The pen was as mighty as the musket during the American Revolution, as poets waged literary war against politicians, journalists, and each other. Drawing on hundreds of poems, Poetry Wars reconstructs the important public role of poetry in the early republic and examines the reciprocal relationship between political conflict and verse.
2017 | 352 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History / Literature
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Poetics of Resistance
Chapter 2. War and Literary War
Chapter 3. Poetry and Conspiracy
Chapter 4. The Language of Liberty
Chapter 5. The Voice of the People
Chapter 6. Mirror Images
Chapter 7. The Triumph of Democracy
During the period of the American Revolution and the first decades of the early republic, dozens of poets—from the era's most celebrated writers to its most obscure amateur versifiers and balladeers—engaged in a series of literary wars against political leaders, newspaper editors and journalists, and each other, all in the name of determining the political course of the new nation. For those in our own time who are accustomed to thinking of poetry as an elevated form, antithetical to the vulgar world of political attack and counterattack, the idea of poetry as a weapon of political or ideological warfare may seem counterintuitive. Yet poems and songs on political affairs were a ubiquitous part of eighteenth-century political culture, appearing as broadsides and pamphlets and in the pages of newspapers, whose numbers grew exponentially during the period. Poems commemorated and satirized the most momentous and the most trivial of political controversies, from the debate over the Constitution to the outcome of a fistfight between rival members of Congress. From the time of the Stamp Act crisis to the end of the first party system, poems resisted the directives of King George's vice-regents in America; eulogized and demonized Washington and Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson; satirized the emerging political parties as dangerous factions that threatened the republic from within; and called for war or peace with Britain and France. My purpose in the following pages is to reconstruct this atmosphere of literary-political warfare as it unfolded against the backdrop of America's early national formation.
The poetry wars of the Revolution and early republic arose out of a unique intersection of poetic form and political discourse that developed in the print public sphere between 1765 and 1815. What I describe as poetic or literary warfare began in the years immediately prior to the Revolution as a strategy for highlighting one of the great political problems posed by the conflict: that of embodying power or authority in language or texts. Amid a struggle in which rival authoritative bodies issued directives to the people in the form of printed texts—proclamations by royal governors and military commanders or popular declarations by committees of correspondence, colonial assemblies, and the new Congress—poets sought to neutralize the ideological force of such authoritative documents by highlighting their linguistic or rhetorical elements. Spurred on by a sense that this strategy had been instrumental in aiding the Revolutionary War effort, poets of the early national period internalized a corresponding sense of political agency just as the earliest arguments were being advanced about the course the new government should follow. Such was the logic by which poetry became a powerful mode for giving voice to the nascent political parties in the 1790s and after.
On the way to advancing this argument, the more modest aim of this book is to recover for contemporary readers a substantial body of American political poetry that has gone largely unexamined in any systematic fashion. For though the literature of the Revolutionary era has been the subject of several studies over the years, most date back to the early twentieth century, with the most recent appearing more than a generation ago. And while several book-length treatments have appeared in recent decades to fill the once-yawning gap in our understanding of British-American poetry from the early eighteenth century, the equally prolific period of poetic output after the Revolution has been approached more narrowly, in studies of individual authors or small circles of literary collaborators. Poetry Wars seeks to tie many of these disparate threads together with my own research into the hundreds of political poems that have gone all but ignored by modern readers, in order to tell what I believe is one of the major literary stories of the era: that of the direct engagement by poets in the formative political struggles of the new American nation.
The four decades following the outbreak of the Revolution represent a high-water mark in the history of American political poetry. This is perhaps not surprising when we recall that the poets most celebrated during this period—John Trumbull, Philip Freneau, Timothy Dwight—as well as many of the period's most anthologized poems—Phillis Wheatley's "Liberty and Peace," Joel Barlow's The Conspiracy of Kings—engaged explicitly with politics or affairs of state. Yet these names and titles make up only a fraction of the hundreds of poems published and the scores of poets who penned them. To propose a collective study of political poetry thus involves bringing many largely forgotten works into conversation with those poems that have drawn the most scholarly attention. Thus, for instance, Trumbull's M'Fingal is analyzed in these pages, befitting its enormous popularity in the half-century following its publication in 1776; yet equally prominent is his forgotten verse parody, A New Proclamation!, which appeared a year earlier amid General Thomas Gage's declaration of martial law in Massachusetts. Freneau, similarly, figures prominently in this book, but not the oft-anthologized, proto-Romantic Freneau of "The House of Night" and "The Indian Burial Ground" so much as the furiously partisan author of A Voyage to Boston and "The Republican Genius of Europe." More important still, I examine these works alongside the considerably larger number of poems and songs by authors whose names are known only by brief entries in indexes of American biography, or, more often, who remain unknown to this day.
Poems in Retaliation
In bringing together this extensive body of poems, I argue for a conception of political poetry not merely as a subset of early American poetry that happens to be characterized by its political content but as a genre or cultural form in its own right, with its own origin, history, and implicit aesthetics. In this sense, I hope to do for political verse what other scholars have done for the early American theater, for instance, or for parades or patriotic celebrations—that is, to examine the significance of this cultural form within the broader formation of American national identity. Given the sheer number of poems that engaged explicitly with politics, one might wonder why the form has remained largely ignored by scholars of early American literature even as many other once-obscure forms—sentimental novels, diaries, travelogues, belles lettres—have enjoyed unprecedented scholarly interest in recent decades. Part of the reason may stem from frustrations involved with reading poems that are so highly topical—often requiring, even as a condition of first-level comprehension, a familiarity with names and references that, while wholly recognizable in their own time, are obscure to modern readers. Yet beyond this is the fact that American political verse from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has never fully shaken off the verdict, delivered by its earliest generation of scholarly readers, that it is simply unworthy of serious attention as literature. Even the term commonly used to describe it—"verse," as opposed to "poetry"—suggests an occasional or forgettable, rather than enduring, form of expression, not quite deserving the designation of poetry. Nor was such verse considered by early critics as worthy of the designation "American," as the tendency of eighteenth-century American poets to model their works on those of British precursors suggested an unforgivable failure, as one critic described it, to declare their "literary independence" from Britain.
Such pronouncements have been corrected in recent decades by readers who have rightly pointed out that these older critiques were grounded in aesthetic assumptions that the poets of the early republic simply didn't share. To infuse one's poetry with allusions to well-known literary touchstones by Dryden, Pope, or Swift, now appears less as gratuitous imitation than as a conscious act of invoking a tradition whose symbolic resonances were themselves politically and ideologically charged. Beyond this, the tendency to dismiss political or topical verse is now more likely to be understood in the context of the development described in recent years as the "lyricization of poetry," which evolved during the century following the period covered in this book. Culminating in the triumph of the New Criticism in the 1930s and 1940s—roughly the same moment that the first literary histories of the United States were being written—this was a process by which poetry as a whole came to be defined and measured according to standards associated with lyric poetry. From Cleanth Brooks's insistence on a work as a self-contained entity whose meaning necessarily transcends history to the now-famous New Critical pronouncement that interpretation must never extend beyond the poem itself, this model left little room for appreciating a body of poems whose meaning depended on the manifold contexts that surrounded their subject matter, origin, and dissemination.
Still, it is one thing to point out misplaced aesthetic judgments and another to immerse oneself sufficiently in the literary assumptions governing a body of verse to understand it, as it were, on its own terms. Such an act begins by recognizing the signature feature of political poetry from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—namely, its tendency to orient its meaning outward from the individual poem to other literary or discursive utterances circulating at the same moment. What has been disparaged as derivative or imitative, I argue, is actually a central element of the conscious referentialism of this poetry. Indeed, in dozens of cases described below, the meaning of one poem arises chiefly from its capacity to evoke and transform other linguistic forms, through allusion or parody or some other strategy of "speaking back" to one or more targeted texts circulating in public.
To illustrate the pervasiveness of this quality, let us consider a single poem by Lemuel Hopkins, which appeared in Philadelphia in 1795 under the title The Democratiad: A Poem, in Retaliation, for the "Philadelphia Jockey Club." By a Gentleman of Connecticut. As the title states rather explicitly, the publication of this poem is announced as an act of "retaliation" against another poem that had appeared earlier that year, The Philadelphia Jockey Club: Or, Mercantile Influence Weighed. Consisting of Select Characters Taken from the Club of Addressers, by Timothy Tickler. This latter title, in turn, reveals a poem made up of several satiric portraits of Philadelphia merchants whose support for the Jay Treaty was condemned by opponents as a case of placing economic self-interest above the public good. The Democratiad, in this context, stands as a counter-satire against local civic leaders who were at the time protesting the treaty as a capitulation to Britain and an affront to America's "true" ally, France.
Nor is the full scope of the poem's referential quality limited to this circumstance alone, for as the subtitle also points out, The Democratiad was not originally written for a Philadelphia audience at all but was penned by "a Gentleman of Connecticut." In fact, it had first appeared earlier that year in the Connecticut Courant as an installment of "The Echo" series, in which Hopkins (along with several collaborators) had for several years been satirizing the emergent opposition to Washington's administration by composing verse parodies of their letters, speeches, and newspaper articles. The Democratiad, in fact, began its life as a parody of a letter by a Virginia senator who had leaked the content of the Jay Treaty to the opposition press. The strategy of the poem as "echo" was thus to recast the senator's self-described gesture on behalf of governmental transparency into something more sordid, a deliberate provocation of public demonstrations against the treaty by those whom the poem represents as "noisy demagogues." Nor is the poem's outward textual orientation limited even to these references, for as the word "Democratiad" indicates, the poem is also a mock epic, a genre made famous by such works as Alexander Pope's The Dunciad. Indeed, The Democratiad is one of a series of mock epics penned by Federalists during the period of the Jay Treaty controversy. Such extended allusions to Pope's mock-epic masterpiece provided Hopkins and other poets with a literary and historical framework for ridiculing the opponents of the treaty as the political "dunces" of their time.
Whatever the manifold referentialism of The Democratiad might tell us about the political circumstances of 1795, then, it tells us at least as much about the system of assumptions and practices that governed the poetry wars of the early American republic. As suggested by the label "poem in retaliation," Hopkins's is a poetics based not on an ideal of individual poems as self-contained, discrete works, or as the distinct artistic property of particular authors. (Indeed, as has long been noted, most poets of the early republican period published their works anonymously or pseudonymously, and a great deal of the poetry of the time was produced collaboratively.) Rather, Hopkins conceived his poem as a single move within a larger discursive chain, and understood its creation as an act of creative transformation—most immediately, of another printed text, but more broadly, of political discourse as a whole as it was evolving during the founding period.
Befitting the atmosphere of political conflict that pervaded the early republican period, the most common manifestation of this tendency toward literary referentialism is, as the title of my book suggests, the "poetry war," which formed around a dynamic of implicit or explicit attack and counterattack by poets vying for ideological victory. Yet this outward orientation from individual poem to broader discourse took other forms as well, including what was occasionally referred to at the time as a literary "vogue," or fashion, in which several poets responded to a common political event or text by penning variations on a particular form, with each individual poem contributing to the significance of the literary trend as a whole. Accordingly, the project of analyzing this poetry requires a combination of interpretive strategies: first and foremost, it calls for close reading of individual poems, taking each work seriously as poetry (as opposed to mere content or message) by giving sufficient attention to formal elements, such as genre, allusion, symbolism, and tone. Nor is this simply a matter of attending to literary details for their own sake, for as I also emphasize throughout, literary form was itself a frequent and powerful means of communicating ideological content. At the same time, a close reading methodology must be supplemented by drawing on aspects of what has recently been called "distant reading"—attending to matters of publication and republication history, often with the aid of research databases unavailable to earlier generations of literary scholars, so as to grasp the importance of those moments when multiple poets or editors were engaging collectively with a political event or topic. Keeping in view this dual objective—of unpacking both the meaning of individual poems and the larger chains of literary or discursive expression—I organize the book's chapters chiefly around episodes of literary-political convergence, in which a political event inspires a specific literary response that is, in turn, meant to influence public discourse and, by implication, subsequent political events.
Beyond attending to political poems as single utterances within a larger field of discursive formation, I also inquire into what happens when political discourse unfolds in the form of poetry. Is there, as one scholar has asked, a "specific form of political work undertaken by poetry which could not be undertaken by any other form of language use?" One answer to this question, offered by E. Warwick Slinn, is that poetry's power as a mode of enacting political change arises from the fact that, beyond merely describing or representing reality, poetry exists as a performative act: poetry, he writes, "may mimic social discourse, but . . . is also itself a cultural event which participates in cultural reality, reconstituting or reshaping that reality." Whether or not any particular work of verse can be said to have succeeded in reconstituting political reality, this was certainly the objective for the vast majority of poems analyzed in this book.
More particularly, I argue that political poetry from the Revolutionary and early republican periods sought to alter political reality through the specific mode of linguistic performativity—that is, by way of performances that called special attention to issues of language. Such linguistic self-conscious arose out of a collective recognition of what might be called the linguistic or textual aspect of the Revolution itself: for in addition to its obvious significance as an uprising or military conflict, the Revolution was a conflict that pitted competing textual claims to political authority against each other. As my first two chapters—"The Poetics of Resistance" and "War and Literary War"—illustrate, between the outbreak of the imperial crisis and the end of the Revolutionary War, colonial governors and military commanders issued dozens of proclamations—declaring martial law, ordering civilians to stay in their homes, and even forbidding the public from assenting to a rival set of quasi-official documents being circulated by the leaders of the resistance. (Such documents included the Massachusetts Circular Letter of 1767, the "Solemn League and Covenant" of 1774, and the popular declarations issued by local committees of correspondence, colonial assemblies, and the Continental Congress.) Amid this atmosphere of conflicting demands on the public's assent, the first important literary vogue of the Revolution emerged—that of "versifying," or reproducing in the form of burlesque verse, the language of the proclamation or other authoritative text.
The political importance of versification in this context can hardly be overemphasized, for beyond merely enacting a symbolic performance, transforming political prose into poetry called attention to the versification's status as language. As one literary critic recently remarked, poetry is a unique mode of expression because it foregrounds "language, in its material dimensions"; in contrast to prose, poetry puts on conscious display elements, such as sound, rhythm, and figurative language, which distinguish it from its function as content or discourse. At the same time, what political poets of the Revolution seem instinctively to have recognized is that when such linguistic and performative self-consciousness was brought to bear on an authoritative document, it had the paradoxical effect of projecting the same linguistic attention back onto the original text. A verse parody of an official proclamation could thus be used to highlight the degree to which the proclamation was itself a linguistic or rhetorical performance, and in doing so, invalidate its primary ideological objective of embodying power in language. Importantly, this implicit notion of poetry's capacity to transform discourse endured after the Revolution, as poets of the early republic continued to compose verses that played upon language from speeches, newspaper essays, politically charged hymns or ballads, and of course, other poems.
The other element that lent special power to poetry as a mode of discursive intervention was its corresponding emphasis on voice, for in addition to circulating in the form of printed texts, poems—and, importantly, songs—could also be performed publicly before small or large groups, including those organized around some political action. The ideological power of such performances may be understood in the context of past studies on the cultural importance of voice and orality as a mode of political communication during the period of American national formation. Such studies remind us that even amid the predominance of print, the spoken word—with its heightened tone, volume, and emotional impact—stood as both a model for political rhetoric in general and as a strategy of speaking back to textual forms of authority. This phenomenon is particularly evident with regard to the many political songs and ballads analyzed in this book, which provided occasions for a chorus of singers to at once enact and symbolize unison in a time of political division. Yet this quality also extended beyond songs alone to become a metaphor invoked throughout the period, as poets and balladeers claimed that their works represented none other than the voice of the people.
The crucial precondition for the emergence of this interplay between poetic and political language was, of course, the print public sphere. This was the world made possible by the proliferation of newspapers and pamphlets and broadsides through the end of the eighteenth century, creating what Jürgen Habermas has called a "world of a critically debating reading public," at once distinct from the private realm of individuals and the inner workings of the state, within which opinions on affairs of state could be freely exchanged. Originating in the polite social environments of European coffeehouses and salons, the public sphere took particular hold in colonial America in the virtual spaces of print media, providing unprecedented opportunities for political debate among the participants of an emerging writing public. Such a public included, not surprisingly, writers of poetry, who implicitly came to conceive their works as performances before a reading public that was itself coming into consciousness of its own political power.
Of course, the actual world of print public discourse in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America was a far cry from the idealized public sphere originally imagined by Habermas. In such idealized form, this was a public sphere of polite, rational discourse, accessible to a wide variety of participants who, by virtue of the convention of anonymous submission, could assume their ideas would be judged free from the limitations of status imposed in other modes of interaction. Yet notwithstanding the convention of anonymous authorship, which in theory offered a level of discursive equality, in practice the public sphere in eighteenth-century America, as numerous scholars have since noted, excluded participation by gender, race, and social and economic status. Such forms of exclusion, it must be acknowledged at the outset, were largely true as well for the world of poetic exchanges on political or public matters. Works by women, African Americans, and Native Americans appear infrequently in this sphere of political-poetical exchange, and although it is impossible to identify the many anonymous poets who participated in poetic exchanges or poetic warfare, those whose names we know tend to have come from two main groups: the educated, professional classes that also produced most of the political leaders of the new republic, and those associated with the specific trade of print or newspaper publication.
In an era in which virtually no one made a living from writing, much less from writing poetry, the practice of penning political verse emanated mainly from the social circles of educated professionals. The most famous and prolific political poets in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America were first and foremost lawyers, clergymen, physicians, and merchants. Such men usually began their writing careers amid the social environment of colonial colleges, where groups of students regularly engaged in competitions of wit. The ability to entertain friends and relations with their literary performances signified their erudition and elite status, and this, in turn, likely contributed to a shared sense of authority over, and responsibility to weigh in on, matters of state. Beyond this group, a significant number of political poets appear to have emerged from the ranks of printers and newspaper editors. For these figures, penning topical verse (or inviting literary-minded friends to submit works) amounted to a means of providing entertaining content for their readers' consumption. From their first appearance in James Franklin's New England Courant in the early 1720s, poems grew to become a common feature of newspaper culture and an integral part of the discursive life of colonial America. Newspaper poems treated a variety of subjects, from religion and morality to love and domestic happiness; as the eighteenth century wore on, newspaper poems increasingly touched on topics of local or imperial import. It is against this broad cultural backdrop that, in the wake of the crises surrounding the Stamp and Townshend Acts, political verse would emerge as a powerful and permanent weapon in the collective arsenals of partisan editors.
Still, it would be inaccurate to describe the poetic public sphere as it arose prior to the Revolution and reached its height in the 1790s as purely a bourgeois or elite space. Indeed, a considerable number of political poems from the period were composed by authors who identified themselves explicitly as mechanics, recent immigrants, women, and soldiers, and many anonymous poems communicated through their style that they had been penned by novice poets with little formal education. Such inclusion of nonelite voices, though not representative of the majority of political poets, nonetheless proved crucial to the symbolic and ideological significance of the poetic public sphere. For it appeared to ground in reality a widespread assumption underlying political poetry as a whole—namely, that poetic warfare was waged necessarily on behalf of the public. As we shall see throughout, countless poems and literary exchanges involved laying claim to the mantle of the vox populi, usually in opposition to some putatively illegitimate authority. The claim originated as part of a literary-political awakening that occurred during the Stamp Act crisis, when printers would compose (or employ their literary friends to compose) broadside verses decrying the act in the symbolic persona of the "newsboy" or newspaper carrier who—by virtue of his age and social status—served as a synecdoche for the popular resistance. Not only would the carrier's address itself become a popular genre of political expression well into the nineteenth century, the broader claim to represent the voice of the people would live on as an enduring motif in American political poetry, with subsequent works giving voice to other humble personae—the "female patriot," the Revolutionary soldier, the unemployed sailor of the embargo era—who claimed to represent the will and interests of the common people in protest against some imposition of state power.
At the same time, as illustrated by the fiery tone of many newsboy poems, the poetic public sphere was defined by another form of exclusion—not of particular persons but of particular statements or discursive utterances, which were circumscribed within poetic performances as fraudulent, illegitimate, or morally suspect. It should be noted at the outset that the majority of poems examined in this book are satirical in nature, appearing as parodies, burlesques, mock epics or Juvenalian high satires, and their primary outward orientation is necessarily negative or critical toward the texts, discourses, and ideas to which they respond. Any analysis of the larger body of political poems from the period, then, reveals a version of the print public sphere that stands in stark contrast to the idealized discursive space defined by politeness, reason, and deliberation. Rather, as indicated by my titular phrase "poetry wars," it is a sphere characterized by rhetorical conflict and even, at times, rhetorical violence, within which the purpose of a given poem or move is to isolate the ideological "work" of a rival text and nullify its power.
Finally, to understand the process by which poets imagined they could influence history by shaping political discourse, it is necessary to consider the context of eighteenth-century print as one in which political acts and mediations of acts often merged into each other in the chronological unfolding of "the news." Events such as the passage of the Stamp Act, the surrender of Cornwallis, and the ratification of the Jay Treaty reached the reading public via sequentially published newspapers and broadsides that also included poems, songs, and other creative forms. Within this media landscape, a strategically placed poem could appear as a crucial part of a developing news narrative, creating the sense—real or imagined—of the poem as a causal agent in the process. In the chapters that follow, I recount numerous instances of apparent poetic intervention, from simple tit-for-tat poetic exchanges competing to circumscribe events within larger narratives to complex dialectical fusions of poetry and news as they appeared alongside one another in chronological succession. Within this media context, I argue, poets came to conceive their works as forms of actual, rather than merely virtual, intervention.
Poetic Warfare and Political Formation
The dynamic of literary warfare that governed the writing of political verse during the Revolution continued after the war itself gave way to the rhetorical struggles between rival factions over the nature and policies of the newly formed federal government. In a political context in which determining national policy depended on prevailing in a public debate—whether to ratify the Constitution, how best to fund the Revolutionary War debt, whether to incite or defuse rising conflicts with Britain and France over international trade—poets revived the strategy of engaging directly with texts and discourses they perceived as threatening to the nation's still-precarious survival. Indeed, one of the major claims of this book is that poets implicitly recognized in such debates a crucial similarity to the earlier wartime struggle over political legitimacy—in particular, the fact that these debates also hinged on issues of language. For insofar as claiming leadership or enacting policy depended on words, discourses, and the meanings ascribed to them—aristocrat, republican, democrat, the rights of man—poets could mine the speeches and writings of ascendant leaders for evidence of political apostasy—or worse, of factious or sinister designs.
By the time the poetry wars of the early republic reached their apex in the 1790s—the period covered in greatest detail in this book, encompassing the fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters—poets not only engaged individually with texts and discourses they deemed threatening to the republic but also began to identify with one of the two proto-parties forming around Jefferson and Madison, on one side, and Hamilton and Adams on the other. Defending the policies and rhetoric of Washington's administration was a large and prolific group of poets, mainly from New England, which included two generations of Hartford Wits (Timothy and Theodore Dwight, Richard Alsop, Lemuel Hopkins, and Elihu Hubbard Smith) and a coterie of like-minded poets, such as Robert Treat Paine, Isaac Story, and Thomas Green Fessenden. Against this throng stood a literary opposition whose numbers were smaller but whose political influence was no less potent, and whose sympathies lay with what Jefferson famously labeled the "Republican interest." Led by the equally prolific Philip Freneau—who began his career as the most fiery of Revolutionary poets and who came to the nation's capital at Jefferson's behest to found the opposition newspaper the National Gazette—this camp also included the apostate Hartford Wit, Joel Barlow, the jurist-poet St. George Tucker of Virginia, and countless lesser-known and anonymous versifiers. This is the period in which poets conceived their efforts most fully as poems in retaliation, responding to the works of other poets by circumscribing them within counternarratives designed to negate their ideological force. By the late 1790s, scarcely could a political debate emerge without also appearing in the form of a corresponding debate in verse, in which individual displays of wit served as grounds for claiming literary triumphs, and literary triumphs, in turn, implied a corresponding political triumph for the side with whom a given poet identified.
In referring to the 1790s as a period of partisan warfare, I am talking not about fully formed or organized political parties but rather about what historians of the early republic refer to as protoparties, which formed after the breakdown of the consensus that had helped bring about the creation of the federal government. In addition to reflecting competing regional and economic interests and rival interpretations of the Constitution, these protoparties reflected conflicting political discourses, as the older language of republican civic virtue came into increasing opposition to an emerging language (identified in particular with the French Revolution) of liberty, equality, and the rights of man. Over the course of the 1790s, the two sides evolved into parties amid a political atmosphere characterized by mutual suspicion and fear, such that partisans came to perceive their rivals' arguments in decidedly conspiratorial terms—as a cover to restore monarchy or to incite violent Revolution in America—and thus came to view the partisan division as nothing less than a struggle over the fledgling republic's very survival. Historians have long noted the hyper-partisan rhetoric in the private correspondences of political leaders like Hamilton and Jefferson, but during the 1790s such rhetoric increasingly came to permeate public discourse, largely through the emergence of partisan newspapers and local political associations. It is in this context that political poetry would play an outsized role in contributing to this sense of momentous struggle, constructing and projecting symbolic narratives in which even arcane policy matters appeared to contain enormous national implications.
Throughout this period, significantly, poets held onto the early assumption that had sustained the verse wars of the Revolution—specifically, that their works represented the voice of the people and functioned to protect the public interest against various narrow factions believed to be plotting to usurp power. Such a claim is not surprising, perhaps, as a descriptor of poems that circulated on behalf of the opposition Republican (or Democratic-Republican) Party. This body of verse was characterized, first, by an unreserved embrace of the French Revolution and its corresponding language of the rights of man, and by an application of revolutionary rhetoric to the critique of the government formed during Washington's presidency, which many Republicans believed had come under the control of aristocrats like Adams, or speculators in the employ of Hamilton's Treasury. Countering these charges, poets writing in support of the administration—who adopted the name Federalist from the original constitutional consensus—engaged the Republican critique at the level of both content and form, employing parody and burlesque to recast the opposition as conspiratorial in their thinking and violent in their rhetoric. In engaging in this counterstrategy, Federalist poets (by virtue of their more prolific literary output) initially claimed the mantle of wit for their side, projecting a political identity grounded in rational, moderate urbanity, and portraying their opponents as an irrational and extreme faction.
As we shall also see, the respective combatants in the poetry wars of the 1790s refused to concede any of their opponents' characterizations. Republicans countered the Federalist claim to superior wit and urbanity by offering their own wry satiric pieces, such as St. George Tucker's series of ironic panegyrics to leaders of the administration, crediting them with having successfully created a government that was all but unrecognizable to the Madisonians who had originally supported the Constitution. Yet just as Republican wits refused to allow their opponents to brand them as humorless or extreme, Federalists refused to concede the Republicans' claim to represent the people's party. Given the Federalists' well-documented suspicion of populism and Revolutionary rhetoric, their implicit claim to represent the people's true interests may appear incongruous. Yet Federalist poets infused their works with a series of attacks exposing Republicans leaders as meager embodiments of the vox populi, highlighting their status as wealthy landowners and pedigreed elites whose interests were hardly consistent with those of the small farmers and mechanics for whom they claimed to speak. More significantly, Federalist wits introduced what stands in retrospect as an early version of the critique of nineteenth-century white male populism that has been advanced in our own time—namely, that such populism was accompanied by support for policies favoring the removal of Native tribes from the Western territories and the protection and expansion of the Southern slave economy.
In this tit-for-tat atmosphere of political attack and counterattack, I argue, political verse came to occupy a discursive space similar to that later claimed by organized political parties. At a time when elections were contested only indirectly, and the concept of the modern political campaign did not yet exist, poems and songs performed a variety of partisan functions, from invoking the preferred political language of one's own party to defining the opposing party as a dangerous faction and warning against the dire consequences of elevating its leaders to positions of national power. Thus it is that in the period between 1796, the year of the first contested presidential election, and 1801, the year of the first partisan transfer of power, the number and variety of poems of retaliation reached their highest point. Dozens of individual poets and songwriters entered the fray in these years, protesting or advocating for policies and candidates, and ritually naming or defining their opposition as aristocratic or Jacobin, the "party of Britain" or the "party of France."
As is suggested by these latter epithets, moreover, the political and literary struggles surrounding the formation of the new Unites States were not limited to national politics or identity alone but rather involved a crucial transatlantic or transnational context that permeated both culture and politics in the Revolutionary and early republican periods. Indeed, I cite numerous examples of American and British poets who—despite writing at odds with each other about events and issues—nevertheless draw on a common literary tradition within which, as Leonard Tennenhouse has recently put it, American cultural identity often appears as a "brand of Englishness." By extending this transnational perspective to the poetry wars of the 1790s, moreover, this book seeks to illuminate an additional set of complications. Insofar as the first party system arose against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Anglo-French wars of the 1790s, the debate over America's political identity itself came into being amid this imperial conflict. As we shall see, this triangular relationship between Britain, France, and the United States made for a variety of complex intersections among culture, politics, and nationalism. Such is the backdrop, for instance, in which an American Republican such as St. George Tucker could draw on the English satiric persona of Peter Pindar to attack the administration and to defend the French Revolution, only to be answered by a group of Federalist wits employing the identical literary allusion to paint Tucker's party as would-be American Jacobins.
Considering this example alongside the countless other distinct poetic genres invoked during the decade—carrier's addresses, verse parodies, mock epics and epic fragments, ironic celebratory odes and earnest martial hymns, to name only some—reminds us that political poetry in the 1790s was never wholly reducible to politics alone but always contained a crucial aesthetic dimension distinct from a given poem's content or message. In the case of most of the poems analyzed in this book, aesthetic elements such as verse form, genre, and allusion can be seen to heighten a poem's political impact through the "ideology of form," in which a work's formal or generic qualities communicate ideological content. At the same time, the relationship between form and ideology may be seen to reflect a broader intersection of aesthetics and politics that pervaded the period. This book examines both the consistencies and the tensions that arose between the poetic and the political dimensions of political verse. Such intersections come into particular view in my analysis of literary warfare in the 1790s: thus, for instance, in Chapter 4, "The Language of Liberty," I describe how Federalist poets first developed their strategy for satirizing the preferred political discourse of emerging Republicans by attending not simply to political implications alone but to tone and affect. I also examine how these same Federalists endeavored, with mixed success, to combine the aesthetic and the political, pushing the boundaries of satiric complexity and literary play to the point of compromising the clarity of their message. This tension between the aesthetic and the political is also the subject of my sixth chapter, "Mirror Images," in which I argue that the growing popularity of engaging in literary exchanges ultimately came to undermine the political impact of political verse as a whole. For in an environment in which virtually every controversy became fodder for literary satire, and virtually every genre spawned a response composed in that identical genre, poetic warfare as a whole dwindled into a ritual that diluted the impact of any single poetic utterance, ultimately leading to what I call a literary-political stalemate in the last years of the 1790s.
The other crucial complication to the collective ambition of poets to influence the political course of the republic, of course, was the simple fact that in the real world of electoral politics a literary or satiric triumph did not necessarily prefigure a corresponding political victory. This was the reality to which Federalist poets awakened after the election of 1800, as I describe in my final chapter, "The Triumph of Democracy." Despite having been considerably more prolific, and arguably more proficient, than their Republican counterparts, Federalist poets witnessed the tide of public opinion turn away from their party, undermining the confidence they once had in their ability to intervene in history. Facing this reality, they devised a number of strategies, first in an effort to reverse the electoral losses that began in 1800 but would continue for most of Jefferson's presidency, and then to cope with finding themselves on what they increasingly saw as the losing side of a grand ideological struggle. In this situation, more than a few Federalist poets came to disavow their earlier claim to speak for the people at large and instead began to project in their works an alternative community of like-minded writers who were fully conscious of their status as a political minority. Yet others fought on, paralleling in verse and song the Federalist Party's brief resurgence in popularity between the Embargo Act crisis and the War of 1812. The final political decline of the Federalists, amid the fallout from their vocal opposition to the war, also played out in the poetic public sphere: in satirizing their leaders for waging an unnecessary war, Federalist poets went further than they ever had in questioning their loyalty to the cause. Chastened by a barrage of martial ballads and inquiries into their patriotism, Federalists would abandon their political campaign, and the poetry wars of the early republic would end as they began—in the midst of intense ideological conflict made all the more severe by the presence of war.
Taken as a whole, Poetry Wars aims to highlight the importance of political poetry at virtually every point in the story of the American Revolution and the subsequent formation of the federal government and the first party system. In bringing poetry to the forefront of these developments, I hope to illuminate the relationship between culture and politics more broadly, complementing existing studies of voting patterns and party organization with a dynamic story of how political identities were formed amid shifting rhetorical strategies in response to rival arguments and unfolding events. I hope as well to help uncover a world of unspoken assumptions that governed the practice of writing and disseminating political verse during what appears in retrospect as the golden age of this cultural form. Finally, by contributing my own analyses of scores of individual poems, and by describing and referencing countless others, I hope to make these works more accessible to literary scholars and historians, in support of yet unimagined future studies of American history and culture.