Consent and Coercion

Spring 2016-2017

17818 / 37818

Tristan Schweiger

In American popular culture, the eighteenth century is remembered today (to the extent that it is remembered at all) as a heady time of revolutions and revolutionaries, when towering figures of the Enlightenment established modern democracy.  This, in many ways, reflects the narrative eighteenth-century writers were developing about their own age.  For British Whigs, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had been a watershed moment at which the arbitrary rule of kings had been replaced for all time by constitutionalism; the social contract and the civil polity had triumphed over divine-right ideology, ushering in a new, beneficent era of progress.  And, in the 1790s, the French Revolution fired the political imaginations of British radicals who saw the potential for a world made anew – a world of universal suffrage and gender equality, where slavery was abolished.  Clearly, attaining these goals was a long way off.  The debates over the structures, meanings, and nature of consent had tendrils in multiple areas of society – the law, of course, but also in understandings of sexuality, constructions of gender, economics, and colonization.  Questions of rights, agency, and authority (what those categories meant, who could possess them, and who guaranteed them) were by no means settled, and, indeed, throughout the century, calls to curtail the categories of people who should have access to the sphere of political influence were often as boisterous as those to expand such access.  This course will explore how a range of authors in eighteenth-century Britain figured questions of consent, rights, and authority and how the ideological debates these authors mediated continue to inform contemporary politics, cultures, and identities.  We will read works by literary figures such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Mary Hays, Olaudah Equiano, and Mary Shelley.  We will consider the writings of some of the major political philosophers of the day, as well, including John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Mary Astell, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft.  We will additionally discuss readings in modern criticism and theory to help us better situate our primary texts in the discourses of modernity and better understand their lasting resonances. (B, F, H)