‘Powers Expanding Slow’: Children’s ‘Unfolding’ Minds in Radical Writing of the 1790s
In 1790, Edmund Burke attacked the French revolutionaries for their subversion of ‘the bosom of our family affections.’ In place of the ‘mutually reflected charities’ that bound together ‘our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars,’ the French National Assembly had set up ‘a school where systematically, and with unremitting perseverance, they teach principles … destructive to all spirit of subordination,’ undermining the authority of government and jeopardizing the ‘obedience’ of ‘an anarchic people.’ Burke’s metaphors of stable familial bonds, reinforced by piety, which he opposed to this perverted schooling of a refractory and resistant infant nation, are echoed at the close of the decade by Hannah More in her attack on the ‘revolutionary spirit in families.’ Like Burke, More expresses disquiet at the ‘spirit of independence, and disdain of control’ characterizing modern children, especially girls: a moral deterioration that she ascribes to the Jacobin ‘public principles’ that had infiltrated homes, families, and schools. The rights of man and of woman, More argues, had led inevitably to ‘the next stage of that irradiation which our enlighteners are pouring in upon us … grave descants on the rights of children.’ More’s intention was to ridicule the idea of children’s rights as a means of dismissing radical and reformist debate. Yet for a number of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers publishing for and about children and childhood, the idea of children’s expanding powers of mind and unprejudiced view of ‘things as they are’ (to use William Godwin’s alternative title for his Jacobin novel Caleb Williams) was vital. While the innocence and malleability of children was widely understood in the second half of the eighteenth century as a source of promise, several of the writers that I discuss in this chapter implicitly or explicitly contest the idea that children’s minds are principally of interest for their imprintability, blank slates providing space for the designs of adult authority: a doctrine that women writers reflecting on the education of girls, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, associate with the adult colonization of children’s minds. Rather than focusing on innocence or an idealized state of nature, Wollstonecraft and other radical and reformist writers emphasize children’s innate rational and imaginative powers as a source of social and moral improvement. The liberation of these powers and their transformative potential, released through the unfolding of children’s capacity for reason, empathy, and love, is not fatally threatened by a knowledge of human history or suffering. Indeed, these writers consider reflections on history and conflict an important part of early education, equipping children to take up their role as citizens of the future.