Sources and Interpretations
By “Treachery and Seduction”: Indian Baptism and Conversion in the Roger Williams Code
By Linford D. Fisher and Lucas Mason-Brown
For more than a century, the John Carter Brown Library has been in possession of a rare seventeenth-century book. Its margins are filled with cryptic shorthand writing, long believed to be the work of Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century theologian and founder of Rhode Island. Despite several attempts to decode it, this writing remained stubbornly indecipherable until 2012, when a group of undergraduate researchers at Brown University, advised and supported by an interdisciplinary team of scholars, finally cracked the code. Contained within these margins is Williams’s last major piece of writing, an unpublished shorthand treatise titled “A Brief Reply to a Small Book Written by John Eliot.” In one short section of this treatise, Williams took on the question of Indian conversion, breaking a thirty-year silence on the issue. This passage is important because it came so late in Williams’s life; it was written in the precarious years after King Philip’s War; it provides a new window into Williams’s rare engagement with Eliot on Indian conversion; and it reveals a basic continuity in Williams’s thinking between the 1640s and the 1680s regarding the enormous difficulty of producing “true” conversions among the Native peoples of New England.
The French Revolution’s Royal Governor: General Blanchelande and Saint Domingue, 1790–92
By Jeremy D. Popkin
On April 15, 1793, Louis-Philibert-François Rouxel de Blanchelande, the last royal governor of the vital French slave colony of Saint Domingue, was guillotined in Paris, having been convicted on charges of trying to undermine the French Revolution by depriving the white colonists of their rights and abetting the slave uprising that had begun there in 1791. Blanchelande had certainly made many mistakes in trying to deal with the crises that beset Saint Domingue during the nearly two years of his mission, but his conviction was above all a reflection of the contradictions between the liberal principles of the French Revolution’s first years and the realities of politics in a slave society. Ordered to respect the white colonists’ right to self-government, to impose equality between them and Saint Domingue’s free people of color, and to repress the slave revolt, Blanchelande found himself facing a task that was, as one witness at his trial put it, “too great for . . . any human being.” Drawing on previously unexploited archival sources, this article dispels long-standing claims that Blanchelande acted out of counterrevolutionary motives and puts the story of his mission in the context of the crisis that the period’s revolutionary movements caused in all transatlantic empires.
“A Dictionary Which We Do Not Want”: Defining America against Noah Webster, 1783–1810
By Tim Cassedy
Noah Webster has usually been understood as a cultural nationalist whose advocacy of an “American-English” language helped to unify the fledgling American republic after the Revolution. That understanding, however, elides the overwhelmingly bad reception of Webster and his linguistic ideas in the early national United States. Even as Webster’s 1783 spelling book became ubiquitous in American primary education, his subsequent plans to discard British linguistic standards and institutionalize “American” spellings, pronunciations, and vocabulary prompted an extensive and vehement print backlash. Newspapers and magazines devoted hundreds of thousands of words in the 1790s and 1800s to condemning Webster’s “vulgar perversions,” “horrible irregularity,” “subtle poison,” and “illiterate and pernicious” ideas about language. Although these controversies arose around apparently narrow linguistic issues, they persisted because they implicated broad and thorny questions about the meaning of America. For several decades, opposing Webster was a powerful way for Americans to articulate their ambivalent desires for self-differentiation from Europe, their uncomfortable sense of diversities within and among the United States, and their enduring commitments to transnational norms and identities.
Reviews of Books
Henry F. May and the Revival of the American Enlightenment: Problems and Possibilities for Intellectual and Social History
By John M. Dixon
Henry F. May’s The Enlightenment in America, published in 1976, remains the most complete survey and most rigorous definition of enlightened European thought in America. But it is probably more cited than read today. May’s death in 2012 and a recent revival of interest in the American Enlightenment provide a reason to revisit this landmark work and the century-long historiography that surrounds it. May’s intellectualist understanding of the Enlightenment recalled earlier scholarship by Carl Becker, Vernon Louis Parrington, and Merle Curti. Meanwhile, his subdivision of the Enlightenment and his bridging of intellectual, religious, and social history reflected concerns of the 1970s and anticipated some later academic trends. Is May’s book still relevant? Social and cultural historians are now fashioning an exciting, inclusive, and expansive picture of the American Enlightenment. Questions of who, where, and how dominate this new research. Yet current scholars also need to consider, as May did, what the American Enlightenment was. By further incorporating religion and by combining intellectual, social, and cultural history, we can generate new answers to that old and fundamental problem.
Unlicensed distribution of all materials (including figures, tables, and other content) is prohibited.