Smith believed, of the true intents, aims, and aspirations--the spirit--of the law. Douglass now believed that the Constitution "might be made consistent in its details with the noble purposes avowed in its preamble." (1)

Strikingly, Douglass's dilemma over how best to accomplish abolition/change in society places him solidly within a transatlantic Romantic tradition profoundly shaped by what I call the reform-revolution dialectic produced by the late eighteenth-century debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine over the significance of the French Revolution. This debate, I argue, had aesthetic and political consequences for expressions of national attachment and detachment that also may be observed in the way Douglass proffers an attachment to national ideals and foundational principles rooted in revolutionary violence as the justification both for Madison Washington's liberation struggle, and for viewing him, as his name invites, interchangeably with the founding fathers, whom the nation's white consensus recognized as heroes.

The sympathetic turn towards familiar national symbols and the decision to promote, rather than dispel, national romance is just as much an aesthetic choice as it is a political one. And William Wordsworth features just such a choice regarding his disillusionment with the French Revolution, and the normative critique of national life that served as its inspiration, in the increasingly counter-revolutionary 1805 and 1850 versions of his autobiographical poem The Prelude, the latter version published posthumously and the only one known to the nineteenth-century public. Once a Jacobin, Wordsworth had been England's poet laureate at the time of his death in 1850, and in many ways his poetry had come to be considered national poetry. (2) While I am indebted to and align myself with James Chandler's pace-setting work on Burke's influence on Wordsworth's poetics in Wordsworth's Second...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A503309984