America has its roots in the age of the Enlightenment and with that, that of the Romantic Poets, Cowper, Chatterton, Wordsworth, Hunt, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Smith, Robinson, Blessington, Southey all had a dream of what they termed a pantisocracy; that being a Utopia in which men and women would live sharing what they had; in this paradise, property ownership would not exist, and neither would gender, religion, racism or economic inequities. America was the place that Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey dreamed of traveling to, to set up such a community. Later, Keats’s brother Tom did go, with this plan in mind. He established a farm and found that the land was tough, and the was work hard. Tom died young of consumption, (later called Tuberculosis).
The goal though, of a place in which such a thing could exist, remained. Cowper, one of the earliest abolitionists and sympathizers with the plight of the black man wrote his poem, The Negro’s Complaint which is centered on the theme of slavery and the feelings of the oppressed. In it he writes eloquently
FORCED from home and all its pleasures
Afric’s coast I left forlorn,
To increase a stranger’s treasures
O’er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though slave they have enrolled me,
Minds are never to be sold.
Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England’s rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task ?
Fleecy locks and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature’s claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same.
It is worth revisiting this poem for though its style is dated, the sentiment is clear. Cowper makes plain his belief in the commonalities evident in us all, and there the bridge to make cross planes, culture, and tides. He, himself, was no stranger to this feeling of being outside the normal experience of man, having suffered many bouts of depression, two suicide attempts, and a stint in an asylum. His feelings of understanding for the oppressed as such are heartfelt and boldly expressed.
Shelley, took this further when he wrote The Masque of Anarchy in which he discussed the Peterloo Massacre, in which the masses assembling in Peterloo with signs reading ‘Love’ and asking for equitable treatment of the poor, were met with Castlereagh’s men and were mowed down like so much dross underneath their feet. Eighteen men, women, and children were killed in less than twenty minutes. Still, the dream lives in. Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy was not published until thirteen years after his death and the event itself, due to the very real fear by Hunt, that such a work would land him again in Kings Bench Prison.
Those fighting for freedom and a morsel of bread during the French Revolution did not see though, that the poor who had begun the fight was being used by the bourgeoise to the detriment of their freedom. Though they would take down the King and Queen, their struggle for meaningful change would continue with the rise of Napoleon, the fall of Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, and then the advent of communism. France, therefore, is a good example of a country and people that are in a continual fight for liberation and change. This unrest keeps their populace politically active and with that, the politicians warier that their actions can (as they did previously) cause change and the demise of their power, and at the worst-case scenario, their lives. Due to this, their populace is a more active one because they are aware of the power they have, and they have not been neutered by an enervated education system, a pay for play heath care system, and continual debt which turns them into slaves for the those at the top.
America, though, and this is the difficult part, and The American dream is the product of the Romantic Poets and their vision for not only a more perfect union but an equitable one. This is why it is a goal and not a reality. Humanity as such is by its very nature, imperfect. Individuals daily, are in conflict with others and themselves, with regards to how they behave towards their fellow human being, and how they treat themselves. If we want that more perfect union, the pantisocracy that Wordsworth, et all dreamt of, then we cannot rest. We must work through continuous self-analysis, and by that ask ourselves daily, was I kind? Were my actions appropriate? Did I model good behavior? Did I treat my neighbor with love? Would I want to be treated that way in turn? And then ask no less from ourselves.