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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

July 5, 2016: Modeling Critical Patriotism: William Apess’ “Eulogy on King Philip”

[I’ve written a good deal in the last few months about the topic of critical patriotism, a central focus of my recently completed fourth book. So for this year’s 4th of July series I wanted to highlight a handful of distinct examples of perspectives and visions of such critical patriotism. Please share your own nominees for critical patriots, past and present, for a crowd-sourced weekend post full of fireworks!]
On one speech that offers two complementary models of critical patriotism.
Many of the ways I’d make the case for William Apess as an exemplary American critical patriot were summed up in this post. I don’t think it’s the slightest bit hyperbolic to describe Apess as the 19th century’s Martin Luther King Jr.—a fiery preacher of supreme oratorical and rhetorical talents who dedicated his life to pursuing civil and human rights for his people and for all his fellow citizens of the world, one whose life was tragically cut short but who achieved a great deal in that time and has left a lasting legacy down into our own. If Apess’ era had had the technology to record and broadcast his speeches, or even to publish his writings in more mass-market ways, I have no doubt that we’d listen to and read his voice and words alongside those of King (and yesterday’s subject Frederick Douglass) and our other most potent orators. And however and wherever we encounter them, we consistently find in Apess’ works models of bitingly critical yet still patriotic visions of our shared American society, community, identity, and history.
In that prior post I focused on Apess’ 1833 essay/sermon “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” but I would argue that his critical patriotism is best illustrated by his January 1836 speech “Eulogy on King Philip.” Delivered at Boston’s Odeon lecture and concert hall, which had opened the year before and would go on to host speeches and readings by such luminaries as William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Edgar Allan Poe, Apess’ stunning speech uses his own life story and mixed-race heritage (as scholar Patricia Bizzell traces at length in this excellent piece) to argue for his alternative vision of American history, community, and identity. While much of the speech is as righteously angry about both past injustices and present oppressions as was “Looking-Glass,” the final lines, addressed overtly to his (likely entirely non-native) audience, reflect the optimistic core of Apess’ critical patriotism: “You and I have to rejoice that we have not to answer for our fathers’ crimes; neither shall we do right to charge them one to another. We can only regret it, and flee from it; and from henceforth, let peace and righteousness be written upon our hearts and hands forever, is the wish of a poor Indian.”
While Apess thus ranges across a number of topics and themes in the course of his speech, its central focus is indeed King Philip (Metacomet), the 17th century Wampanoag chief and distant ancestor of Apess’ mother who was and remains best known in American collective memory for the 1670s war that came to bear his name. Yet from the start of his speech, Apess presents a stunning shift in those narratives, arguing that this supposed enemy of the English should be collectively remembered instead as a revolutionary hero: “so will every patriot, especially in this enlightened age, respect the rude yet all accomplished son of the forest, that died a martyr to his cause, though unsuccessful, yet as glorious as the American Revolution.” Arguing for that vision of Philip, in the same 1830s Boston that was cementing its collective narratives of the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, was as bold a rhetorical move as Douglass’ July 4th speech. Yet if we can see the Massachusetts Puritans and the Wampanoags as two founding American cultures (as I’ve argued multiple times in this space), there’s no reason why we can’t see Philip as a revolutionary, critical patriot, one whose tragic end shouldn’t overshadow his work toward a collective American community.
Next critical patriot tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Critical patriots you’d nominate?

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