Atlantic history

Houses of Glass and Veils of Secrecy: Metaphor in Discourses of Political Publicity

By guest contributor Katlyn Marie Carter

We often use metaphors and analogies to talk about politics. The legislative process, you may have heard, is akin to sausage being made. Such metaphors stand to tell us a lot about how we think about politics and different aspects of government. In the case of sausage being made, one might think back a century to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the meatpacking industry in Chicago as a horrifyingly dirty, disgusting, and degrading affair. In our popular culture, sausage making carries generally negative connotations. When we talk about lawmaking like this, the implication is that it is messy and, though the outcome may sometimes be good, getting to the product is not something that bears scrutiny well. On the flip side, so-called “sunshine laws” are proposed as remedies to corruption or foul play in government. The moniker suggests transparency as a potential cure for the worst aspects of the sausage making process. The use of these particular metaphors sheds light on how we, in early twenty-first century America, think about the ills of the legislative process and how best to remedy them.

Studying the metaphors and analogies people in the past used to talk about politics can similarly enrich our understanding of their thinking and help us identify constitutive relationships between thought and practice. If we want to understand how revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century thought about the legislative process, at the moment when modern representative institutions were first being founded, we would do well to consider the metaphors and analogies they used to describe it. These expressions provide us with ways to deftly discern how thinking about such practices was evolving and how ideas were being shaped through experience with their practical application. Furthermore, paying attention to the way concepts were described metaphorically can reveal anxieties as well as ideals by anchoring ideas more firmly in the cultural context in which they were being applied and developed.

I am by no means the first to suggest paying attention to metaphors in revolutionary politics. More than two decades ago, Lynn Hunt urged analysis of narratives and images of the family applied to politics during the French Revolution—a metaphor which was also ubiquitous in struggles between Britain and the American colonies.  Mary Ashburn Miller has pointed to the application of images and analogies from the natural world in order to argue that French revolutionaries often portrayed political events and violence as beyond human control. Perhaps the most widespread analogy used in political discourse in the late eighteenth century was that of the theater, which scholars of the French Revolution in particular have examined at length. Paul Friedland and Susan Maslan have both pointed to the rampant application of the language of theater to politics and read it as anxiety over the evolving meaning and contested implementation of political representation. Describing politics in terms of theater could carry implications of debauchery, debasement, and downright danger. Examining the connotations of such metaphors and analyzing the way they were applied to politics enriches our understanding of the conceptual development and practical implementation of ideas central to the revolutionary period.

Veils of secrecy and houses of glass, along with references to working “behind the curtain,” “unmasking” traitors, and penetrating “conclaves” permeated both American and French political discourse during the Age of Revolutions. These metaphors were particularly prominent when discussing elected representatives and legislative deliberations among them. They were part of debates—in both France and the United States—over the questions of publicity, or transparency as we would call it today, and secrecy in government. In 1788, Patrick Henry critiqued constitutional provisions allowing for the discretionary use of secrecy in the future federal government, declaring on the floor of the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention: “I appeal to this Convention if it would not be better for America to take off the veil of secrecy. Look at us—hear our transactions” (Convention Debates, June 9, 1788). A year later, in response to a proposal to shut the doors of the Estates General meeting to the public, Third Estate deputy Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf de Volney proclaimed: “I cannot respect he who seeks to hide himself in the shadows; the fullness of day is made to shed light on the truth, and I am proud to think like the philosopher who said that all his actions never had anything secret and that he wished his house was made of glass.”

The question of when secrecy was appropriate versus what should be done in public view was central to the conception and implementation of representative government in the late eighteenth century. Such references are evidence of this fact; but the way in which these concepts were articulated merits further scrutiny. Interrogating the metaphors and analogies employed can help us identify the concerns underlying calls for more publicity and the way in which critiques of secrecy were linked to understandings of how representative government should (and should not) work. Likening the exposure of the legislative process to public view to removing “the veil of secrecy” was not an intellectually or culturally neutral way of describing the procedural decision to deliberate with open doors. Exploring its connotations illuminates the way in which deploying this particular metaphor was both constitutive and reflective of thinking about the purpose of publicity in representative government.

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“Les Aristocrates anéantis,” Artist unknown, 1790. Hand-colored etching on paper. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie.

This 1790 depiction of a National Guardsman revealing a formerly masked “demon of aristocracy” provides a visual representation reflective of the language used to talk about secrecy and the value of publicity in revolutionary politics. An eye appears in the right-hand corner of the image. Rays of sunshine emanate from this eye. This image resonates strongly with the iconography used in popular society publications urging vigilance over elected officials as well as potential enemies.

We know, for example, that veils—which were often referred to in both American and French political discourse—were associated on the most basic level with hiding and thus could have implied intentional obfuscation. In the Dictionnaire critique de la langue française of 1762, a voile was defined as a piece of cloth used to hide something, especially the faces of women who were widowed or residents of the so-called “Orient.” Referring to a veil could thus carry feminine connotations as well as a link to the “East,” which was often associated with despotism in the eighteenth century. A common figure of speech, the dictionary definition went on to detail, was that “a man has a veil covering his eyes when prejudices, biases, love, hate, or other passions prevent him from seeing things as they are.” Though curiously not defined in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary of the English language, when Noah Webster released his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, a veil was similarly defined as “a cover; a disguise,” and the verb form was defined as “to cover with a veil; to conceal,” or “to hide.”

Even a cursory look at contemporary dictionary definitions provides some leads when it comes to better understanding the implications of the term’s use in calling for publicity or criticizing the secrecy surrounding legislative deliberations. The metaphorical lifting of a veil—when it came to publicizing political activity or government work—suggests that publicity was conceived of and portrayed as a remedy to combat active and intentional concealment. Such hiding, which could have carried connotations of femininity or despotism, might even have implied the operation of prejudice or the prevention of adequate information among those who were covered by the veil: the representatives who were deliberating. Talking about removing the “veil of secrecy” from a representative legislature may have been a way to posit publicity as constitutive of such a regime, in contrast to a despotic one. More than that, it also suggested specific purposes for publicity in such a system. Representatives were not only to deliberate in public view for the purposes of honesty and to combat implications of conspiracy or corruption, but also to maintain communication with the broader public for the purposes of their own information.

This is just one example; further unpacking the cluster of metaphors and analogies that eighteenth-century actors applied when they were talking about government secrecy and calling for greater publicity could continue to enrich our understanding of how these concepts were being defined and deployed on both sides of the Atlantic. When Volney made reference to working in a house of glass, he gestured to an ancient sage who reportedly declared his wish to live in a house that would allow constant monitoring of his actions. Referring to a house could have conjured publicity, or transparency, in a Rousseau-ian sense, as making one’s soul legible to the outside world for the purposes of guaranteeing authenticity. Further use of the metaphor in the context of defending one’s individual actions as a representative enforces such a connotation. In 1793, deputy Bertrand Barère responded to suspicions of potential past links to the monarchy by citing the same metaphor, stating: “A Roman citizen said: ‘I wish that a house open to all gazes would be constructed for me, so that all my fellow citizens can witness my actions.’ Citizens, I would have wanted to live in such a house during my time as a member of the Constituent Assembly.” A member of a representative assembly, such references suggested, was obliged to live transparently, perhaps without separation of private from public. Furthermore, the reference to ancient Rome was rife with republican signaling. Using the metaphor of a house of glass to describe the way a representative should live, think, and deliberate on behalf of the people illuminates the way in which transparency was constitutive of an ideal representative as republican and completely open to public scrutiny in all his actions.

In discussing publicity using these metaphors and analogies, politicians, polemicists, editors, and theorists implicitly laid out a case for why it was necessary, for what they felt they were combating by imposing it. They also defined secrecy as a particular type of threat, linked to dissembling, eastern despotism, femininity, carnival (in the case of masks), or religious superstition (in the case of conclaves), among many other references. Metaphors matter when trying to explain how people in the past thought about and articulated concepts; they give deeper meaning to what might otherwise be encountered as ideas isolated in the intellectual realm of philosophical tracts or constitutional frameworks. Looking at metaphors and analogies has the potential to firmly anchor political ideas to their social and cultural contexts and, in so doing, to expose the way ideas were interdependently shaped and translated from thought into practice.

Katlyn is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, where she is currently working on a book manuscript about the relationship between state secrecy and representative government during the Age of Revolutions. You can contact her at katlync@umich.edu.

On The Pinkster King and the King of the Kongo: An Interview with Jeroen Dewulf

Interview conducted by editor Derek O’Leary

Jeroen Dewulf is the Queen Beatrix Professor in Dutch Studies and an Associate Professor of German Studies at UC Berkeley, where he also directs the Institute of European Studies. His new book, The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), departs from a study of nineteenth-century Pinkster, which has generally been considered a syncretic Dutch-Afro performance clustered in the formerly Dutch colonial territories of New York. Through a careful excavation of these rituals, he resituates an apparently local story in a much broader and deeper Atlantic context. His study casts light on the origins of Pinkster in a very different syncretism–of Iberian and African cultures on African soil–and the crucial role of mutual-aid associations in its transmission and promotion. For students of the intellectual and cultural history of the Atlantic, it provides a compelling model for circum-Atlantic history (to borrow from David Armitage’s typology), while encouraging us to reconsider our understanding of syncretism.

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Derek: If we look at the longer trajectory of popular and scholarly impressions of New Netherlands and Dutch heritage in the US, there seems to be something especially malleable about how people have understood the Dutch. This ranges among the extremes of Washington Irving’s burlesque notions of the Dutch in the early nineteenth century, to Holland Mania later that century, to obliviousness at various times of the Dutch presence in North America. Your book takes as point of departure certain nineteenth-century misperceptions of Pinkster as an originally Dutch and African syncretic phenomenon that the Dutch gradually lost interest in. Such misperception seems due, in part, to the fact that the Dutch and their descendants rarely told their own history of the life in North America. Could you talk about why this is the case?

Jeroen: It is important to highlight the topic of language as such. Even within the Dutch community in America, preserving Dutch attachment to the language is an interesting topic, and you see as a general rule that as soon as people of Dutch descent achieved positions of power, their attachment to the language tended to disappear. And those who held on to Dutch were often farmers or rural inhabitants, which has consequences on the way the story is told.

On top of language, we have the matter of religion, another important element here. The Dutch had their own religion in a way: the Dutch Reformed Church. And having your own religion isolated the Dutch community from others. And then you also clearly see a division within the Dutch community, between those who abandon this history as soon as New Netherland becomes New York, and those who hold onto it. And those who hold onto it are not necessarily those who write. So, you have relatively few documents in which you hear a Dutch voice commenting on Dutch traditions in America.

As a result of this, the way we have told the history of New Netherlands is one heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon perspective, which would look at this Dutch heritage and make it correspond to a perception that they already had of it. It is also very important to keep in mind that there was no such thing as Dutch newspapers, so the voice of the media was an English voice.

Derek: Your study explores a sort of “double erasure” in this context, of both Dutch voices and members of the Afro-Dutch community.

Jeroen: Who is aware that in the mid-eighteenth century that about 10-15% of blacks in New York still spoke Dutch? The Dutch and African linguistic heritage of the region are similarly forgotten. Little attention has been given to the fact that African-American history is a multilingual history, and not just in the sense of bringing different languages from Africa.

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Middle panel of 1733 painting by John Heaton of Van Bergen farm near Albany, NY: One of the few images depicting African American slaves on a Dutch-owned farm at a time when about 10-15% of the slaves living in the states of New York and New Jersey spoke Dutch.

Derek: Ironically, then, the erasure of Dutch voices from the nineteenth-century record seems to contribute to the erasure of the African and Portuguese origins of Pinkster. Your book takes a phenomenon—Pinkster– that has also, like this Dutch-American history, been interpreted in a very malleable way, and pulls it from a local context into a much more complex Atlantic context. In the process, the long-imagined Dutch influence on this Afro-American phenomenon recedes, and it becomes much less a story of the Dutch legacy in America. Much of the past few decades of historiography on the Dutch colonies in the Western Hemisphere have sought to reinsert them into both US and Atlantic history, so in an interesting way your book departs from this—indeed, it distances Dutch influence from a circum-Atlantic phenomenon of Pinkster, and directs us to see its roots elsewhere.

Jeroen: The book didn’t take me in the direction I was planning to go, and in a certain sense the book wrote itself. Originally, I thought this would be about performance culture, but it ended up being much more about mutual aid and solidarity and community-building. I also expected it to be a much more Dutch book, which it did not turn out to be. That was a surprise to me in the sense that what became clear is that we are speaking about a time period when Dutch Atlantic history was starting, and as a newcomer you naturally don’t build things out of nowhere: You build on what is already there. Especially when it comes to the process of slavery, we see how strong the continuation of Iberian model was among those who took over from the Spanish and Portuguese in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I felt that this element has been underestimated by people who write about Atlantic History.

pinkster in 1800We still have this assumption that scholars choose “their” nation, and then tend to give too much importance to the colonizer of a specific area: If you focus on New Netherland you focus on the Dutch, if you write about New England you focus on the English, etc. But especially when you focus on a field such as slavery, its Atlantic complexity forces you to use a perspective that tries to capture this vast area, and you realize that holding on to this one-nation perspective is just not providing you with the answers to the challenging questions that manuscripts raise. Pinkster is a good example of this. It has traditionally been reduced to a “syncretic Dutch-African” tradition, which is true in the sense that there certainly are Dutch and African elements to be found in the tradition, but to say that something is syncretic doesn’t mean much. In fact, Pinkster is so much more complex than just a “mixture of Dutch and African” elements.

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Jan Mosatert, Portrait of an African man, circa 1525-1530: An early connection between the traditional Pinkster (Pentecost) celebration in Dutch culture and Africa is this painting, depicting a unidentified black man from the sixteenth-century who wears in his hat a badge that indicates a visit to the Black Madonna of Halle, who is honored every Pentecost with a procession

Concerning Pinkster, I think we see this performance in New York, see Africans participating, and immediately jump to the explanation that it is a Dutch-African syncretic process. When it comes to African-American traditions, it is much too easy to remain superficial and assert the usual things (e.g. they are honoring their ancestors) while avoiding more challenging questions, such as how ancestor worship would vary by region, for instance. Also, when we think about syncretism, we make a mistake in limiting syncretism to the Americas and the Caribbean, and do not apply the notion to Africa.

Syncretism in a way can correct the traditional approach, whereby you would assume clear boundaries between cultures, as syncretism forces you to look at two cultures producing something new. But even that is too simple, because those two cultures are themselves full of syncretisms.

Derek: In the comparative study of empire in the Atlantic, though, I think that we are still inclined to see a certain Dutch exceptionalism–that it was basically different than the other European colonial projects there. Indeed, as you note, there may have been a particularly Dutch colonial capacity to adopt the techniques and technologies—and, as we see here, integrate the customs—of other colonial projects in the Atlantic. But your study is also intriguing because it suggests we can look around the Atlantic, within other colonial projects, and find more complicated stories of syncretism as well. Was there something about the Dutch Atlantic project that made it more open to such transmission of culture and ideas?

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King Charles Racing on Ice.
 “Artist’s conception of Charles, the Pinkster king, winning a nightly horse racing competition for his master Volkert Petrus Douw against General Philip Schuyler. In Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 62 (March 1881)” (Dewulf, 64).

Jeroen: There were definitely certain elements that the Dutch brought to the Atlantic that singled them out, including religion. When you see how the Dutch initiate slavery in their colonies, initially the way slavery is handled is similar to how it was handled by the Portuguese and Spanish, but soon you see that because of their different notions of religion, they start to change these practices. The example I give is baptism and the consequences of welcoming someone to your church, as the Dutch notion of Christianity and freedom was different than the Iberian notion, which led the Dutch to change their slave policy. In fact, the Dutch Reformed Church initially baptized slave children, similar to how the Iberian Catholic Church did, but stopped doing so after slave owners began to fear that once these children were admitted to the Church, they would no longer be able to sell      them as slaves.  Had this earlier process continued, I’m convinced that Pinkster would have disappeared, because the mutual-aid traditions out of which the African Pinkster celebrations developed would have been incompatible with Calvinist morality and mutual aid would have been provided within the context of the Church anyway. But it survived because at one point the church came under pressure from slave owners who opposed baptism, which gave those communities no other choice but to organize mutual aid on their own, for which they naturally used a brotherhood structure they were familiar with. Which also then explains the demise of the tradition, when the first black Christian churches come into existence in the nineteenth century and a Protestant morality becomes dominant within the African-American community. So, there was some form of Dutch exceptionalism in the Americas, but it developed only gradually, they had to learn to be an Atlantic power.

When people use the term “exceptionalism” and link it to the Dutch, there is a tendency to link it to pragmatism and tolerance. But what I’ve tried to highlight is that we would make a mistake if we assumed that the existence of Pinkster was solely there because the Dutch were so tolerant to allow it to happen. There clearly was within a slave community a strategy used to make the Dutch realize that it was in their own interest, so it appears as pragmatism, but it is not something that would have happened without pressure from the slave community.

 

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Fête de Ste. Rosalie, Patrone des négres by Johann Moritz Rugendas: Pinkster is far from being the only example where members of the slave community elected and celebrated their ‘king’ with a procession; this illustration from Rugendas shows a slave king procession in 19th-century Brazil

 

King processions by brotherhoods still today exist in rural parts of Latin-America. This example comes from Pernambuco, Brazil.

You do find such examples of pragmatism, but I would be careful of explaining this as a natural Dutch instinct, as has been done in books about Dutch exceptionalism. But, as a general observation, you can state that compared to the Portuguese and Spanish, the Dutch were more focused on profit and reluctant to share their culture, language, religion and identity with Others. In this respect it was not a problem for the Dutch to have a large community around them who did not share their language and church, which was unthinkable for the Portuguese and Spanish. Indonesia is the clearest case of this, where the Dutch used a local language—Malay—as the lingua franca of their colony.

Derek: A common feature of many works of Atlantic History is that the Atlantic world—however we define it—forms a distinctive space in which innumerable hybrid identities are possible, rather than strictly national ones. Syncretism is crucial to this, and your book is a careful excavation of the syncretic process behind Pinkster. Though in our teaching and writing it can be easy to deploy this term rather casually. Has this study led to any general guidance or framework you would propose to other scholars seeking to understand syncretism in the Atlantic beyond the generalizations we tend to use about it?

Jeroen: Saying that something is syncretic is in a way saying nothing. Because, then what is it? You see this reflected in the way how we study black identity in the diaspora. In the old days, the nineteenth century, African elements were simply neglected. In the forties, you see a shift in which scholars become more interested in signs of African cultural “survivals,” which ultimately leads to a boom in the search for “Africanisms”—traces of African identity in the Americas. The important question I raise in this book is:  How African are such Africanisms? There has been a clear tendency to equalize Africanisms with indigenous African elements. What the book made me realize is that indigenous African element certainly were there, but I highlight the fact that it would be wrong not to realize that long before the first slaves arrived in North America, a syncretic process had already started on African soil. So, when you look at performance traditions, you see that in certain parts of Africa – such as the Kingdom of Kongo –  certain performances had already been influenced by European music, dance, musical instruments, clothing, etc. before coming to the Americas and the Caribbean.

To come back to Pinkster: Dutch elements were certainly in Pinkster performances, but ultimately they were less important than earlier Afro-Iberian ones. Obviously, we are forced to an extent to speculate on matters of African heritage. Mine is not the final word on Pinkster, but a new perspective that helps us rethink the history of this phenomenon. It is also another approach to the study of syncretic processes that is truly Atlantic in the sense that you avoid the mistake of looking at the powers – including African powers – of the Atlantic as pure entities with clear boundaries between them.

My suggestion when using the term syncretism, is not to see it as an answer to your question, but as a stepping stone to begin answering the question of what this syncretism consists of and how it came into being. After all, every cultural manifestation in syncretic in nature, so it would be wrong to limit the notion to the Americas and the Caribbean. I’m not the first one to do this; there are many other studies that raise such questions, but somehow in the field of performance studies there seems to be a reluctance to accept that some of the performance traditions enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were not indigenous in nature but rather characterized by inter-African and Afro-European syncretism. In the field of linguistics, for instance, there are plenty of studies that show us the important influence of Portuguese on the languages that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Americas. So, if language was influenced, why not dance, parades or certain musical instruments?  My only explanation for this is that many of those working in the field of performance studies are deeply influenced by the idea of black resistance against oppression that grew out of  the Civil Rights movement ideology, and are perhaps therefore reluctant to recognize that already in African, Africans voluntarily adopted certain elements of European culture and religion in their own cultural and religious traditions.

Derek: Importantly, you depict that the Afro-Catholic syncretism behind Pinkster took place at a moment when Africans and Europeans were on more equal terms in Africa, as compared to in the Americas.

Jeroen: Which makes me wonder if it makes sense to use the same term both in the context of colonial oppression and in an era when Africans were still firmly in control of the African continent. We call that syncretism in general. I do feel there is a difference. One thing is integrating elements of a foreign culture into your own when you are in a situation of power; one very different thing is you adopting foreign elements when you are a slave. Nevertheless we use the term syncretism for both.

Derek: You’ve mentioned brotherhoods and other voluntary organizations as a motive force in propelling this performance around the Atlantic and across centuries.

Jeroen: What this book taught me is that when you want to learn about matters of identity and culture, you need to ask how the community organized mutual aid. We as twenty-first-century people have perhaps forgotten this because we have all these services provided. This is a key question: how did a community organize mutual aid? This crucial question leads us to the fields of performance, but also language and religion. I often see in studies of religion a limitation to questions of spiritualism, and much less a focus on questions of material support and solidarity within the religious community. In fact, one of my most surprising conclusions in this book is that, originally, there was little difference between the way slaves in North America organized themselves from the way slaves in Latin-America did. Crucial differences only then start to develop when slaves in North America embrace Protestantism and begin to organize mutual aid as part of a community with (Afro-)Protestant norms and values.

Derek: How has this project influenced your research interests?

Jeroen: This led me to look at black performance traditions elsewhere in America, and naturally I became interested in the case of New Orleans. And to my surprise, I learned that all major contemporary performance traditions related to the black community in New Orleans can be traced back to mutual aid societies. I wrote an article about this for the Louisiana Historical Association (“From Moors to Indians: The Mardi Gras Indians and the Three Transformations of St. James”), which they selected as the best article of the year 2016. In the article I ask how we can link the dances in Congo Square in New Orleans to carnival traditions such as the Mardi Gras Indians, and I show that the missing link is the existence of black mutual aid societies in New Orleans. Societies that, unlike in the case of Pinkster where they disappeared in the context of the “Second Great Awakening”, are still there in New Orleans. I decided to expand it, which is now leading to a new book to be entitled From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square, and to be published in the coming months by the University of Louisiana Press.