Topic category: Secession - Formation of a New Constitutional Republic
Marrying Absolutism Daniel Defoe reminds us being governed can be like a bad marriage.
"You that are now upon even terms with me, and I with you," says I, "are the next hour set up upon the throne, and the humble wife placed at your footstool; all the rest, all that you call oneness of interest, mutual affection, and the like, is courtesy and kindness then, and a woman is indeed infinitely obliged where she meets with it, but can't help herself where it fails." Defoe, Roxana (p 129 Signet 1979 ed.) "No, no, "added I, "after a man has lain with me as a mistress, he ought never to lie with me as a wife." Defoe, Roxana(p 130 Signet 1979 ed.)
This essay is predicated on the idea that there are two readings of Daniel Defoe's novel Roxana; the first is as a literal tale of a woman defying the institution of marriage by abandoning a husband, becoming the paramour of two other men, and then accepting an unusually equal marriage in middle age. The other is as a parable about government, where constitutionalism is contrasted with absolutism.
The touchstone of Defoe's presentation is inequality. "But poverty was my snare, dreadful poverty!"1 Thus, when her financially incompetant husband the brewer leaves the heroine Susan, she accepts a relationship with her landlord for economic reasons. Her children by the brewer nearly end up in the poor house because of the hard heartedness of Susan's sister-in-law. "'Prithee, what need they cry at our door?' says she. 'Tis the business of the parish to provide for them; they shan't cry at our door. If they do, I'll give them nothing'"2 The brewer's brother disagrees. "'Well, my dear,'says her husband,'but I value it, for I won't have such a blot lie upon the family, and upon your children. . . .it will be a reproach. . .that we should let your brother's children perish or come to be a charge to the public. . . .'"3
Defoe suggests the superiority of private charity over government aid. Later, when the brewer is found to be a French soldier, his unfitness as a man is indicated by Susan's opinion that,"Had I sent him ten thousand crowns instead of eight thousand livres, and sent it with express condition that he should immediately have bought himself the commission he talked of with part of the money, and sent some of it to relieve the necessities of his poor miserable wife at London, and to prevent his children to be kept by the parish, it was evident he would have still been a private trooper, and his wife and children should still have starved at London, or been kept of mere charity, as, for aught he knew, they then were."4 Thus, for Defoe, lack of business skill and ambition accompanies a lack of personal charity or responsibility. As a result, women often have to sell their allegiance to those who can help them economically. Amy Collins, Susan's helper and companion, says, ". . .as to honesty, I think honesty is out of the question when starving is the case."5
If one reads Roxana as a political allegory, the inequality of men and women becomes the inequality of populace and rulers. "I interrupted him and told him there was a vast difference between our circumstances, and that in the most essential part, namely that he was rich, and I was poor; that he was above the world, and I infinitely below it; that his circumstances were very easy, mine miserable, and this was an inequality the most essential that can be imagined."6
Where the wife (or subject of an absolutist king)is a slave who is well regarded, the mistress (or citizen of a commonwealth) "helps herself immediately" but is a scapegoat for the man who used her but repented.7 The price a free people pays for its freedom is that while the government curries favor with them, they are also held suspect by their rulers.
Just as how under a husband a wife loses her independence and can be the victim of his incompetance in matters of finance, so are people living under an absolute monarch. The mistress keeps her autonomy, and separate finances. Defoe mocks the Tory derision for commerce by making it the analog of Susan's "ill-got wealth, the product of prosperous lust. . . ." which cannot "be intermingled with the honest well-gotten estate of this innocent gentleman."8 The mistress, like the commonwealth citizen, is more powerful than the wife, or the subject of the absolute king. The problem is that republicanism gets a bad rap--even today P.J. O'Rourke calls American government "The Parliament of Whores."
One problem today is that too many people would rather live the respectable wife to an all-powerful state than be the mistress to a republic one might take or leave.
Shannon Walsh holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Master's degree in History from Western Illinois University. A lifelong Catholic, Mr. Walsh is a student of philosophical history.