Placing Equality in the American Literature to 1865 Survey

Brian Yothers
University of Texas at El Paso

My encounter with Equality—A Political Romance this spring consisted in my inclusion of the text in my survey class on American Literature to 1865. Most of us who teach such a class have observed that it seems as if it should be two or three classes, were it defined in strictly intellectual terms rather than by the complicated set of compromises that goes into defining any English department’s curriculum.

Equality served as a bridge among the different courses that I’m tempted to imagine the American literature to 1865 survey as being divided among through its utopian framing and its attempt to answer precisely those questions that figures from the sixteenth-century explorer and captive Cabeza de Vaca and the seventeenth-century New England Puritans to the eighteenth-century framers of the founding documents of the United States and the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists were vexed by. Although I placed our in-class discussion of the text right before our transition from the eighteenth-century early republic to the rise of American Romanticism, I found occasion to mention the pamphlet throughout the early portion of the semester. Indeed, I ended up finding so many connections to Equality in our discussions that I’m tempted to use it as a means of launching the survey class in a future semester. Between its emphasis on economic and social inequality, its emphasis on the enabling conditions of friendship, and its presentation of utopian models for reimagining societal institutions, this text sends out filaments to virtually everything we discuss in an early and antebellum American literature survey.

To cite a seemingly unlikely example, when discussing Cabez de Vaca’s representations of indigenous people in Texas, I asked students to consider how his version of Catholic mendicancy and his observations of indigenous mores combined to call into question of the economic goals of New World colonization. This points toward the utopian tradition that narratives like Cabeza de Vaca’s help to inaugurate via Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and in which Equality participates. As similar premonition of Equality’s attempts to model a just society appears in John Winthrop’s frequently taught sermon “Of Christian Charity.” The fact that Winthrop emphasizes the idea of mutual care and responsibility in the Massachusetts Bay Colony even as he insists that class distinctions are divinely ordained means that students have the opportunity to think about the ways in which economic equality is not necessarily embedded in all texts that seek collective economic action and justice. When teaching Winthrop’s sermon, I have found that a fair percentage of my students focus on Winthrop’s argument that members of the community must contribute to the common good as an indication of something like social democracy, even as an equal number focus on his justification of class hierarchy as a sign of the reverse tendency.

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s contributions to The Federalist Papers offered a further opportunity to consider how they might set us up for a discussion of Equality. Not surprisingly, I found that the Federalist Papers carried some added cultural weight for some of my students in the wake of the substantial public success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: The Musical, and like Winthrop’s sermon, these texts provided a range of strategies for reimagining social relations while maintaining some existing hierarchies and jettisoning others for which Equality provided a useful foil.

Finally, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Judith Sargent Murray’s On the Equality of the Sexes provided a perfect jumping off point for a discussion of how gender and economic issues fit together in a reading of Equality. My students had just read The Age of Reason, with its stirring affirmation that “my own mind is my own church” before Equality, and so they were ready for a text that would challenge models of morality based on divine commands rather than reason. They had just analyzed Murray’s reinterpretation of biblical stories associate with gender roles, so they were prepared for a text that attempts to reimagine the relationship between the sexes on a less hierarchical basis than inherited traditions would suggest.

My students’ reactions to Equality were mixed. As is often the case when dealing with utopian works, some students tended to focus on why the utopian community described is impractical—a not-unreasonable stance, but one that tends to limit the conversation that we can have rather than expand it. For this reason, I try to prompt students to think less about whether the utopian society would work were its prescriptions to be implemented, and more about what these prescriptions tell us about the relationship of the author to his or her present society. For example, many of the customs that seemed most unusual to students could be explained as being motivated by the paramount value that the Lithconians placed on friendship, and considering the centrality of friendship for this utopian society pointed toward both Winthrop’s emphasis on affective bonds among the New England Puritans and the importance of voluntary associations in the early republic.

One beneficial aspect of teaching Equality that emerged when we approached the middle of the nineteenth century was the degree to which the pamphlet served to illuminate the connections between Transcendentalism and Deism. I found that when students considered the opening chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Margaret Fuller’s essay “The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men, Woman vs. Women,” the fact that they had already discussed Equality made these texts seem more manageable. Many teachers make connections among feminist writings over time, point out the development of feminist ideas between Murray and Fuller, or the appropriation by Fuller of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas and personal history. The text becomes richer still, however, when Fuller is understood as participating in a longstanding tradition of re-conceptualizing social and economic relations more broadly and that she is showing that questions of gender are central, not peripheral to such a re-conceptualization.

I am tempted to wonder about how this connective quality of the pamphlet might play out in related courses. Last fall, I had taught a course in American fiction to 1900, focusing particularly on novels that featured an interracial dimension. A piece like Equality, A Political Romance could have paired very nicely with Susanna Haswell Rowson’s Reuben and Rachel, with its attempt to find an inner meaning to contact between Europe and the America’s across generations. It certainly could make a useful context for teaching nineteenth-century novels like George Lippard’s The Quaker City or New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million, with their persistent focus on economic inequality in the antebellum US, or similarly focused fiction like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” and “Rich Man’s Crumbs and Poor Man’s Pudding,” or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills and Margaret Howth. In particular, it could shed special light on the economic dimensions of the seduction novel, from Charlotte Temple and The Coquette through The Scarlet Letter even as it is illuminated, in particular, but the late eighteenth-century seduction novel. I can also imagine it pairing nicely with Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, in which Tyler satirizes late eighteenth-century norms in the United States in the first book and then presents an alternative that is the subject of both critique and desire in the second.

Because I taught Equality for the first time in a survey class, much of what I have to reflect upon here is prospective: I learned a good deal from both the connections that I found myself making with this work throughout the semester and the ways in which my students responded to it in our in-class discussion and beyond. What I have found is that this text offers more possibilities for this class and others than I had realized at the start of the semester, and I am looking forward to making this neglected text the linchpin for a more focused discussion of competing utopian visions in future classes.