Two Early American Cranks

This is my third and last post inspired by reading Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution.

No political commentary this time or chiding people for their misperceptions of history.

This one is about two early American writers who, judging by the quotes Wood presents, are worth adding to the monumental to-be-read pile.

As before, the listed page numbers are from the 1991 Knopf edition of Wood’s book.

Charles Woodmason was a “harried and headstrong itinerant Anglican minister” who travelled among early Carolina settlers in the late 1760s. His observations are wonderfully acidic and unhappy. (p. 131)

[The people he saw had] abandon’d Morals and profligate Principles-Rude-Ignorant-Void of Manners, Education or Good Breeding.

[Carolinians lived] like Hogs [with] little or no Bedding, or anything to cover them.

There’s not a Cabbin but has 10 or 12 Young Children in it-When the Boys are 18 and the Girls 14 they marry-so that in many Cabbins You will see 10 or 15 Children. Children and Grand Children of one size-and the mother looking as Young as the Daughter.

[Carolinians lived] in Concubinage-swopping their wives as Cattel, and living in a state of Nature, more irregularly and unchastely than the Indians.

[They are a shameless lot] for Nakedness is counted as Nothing-as they sleep altogether in Common in one Room, and shift and dress openly without ceremony.

… the Cookery of these People being exceedingly filthy, and most execrable.

[He traveled] heavy loaded like a trooper. If I did not, I should starve … In many places they have nought but a Gourd to drink out of Not a Plate Knive or Spoon, or Glass, Cup or any thing.

They wanted no D—d Black Gown Sons of Bitches among them.

Who but an Heart of Oak could bear up Firm against such Torrents of Malice, Bigotry, and Impudence!

[In his travels, he saw] no genteel or Polite Person … [not] one literate, or travel’d Person-No ingenious Mind-None of any Capacity.

Tis the fashion of these People to abandon all Persons when sick, instead of visiting them-So that a Stranger who had no Relatives or Connexions, is in a most Terrible Situation.

More of Mr. Woodmason’s complaints can be found in Richard J. Hooker’s The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and other Writings of Charles Woodmason, American Itinerant.

The other writer was not an acid-tongued complainer but, according to his enemies in the Federalist Party, a “monstrous oddity in the world” (p. 271). Abraham Bishop was born to an occasional mayor New Haven, Conneticut, graduated from Yale, and a lawyer. He went on to oppose the Constitution, hold “petty offices” in New Haven, lecture, teach school and marry before becoming “one of the greatest popular demagogues in America history” (p. 271).

The Bishop writings quoted reminded me of Lysander Spooner’s famous essay “No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority”. Both vigorously and blatantly attack the basic assumptions of American politics. In Spooner’s case, it was the idea that the Constitution was some sort of contract binding those who did not explicitly consent to it. Bishop attacked the idea that politicians should be great in any sense. I don’t agree with either, but I admire the audaciousness and clarity of their attacks.

Some sample Bishop quotes:

Through excessive indulgence we have already a number of men too great for a republic. How happens it that these great men are so very fit to govern? Internal government is designed to control inordinate passions: great men are most proud, avaricious and tyrannical: will you then select these to curb pride, avarice and tyranny?

The liberties of mankind were never destroyed by any other class of men.

They know well the force and power of every word; the east, west, north and south of every semi-colon; and can extract power from every dash.

[They] are able to say more and argue better on the wrong side of the question than the people are on either side of it.

But by circumstances of fortune, birth or superior bestowments of mind, or better education they have ceased to be as you; their political condition is immensely variant from yours, they are to govern, you are to be governed. They are well-born, you are base-born!”

They [the great] are indeed of you [in the way] the oak, which shades all the small trees and draws its nourishment from the roots, [is] a part of the grove.

Some of the quoted Bishop works, Connecticut Republicanism: An Oration on the Extent and Power of Political Delusion; Proofs of Conspiracy against Christianity, and the Government of the United States; and Oration in Wallingford, can be found here.


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