Literary federalism in the age of Jefferson: Joseph Dennie by William C. Dowling

By William C. Dowling

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Extra info for Literary federalism in the age of Jefferson: Joseph Dennie and The port folio, 1801-1812

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The very act of taking Jefferson as their symbol, thereby bestowing on modernity at least a visible presence and a recognizable voice, is for the Federalist writers a means of coming to terms with forces otherwise impersonal and unfathomable. The great modern prototype of this kind of writing, constantly present to the minds of Dennie and the Port Folio writers, had been the ideological warfare of the Augustan satirists against Sir Robert Walpole and his Robinocracy. 5 Jefferson has always seemed the least likely of candidates for the role of grand symbolic antagonist, being as he was uncombative and detached, often apparently oblivious to the ideological furor raging around him.

The war now is between the ancient wisdom embodied in Aristotle and Cicero and Tacitus and jacobinism as the body of false doctrine that had produced the French Revolution, those arts, as one Port Folio writer puts it, through which "the infidel sophists of France" had created the conditions of possibility for Robespierre and the Terror: "The minds of the people were poisoned, they were taught to trample on the religion of their fathers, to believe, that death is an eternal sleep; before they were employed as the instruments of massacre, of universal plunder and devastation" (1:180).

It is fashionable nowadays to dismiss Parrington out of hand for the crudity or tendentiousness of his opinions, but his work nonetheless has great value for understanding certain tendencies still visible in the study of American literature. Nowhere do we see as clearly what American literature looks like when viewed from an unapologetically Jeffersonian or Jacksonian perspective. One is thus able in Main Currents to watch what I have been calling the repression of literary Federalism being carried out as part of Parrington's wholly conscious campaign against all vestiges of "aristocratical" thought in American culture, every trace of the older attitude that had favored property and education and classical values over mere numerical democracy as a basis of civic governance.

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