Locke’s American Wasteland

Portrait of John Locke (1697) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

There’s a curious line in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689):  “Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now” [1].  The extra fraction of a second we readers take to pin down the antecedent of Locke’s “that” makes us into momentary rubberneckers at a linguistic and conceptual fender-bender.  America serves Locke throughout the Treatise as a distant place through which to imagine a distant past.  Because America offers “a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe,” accounts of the New World can stand in for a conjectured past when the whole world was new (58).  And yet where that substitution–America as a proto-Europe–becomes most explicit, it runs aground:  the image of America proves not to coincide with the continent itself, as the primordial fantasy he wants us to imagine becomes “more so” America than the one that actually exists in Locke’s own “now” of the late seventeenth century.

The term “Anthropocene” (and likewise its restive offspring:  “Capitalocene,” Donna Haraway’s “Chthulucene,” and so on) identifies the planet as a final limit to the way we live–simply put, the modern era (led by Western capitalism) has treated the Earth as inexhaustible and proceeded to damn near exhaust it, taxing the planet’s capacities beyond recognition and perhaps beyond repair [2].  This essay turns to Locke’s America in order to understand how the world came to be imagined as inexhaustible in the first place, how one of the earliest theorists of property accumulation managed to sidestep the problem of a finite planet.  I want to suggest that this doubled America, this America that can be “more so” itself, serves Locke as a crucial site of waste, both in the eighteenth-century technical sense of unclaimed or untilled land and in the metaphorical sense of a spillover valve that the system he envisions can’t do without.

That technical sense of waste as unowned or unimproved land may be unfamiliar today, but it’s the key to understanding both Locke’s natural law of property and that spillover valve that America provides [3].  Before the social contract, Locke claims, there are only two moral provisos on property rights:  any property claim must leave “enough, and as good” for others in the unclaimed wasteland; and any property that would “spoil,” lie fallow, or otherwise go to waste reverts to the universal free-for-all, like uneaten French fries at a ravenous lunch table (21, 20).  With this in place waste and property are opposed by definition; anything in my possession that would go to “waste,” or spoil, reverts to the ownerless “waste,” the pool of the available land and goods.  The problem, however, is that England has no such wastes left.  Money, which never spoils and never lies fallow if duly invested, has permitted so much property accumulation that what little open space remains must be understood as unclaimed by tacit consensus, public property rather than waste (22).  With the spoilage proviso rendered obsolete, what happens to the “enough, and as good”?  What waste is left over for England’s dispossessed, the surplus of people to available property that threatens property’s very legitimacy?

“America with those known parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings” (1626) by John Speed

Here America becomes Locke’s alibi–in the term’s literal Latin meaning, an “elsewhere” as well as an excuse–for private property in England.  There’s still a primordial waste out there, Locke says, in the New World:

The same measure may be allowed still without prejudice to any body, as full as the world seems:  for supposing a man, or family, in the state they were at first peopling of the world by the children of Adam, or Noah; let him plant in some in-land, vacant places of America, we shall find that the possessions he could make himself, upon the measures we have given, would not be very large, nor, even to this day, prejudice the rest of mankind.  (23)

America takes on the duty of “enough-and-as-good” for England, available because it was supposedly lying waste. By absorbing England’s surplus population, America recalibrates the balance between private property and potential owners.

As a deus ex machina for the “enough-and-as-good” conundrum, Locke’s fantasy of America displaces the actual continent.  Elsewhere in the Treatise Locke uses indigenous Americans to illustrate the property restrictions outlined above, and even refers to wampum as a form of money not so different from European coins–but at this crucial moment they are eerily absent, an erasure of the imagination with a grimly self-fulfilling history to follow.  We should further note that America seems here like an exception to history and geography both.  Locke’s imagined homesteaders are “in the state they were at first peopling of the world” but “allowed still” in “this day” to stake out land there, in an inviting vacancy located eternally beyond the “corners” of a world that has filled up considerably since its “beginning.”  It’s a space of fantasy, impossibly larger (to borrow Slavoj Žižek’s formulation) on the inside than the outside, like Narnia behind the wardrobe door [4].  Here that space of fantasy becomes a fantasy of space; the Narnia-quality of fantasy architecture–an infinite world in a finite package–gets localized, stitched to a spot on the map like a bottomless imaginary pocket.

“A Brazilian Landscape” (1650) by Frans Post

That elastic fantasy sewn into Locke’s America, “more so” America than the continent itself, makes a finite planet seem to hold an infinite reserve of property–the illusion that Anthropocene accumulation both clings to and makes untenable.  The particular site of that fantasy in Locke’s Treatise, finally, is not a historical accident:  a landmark recent study identifies the colonization of the Americas as a key point of departure for the Anthropocene era [5].  Instead, perhaps it’s more on the order of a supreme historical irony that the nation that took up Britain’s mantle as the driving force behind Anthropocene extraction, a nation founded on Locke’s ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, was founded on the continent whose fantastic afterimage had underwritten those ideals from the very “beginning” [6].

Notes

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government.  Ed. C. B. Macpherson.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett, 1980):  29.  Future references to this text will be cited parenthetically.  Work on America’s importance for Locke is relatively scarce.  Key sources include:  Herman Lebovics’s “The Uses of America in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government,” Journal of the History of Ideas 47.4 (1986):  567-81; chapter 5 of James Tully’s An Approach to Political Philosophy:  Locke in Contexts (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1993); Barbara Arneil’s John Locke and America:  The Defence of English Colonialism (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1996); and Jimmy Klausen’s “Room Enough:  America, Natural Liberty, and Consent in Locke’s Second Treatise,” The Journal of Politics 69.3 (2007):  760-9.

[2] The bibliography on the Anthropocene is vast, interdisciplinary, and constantly growing; for a good point of introduction, see Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History:  Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009):  197-222.  For competing terms see Anthropocene or Capitalocene?  Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism.  Ed. Jason Moore (Oakland, CA:  PM Press, 2016).

[3] See Vittoria di Palma’s Wasteland:  A History (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2014); also see the OED entry for “waste.”

[4] Looking Awry:  An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1991):  15.  My thanks to Sean Silver for reminding me of this formulation in a recent talk.

[5] Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519 (2015):  171-80.

[6] Katherine Binhammer’s article “Anthropocene as Capitalocene” in this collection continues the analysis of imagined economic infinities in the eighteenth century and their relationship to the Anthropocene.

The Collected Poems of Gavin Turnbull Online

Turnbullfrontscreen

Dear Sir, if my unnotic’d name,

Not yet proclaim’d by trump of fame,

Has reach’d your lugs, then swith attend, 

This essay of a Bard unkend.

–Turnbull, “Epistle to a Black-smith” (1788)

The Scottish poet Gavin Turnbull (1765-1816), a younger contemporary of Robert Burns, published two books of poetry in Scotland before emigrating to America in 1795, where he contributed poetry to South Carolina newspapers.  The Collected Poems of Gavin Turnbull presents the first-ever full collection of Turnbull’s writings.

Turnbull, born in the Scottish Borders, started writing poetry as a teenage carpet-weaver in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, in the 1780s.  He published his first book, Poetical Essays, in 1788, followed by Poems in 1794, when he was an actor with a theatre company in Dumfries.  In 1795, he emigrated to the United States, settling in Charleston, South Carolina, where he continued to act and write poetry, publishing not only in Charleston but also in the prestigious Philadelphia magazine Port Folio.  He became a U.S. citizen in 1813 and died in Charleston in 1816.  While he twice issued proposals for a new collection of his writings, and a further invitation to subscribers was published after his death, no collection ever appeared.  Only a handful of his earlier poems have been available in anthologies or online, and his Charleston poems have never previously been collected.

turnbullbannerThe Collected Poems of Gavin Turnbull contains 89 individual poems and songs, organized according to the date of their first publication.  The poems are grouped into one of four sections, following the sequence of the books, manuscript, or periodicals in which they are first found.  Turnbull’s two prose prefaces to the poetry (1788, 1794) and his short play The Recruit (also 1794) are included, but placed last, after the poems, as appendices.  A list of the individual poems and songs in each section and links to the texts are available in the gray drop-down menu on the left-hand side of the screen.  With the few exceptions noted below, this edition only includes each poem once, under the date of its first appearance, and poems that Turnbull subsequently reprinted are not repeated in the later section(s).

This edition aims to reproduce Turnbull’s texts as they were encountered by their first readers.  The text used is therefore taken from the first published version, and where a poem was printed two or more times, the earliest text is used, though any substantive differences between early and later texts are fully noted.  The one exception to this general policy is for Turnbull’s poem “The Cottage,” first published in 1788 with four stanzas, for which the edition uses Turnbull’s expanded version with a fifth, more political stanza, from the 1794 collection, also subsequently reprinted in a Charleston newspaper.

The first section contains 50 poems and songs, all probably written while he was still living in Kilmarnock, and published in Turnbull’s first book, Poetical Essays (1788), published by subscription and appearing with the imprint of a Glasgow bookseller.  The next short section prints three of Turnbull’s songs which Robert Burns forwarded in a manuscript letter by Robert Burns to George Thomson (October 29, 1793) for possible inclusion in Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Songs.  The second major section contains the twelve poems or songs that were first published in Turnbull’s second volume, Poems, printed in Dumfries in 1794.  As noted above, Turnbull’s play, The Recruit, which had been included in the 1794 volume, is placed separately with the “Appendices.”

After he emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, Turnbull’s contributions to local newspapers included reprinting some earlier poems, as well as newly-written items.  The third major section of the edition contains twenty-five poems, ranging in date from 1796 to 1809.  Of the twenty-five, twenty-one are items that Turnbull had never previously published; the four reprinted items are the four songs that Turnbull himself extracted from his play The Recruit for separate newspaper publication, and which are therefore given similar separate status here.  Though he also wrote an ode to General Washington, both in the theatre, where he appeared in such Scottish plays as Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd and Home’s Douglas, and in the poetry he published, Turnbull continued after emigration to identify himself as a Scot.

chfergussonmar2196The online edition of The Collected Poems of Gavin Turnbull allows for fuller annotation than will be provided in the planned print edition, especially in glossing words that might cause difficulties for students outside of Scotland, as well as linking to related material, such as contemporary images and music, where Turnbull often specifies the tune to which he has written new song-text.  The first note on each text records its publication history, both first publication and any reprinting in Turnbull’s lifetime.  The first note may also contain general background information relevant to the poem.  Subsequent notes linked to specific lines gloss difficult or distinctive words, suggest literary sources or allusions, and provide historical or background information.  Turnbull’s own footnotes to some of the poems, in Poetical Essays (1788) and Poems (1794), have been included but are placed in square brackets, and introduced as “GT’s note,” to differentiate them from the editors’ notes.  The annotations are numbered sequentially rather than by line number and can be accessed in one of two ways.  The user can move the cursor over a superscript number in the body of the text, so that a dialogue box will appear with the annotation alongside the line it is explaining, or the user can scroll down the poem and find the relevant numbered annotation where the notes are grouped together in sequence at the end of the text.

turnbulscreen2The texts and annotation are supplemented by Patrick Scott’s introductory essay on Turnbull’s life and writings and by a reference bibliography.  All text files have been marked-up and prepared in accordance with TEI P5 guidelines—the standard XML language in the humanities—to allow for greater interoperability, both in this edition and future projects.  Work on the edition was supported by an ASPIRE grant from the Vice-President for Research, University of South Carolina.  The online edition is complete in itself, but Patrick Scott’s selection, A Bard Unkend:  Selected Poems in the Scottish Dialect by Gavin Turnbull (Scottish Poetry Reprints no. 10, 2015), is also available, as a print-on-demand paperback and on-line, and a parallel print edition is under consideration.

Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project: Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar

What do Red Jacket, Pompey Fleet, James Macpherson, Mary Washington, and Geoffrey Chaucer have in common? They all are depicted in, influences for, or creators of the 300 broadside ballads Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) collected from Boston printer Nathaniel Coverly in 1814.  Mostly printed in Coverly’s shop between 1812 and 1814, these ballads offer a window into street life in the early United States, with an eye toward the future but with a preoccupation with the past.  Thomas coined the phrase “verses in vogue with the vulgar” to describe this collection that he had bound in three volumes and that are some of the American Antiquarian Society’s earliest holdings.

With over 800 images and 300 mini-essays, Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project: Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar offers a unique and comprehensive view of the broadsides that Isaiah Thomas collected.  Each broadside includes a brief explanation of its content by Kate Van Winkle Keller.  The Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project includes over 30 ballads performed by David and Ginger Hildebrand as mp3s on the site.  And 25 broadsides (and counting!) have been transcribed with TEI-encoded XML available for download.  In addition to the short essays that accompany each broadside, longer essays by Keller, Dianne Dugaw, and Marcus McCorison give an overview of the content, detailing the Coverly printing networkthe type and paper used to print the broadsides, and the culture of song in early America.  All of the sources cited in these essays and in the individual broadside essays are in the Works Cited, which includes over 1,200 sources.  Please join our Zotero group, which is open to the public and will allow a user to export these citations as needed.

In the spirit of AAS’s rich tradition of deep cataloging, extensive subject headings are provided for each broadside, and these subject headings can all be searched.  This index of topics covered in the ballads allows a user to group the ballads thematically in a way analogous to chapters in a book.  For example, by clicking on “Adultery” one can see that two broadsides include ballads on this subject:  “Penny-Worth of Wit” and “The Country ’Squire.” Note too that the subject headings appear at the bottom of the page.  By clicking on “children,” one can see the 10 total items that include this subject heading as well.  Any combination of search results can be exported by the user in a number of machine-readable formats.  Additional mechanisms are also in place to illuminate the relationality of the broadsides.  For example, most individual essays make reference to other ballads that share a tune or perhaps a thematic link.  In addition, the woodcuts that appear on multiple broadsides can be traced.

Sex and the Founding Fathers

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

Living as we do in an era in which public figures are subjected to extreme scrutiny in the form of media intrusions, we tend to think of our interest in reconciling public images with private sexual conduct as uniquely postmodern. In fact, Americans have long invested national heroes with superior moral status and at the same time probed into their private lives. If the Founding Fathers seem remote to us now, that distance persists despite the efforts of generations of biographers who attempt to take their measure as leaders and tell us what they were really like in their most intimate relationships. From the early years of the Republic till now, biographers have attempted to burnish the Founders’ images and satisfy public curiosity about their lives beyond public view. At the same time, gossips and politically motivated detractors, claiming to have the inside track on new information, have circulated scandalous or unpleasant stories to knock these exalted men off their pedestals. Looking back at the stories and assessments that have proliferated in the two and a half centuries since the Founders’ generation, we see the dual nature of these accounts and how they oscillate between the public and the private, between the idealized image and actions in the intimate realm. We see how each generation reshapes images of the Founders to fit that storyteller’s era.

On the one hand, the Founders appear desexualized. The images of the Founding Fathers that we regularly encounter—as heads on money, as reference points in discussions about political ideology, and as monuments at tourist sites—assert their status as virtuous American men. They typically appear either disembodied—as heads or busts—or in clothing that reminds us of their political or military position. Their flesh is covered from neck to wrists, with only hands and face exposed. Typically, the men are frozen in advanced age—generally gray-haired, if not topped off with wigs—further confirming their identities as desexualized elder statesman for generations of Americans who associate sexual activity with youth (1).

On the other side of the coin, curiosity about their “real” lives has continued seemingly unabated into our own time. In 1810, Mason Weems, originator of the cherry-tree myth, emphasized the importance of discussing George Washington’s personal life. Weems argues that “public character” is no “evidence of true greatness” and calls for a spotlight to be shined on his “private life.” Weems gives the compelling example of Benedict Arnold, who could “play you the great man” “yet in the private walks of life” reveal himself to be a “swindler”—including not only his political deception but his use of the “aid of loose women.” For Weems, the Founders’ intimate relationships should not be off limits for Americans: “It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.” To truly know them, their conduct in that realm is an important piece of the puzzle (2).

By tracing how intimacy has figured in popular memory of the Founders from their own lifetimes to the recent past, Sex and the Founding Fathers shows that sex has long been used to define their masculine character and political authority and has always figured in civic and national identity (3).  Each generation has asked different questions about the Founders and their private lives, but Americans have consistently imagined and reimagined the private lives of the Founders through the lens of contemporary society. As Michael Kammen and others have argued, countries “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and “do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind” (4).  Gore Vidal has referred to our selective national memory as “The United States of Amnesia” (5).  It is true that we tend to embrace the the national narratives that we desire and “forget” those that we prefer to hide away. Stories about the Founders’ lives have always been told in ways that make use of the norms and ideals of the time period.  Founders can never be embraced in their late-eighteenth-century context, for, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country—and the Founders lose their cultural utility when viewed as foreigners. Americans want to see themselves in their images, because these men, the men who created America, are by their actions the embodiment of the nation and of our national identity.

The Founders lived in a world that fit neither the stereotyped image of a Puritanical past nor a more modern sexual culture that makes them “just like us.” The problem with using sex to make the Founders relatable is that sex is not transhistorical: It can’t be used in this manner any more than medical or racial understandings of the day can be used to connect readers from early America to today.  Remembering the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers with simple tropes, hyperbolic superficialities, and meaningless romanticized generalizations prevents us from meaningfully engaging with eighteenth-century sexual variance. Doing so also trivializes sex, perpetuating our own discomfort with the topic, a discomfort with a long history. Superficial glosses relegate the subject of sex to the status it held in previous generations—one of titillation, shame, and humor—all of which rely on a certain assertion of the transhistorical or human understanding of sexuality. But the ways in which Americans have ordered their sexual lives and their sexual identities have changed greatly over the centuries.  Viewing the Founders’ intimate lives and identities as somehow accessible to us through surface descriptions, such as “love at first sight” or “healthy sexual appetites,” prevents us from taking historical sexual identities and sexual expressiveness seriously. By focusing in a sustained way on the manner in which Americans have asked and answered their own questions about sexual intimacy and the Founders of the nation, we can examine how Americans have both broached and obscured sexual realities and the cultural connections between sex and nationalized masculinity in the public memory of these men.

Collectively, these stories show how gendered sexuality has long figured in our national identity via the public memory of the political leaders of the American Revolution. By tracing these histories of public memory, we are confronted with how blurred the line has long been between sex and politics in memories of the Founders and how sex has helped tie an ever-diversifying American public to a handful of staid, lite, white, eighteenth-century men.

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Notes

1.  Indeed, in recognition of this issue, several museums of Founding Fathers’ homes have launched efforts to circulate more youthful, vital images in an effort to connect to modern audiences. And recent biographies that strive to make the Founders more appealing (dubbed “Founders chic” by friend and foe alike) likewise frequently highlight the heights and musculature of the men in their youth in efforts to dispel the dusty old images held in most American’s minds. The term “Founders chic” comes from Evan Thomas (“Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia,” Newsweek, July 9, 2001). But “Founders chic” “is really “‘Federalist chic,’” according to Jeffrey L. Pasley, who observes that the increased interest in Founders often focuses on conservatives who did not embrace democracy or the “expansion of individual rights,” such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Pasley, “Federalist Chic,” Common-place.org, February 2002, http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml.

2.  Mason Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927), 8.

3.  This book, therefore, builds on my earlier work on sex and masculinity and on the long history of sexual identities in America. See, for example, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); and Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Regina G. Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7–23; and Patrick Hutton, “Recent Scholarship on Memory and History,” History Teacher 33, no. 4 (Aug. 2000): 533–548.

5. Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

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Read more about Thomas A. Foster’s work on sex and the Founding Fathers:

George Washington’s Bodies

Intimate Lives on Display: Monticello and Mount Vernon