Wednesday, February 19, 2014

When Virtù Courts Virtue

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

I found my way to this topic via a peculiar trajectory that began along the Cam under the tutelage of Quentin Skinner, where the distinction between classical republican virtù and protestant Christian virtue first entered my consciousness.  The hybridized virtù(e) that filled the political treatises of the American Revolution/War for Independence fascinated me but were not the centerpiece of my doctoral research.  When I returned to Jane Austen as my entertainment while my second son nursed, I realized that the hybridization process took place on the pages of Miss Austen’s novels.

The historiography of the American Revolution nearly drowns in examinations of Republican motherhood and patricidal rage. Austen’s heroines need not kill their fathers. They are already dead (Sense & Sensibility) or emasculated by poverty (Pride & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park), frailty (Emma), and vanity (Persuasion).  It takes little imagination to envision Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Catherine Moreland, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliot as the republican mothers of a future generation.  In attributes they share much with the ultimate Republican mother as proven in her dual role as the United States’ first wife and mother to (failed) Presidents, Abigail Adams.  They can hold their own in discussions of the lofty but are unafraid to engage in the lowly. Think of Abigail Adams mopping her floors with vinegar while her many children lay sick, and Anne Elliot caring for her injured nephew while his squeamish mother tends to her own nerves not his physical needs.  When the virtùous Captain and Mrs. Wentworth set sail, I suspect their destination is the new republic on the other side of the Atlantic.

Thomas Jefferson obsessed over virtù(e) and corruption in both the public and private spheres.  Jefferson is remembered for his assiduous adherence to the necessity of landholding independence as a prerequisite for political virtù. He never deigned to fight in the colonies-cum-new republic’s wars though famously wrote on the worth of blood spilled for a virtùous cause.   He is also remembered for his utter lapse in private virtue, bedding but never wedding a woman he considered his racial inferior.   Jefferson was a last gasp of  this double standard in the Americas.  The widow’s of New Jersey had already become the first in Atlantic world to cast their votes in a simultaneous demonstration of both their virtù(e)s. 

Finally, I beg leave to indulge in some Whiggish analysis and imagine that William Jefferson Clinton’s presidency would have been very different indeed  had Americans not come to accept Jane Austen’s definition of hybridized virtù(e) and applied it to men and women alike.


Sources: Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic; Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters; and Jay Fleigelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims.

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