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A Bostonian's Dystopian Vision of the Fate of American Republicanism

A Bostonian's Dystopian Vision of the Fate of American Republicanism
AI visualization of "his Virginian majesty," a French-backed monarch, meeting with his advisors in 1901 as envisioned in an 1808 epistolary novella by William Jenks that predicted civil war and two kingdoms emerging out of disunion.

In 1808, a Boston Congregationalist minister named William Jenks wrote a pamphlet of speculative fiction, purportedly written in 1872 and published in 1901 by the fictitious author's son. The dystopian epistolary novella, which is available for free on Google Books, predicted Southern secession and civil war, but its vision was arguably even more dystopian than what actually occurred some 53 years later.

Jenks's vision of sectionalism – or at least that of his narrator – was grounded in the partisan politics of the early republic, in which Federalists, generally concentrated in the Northeast, tended to blame the French for the country's problems and Republicans, led by Francophile Thomas Jefferson, tended to blame the English. Jenks's narrator sees the centuries-old hostility between the two great powers overwhelming American republicanism.

I know not, Julius [the narrator's son], to what precise period of history we are to assign the origin of that spirit of jealousy, which has so long raged between the powerful countries of Britain and France. So antient it is, that the bearing of fleurs de lis on the coat armour of many old families of Wales, that land of genealogies, takes its date from services rendered in the wars between those rival powers. Perhaps the conquest of England by William, which excited the envy of the reigning family in the land he left, might be assumed as the æra since which, like Carthage and Rome, their opposing shores but too strictly corresponded to their opposite interests and views. Wherever British arms and British generosity, and may I not say, British improvidence have been known, there full soon have followed French intrigue, French selfishness, and French alertness, with a consummate military skill.
Not more distinct are the faculties of the understanding and the will in man, than are the characters of Britons and Frenchmen; and, I had almost said, not more inseparable notwithstanding. But could you unite them fully, what perfection would ensue! Were the cool deliberations of the head accompanied too by the warm feelings of the heart, that is, did inclination follow the decisions of reason, how blamelessly should we conduct in life! Could you form men, in whom the distinctive features of the French and English characters should be happily blended, and superinduce the principles of Christianity to the composition, interweaving them with every vital fibre – ah then ! But I prate. ...
Perhaps I have written with too much violence of resentment or prejudice. But, my son, the memory of those unhappy times exasperates even an old man, whose passions I had thought long since buried in compunctious repentance, and no more to be roused. feel a renewed interest in scenes almost forgotten ; and did I not with humble resignation and the confidence of piety regard that allwise government, which elicits praise for the wrath of man, and makes it subserve the purposes of wisdom, my feelings could not but burst forth in the most vehement invectives. But all is past. Time has laid his wand on the great transactions of my time, and they are buried in sleep. My memory however is exercised, and awake. Would to heaven it had then been the case with my deluded, amused, infatuated country!
You may say I was a British partisan. No, Julius, I was not. My feelings were ever American; and while the government of the United States was independent, my voice, my hand, and heart were ever devoted to it. But I have seen times which forced me to hail a foreign Prince, as the saviour and deliverer of my country. I have seen times which, though they could not cause me to forget the wise plan of government that prevailed in my youth, yet occasioned my relinquishing with pleasure an allegiance to its abuses. ...

Jenks then betrays his pessimissm about the sustainability of democratic republicanism as a viable form of government:

The population of the United States was originally derived from a variety of sources; and the intermixtures of different national characters in those who descended from the first emigrants, may be easily conceived to have diversified the individual character to a degree almost unknown in other countries. Add to this the various and uncertain methods of education among those who enjoyed any of its greater advantages, and the almost endless variety of religious sects into which professors of a belief in Christianity were divided.
Nor should we omit distinctions of politicks. I will only advert, however, to those who openly and with apparent sincerity advocated the prevailing system of general government. Some of these were zealous republicans, because they had studied with diligence the antient writers of Greece, and had imbibed from the history of her Republicks and from that of Rome, while governed by her Consuls, a hatred to the very idea and name of royalty. Some were republicans, because either they or their immediate ancestors had been cast, by the lot of contingencies, into a situation where their opponents were attached to a kingly government. Some were fond of the name because it gave them a passport to the favour of the people, with whom resided the physical and civil power, and from whose favour alone they could expect office, wealth and fame. Others again professed themselves republicans, and these indeed were the majority of the leading men in my time, because their pride and vanity, which in other circumstances would hardly have allowed them to acknowledge an equal, absolutely forbad their submitting to a superiour. All these were successively subdivided into Federalists and AntiFederalists, Aristocrats and Jacobins, Federal republicans and Democratick republicans, and very few were avowedly Royalists. All had too much of the hauteur of republicanism to brook the idea of hereditary subordination.
Indeed I have very much questioned whether most of the Republicks which have been constituted in the world, did not take their origin from the ambition, jealousy, envy and pride of leading men. Most of the republicans, whom I have known in any honourable station, or possessed of any distinguishing talents, have been such because circumstances precluded them from being kings, dukes or lords; and they have been advocates for a system which kept all on a level, because they would not permit others to rise to honours above themselves.

Historian William C. Davis reflected on Jenks's speculative fiction in the preface to his book Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America:

Jenks realized that at the core of the dominant Southern society and leadership there lay an instinct not for true democracy but for a democratic form of oligarchy, for rule by the few from an aristocracy of wealth and birth, chosen by their own class in a process that only paid lip service to republicanism. He might even have grasped that however much Southern leaders would and did deplore the idea of a monarchy itself, they craved and would fight to preserve the sort of hereditary aristocracy that only an absolute monarch could keep in place, and that only slavery or a serf labor class could sustain.

However, Jenks's views closely resembled those of John Adams, who as noted in the video had concluded by the early 1790s that "hereditary succession was attended with fewer evils than frequent elections." As it turned out, by 1861 when the actual Civil War was about to break out, there were already some South Carolina fire-eaters professing that they'd rather Britain took its former colony back than submit to Yankee rule, as we saw in this episode.

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