Tara Fitzpatrick – Liberty, Corruption and Seduction in the Republican Imagination

Liberty, Corruption and Seduction in the Republican Imagination

Tara Fitzpatrick

Published in Connotations Vol. 4.1-2 (1994/95)


In the fall of 1787, as the Constitutional Convention completed its work, Philadelphia's Columbian Magazine published a two−part "original novel, founded upon recent facts," as part of its editorial commitment to encourage "the advancement of knowledge and virtue" in the new nation. The political nature of this "original novel," Amelia, or the Faithless Briton, was first suggested by its placement in the magazine alongside domestic and foreign political commentary.1) Lest anyone be surprised by the inclusion of a serialized tale of seduction, betrayal and revenge in a national magazine that had, a month earlier, published the first draft of the federal Constitution, it should be noted that the Constitution itself faced an anecdote entitled "Love and Constancy"—a parable insisting that "conjugal fidelity" was necessary for preserving liberty.38) In any event, the opening paragraphs of Amelia explicitly announce the political intentions of the story:

The revolutions of government, and the subversions of empire, which have swelled the theme of national historians, have, likewise, in every age, furnished anecdote to the biographer, and incident to the novelist. The objects of policy or ambition are generally, indeed, accomplished at the expense of private ease and prosperity; while the triumph of arms … serves to announce some recent calamity—the waste of property, or the fall of families.

Thus the great events of the late war, which produced the separation of the British empire, and established the sovereignty of America, were chequered with scenes of private sorrow, and the success of the contending forces was alternately fatal to the peace and order of domestic life.2)

[→page 45]The domestic tragedy that follows this preface is a fairly representative version of the seduction tales so popular among late eighteenth−century readers, though with certain significant variations that suggest the particular work this text sought to accomplish among republican American readers.3) Widowed patriarch Horatio Blyfield, a successful New York merchant, finds himself forced by the Revolutionary conflict to retire from his commercial activities and take refuge on Long Island with his daughter Amelia, while his son Honorius goes off to join the patriot cause. Some months later, Horatio rescues Doliscus, a wounded British officer, and nurses him back to health with the assistance of young Amelia. Doliscus woos Amelia, asks if she will "consent to sacrifice a sentiment of delicacy, to ensure a life of happiness" (679), and convinces her to "marry" him in secret because, he claims, he is betrothed to a titled British woman and dares not publicly defy the wishes of his own noble British family. Only the death of his father will rescue him from these filial constraints and then, he promises, he will acknowledge Amelia as his true wife. The marriage, conveniently enough, is conducted not by an actual minister but by one of Doliscus' army comrades disguised as a minister. Soon thereafter—but not soon enough—Doliscus returns to the city and to the command of the British troops. Amelia quickly realizes that she has been deceived by this aristocratic British treachery and, just as quickly, realizes that she is pregnant with the child of her seducer. At this juncture of the story we find the first digression from the seduction formula inherited from Richardson's Clarissa (1748) and the novels that followed it.4)

Rather than wasting away of heartache or pleading with Doliscus to return to her, American Amelia resolves "publicly to vindicate her honour and assert her rights" (680). She follows her seducer to the presumed font of corruption, London, and there confronts Doliscus, who admits that their marriage was "a rural masquerade," but refuses "to be thus duped or controlled. I have a sense of pity," he continues, "for your indiscretion, but none for your passion" (681). Realizing that Doliscus will not recognize her rights as his wife, Amelia permits herself to be removed to a servant's hotel, where she prematurely gives birth to a baby who dies, leaving Amelia to contemplate ending her own misery with a dose of laudanum. All the while, however, she rejects [→page 46] any complicity in her own ruin; though she has been "deluded into error" she is "free from guilt; I have been solicitous to preserve my innocence and honour; but am exposed to infamy and shame" (682). Her seducer had at no point extracted her knowing consent; Doliscus had deceived her into making a contract by which he himself had never intended to abide.

The story's denouement, published in a second installment, is quickly told. Horatio arrives in time to save his daughter from a sin perhaps worse than seduction—suicide—and assures her that "the errors of our conduct may expose us to the scandal of the world, but it is guilt alone which can violate the inward tranquility of the mind."5) Her brother Honorius appears, having just been paroled from the British jail where he has been held as a prisoner of war, and arranges a duel with Doliscus to avenge Amelia's honor. Doliscus, now remorseful, permits Honorius to win the duel, but not before arranging the safe passage of the Blyfield family back to America. Doliscus' dying words seem to confirm Thomas Paine's prophecy in Common Sense: "Your country will afford you an asylum and protect you from the consequences of my [read: British] fate" (880). Despite the efforts of her father and brother, however, Amelia descends into madness and dies. Honorius returns to America only to sacrifice his own life in the battle for independence, leaving Horatio alone to console himself that "whatever may be the sufferings of virtue HERE, its portion must be happiness HEREAFTER" (880).

In Amelia, then, we find many of the elements of the eighteenth−century figure of virtue seduced and abandoned, complete with a motherless and guileless heroine, a treacherous aristocratic seducer, a brother who vies with the seducer for his sister's honor, and a father who finally proves impotent to protect his children from deception and ruin.6) But this familiar formula requires further scrutiny if we are to identify the particular political and philosophical implications it held for American readers in the 1780s. Amelia depicts the corrupt British officer first shamed and then vanquished by the ravished American and her family's insistent assertion of her honor and her rights. Vindication comes, however, only at the cost of much American sacrifice—both of innocence (however unwittingly) and blood. Amelia closes with dual sacrifices, with the deaths of brother and sister in the name of family honor and moral [→page 47] right. Honorius, as his name of course suggests, follows the classical republican model of manly sacrifice on the field of national honor. Amelia surrenders her reason and then life itself as the price of her innocent but imprudent fall into public infamy. Denied her rights as a wife, she has been deprived of her only means of restoring the legitimacy of her consent, not to seduction but, instead, to a republican marriage. Though Amelia's sphere of republican action remains confined to marriage, she refuses to assent to an Englishman's representation of her position. Amelia sacrifices her life rather than accede to the sacrifice of her liberty—figured here not as her independence but as her right to consent, to contract. In the terms of this story, at least, that right is equated with republican virtue for women as well as for men.7)

With this example in mind, I wish to consider the particular resonance of the figure of seduction within the debates over the proper relations between liberty and authority that so consumed the new nation in the 1770s and 1780s. As several historians—among them Linda Kerber, Carroll Smith−Rosenberg, Cathy Davidson, and Ruth Bloch—have noted, the melodramatic novel of seduction served to dramatize the republican struggle between virtue and corruption in terms that were at once political and gendered.8) Though classical republicanism had traditionally associated virtue with the manly exercise of political and martial action in the public realm, by the last decades of the eighteenth century, the virtue of women in their capacities as mothers and wives came to seem increasingly important to preserving the virtuous independence of America's citizens.9) At the same time, representations of corruption, too, were both gendered and sexualized. Instead of classical republicanism's figure of the feminine principle of Fortuna ultimately corrupting the civic efforts of manly virtu, by the late eighteenth century, corruption was more often depicted through the Richardsonian convention of an innocent girl defiled and forsaken by a deceitful villain.10) By choosing seduction as a prevailing metaphor for corruption, eighteenth−century writers not only gendered their images of virtue and corruption; they explicitly emphasized the sexual aspects of those images.39)


[→page 48] Even historians who have not been explicitly concerned with the gendered and sexualized nature of revolutionary rhetoric have noted the anxieties aroused by the republican specter of liberty seduced and corrupted by power, the charged sexual imagery with which political polemicists waged the struggle between virtue and corruption. In his classic discussion of the republican principles that inspired the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn depicts the colonists' "compulsive" concerns regarding the antagonistic relations between power and liberty. Republican discourse portrayed power as aggressive, Bailyn argues; power was dangerous because of "its endlessly propulsive tendency to expand itself beyond legitimate boundaries." Surveying the rhetorical figures colonial writers deployed to represent power, Bailyn compiles a catalogue of highly charged images: Power has "an encroaching nature"; it is "restless, aspiring, and insatiable." "Everywhere it is threatening, pushing and grasping" its "natural prey, its necessary victim, … liberty." The sphere of power is "brutal, ceaselessly active, and heedless," while that of liberty is "delicate, passive, and sensitive." Finally, characterizing John Dickinson's description of Cromwell's abuses of power, Bailyn invokes the classic formula of eighteenth−century melodrama: "when [in Dickinson's words] 'brutal power' becomes 'an irresistible argument of boundless right,'" Bailyn concedes, "innocence and justice can only sigh and quietly submit."11)

Though Bailyn does not amplify the relationship between such sexually charged language and the politics it supported, his own choice of descriptive metaphors is justified by the unmistakable—if largely unexamined—frequency with which radical propagandists in the Revolutionary period employed sexual imagery to represent political corruption.40) For example, in 1764, Oxenbridge Thacher, a Bostonian lawyer and colleague of James Otis and John Adams, published The Sentiments of a British American to protest the enforcement provisions of the Sugar Act. Arguing that the duty on molasses would "destroy altogether the trade of the colonists," Thacher appealed to "the mere present self−interest of Great Britain" for repeal of the regulations. But it is his personification of Trade that will detain us here. "TRADE," Thacher wrote, "is a nice and delicate lady; she must be courted and [→page 49] won by soft and fair addresses. She will not bear the rude hand of a ravisher. Penalties increased, heavy taxes laid on, the checks of oppression and violence removed; these things must drive her from her present abode."12) Here, the ruin threatening the American colonies' economic and corporal integrity may be forestalled; indeed, Lady Trade is presented as capable of single−handedly fending off, or at least successfully fleeing, potential ravishers. Such confidence in the ability of feminine virtue (however metaphorically deployed) to withstand the mounting assaults directed against her would be less evident in the rhetoric of the 1770s and 1780s.

Of all the pamphleteers who were drawn to the image of seduction as the most resonant device for alerting the American public to the threats of British corruption, Thomas Paine was perhaps the most compulsive, to use Bailyn's term.13) Seeking the most effective analogy with which to conclude his plea in Common Sense for the colonists' final separation from England, Paine asks, "can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence?" Impossible, he replies: "As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress as the continent forgive the murders of Britain."14) Though here it would appear that the damage has already been done, the maiden's innocence irreparably lost, Paine's simile did not deter him from asserting, in an appendix to Common Sense, that "the domestic tranquillity of a nation depends greatly on the chastity of what might properly be called NATIONAL MANNERS."15)

In the Crisis papers (1776−1783), Paine continued to rely on the apparently irresistible image of the nation as an imperiled maiden besieged by a villainous British seducer. Crisis I (1776) appeals for an American Joan of Arc to lead the nation from oppression: "Would that heaven might inspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment."16) Tories are likened to fallen women in Crisis III (1777), because only "avarice, down−right villainy, and lust of personal power" could explain the Loyalists' opposition to independence:

Some secret defect or other is interwoven in the character of all those, be they men or women, who can look with patience on the brutality, luxury and debauchery of the British court… . A woman's virtue must sit very lightly [→page 50] on her who can even hint a favorable sentiment in their [British] behalf. It is remarkable that the whole race of prostitutes in New York were Tories; and the schemes for supporting the Tory cause in this city … were concerted and carried on in common bawdy−houses, assisted by those who kept them.17)

In this instance, the evils associated with seduction are no longer merely metaphorical; the moral and sexual characters of actual participants in the Revolutionary struggle were determined, in Paine's formulation, by their complicity in or resistance to literal acts of secuction. American women who collaborated with the British were, moreover, not simply victims of seduction. Rather, they had abandoned both the morality and the sexual passivity associated with feminine virtue, and had themselves fallen into professional debauchery.

Paine's thinking about the nature of seduction and its increasingly tangible consequences for the patriot grew more complex in Crisis XI (1782), which responded to Britain's purported efforts to disrupt the alliance between France and the United States by offering terms of settlement. The states, he insists, "are no more to be seduced from their alliance than their allegiance." Indeed, for the British to offer to repeal the Parliamentary acts that had provoked the colonial rebellion, after seven years of waging war against those former colonies, was, Paine argues, "a personal offense": "It is calling us villains: for no man asks the other to act the villain unless he believes him inclined to be one. No man attempts to seduce the truly honest woman. It is the supposed looseness of her mind that starts the thoughts of seduction, and he who offers it calls her a prostitute."18) Despite the apparent instabilities of Paine's moral analogy (is the woman's "looseness" true or "supposed"? and how closely associated, in this economy of vice, are "looseness of mind" and looseness of body?), this is a revealing passage, indicating Paine's increasing concern with the complicity of the supposed victim in the schemes of her seducer. If no man would ever try to seduce a "truly honest woman"—that is, if no truly honest woman's character could ever be misread, even by an evil−minded seducer—what did it mean that Americans needed to be warned against the seductive truce Britain was apparently proffering? If American character was sufficiently virtuous, should not the new nation have been able to withstand and [→page 51] even avert the temptations of a renewed dalliance with the mother country?

As Paine anticipated, once the Americans were victorious, they could no longer so persuasively blame British treachery for enticing America from the paths of virtue. What happened, then, to the figure of seduction in the 1780s, when the external menace of British tyranny had been vanquished and when, instead, American writers began to examine the soul of the new nation itself to account for the deterioration of virtue? We may begin to address this question by considering the use of seduction as the central emblem of corruption and disorder in what is generally deemed the first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789).19)


Appearing concurrently with the ratification of the new Constitution, The Power of Sympathy bears the subtitle, "The Triumph of Nature," and is dedicated to "the young ladies of Columbia." Brown announces the work as "Founded in Truth," and insists that it is "intended to represent the specious causes and to expose the fatal consequences of SEDUCTION, to inspire the female mind with a principle of self−complacency and to promote the economy of human life."20) Circumscribing the central episodes of the novel, which is epistolary in form and fragmented in plot, are pleas for more adequate education of women's reason, so that they will not be captive to their illusions and desires. In a gesture that would become irresistible to sentimental novelists, otherwise incidental characters in The Power of Sympathy appear solely to debate the merits and dangers of women's novel−reading.21) In one instance, an apparently authoritative patriarch concludes that:

A young lady who has imbibed her ideas of the world from desultory reading, and placed confidence in the virtue of others, will bring back disappointment when she expected gratitude. Unsuspicious of deceit, she is easily deceived—from the purity of her own thoughts, she trusts the faith of mankind until experience convinces her of error. She falls a sacrifice to her credulity, and her only consolation is the simplicity and goodness of her heart. (45)

[→page 52] Novels, then, do not corrupt the imagination of young women primarily by arousing their passions; rather, novels are dangerous because they deceive their readers about the true nature of society; most perilously, they provide a seductively idealized image of the true nature of men:

In books she finds recorded the faithfulness of friendship, the constancy of true love, and even that honesty is the best policy… . Thus she finds, when it is perhaps too late, that she has entertained wrong notions of human nature; that her friends are deceitful; that her lovers are false; and that men consult interest oftener than honesty. (45)

To the republican mind, all fiction relied on seduction: novels lured their credulous readers into a world of artifice, semblance, and pretense.22) Moreover, despite the morally affecting occasions for sympathy such reading could provide, the private sentiments of pity, terror, and compassion aroused by even the most didactic fiction threatened to undermine the public spirit and civic virtue on which the republic relied, by inflaming the personal emotions and passions of the citizenry and distracting them from the public good.23)

Asserting "the advantages of female education" as a defense against "the dangerous consequences of seduction" (29), Brown justifies the novel—generally associated with the heart and not the head—by rejecting the notion that women's hearts can be sufficient guides to their conduct. Consistent with republican ideals of rational self−control, his novel's initial emphasis on education and the dangers of its neglect seems to favor the conclusion that the reason, and not just the sympathies, had to be cultivated if young people—especially young women—were to learn to separate truth from illusion and so be capable of self−government.24) Womanly sympathy alone, it appears, could not provide adequate protection against seductive reasoning; the power of sympathy, in fact, leads Brown's characters away from prudence and, disastrously, toward the passions.41)

But despite Brown's avowedly didactic purposes in presenting his story, his plot acts to ironize and even subvert such conventional apologies for the novel. The Power of Sympathy is not mainly concerned with women's education, nor is it clear that anyone's better educated reason could have protected these characters from the fatal consequences [→page 53] that the plot's myriad seductions unleash. In the main, this is a story about incest—or perhaps, about the consequences of trying not to commit incest. The central characters die not because they would rather perish than violate the taboo that forbids the marriage of siblings, but because their reason finally will not permit them to indulge the incestuous sympathies that draw them inexorably together.25) In Brown's novel, authority and authenticity are the real concerns: the authority of fathers and their abandonment of its obligations; the authenticity not of treacherous seducers—as in the more formulaic Amelia—but of suitors who believe themselves possessed of republican and loving motives. This is a novel in which the laws of nature seem directly at odds with the conventions of society and, as Leslie Fiedler noted long ago, in which the whole eighteenth−century effort to wed the social and natural orders threatens to implode.26)

The American Revolution, Jay Fliegelman and others have recently argued, was part of a larger attack on patriarchy, in which paternal authority in all its forms—familial, moral, religious, and political—was challenged and circumscribed, in the name of contractual agreements, self−government, and moral voluntarism.42) The Power of Sympathy participates in anti−patriarchal politics by presenting a series of faithless fathers who are punished or abandoned by their offspring, but not before the fathers have committed an original and originating sin from which their children will never be liberated, except through death. The fatal effects of seduction in The Power of Sympathy are, as often as not, second−hand, ruining not just the woman who is seduced but the lives of her and her seducer's children. In the main plot of the novel, the suitor who turns out to be something other than he seems is not, after all, a treacherous villain but rather—and unbeknownst to himself—his beloved's brother. The Power of Sympathy requires a double unmasking: the father must be revealed as a seducer so that the lovers can be revealed to each other as brother and sister.

Brown clearly intends his sensational tale to convey a political lesson. At the outset of the novel, the hero and would−be seducer Harrington (a likely reference to the seventeenth−century political theorist James Harrington) discloses the reason he cannot marry his beloved, penniless Harriot: "I am not so much of a republican as formally to wed any [→page 54] person of this [dependent] class. How laughable would my conduct appear … to be heard openly acknowledging for my bosom companion any daughter of the democratic empire of virtue" (34). Soon enough, however, Harriot's virtues deter Harrington from his treacherous course and he determines to marry her, despite her humble and orphaned origin. In a show of female independence comparable to Amelia's insistence on her conjugal rights, Harriot refuses to let "the crime of dependence … be expiated by the sacrifice of virtue" (36). Through his association with the virtuous Harriot, Harrington decides that he is an exponent of republican equality, an opponent of slavery, and an advocate of democratic institutions (58). In the manner that Jan Lewis has suggested was the ideal work of a republican wife, Harriot has "seduced her suitor" into accepting republican principles by employing, rather than denying, her sexual desirability—while withholding access to her body until a legitimate marriage may be contracted.27) But in the complex moral universe imagined by Brown, the heroine's prudence is no match for the manifold and hidden powers of sympathy. The "fatal consequences of seduction" only seem to have been averted.

Though they championed moral equality, many American republicans worried about the social fluidity and instability implied by betrothals between lovers of such apparently disparate rank. As many commentators have noted, the seduction novel mirrored the crisis of character, station, and legitimacy posed by the commercial revolution that accompanied the eighteenth century's political revolutions. In the new world of credit and paper money, of manners and politeness, the possibilities for deception and disguise mounted, threatening the traditional republican values of virtuous authenticity and stable social relations.28) Brown dramatizes this dilemma by exposing the source of the senior Harrington's misgivings about his son's attachment to a "daughter of the democratic empire of virtue."43) The Hon. Mr. Harrington's objections trump the seduction novel's usual contrivance of paternal tyranny or class snobbery. "How shall we … account for the operation of sympathy?" Harrington, Sr. asks a confidant. "I fly to prevent incest" (102). To avert his son's wedding, the elder Harrington is forced to reveal his own youthful seduction of Maria, an impoverished woman who died leaving a daughter to be raised in the service of [→page 55] relatives. It is, of course, this orphaned Harriot who has so attracted young Harrington's sympathy—but now the bonds of sympathy that mysteriously drew the two together are exposed for what they really are: the apparently natural affinity of siblings.29)

The shock of this revelation fills Harrington and Harriot with "a horror of conflicting passions" (105). Harriot wrestles with the necessity of rejecting her lover simply because he is also her brother. She fears that she has criminally surrendered to passions that she should somehow have recognized as incestuous desire, but wonders, "shall we strive to oppose the link of nature that draws us together?" She pleads with her lover to return to her, to be "a friend, a protector, a brother … you shalt be unto me as a father" (112). In a "torment of fluctuating passion," Harriot concludes that prudence and virtue stand opposed to the demands of sympathy and "natural" desire: "The head and the heart are at variance; but when nature pleads, how feeble is the voice of reason? Yet, when reason is heard in her turn, how criminal appears every wish of my heart?" Finally, she urges Harrington "to arm yourself with every virtue which is capable of sustaining the heaviest calamity" (113), and dies of grief. Harrington ponders "the cause of my calamities. Why did my father love Maria—or rather, why did I love their Harriot? Curse on this tyrant custom that dooms such helpless children to oblivion or infamy!" (117). He asks to be buried alongside Harriot, under the epitaph, "'Here lies Harrington and his Hariot—in their lives they loved, but were unhappy—in death they sleep undivided'" (127), and shoots himself.

In this maelstrom of conflicting erotic and moral desires, the young couple's sense of "unmerited criminality" (111) is synecdochical for the effects of seduction throughout The Power of Sympathy. Seduction is an act for which women suffer not because of their actual desires but, instead, because of their passive vulnerability to the power of sympathy and the schemes of deceit. In this instance, however, both parties to the love affair have been deceived and it is their father who is really the seducer—because he is the deceiver—of both daughter and son. As the author of his children's ruin, Harrington, Sr. has trebled the possibilities of incestuous seduction: he has effectively seduced not just Maria but both their children. Finally, he is responsible for the deaths of Harriot [→page 56] and Harrington, who decide that their love can never be consummated, except in "Heaven. There alone is happiness … there our love will not be a crime" (114). Seduction—the sin of the father, not the son—has rendered this republican marriage impossible.

The crime that Amelia's author could so readily—and so nostalgically, in 1789—consign to a now−vanquished British aristocrat had, in The Power of Sympathy, contaminated an American patriarch and ruined his family. Though Brown clearly represents the original sin of the father as a pre−revolutionary lapse (Harriot and Harrington are young adults in 1789), that act nonetheless spells the death of liberty for his post−revolutionary republican children, who are fatally entailed by his legacy of seduction. American virtue must fail if patriarchal ties to corruption can never be sundered—if corruption is both involuntary and hereditary.

In Brown's catalogue of vices, seduction is the most dangerous of all because it hides itself and "murders in the mask of love": "who knows ⁄ Where all thy consequences close? ⁄ With thee, SEDUCTION! are allied ⁄ HORROR, DESPAIR and SUICIDE" (70−71). More tellingly than the simpler tale of Amelia, The Power of Sympathy reveals the terrors seduction represented for the republican imagination. In Brown's "economy of human life," reason is deceived and virtue compromised not just as a means of seduction but as a consequence of seduction. Seduction is a vice that needs vigilant exposure not only because it is seductive in the expected sense, resting on flattery and false promises, but because it perpetrates and perpetuates even more dangerous deceptions. Confusing and confounding erotic and fraternal bonds, Brown's seductions direct a catastrophic blow to the very foundation of republican society: they falsely represent family relations. If the sexual order could be so easily—even unwittingly—undone, what fate awaited the social order it supported?


If reason and the senses could be so readily misled—as sensationalist writers such as Charles Brockden Brown would demonstrate even more clearly than did William Hill Brown—then the epistemological foundations of a nation resting on the possibility of rational self−government [→page 57] were at best, unstable; at worst, fraudulent.30) But for William Hill Brown, even more crucial were the moral implications of the figure of seduction in his republican tragedy. As Gordon Wood has argued in his essay, "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style," the eighteenth century's confidence that human agency had a direct hand in the workings of the universe meant that disastrous consequences could not be dismissed as the accidental effects of otherwise good intentions.44) Rather, Wood demonstrates, republican moralists insisted on an identity between causes and effects. Where there were evil consequences there must be, however benign the appearance of things, a malignant intent: a conspirator, a traitor, a deceiver. Although Wood is not primarily concerned with popular literature, his argument may be extended to account for the republican insistence on the efficacy of endlessly repeated cautionary tales of seduction and betrayal.

By this interpretation, only when individual virtue and agency were imaginatively replaced with more complex social processes that could transmute vicious intentions to virtuous ends would the image of the seducer be a less resonant image for the dangers besetting republican America.31) This is not to suggest that this transformation was either sudden or monolithic. John Adams, for instance, was one of the last to relinquish the republican metaphor of virtue in distress. In a letter to William Cunningham in 1804, Adams complained that, "the awful spirit of Democracy is in great progress. It is a young rake who thinks himself handsome and well−made, and who has little faith in virtue… . Democracy is Lovelace and the people are Clarissa. The artful villain will pursue the innocent lovely girl to her ruin and her death."32) Though republican concerns and language did not vanish from the political scene in the nineteenth century, the image of seduction, so potent in the late eighteenth century, began to appear less frequently after the 1790s, as changing views of moral agency and political power came to substitute essentially liberal metaphors of the competitive marketplace for the gendered and sexual imagery that had so permeated republican discourse.

To cite only one famous illustration of this transition, we might compare Hamilton's metaphors for political corruption in Federalist Papers 6 and 71 with Madison's renowned promotion, in Numbers 10 and 51, [→page 58] of mechanisms that would supply "by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives."33) In Number 6, Hamilton attributes the historical cause of hostilities among nations to the jealousy and greed of leaders who have indulged their "private passions" (especially for women), and who, "assuming the pretext of some public motive, have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquility to personal advantage or personal gratification." Similarly, Hamilton blames private intrigue for public calamity in Number 71, in which the people's adherence to the public good is perpetually undermined by "the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, … by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it." Here are all the vices of the seducer: lust, avarice, cynicism and, centrally, deceit.34)

For Madison, of course, it was not treacherous leaders so much as self−interested and divisive factions that threatened the fabric of republican society. Madison's solutions—geographical expansion, checks and balances, filters on popular sovereignty—are not directed at unmasking vice or attacking the causes of conflicting passions and interests. Rather, they seek to "control" the "effects" of these conflicts by "supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives."45) While images of seduction still animated Hamilton's rhetorical imagination, they were no longer compelling figures in Madison's prescriptions, which deliberately set out to shatter the identity of cause and effect on which the republican fear of seduction rested.

In the sentimental novels that followed this shift away from the power of seduction and toward the thorough−going domestication of virtue, popular heroines would more often follow the model of Richardson's virtuous Pamela than of his ruined Clarissa by successfully resisting the blandishments of treacherous seducers. Sentimental rhetoric after the 1790s reinscribed virtue itself as a condition not of political vigilance but of feminine piety and self−restraint, effectively severing the correlation between private motives and public morality that had been so crucial to eighteenth−century republicanism.43 As Nina Baym and Michael Denning have argued, the domestic novels that proliferated in America in the nineteenth century rejected the republican model of seduction and betrayal, substituting instead sentimental parables of [→page 59] innocent girls who foil myriad efforts to compromise their chastity.35) No longer fallen women, nineteenth−century heroines in popular works ranging from Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827) to Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854), would win for their efforts the mixed blessings sentimentality accorded true women and angels of the house. Whatever the centrality of the domestic sphere for the cultivation of private morality in the nineteenth century, no longer would political liberty be figured as a virtuous maiden assailed by tyrannical power.

Popular fiction's retreat from the public arena, from the republican concern for civic action and the reciprocal obligations of public and private virtue, signaled a change that had far broader consequences than simply reconfiguring the sentimental plot. Tracing the transition from republicanism to liberalism, from the promotion of republican citizenship to the constitution of liberal nationalism, Michael Warner has identified the republican novel as one of the central agents responsible for changing the subject of American identity. Though novels like The Power of Sympathy sought to participate in political debate, their effectiveness as theaters of virtue relied on arousing the sympathies of readers engaged in the essentially private act of reading. Their readers' resulting identification with the novels' characters, Warner argues, produced an "imaginary participation in the public order," which, though a "precondition for modern nationalism … is anathema to pure republicanism." Thus, though women (as wives and mothers) would increasingly be included in the symbolic nationalism of the 1790s and afterward, the public of which they were now imaginatively members "no longer connoted civic action" in the republican sense.36)

As we have seen, the republican reliance on the imagery of seduction and betrayal, the melodramatic representation of virtue assailed by corruption, extended beyond the novel and resonated throughout the political language of the Revolutionary period. This rhetoric produced more than an increasingly privatized and sentimental reading public. By both gendering and sexualizing virtue, and by so constantly invoking seduction as a metaphor for political corruption, republican advocates of civic action paradoxically encouraged an increasingly private, even personal, understanding of the nature of power and its abuses. Once [→page 60] civic virtue was equated, however metaphorically, with sexual chastity, the transition from virtue as the public spiritedness of politically active citizens to virtue as a private, domestic, feminized, and largely apolitical concern became irresistible. In the end, one of the "fatal consequences of seduction" would be the nation's consignment of the "democratic empire of virtue" to the private domain of its daughters alone, while its sons established a republic in which empire, not virtue, would prevail.37)

Columbia University
New York