The Masquerade

I’ve admired Alfred Young’s wonderful, if unwieldy, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York: Knopf, 2004) since I first encountered the book in an undergraduate classroom a decade ago. Young’s biography of Sampson, which covers the life, career, and memory of this remarkable woman who “passed” as a man in the Continental Army for seventeen months, shares much in common with its intellectual sibling, The Shoemaker and the Tea Partythe detective-like level of historical research, the concern with the constantly shifting nature of memory, the drive to capture the life of a common person who left an uncommon historical legacy. New concerns, such as the performative and unstable nature of gender, emerge in Masquerade as well. My most striking impression from this latest reread, however, is just how much the book is about the limits of the American Revolution.

Sampson was always a striving nonconformist. In 1780 she joined a dissenting Baptist Church in Middleborough. She would enlist twice in the armySampson’s first attempt was a failure and led to her break with her Baptist Church, but her later enlistment would last seventeen months. Upon her return from war she temporarily posed as her brother. While Sampson eventually became a farmer’s wife, she bore an “early” child. Besides her military service, the most striking accomplishments of Sampson’s life were her successful petition for a (meager) pension for her war service and a brief career as an orator and performertraveling throughout New England and New York sharing her adventures. This tour is likely the first of its kind by an American woman. Despite all of this nonconformity, however, Sampson’s life and career did not provide a challenge to the political, gendered, or sexual order of the new American nation. As Young describes her brief career as an orator: “[a] woman performing as an orator was new, but her message was conservative.”[1]

This was the American Revolution, more broadly, for most women. The Revolution created the instability and chaos that made Sampson’s career possible. It opened new (or renewed) avenues for the talents and ambitions of womenas heads of household, as land speculators, as propagandists, as soldiers, and more. The early republic would see an expansion of the economic opportunities for white, particularly elite, women. Despite this, however, the bugbear of restrictive gender norms haunted these women’s lives. We see this clearly in Sampson’s own life. Despite, in Young’s words, “an extraordinary capacity for taking risks,” Sampson often saw herself retreating into traditional gender roles when cornered, such as when she was initially uncovered masquerading as a man during her military service. Young is clear that respectability and gentility were her guiding lights.[2] Samson, in my reading of Young’s telling at least, transgressed her society’s gender norms not so much as a challenge to them but as a way to place herself in a more advantageous position within those bounds.

This is the paradox that the American Revolution offered members of its society who lived on the political, economic, and social periphery, i.e., African-Americans, Native Americans, and poorer white women like Samson. For those willing and capable of seizing them, opportunities abounded in Revolutionary America, but the limits were clear. New arenas were opening but the best ways to pursue them was by a conservative path. This was a paradox that Deborah Sampson understood all too well.

___________________

[1] Alfred Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York: Knopf, 2004), 315.

[2] Ibid., 317.

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