Spring 2017 – Just Teach One no. 10
Prepared by Ed White (Tulane University) and Duncan Faherty (Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center)
Our Spring 2017 text is the anonymous Equality–A Political Romance, published serially in the Philadelphia Deist journal The Temple of Reason during the summer of 1802. Probably written by a British radical immigrant–our headnote discusses the scholarship about possible audiences–this utopia was among the first published in the United States to think about the problems of manufacturing, social hierarchy, democracy, marital and sexual unions, and political change. The text also includes a short “History of Lithconia,” describing the long development of this utopian society and how it overcame destructive class divisions.
Our PDF edition runs to just over 20,000 words, and would probably require one or two class periods. It would be suitable for classes on utopia, early US literature, 19C US literature, gender studies, and political writing. There are one or two editions of Equality available on-line, but they are reproductions (and sometimes abridgments) of the 1837 reprint; we reproduce the 1802 version.
While the Declaration of Independence famously stated that “all men are created equal,” the equality in question was often understood in such a narrow sense that it did not even include, for example, universal white male suffrage. However powerful the equality concept was, ideas of economic equality were extremely rare. This conservatism made the ideas expressed in Equality–A Political Romance all the more stunning, for this work, serialized in a Philadelphia publication between May and July of 1802, imagined a society in which every person worked, in which all lands and goods were held in common, and in which money was banned. Utopian writings were popular in North America before this moment. Thomas More’s Utopia was well known, and had seen a Philadelphia reprint in 1753. 1785 saw the anonymous publication of The Golden Age: or, Future Glory of North America and the French writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440 (The Year 2440: the English translation was renamed The Year 2500) was popular as well. These last were cautious works: Mercier still imagined a king seven hundred years in the future, and The Golden Age envisioned the solution to slavery and the land struggles with Native Americans by locating non-white populations to “Nigrania” and “Savagenia” respectively. In this context, Equality was much more radical: it imagined the creation of “the system of separate property” as one of the evil moments of history, while condemning the rich “idlers” who live off others, and the clergy “paid and maintained…to teach the people…that a little good, mixed with a great deal of evil, had always been, and always would be, the lot of humanity.”
How such a work came to be published in the United States has much to do with the circumstances of deism at the turn of the century. Deism is often treated as if it were a personal, private philosophy, as distinct from the collective belief systems of Christian denominations. But at the moment of Equality’s appearance, deism was an organized movement, sponsoring gatherings, proselytizing lectures, and publications. The Deistical Society of the State of New York founded a deistic weekly newspaper, The Temple of Reason, in November, 1800. Its opening editorial stressed that christianity (uncapitalized) was no more the official religion of the United States than “Mahometism” (Islam), despite assumptions to the contrary. Because deism was so constantly under attack from Christians, deists had resolved to “shew to the world, the purity of our doctrines and the soundness of our principles, exposing at the same time, the corruption of those of our adversaries” (cite opening issue). The Temple of Reason thereafter appeared in eight-page issues every Saturday, at the subscription rate of $3/year, each issue typically including book reviews of relevant philosophical, political, or theological works; short didactic essays, original or reprinted, on scientific, political, and philosophical topics; and synopses of news, foreign and domestic, from a deistic perspective. The paper had a difficult time finding subscribers in New York, and in the early months of 1801 shifted to the capital city of Philadelphia. The new editorial statement announced a greater attention to be paid to “the middling and industrious class of citizens,” who, it was assumed, would be as motivated by matters of political liberty as those of philosophical enlightenment (Apr 22, 1801, p 119). The serialization of Equality–A Political Romance was clearly part of this attempt to speak to a broader population, but by late 1802 the paper was struggling, finally ceasing publication in February of 1803. There was a successor publication, Prospect, or View of the Moral World, which ran from December, 1803 to March, 1805, but this wave of deist activism was clearly on the defensive. As a non-christian movement frequently critical of Christianity, deism was frequently the subject of conspiracy theories–often involving the Bavarian Illuminati or the Freemasons–and attacks of “infidelity” linked with political conflicts, most famously in the person of Thomas Jefferson around the time of his 1800 election. Political figures privately friendly to deism often hid their beliefs, while many journalistic attacks on political leaders foregrounded deist beliefs, frequently conflated with atheism (a prominent target of deist writings, in fact) and sexual libertinism. Deism was also commonly associated with French culture, through such figures as Voltaire, Count Volney, Rousseau, Diderot, and the Abbé Raynal, not to mention many prominent figures of the French Revolution, and the increasing Francophobia of the 1790s often attempted to taint deism as an alien movement. In such an environment, deists struggled for access to the press or public meeting spaces. Newspapers in New York, for example, largely refused to publish advertisements for The Temple of Reason or deist pamphlets and books.
This hostile environment was not, however, unusual to many of the figures associated with The Temple of Reason. While Elihu Palmer, the most prominent deist associated with The Temple of Reason, was a Connecticut native who had moved away from a very traditional New England Calvinism—first becoming a Baptist, then a Univeralist, before become a deist—many of the figures associated with the movement and its publications were radicals who had fled the British islands to the United States. Dr. James Reynolds, to whom Equality is dedicated, became active in the United Irishmen, a group that by the end of the 1790s was advocating an Irish independence uprising against the British empire. In 1793, Reynolds had been arrested by the Secret Committee of the House of Lords, and served several months as a political prisoner. Even after fleeing to the United States in 1794, he was targeted by Federalist journalists and prominent Philadelphia citizens, eventually facing arrest by the administration of John Adams under the Alien and Sedition laws. Denis Driscol, who edited The Temple of Reason in New York, was another Irish radical engaged in political publishing in the 90s; by 1799 he too was in the United States, where he became a defender of the Jefferson administration. John Lithgow, who became the editor of the Temple of Reason after Driscol, was also an immigrant, probably from Scotland; in the US he was an advocate of large-scale manufacturing and a sharp critic of British policies; by 1802 he was affiliated with the Jeffersonians against Federalists, publishing with the encouragement of another immigrant, the Philadelphia-based publisher, Mathew Carey. Carey, with his brother James, had come to the US from Ireland in the early 1790s, and were later supporters of the United Irishmen.
Several scholars have argued that Reynolds was the author of Equality, while Michael Durey has claimed that John Lithgow wrote this utopia. We do not know definitively who authored Equality, but it was drafted within this environment of radical immigrants, and this broader radical tradition may help us think about the different concerns addressed in Equality. To be sure, the deist position is evident throughout, from the early comment about religion contaminating everything it touches, to the later observation about the religious figures teaching ordinary people to accept “a great deal of evil” as their lot. One of the sharpest critiques of Christianity appears in the long account of the Lithconian origin story, in which the single days of God’s creations, as narrated in the book of Genesis, are refigured as “epocha” of millions of years of slow development, in keeping with the latest discoveries and theories of geology. Nonetheless, religious belief seems far from a central concern, while the narrator himself declares that sacred institutions are hard to locate in a society whose religion is essentiallly “the love of order and harmony.” The economic organization of society seems the primary concern, especially if one considers the Lithconian history. As mentioned earlier, society’s critical lapse is the creation of “the system of separate property,” a disastrous moment making possible the creation of the dangerous “idler” class, not to mention such barbarous practices as shopping. The meaning and social value of labor, furthermore, is practically the first twist in the plot: the narrator cannot buy his way through Lithconia, but must work steadily through his three months’ residence. Likewise, one of the first things we learn about the Lithconians is that their workday ends at four in the afternoon. As for the setting, the entire island is presented as “one large city upon a large scale,” and as a “vast manufactory” and “immense machine.”
This broad conception of the economy provides new ways of thinking about less obviously economic phenomena, like the printing press, the pursuit of artistic reputation, the rational development of some system of travel along “tracts,” or even improvements in the experience of friendship. It is also radical enough in scope to allow the author to explore how political problems seem quite different without private property as their underlying basis. If the rich idlers and their obedient priests do not run things, who does? How are local communities organized? Who serves the society on political matters? In thinking about forms of democratic participation and public service, Equality is also able to invite reflection on the value of constitutions–an unchanging constitution is ridiculous–or forms of resistance to poor government, as when the “intelligent class” promotes social reasoning that encourages actions like jury nullification. We should also keep in mind how the preface introduces the utopia: through the problems of love, sexuality, and “the contract betwixt the sexes.” The first statistics resented suggest that in a given population of women “capable of enjoying the pleasures of love,” half will find marriage, a quarter will become prostitutes, and a quarter will be caught “in expectation.” As Equality later discusses, married women without rational avenues of separation will be miserable too.
Many of the later editions, it’s worth noting, emphasized Equality’s focus on prostitution while downplaying some of its economic radicalism. The text was republished as a pamphlet in Philadelphia in 1837, where it was associated with the Philadelphia Trades’ Union’s paper, the National Laborer. Shortly thereafter, it was serialized in London’s The New Moral World: or Gazette of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists in late 1838-early 1839; this publication, associated with the Welsh radical Robert Owen’s utopian socialism, hailed Equality as “in many respects, far superior to the imaginary republics of Bacon, Harrington, or More” but nonetheless marred by the “imperfect perception of the real qualities of human nature.” The text appeared again in Boston in 1863, published by Josiah Mendum who also put out The Boston Investigator, a periodical devoted to “Universal Mental Liberty.” An historical reprint was published in Philadelphia in 1947, and since then it has been twice reprinted in anthologies of utopian writings: a 1952 collection, The Quest for Utopia: An Anthology of Imaginary Societies (eds. Glenn Negley and J. Max Patrick), published selections, and it appeared in the 1971 anthology, American Utopias: Selected Short Fiction (ed. Arthur Orcutt Lewis). Typically, the later editions have used the 1837 text, which recast the original periodical installments as chapters, retitled the work Equality, or A History of Lithconia, foregrounded the issue of prostitution, and muted some radical formulations. To give a simple example, the 1802 phrasing “when property became in common” was changed, in 1837, to “when things were put on a rational footing,” and the prefatory discussion of prostitution prompted several editorial footnotes about the alarming spread of prostitution and the state of a society in which “man sells his soul, and woman her body.” The following edition reproduces the original text of 1802-03, noting the breaks from one newspaper installment to the next.
Suggestions for further reading
In a review of a 1952 anthology of utopian writing, A.L. Morton argues that for late eighteenth century European radicals (who seemingly ignored the horrors of enslavement) “America and Utopia were almost identical,” in the sense that they “saw it less as a geographical entity than as a symbol of the coming liberation of humanity.” As such, Morton argues, “a whole host of utopian communities, Owenite, Fourierist, Icarian, Warrenite, and the rest were drawn thither as a place where their dreams could be realized. Similarly many of the literary utopias of the early nineteenth century— Spensonia, Lithconia, and New Britain—appear to be little more than the logical development of the free life of the American frontier, a life in which the freedom persisted after its hardships and barbarism had been overcome;” see, Morton, “Utopias Yesterday and Today,” Science & Society 17:3 (1953), 261. Charles Burgess deftly traces how deist conceptions of science, education, and happiness inform the representation of Lithconian history in Equality. After suggesting that the serialized text was, perhaps, The Temple of Reason’s “one lasting contribution to the growing hope that society could be reconstructed by reasoned choice,” Burgess contends that “the chronicler of the Lithconians must have enjoyed working many of the latest scientific and rational speculations about the nature and genesis of man into his narrative;” see Burgess, “Thought in the New Nation: America as a Presbyterian’s City on a Hill or as A Deist’s Island in the Sea,” Paedagogica Historica 4:2 (1964), 336 & 334. In a survey of pre-1900 Anglophone utopian fiction, Lyman Tower Sargent notes that “Equality is also interesting in that it includes an ambivalence toward both urban and rural life that is a major secondary theme throughout the nineteenth century; in Lithconia the problem is solved by having houses spread equally over the entire country with no concentration that would constitute an urban area but without the isolation of rural life either;” see Sargent, “Themes in Utopian Fiction in English before Wells,” Science Fiction Studies 3:3 (1976), 278. The historian Richard J. Twomey considers Equality a pivot “in the transition from pre-industrial Jacobinism to the nineteenth-century critique of private property” because of how the text “traced the roots of social evil not to hereditary privileges or to private property in land but to private property itself and to the class structure which was its social formation,” in the course of a larger argument he makes about the international circuits of exchange conjoining late eighteenth-century radical republicans; see Twomey, Jacobins and Jeffersonians: Anglo-American Radicalism in the United States, 1790¬1820 (Garland, 1989), 214. Lyman Tower Sargent reexamined Equality in a later essay, as a foundational example of how nineteenth–century utopias “had a single economic message throughout the century,” advocating the need to “socialize both production and distribution;” see Sargent, “Utopian Literature and Communitarian Experiments before Bellamy,” ATQ 3:1 (1989), 139-140. Michael Durey is less convinced of the importance of Equality because of the limited number of subscribers to The Temple of Reason, a fact which causes him to object to how “this obscure work of fantasy” has “been spliced into the socialist tradition of the United States” a “generation earlier than is customary” in order to draw “attention to interconnections between Jacobinism and socialism.” The main thrust of Durey’s argument, aside from countering “claims for the tract’s stature as a seminal text,” is to establish John Lithgow (and not James Reynolds) as Equality’s author; see Durey, “John Lithgow’s Lithconia: The Making and Meaning of America’s First “Utopian Socialist” Tract,” The William and Mary Quarterly 49:4 (1992), 676. The political theorist Gregory Claeys points to Equality as an American manifestation of late eighteenth century “Anglo-Scottish property debates” in which some dissenters had advocated for “restricting labor to four hours daily and for abolishing money;” see Claeys, “The Origins of the Rights of Labor: Republicanism, Commerce, and the Construction of Modern Social Theory, 1796-1805,” The Journal of Modern History 66:2 (1994), 254. Peter Linebaugh locates Equality as an example of the kind of thinking prevalent among dissent United Irishman who had migrated to the United States after their failed rebellion in 1798. In short, Linebaugh understands the text as “a coded intervention in an international political discussion,” one which embodied a “blithe disregard of the prevailing orthodoxy” and a decidedly “antinomian view;” see Linebaugh, “‘The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck’—A Story of 1802: Historical Materialism, Indigenous People, and the Failed Republic,” The Republic 1:1 (2000), 107 & 108. Eric Slauter briefly mentions Equality as an illustration of how “the age of the written constitution and the printed enumeration of rights was also an age deeply divided about textualizing rights;” in so doing, he positions the text as exemplifying an operant fantasy about “a citizenry that governed itself with few or even no written laws;” see Slauter, “Being Alone in the Age of the Social Contract,” The William and Mary Quarterly 62:1 (2005), 46-47. As part of his consideration of the work of “radical” early nineteenth century U.S. social reformers, John Carson argues that Equality presents “a kind of reworking of Rousseau’s tale of the move from the state of nature to civilization” with “an added twist,” in that it underscores that “a return to nature” could only “overcome civilization’s inequalities” if it was “guided by ‘the united reason of man;’” see Carson, The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750-1940 (Princeton University Press, 2007), 42. Anthony Galluzzo offers an extended reading of Equality in his 2008 dissertation. For Galluzzo, “the period of revolutionary upheaval book-ended by the American and French Revolutions witnessed a resurgence of the literary Utopia pioneered by Thomas More in the sixteenth century.” After countering Durey’s claims about Lithgow’s authorship, reasserting the attribution to James Reynolds, Galluzzo argues that Equality presents “a proto-socialist ideal,” which “inscribes the radicalization of Reynolds’ own Jacobin theories as they encountered the vicissitudes of political life in the early republic;” see, Galluzzo, Revolutionary Republic of Letters: Anglo-American Radical Literature in the 1790s (Proquest, 2008), 118 & 131. In his analysis of Barack Obama’s political philosophy, Mark S. Ferrara sketches the evolution of utopian thinking in the United States and notes that Equality was the “first full American literary utopia” and that it also established the idea of “a society where land was held in common, money was abolished, and women had full rights,” as central to American utopian imaginings; see, Mark S. Ferrara, Barack Obama and the Rhetoric of Hope (McFarland, 2013), 18. Mark A. Lause briefly mentions “Lithconia” as an example of the “reasoned skepticism” that early nineteenth century “freethinkers” had about “capitalism,” making special note of how the text “dated the rebirth of” the Lithconian civilization “from their decision to think past the lies” of the “upper classes” and “share the land and the bounties of Nature;” see Lause, Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2015), 6. Charles Fanning references Equality as an example of the reformist writing published by “Irish intellectuals who fled to American” in 1798, suggesting that Reynold’s figuration of the Lithconian utopia as a “communal society” liberated from the influence of “priests, doctors, soldiers, and lawyers” reflects some of the central tenets of the United Irishmen; see Fanning, The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish-American Fiction (University of Kentucky: 2015), 9.
For a more detailed textual history of earlier editions of Equality, we recommend the introduction to the 1947 Prime Press edition, available through the Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000782645). For some consideration of deism as a movement, we recommend Adolf Koch’s Republican Religion: The American Revolution and the Cult of Reason (Holt & Co., 1933) and Herbert M. Morais’s Deism in Eighteenth-Century America (Columbia University Press, 1934). For further information on immigrant radicals, we recommend James Jacob and Margaret Jacob (eds.), The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism (Humanities Press International, 1991), Michael Durey’s Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic (University Press of Kansas, 1997), David A. Wilson’s United Irishmen, United States: Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic (Cornell University Press, 1998), and Seth Cotlar’s Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (University of Virginia Press 2011). For a further discussion of the biography of James Reynolds, assumed to be the author of Equality, see Richard J. Twomey, Jacobins and Jeffersonians: Anglo-American Radicalism in the United States, 1790¬1820 (Garland, 1989) and chapter three of Anthony Galluzzo’s Revolutionary Republic of Letters: Anglo-American Radical Literature in the 1790s (Proquest, 2008). For background reading in eighteenth-century British utopian thinking, we recommend Gregory Claeys’ usefully annotated anthology Utopias of the British Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
The following are responses written by participants who have included this text in their teachings.
- Tamara Harvey – “Equality—A Political Romance” and Early Contact Narratives
- Diana I. Dabek – Exploring Utopian Literature and Thought in Nineteenth-Century America
- Etta Madden – Against Utopia – Teaching Equality: A Political Romance
- Brian Yothers – Placing Equality in the American Literature to 1865 Survey
- Monica Urban – JTO Equality Survey
- John Hay – Entering Utopia