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The advent of democracy in America brought with it a slue of worries and concerns held by the newly independent colonists. Some felt like the lost, orphaned children of Great Britain while others pondered the uncertain future of the new nation. One of the gravest concerns was the novel threat democracy brought to civic order. Charles Brockden Brown, who authored Wieland, and Susanna Rowson, who penned Charlotte Temple, were both gravely distressed by rhetoric and persuasion, and how they might ultimately lead to deception. Brown employed a Gothic approach to explore how irrational forces could lead to fraud, while Rawson used sentimentality to explore how human feeling could create this same problem. They both used a female protagonist to embellish this weakness, as women were perceived to be the societal “weak link” of the new republic.
The 1790s was an age of passion. As more and more Americans became aware of their own inability to live up to the high expectations of the 1770s and 1780s, there evolved a distinct desire to rebuild and buttress the fragile social order. In Brown’s,Wieland, the fragility of the family — as well as its vulnerability to deception — was brought to life by the story of an agrarian family whose ultimate destruction is caused by the deception of a biloquist named Carwin. The rural family structure is disturbed by Carwin, who is a mysterious outsider from the city. The central thread of the book’s plot mirrors the vulnerability of democracy to deceptive rhetoric. The new republic was innately open and welcomed the fluidity of society and mixing of peoples caused by commerce and immigration. Although the new form of government was perceivably virtuous and noble, it allowed room for the deceptions of cosmopolitanism.
Some Americans at the time might have viewed cities with a cautious eye and worried if such metropolises could threaten the ideal of a yeomen republic. The agrarian lifestyle was seen to demonstrate the purest of virtue, while the urban environment was believed to foster the most sinful of vices. Brockden Brown employed Carwin, a city dweller, to represent the threat metropolitan areas had on the rural.
The book’s gothic nature also warns of irrational forces as a means of deception and misguidance. Wieland and Clara’s father instilled in them an enthusiastic religious background — one which later drove Wieland to kill own his wife and children. Brown used this element of the novel to show the danger of such religious devotions as well as the danger in relying solely on faith without consulting human reason.
Rowson’s Charlotte Temple is another piece of literature from the new public that expresses the concern some Americans had regarding the new democratic government. In the novel, a young girl falls victim to the rhetoric and charm of a man named Montraville. She abruptly departs from her family in England and follows the British army officer to New York, where he cruelly abandons her. The tragic tale ends with Charlotte’s death at the age of nineteen.
The novel sets out with a clear and intended purpose — to instill and teach the concept of virtue to young women and admonish them against the guises of clever men who might deceive them out of such values. Rowson made Charlotte the protagonist because her youth and innocence mirror that of the new nation. America was a land of naiveté and inexperience, and many 18th century Americans feared the government’s immaturity could lead to a deception and downfall similar to that of the novel’s protagonist.
The book also explores the notion of human emotion, and furthermore, how it operated within the culture of the new republic. On one hand, sentimentality served as an argumentative tactic. Rowson thought if she could get her readers to feel a certain way, she could inspire concordant actions. A similar rhetorical devise would later be used in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s groundbreaking novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” However, the use of emotion to conjure certain behavior was also a weak spot in the new republic. Women were seen as emotional beings who could be easily swayed by passion and sentiments, whereas men were thought to rely more on reason and rationale.
Though Wieland and Charlotte Temple differ in tone, plot, rhetorical method and intended audience, they share a common message. The fact that concerns about the vulnerability of the new republic manifested themselves in works of literature, as well as other cultural outlets, proves the centrality and gravity such issue had in 18th century America — and these concerns live on. The United States has long grappled with immigration and the entrance of strangers because its citizens are fearful of the threat of the “other.” The Anglo-Saxon movement of the 19th century, tightened immigration laws during the 20th century and a general concern over the loss of “American” identity with the influx of thousands of immigrants each year clearly indicate the concern confronted by the two novels is not unique to the era of the new republic. Instead, vestigial worries about deception remains a constant staple in American society to this day.
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