U.S. Intellectual History Blog

According to Washington Irving, we are all Lunatics

As an historian of gender and race with strong cultural tendencies I am all too eager to subscribe to what scholars have called the ‘constructionist’ school. Often invoked in debates over gender, constructionists believe that societies construct categories such as woman, man, homosexual, and so forth out of whole cloth. In some ways anyone partial to historicism, which pretty much covers our discipline, has at least a few constructionist bones in their body. Indeed, the notion that the past is very different from the present and requires a specialist to understand it is very edifying for historians. In this vein, we often like to tout the conceptualization of the notion of anachronism during the Renaissance as the early beginnings of an historicist consciousness that became the corner stone of our field.

However, when I come across evidence that challenges such constructionists assumptions, I often find that ‘essentialists’ have much to offer as well. This is particularly the case when considering moral issues. For while a constructionist approach tends to give historical actors a pass of sorts, essentialism does not. In early American history this predicament often boils down to the query: to what degree should we hold the founding fathers accountable for slavery and genocide? While historians with strong historicist and constructionist tendencies might consider giving them some sort of a pass, for we must consider their actions in the context of their times, an essentialist approach suggests that humans have always known to distinguish between categories in similar ways, be they right from wrong or man from woman.

In any event, this was a long-wined way of saying that I would like to share one of the most fascinating passages I ever came across in early American history which has challenged some of my assumptions regarding historicism. I’m not certain, but I think it might also be the first science fiction scenario written by a person born and raised in America. It is a passage from Washington Irving’s A History of New York written in 1809, which wrestles with the moral value of the claims Euro-Americans made regarding the American continent. As I think this passage makes quite clear, contemporaries of Washington Irving could muster the conceptual tools with which to fully recognize the genocide settlers in America have unleashed upon the Natives of the continent—even when it masqueraded as a ‘civilizing mission.’ In the fashion of the times it is a bit wordy, but well worth the read:

“Let us suppose, then, that the inhabitants of the moon, by astonishing advancement in science, and by profound insight into that lunar philosophy, the mere flickerings of which have of late years dazzled the feeble optics, and addled the shallow brains of the good people of our globe–let us suppose, I say, that the inhabitants of the moon, by these means, had arrived at such a command of their energies, such an enviable state of perfectibility, as to control the elements, and navigate the boundless regions of space. Let us suppose a roving crew of these soaring philosophers, in the course of an aerial voyage of discovery among the stars, should chance to alight upon this outlandish planet…

It has long been a very serious and anxious question with me, and many a time and oft, in the course of my overwhelming cares and contrivances for the welfare and protection of this my native planet, have I lain awake whole nights debating in my mind, whether it were most probable we should first discover and civilize the moon, or the moon discover and civilize our globe. Neither would the prodigy of sailing in the air and cruising among the stars be a whit more astonishing and incomprehensible to us than was the European mystery of navigating floating castles, through the world of waters, to the simple natives. We have already discovered the art of coasting along the aerial shores of our planet, by means of balloons, as the savages had of venturing along their sea-coasts in canoes; and the disparity between the former, and the aerial vehicles of the philosophers from the moon, might not be greater than that between the bark canoes of the savages, and the mighty ships of their discoverers….

To return then to my supposition­, let us suppose that the aerial visitants I have mentioned, possessed of vastly superior knowledge to ourselves; that is to say, possessed of superior knowledge in the art of extermination riding on hyppogriffs­-defended with impenetrable armor–armed with concentrated sunbeams, and provided with vast engines, to hurl enormous moon-stones: in short, let us suppose them, if our vanity will permit the supposition, as superior to us in knowledge, and consequently in power, as the Europeans were to the Indians, when they first discovered them. All this is very possible; it is only our self-sufficiency that makes us think otherwise; and I warrant the poor savages, before they had any knowledge of the white men, armed in all the terrors of glittering steel and tremendous gunpowder, were as perfectly convinced that they themselves were the wisest, the most virtuous, powerful, and perfect of created beings as are, at this present moment, the lordly inhabitants of old England, the volatile populace of France, or even the self-satisfied citizens of this most enlightened republic.

Let us suppose, moreover, that the aerial voyagers, finding this planet to be nothing but a howling wilderness, inhabited by us poor savages and wild beasts, shall take formal possession of it, in the name of his most gracious and philosophic excellency, the man in the moon. Finding, however, that their numbers are incompetent to hold it in complete subjection, on account of the ferocious barbarity of its inhabitants, they shall take our worthy President, the King of England, the Emperor of Hayti, the mighty Bonaparte, and the Great King of Bantam, and returning to their native planet, shall carry them to court, as were the Indian chiefs led about as spectacles in the courts of Europe.

Then, making such obeisance as the etiquette of the court requires, they shall address the puissant man in the moon, in, as near as I can conjecture, the following terms:

“Most serene and mighty Potentate, whose dominions extend as far as eye can reach, who rideth on the Great Bear, useth the sun as a looking glass, and maintaineth unrivaled control over tides, madmen, and sea-crabs We thy liege subjects have just returned from a voyage of discovery, in the course of which we have landed and taken possession of that obscure little dirty planet, which thou beholdest rolling at a distance. The five uncouth monsters, which we have brought into this august presence, were once very important chiefs among their fellow savages, who are a race of beings totally destitute of the common attributes of humanity; and differing in every thing from the inhabitants of the moon, inasmuch as they carry their heads upon their shoulders, instead of under their arms ­have two eyes instead of one­ are utterly destitute of tails, and of a variety of unseemly complexions, particularly of horrible whiteness­ instead of pea-green.

We have moreover found these miserable savages sunk into a state of the utmost ignorance and depravity, every man shamelessly living with his own wife, and rearing his own children, instead of indulging in that community of wives enjoined by the law of nature, as expounded by the philosophers of the moon. In a word, they have scarcely a gleam of true philosophy among them, but are, in fact, utter heretics, ignoramuses, and barbarians. Taking compassion, therefore, on the sad condition of these sublunary wretches, we have endeavored, while we remained on their planet, to introduce among them the light of reason ­and the comforts of the moon. We have treated them to mouthfuls of moonshine, and draughts of nitrous oxide which they swallowed with incredible voracity, particularly the females; and we have likewise endeavored to instill into them the precepts of lunar philosophy. We have insisted upon their renouncing the contemptible shackles of religion and common sense, and adoring the profound, omnipotent, and all perfect energy, and the ecstatic, immutable, immovable perfection. But such was the unparalleled obstinacy of these wretched savages, that they persisted in cleaving to their wives, and adhering to their religion, and absolutely set at naught the sublime doctrines of the moon nay, among other abominable heresies, they even went so far as blasphemously I do declare, that this ineffable planet was made of nothing more nor less than green cheese!”

At these words, the great man in the moon (being a very profound philosopher) shall fall into a terrible passion, and possessing equal authority over things that do not belong to him, as did his holiness the Pope, shall forthwith issue a formidable bull, specifying, “That, whereas a certain crew of Lunatics have lately discovered, and taken possession of a newly discovered planet called the earth-and that whereas it is inhabited by none but a race of two-legged animals that carry their heads on their shoulders instead of under their arms; cannot talk the lunatic language; have two eyes instead of one; are destitute of tails, and of a horrible whiteness, instead of pea-green-therefore, and for a variety of other excellent reasons, they are considered incapable of possessing any property in the planet they infest, and the right and title to it are confirmed to its original discoverers. ­And furthermore, the colonists who are now about to depart to the aforesaid planet are authorized and commanded to use every means to convert these infidel savages from the darkness of Christianity, and make them thorough and absolute lunatics.”

In consequence of this benevolent bull, our philosophic benefactors go to work with hearty zeal. They seize upon our fertile territories, scourge us from our rightful possessions, relieve us from our wives, and when we are unreasonable enough to complain, they will turn upon us and say, Miserable barbarians! ungrateful wretches! have we not come thousands of miles to improve your worthless planet; have we not fed you with moonshine; have we not intoxicated you with nitrous oxides; does not our moon give you light every night, and have you the baseness to murmur, when we claim a pitiful return for all these benefits? But finding that we not only persist in absolute contempt of their reasoning and disbelief in their philosophy, but even go so far as daringly to defend our property, their patience shall be exhausted, and they shall resort to their superior powers of argument; hunt us with hyppogriffs, transfix us with concentrated sunbeams, demolish our cities with moonstones; until having, by main force, converted us to the true faith, they shall graciously permit us to exist in the torrid deserts of Arabia, or the frozen regions of Lapland, there to enjoy the blessings of civilization and the charms of lunar philosophy, in much the same manner as the reformed and enlightened savages of this country are kindly suffered to inhabit the inhospitable forests of the north, or the impenetrable wildernesses of South America.” (1)

All this is not to say that we should do away with historicism, but passages such as these should perhaps challenge some of our convictions. As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle ground between constructionism and essentialism and we can take much from both.

[1] Washington Irving, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (New York: Inskeep & Bradford, 1809), 57-64.