Monday, July 4, 2011

Rev Dr Richard Price and the American Revolution

By DevinCook [Public domain],
 via Wikimedia Commons
Happy United States Day! Mary Wollstonecraft never made it to the unshackled colonies, but for some time she yearned for the frontier, her heart full of Gilbert Imlay, her faithless lover, and her head full of Richard Price, "whose talents and modest virtues place him high in the scale of moral excellence". We looked before at A Vindication of the Rights of MEN, her swift response to Edmund Burke's attack on Price, and the respect in which she held the minister of the Dissenting community where she had settled. Yesterday, at the beginning of this week with a focus on the USA, we looked at Lyndall Gordon's explanation of why Mary was so drawn to that country. In brief: because the birth of this nation in the New World represented a fresh beginning, not merely personal, but political in all possible senses. In fact, I might say "one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind". For womankind, it remained to be seen, but the optimists saw reason for hope. 

"Remember the ladies," Abigail Adams had written to her husband John in 1776, when he was assisting in the drafting of the constitution. (Then he had been a congressman; they moved to London when he was appointed ambassador; by the time Mary was in Paris, Adams was vice-president, and from 1797, president.) The Adamses, and many others associated with the United States, went to hear Price preach. People flocked to the sermons of "this respectable old man, in his pulpit, with hands clasped, and eyes devoutly fixed, praying with all the simple energy of unaffected piety; or, when more erect, inculcating the dignity of virtue, and enforcing the doctrines his life adorns" (as MW says as she begins her rebuttal to Burke). In his home and church she might have bumped into:
Founding Fathers of the United States such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine; other American politicians such as John Adams, who later became the second president of the United States, and his wife Abigail; British politicians such as Lord Lyttleton, the Earl of Shelburne, Earl Stanhope (known as "Citizen Stanhope"), and even the Prime Minister William Pitt ; philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith; agitators such as prison reformer John Howard, gadfly John Horne Tooke, and husband and wife John and Ann Jebb, who between them campaigned on expansion of the franchise, opposition to the war with America, support for the French Revolution, abolitionism, and an end to legal discrimination against Roman Catholics; writers such as poet and banker Samuel Rogers; and clergyman-mathematician Thomas Bayes, of Bayes' theorem.
(This is from the biography of Richard Price on Wikipedia, minus the profusion of distracting links; I have no embarrassment in sharing my passion for education and freedom.) We know that he influenced her thoughts on religion, and we can debate whether or not she was a Unitarian, but what is equally intriguing is her political development while at Newington Green. She was surrounded by stimulating thinkers who took women and education seriously; they lent her books; they included her in their social circles and conversations. Rev Price was particularly kind to her, but so was Mrs Burgh, and so were others. The whole atmosphere of the village was one of high-minded Dissent. During the decade before she arrived there:
Price turned his attention to the question of the American colonies. He had from the first been strongly opposed to the war, and in 1776 he published a pamphlet entitled Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America. Sixty thousand copies of this work were sold within a few days; a cheap edition was soon issued which sold twice as many copies; the pamphlet was extolled by one set of politicians and abused by is said that his pamphlet had no inconsiderable share in determining the Americans to declare their independence.
A second pamphlet on the war with America, the debts of Great Britain, and kindred topics followed in the spring of 1777. His name thus became identified with the cause of American independence. He was the intimate friend of Franklin; he corresponded with Turgot; and in the winter of 1778 he was invited by Congress to go to America and assist in the financial administration of the states. This offer he refused from unwillingness to quit his own country and his family connections. In 1781 he, solely with George Washington, received the degree of Doctor of Laws from Yale College.
(Source, ditto; stripped, ditto.) So Mary Wollstonecraft was primed with these arguments when she met Gilbert Imlay. Lyndall Gordon wants to give him a more rounded portrait, to give us a better sense of why Mary fell so hard. He was
the writer of a respected book on the frontier and upholder of values Wollstonecraft shared: an abhorrence of slavery and militarism; a regard for native Americans; and sympathy for women trapped in a marriage contract that denied them basic human rights.
By the time Mary Wollstonecraft came to womanhood, the American Revolution was in full swing. In her 20s, political attention swung also to the fires in Ireland (which she had helped to stoke, in the tiniest way, via her pupil Margaret King); in her 30s, the 1790s, the eyes of those longing for liberty were on Haiti and France.  The righteousness of the cause of the American colonists was taken for granted in the circles in which Mary moved.  Had Imlay proved more steadfast, in all likelihood the couple would have moved to the United States, where she would have carved out a name and a future for herself on unploughed soil. But he was who he was, and so she jumped off the bridge and searched for treasure in Scandinavia and became the grandmother of Frankenstein, none of which would have happened otherwise. What if, what if. We are where we are.

So, poised somewhat halfway between our celebration of Canada Day and next week's French commemorations, once again: Happy Fourth of July!

Image: Betsy Ross 1777, By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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