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The Citizen as Self-Abnegating: Othering the Drunkard in the Early Republic

Abigail Fagan

Pages 405 - 426



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Today, citizenship is generally understood as legal subjectivity in a national context, but in the decades after the American Revolution, the concept of citizenship was not strictly associated with the nation. Instead, Americans of the early republic primarily associated citizenship with a Protestant understanding of eschatological reward: good “citizens” sought not to engage politically but rather to practice self-control in order to indicate their viability for inclusion in heaven after death. This distinction between national and religious citizenship is depicted in early temperance material, in which the figure of the drunkard acts as the constitutive other to both political and religious valences of the citizen. By analyzing the temperance writings of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Mary L. Fox, as well as the Naturalization Acts, I demonstrate that the figure of the drunkard delimited citizenship in his sensual, uncontrolled, and unproductive embodiment. Through this differentiation between the drunkard and the citizen, temperance literature demonstrates that the liberty promised to new Americans was contingent on their exercise of complete physical self-control: the bodies that mattered were those that appeared to disappear under restrictive practices of a specifically Christian public decorum described as “good moral character.”

Keywords: temperance; religious citizenship; early republic; critical whiteness; early American literature

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