The Consent of the Governed

Charlotte Temple should have known better. She should have listened to her teachers and her parents. She should not have run away with Lieutenant Montraville. She should neither have listened to nor believed his promises of marriage. She definitely should not have fucked him on the boat to America. And if she had done all the things she should have, the story goes, she would not have died poor, friendless, and alone, abandoned in the streets of a foreign city, never to mother her only child.

Such is the moral of Charlotte Temple, Susanna Rowson’s didactic tale addressed to “the young and thoughtless of the fair sex,” or, as we now call them, young women. Though originally published in London in 1791, the novella was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1794 after its author’s immigration there, where its sentimentality, melodrama, and moralism supplied the ingredients for a great big hit, American-style. A century later, Cathy Davidson brought Charlotte Temple back into print as a classroom-friendly paperback, but not before arguing in her enduringly persuasive monograph The Revolution and The Word (1986) that Charlotte Temple’s rape plot was one way that women, deprived of access to masculine pursuits like journalism and pamphleteering, were thinking and debating the meanings of consent and governance in the newly federated United States.

Charlotte Temple shows up on my syllabi regularly, as it does for a lot of folks tasked with teaching early American literature who are also eager to diversify the voices and experiences that add up to what the Declaration of Independence famously called “the consent of the governed.” Sure, the novel is sad and by contemporary standards barely feminist, but, as I would invite students to consider in class, it arguably paints Charlotte as a victim of circumstance, of bad systems that need to work harder to protect vulnerable people like her. And so it went, until midway through the term of a President who bragged about groping women without their consent, when a student turned in a paper that took issue with the “young and thoughtless of the fair sex” part. Why, demanded Student, was it the responsibility of women not to be raped? What was this book teaching? Who was it for?

Student’s paper insisted Charlotte Temple’s emphasis on consent seems to imagine that the solution to a cruel world is to refuse it–to not consent, to steer clear of seduction or so-called thoughtlessness. Such a position would align this text with an array of other excellent political and philosophical arguments that also center on refusal. At the same time, putting so much emphasis on refusal can have the effect of treating the world to which we consent or withhold our consent as itself given, inevitable. It amounts to saying something like, rape is going to happen but don’t let it happen to you. By this line of thinking, the person who wants to live in a world where rape wasn’t going to happen is out of luck.

Charlotte Temple also reminds us how little the concept of consent has changed in the past 200+ years. Yes, consent extends to a few more situations (including spousal rape), but it is still the legal–and often the cultural–gold standard for assessing whether we ourselves or someone else is responsible in the situations in which we participate or subject ourselves to others. When one consents to sex, for instance, one freely agrees to be open to the desires and actions of another; and likewise, when one consents to a government of laws, one agrees to abide by the judgments and operations of the legal system. Sexual consent and political consent aren’t identical, either in scope or effect, but they both turn on the same assumptions about voluntary, intentional participation.

So what is this book teaching? Who is it for?

The timeline of this writing demands an urgent answer, as it happens to intersect with the protracted harassment allegations and ultimate resignation of the Governor of the very state where, centuries before, Charlotte Temple supposedly died. After a half-year investigation found Andrew Cuomo had sexually harassed eleven women employees during his tenure in the state’s highest office, the 56th Governor of New York submitted his resignation in what looks a lot like exchange for the State Assembly dropping impeachment proceedings whose investigations, many speculated, were likely to turn up additional felonies. There’s so much to be said about almost every aspect of this story, but the part most germane to Charlotte Temple and that novel’s ideas about consent has to do with what former Cuomo aide and accuser Lindsay Boylan called the toxic working environment of the governor’s office. Creating a toxic workplace, or even being a shitty boss, isn’t illegal. And, indeed, no one really imagines these things need to be illegal insofar as the people who work in a toxic environment are presumed to do so voluntarily–they’re not indentured or enslaved, they can leave anytime they like. A toxic workplace, in other words, is a really good example of the limits of consent.

To live in a world where responsibility is adjudicated along lines of consent is often to live in a world where key choices are imagined to be voluntary choices. Or, put it the other way around, consent is meaningless in the face of something that’s not voluntary. That’s why when you consent to vote for a toxic candidate, you’re consenting to his governance and not, or not exactly, his toxicity–he is who he happens to be, right? That’s why when you work for a harasser, you have legal protections from his acts of harassment but not from the culture of harassment that may thrive in that workplace regardless of whether it targets you personally–this is the job, take it or leave it. The toxicity in these examples is imagined to be a fixture of the personality or the workplace, and, as a fixture, it’s not optional. You can refuse to participate up front or you can consent to the thing it’s a fixture of and see what happens. Those are your choices, and, to a degree that I cannot stop thinking about, they were also Charlotte Temple’s.

What is this book teaching? Who is it for?

The point here is not that consent is bad, even if it is limited. Consent remains useful and often essential in situations where voluntarism and choice matter, and as far as I am concerned that should include sexual situations. But, as Student’s paper reminds us, the ideal of consent braces against rape culture without demolishing it. We don’t exactly choose to live in a rape culture and, like so many situations that are not simply a matter of choice, defeating rape culture may require stronger tools than consent or refusal.

But here’s the part where we don’t get uncomfortable but maybe should. Though a classroom is not exactly a workplace, one thing the two spaces have in common is that they need to be accessible to all kinds of people who come into them–they need to be, in a word, non-toxic. Charlotte Temple makes its appearance in my classroom and on my syllabi, as I said above, as a means of inviting students to consider some of the voices and experiences of women in the early US; but the reason Charlotte Temple and not another text is the vehicle for these considerations has to do with the logic of the field of study, which has nominated Charlotte Temple as a canonical example over and above others. By teaching this text, then, my classroom reinforces field norms–reinforces the consensus that our archives and interpretations make up, even if no one simply chose them to be made up in this way.

Someone committed to this field of study might jump in here to remind me or Student that representing women’s experiences in the early US in terms of rape and consent may accurately reflect the period’s discourse, and that Charlotte Temple may indeed have been the most celebrated example. That person might also respond to Student’s paper with concerns about anachronism, for example that she was bringing contemporary standards to eighteenth-century texts. But these reminders amount to asking Student to consent to the field of study as it exists. They reinforce a methodological commitment to historicizing discourse or tracking popular culture, without acknowledging that these are not the only or inevitable ways to study literature–without acknowledging, in the case of Charlotte Temple, that both methods seem to leave students and teachers at a dead end, holding a lesson plan that can’t escape the tired moral, Ladies, don’t let it happen to you.

What is this book teaching? Who is it for?

Definitive answers to these questions elude me, though I remain hugely grateful to the student who raised them. And because ideas about sex and gender are at present shifting rapidly in the US–including but not limited to ideas about how sex and gender are related to one another and to sexuality, about what kinds of conduct is acceptable in which situations, about which practices, expressions or self-ascriptions coalesce into identities, and about how representation matters to any of these issues–sufficient answers to these questions will likely be found in conversation across generations, among people of different genders, and between students and teachers. We may end up debating interpretations and disagreeing on what Charlotte Temple is teaching. But that disagreement is worth little unless it stems from debate where the possibilities for what we read about and how we interpret it aren’t circumscribed in advance. And that may mean that we stop consenting to the field of study as we know it.

Jordan Alexander Stein teaches the English Department at the Comparative Literature Program at Fordham University, where he is also affiliate faculty for the Department of African and African American Studies. He is most recently the author of When Novels Were Books (Harvard UP, 2020).

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