Sunday, September 10, 2017

In the Name of the Father (2006)


Here is one of my BookLoons reviews from a few years ago. I offer you this belated reprint for two reasons: (1) I've been reading lately about the American Revolution, so my interest in the era has been renewed, and (2) the book is such a worthwhile study of this country's early years that I want to recommend it to more people.

In the Name of the Father: Washington's Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation by François FurstenbergAmazon.com order for
In the Name of the Father
by François Furstenberg
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover
Reviewed by Tim Davis

In the formative years of the United States of America, the nation's early, tenuous existence and its chances for a secure future remained vulnerable to multiple threats: geographical, political, and international. One of the defenses against these threats was the development of nationalism, a shared cultural attitude - promoting liberal and republican values - that would 'reshape individual identities and foster political {national} loyalties.' How American nationalism became an important though paradoxical force in early American culture is the subject of François Furstenberg's interesting book.

The problem inherent in America's embryonic nationalism, as Furstenberg argues, was the issue of consent. If the nation were to survive and prosper, Americans would simply have to consent - implicitly or explicitly, tacitly or openly, willingly or reluctantly - to the government; after all, such a liberal, republican democracy could exist and thrive only if those who were governed would consent to being governed. Without popular consent, the government would fall and anarchy would prevail.

Nationalism and consent, however, needed to be cultivated. One of the very specific ways in which U.S. nationalism and citizen consent were shaped and nurtured is the focus of Furstenberg's book. In fact, In the Name of the Father looks closely at the ways in which popular writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries 'framed the idea of American citizenship ... {Popular and widely disseminated texts like} pamphlets, biographies, schoolbooks, sermons, political orations, almanacs, newspaper reporting, broadsides, even materials like ceramics and painting ... shaped U.S. nationalism in ways that would have long lasting consequences ... {These} texts provided the medium through which political ideologies were disseminated and nationalism forged.'

The foregoing kinds of popular texts were actually America's 'civic texts, and it was largely from these sorts of texts that Americans of the early nineteenth learned their political ideology.' Moreover, these kinds of texts 'promoted consent {emphasis added} to the constituted political authorities and a sense of political obligation ... {In fact, these} texts promoted political unity and loyalty by canonizing major documents - most importantly, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Washington’s Farewell Address - and by creating a powerful mythology of the Founding Fathers centered around George Washington as the 'Father of the Nation.''

By tending to fuse citizens into a single nation, the civic texts and canonized documents would, in effect, 'unite {all Americans} as siblings under a common father.' But at this point, as we are adroitly guided by Furstenberg's thesis, we begin to recognize the paradoxical problem: 'Washington as general and president was both father to his nation and {as plantation and slave owner} father to his slaves.(Emphasis added) So, as the author argues, 'the Washington mythology opened a space for the incorporation of slaves into this national family, with slaves, like white Americans, united in bonds of affection and gratitude {and consent?} to Washington ... {Thus, the} paternalist ideology of nationalism blended into and eventually authorized a paternalist {and acceptable} ideology of slaveholding as these texts promoted both nationalism and slavery in the name of the father.'

And there you have the premise for Furstenberg's fascinating study in which he demonstrates the ways in which a newly formed American culture was able simultaneously to foster the strange bedfellows of nationalism, individual freedom, consent, and slavery. Using many dozens of historical examples in support of his study, and looking at ways the canonical documents were perpetuated through civic texts, Furstenberg shows us the formative stages of the early definition of being a 'good citizen in America' and how that evolving definition 'was complicated and compromised by the problem of slavery. Ultimately, we see {in Furstenberg's cogent argument} how reconciling slavery and republican nationalism would have fateful consequences that haunt us still, in attitudes toward the socially powerless that persist in America to this day.'

Students of American history and political theory, and observers of contemporary politics and social problems will find much to admire and ponder in Furstenberg's important new book. Using a technique similar to what I as a literary theorist know as New Historicism, Furstenberg expertly draws upon historical documents, first as a way of more clearly understanding the culture in which they were produced, and second as a way of more critically assessing 21st century American society and politics which have been incontrovertibly influenced by those documents, their cultural context, and the lingering problems of nationalism and consent.

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5 comments:

  1. I'm glad that you found such an interesting resource about the Colonial/Revolutionary era, Tim. It was certainly a monumental time in the U.S.'s history.

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    1. Margot, there were so many challenges then, and the slavery issue was huge and would only get worse.

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  2. a person that i know fairly well(me), likes to say that what will happen in the future is never what one would expect... that applied to the founding fathers as well, imo...

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    1. Mudpuddle, to know well the self is such a sensible goal, yet it continues to elude me.

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    2. i just don't think a person ever gets to the point where he/she isn't surprised occasionally by something they do... or think... humans are so weird...

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