On Wednesday, September 14th, faculty and students gathered in Rose Hill’s Walsh Library to mark the start of the academic year with the 9th annual English Inaugural Lecture. This tradition was first suggested by Professor Edward Cahill nearly a decade ago, so it was especially appropriate that this year, he was giving the lecture, entitled “Striving and Rising in the American Plantations.”
Department chair, Professor Glenn Hendler, introduced the lecture, noting its origins in Professor Cahill’s research about Benjamin Franklin. Despite Franklin’s reputation as a quintessentially American figure, Professor Cahill’s studies revealed the tradition of upward mobility he has become famous for championing to be “more English, more conservative, and more invested in white privilege” than we generally give him credit for. This revelation ultimately inspired Cahill’s research into English migration to America during the 17th century. The result was an illuminating look into the origin of what we consider the American dream, and its relationship to our current political climate.
The early 17th century saw a flux of migration from England to America and the West Indies. English propaganda painted the New World as “a kind of Eden, alternatively alluring and ominous,” where a man’s social status could change overnight. In fact, only a very small minority of these migrants ever prospered. These migrants, referred to in Professor Cahill’s lecture as “strivers and risers,” often improved their fortunes, not only through hard work and entrepreneurship but also through advantageous marriages and powerful political offices. Nevertheless, contemporary literary texts such as Aphra Behn’s 1688 play, “The Widdow Ranter, or, The History of Bacon in Virginia,” viciously satirized the unlikely success of these radically risen men and women, by emphasizing their ignorance and vulgarity.
Professor Cahill’s lecture went on to discuss the growing practice of slavery as a condition of the far more common upward mobility of migrants of elite origins. Poor whites looked to slavery as proof that at least they weren’t at the bottom of the social food chain. Planters deliberately used racial tensions to manipulate their fellow migrants, while successful black freedmen, such as Anthony Johnson and his family, were treated as interlopers. The satiric rhetoric of this time at once mocked these strivers and risers, while reinforcing a climate of growing white privilege and systemic racism.
Professor Cahill concluded his lecture by drawing comparisons between early satires of upward mobility and the current US presidential race. He suggested that many white Americans, angry over President Obama’s success and fueled by what they perceive as exclusion, have found solace in Donald Trump, who, like the wealthy planters of the 17th century, deliberately stokes racial tension for his own benefit. But Cahill also observed that Trump personifies the same vulgarity Behn and her contemporaries satirized. The difference is, Professor Cahill noted, that Trump transforms “the satire of New Money into a celebration of it.”