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Lost in a Boudoir of Mirrors

The Pursuit of Recognition in the Biographical War of the Early Republic

Hannah Spahn

Pages 533 - 552


“All revolutions,” Alexis de Tocqueville claims in ‘Democracy in America’, “enlarge the ambition of men.” This article takes a look at the complex relationship between two major American discourses of recognition in the revolutionary and early republican periods, one focusing on ambition as a force potentially undermining the foundations of the commonwealth, the other on the pursuit of esteem as an anthropological universal that contributed to the progress of civilization. In a language partly reminiscent of David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s social mirrors, John Adams’s architectural metaphor of a mirrored ‘boudoir’ captured the ambivalence of recognition in the late American Enlightenment, an ambivalence negotiated primarily in the period’s highly aestheticized approaches to history as a literary genre. The revolutionary generation eventually competed for a sublimated recognition on the battlegrounds of the ‘biographical war’ of the early nineteenth century, in a genre including commissioned biographies, unsent letters, and clandestine memoirs. Trying to achieve the impossible aim of representing their hopes for recognition as self-sacrificing republicans in writing, the aging revolutionaries reached a moral and aesthetic impasse, thus ending up lost, or so this article claims, in their own historical boudoir of mirrors.


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