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Violation and immunity: The languages of politics and health in prerevolutionary Massachusetts

Martha Yoder, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation explores the ways in which a rhetoric of health and disease supported resistance to Britain in the decades prior to the Revolution in Massachusetts, and especially in Boston, crucible of the conflict. Corporeal language employed for political purposes had two dimensions. While using metaphors of the body to illustrate perceived assaults upon political liberty, such language also evoked material concerns for health that had long preoccupied the province. The revolutionary language of health and sickness expressed three key themes. First, claims that British and loyalist enemies sought to infect the province with corruption drew upon Boston's decades-long struggle to control communicable maladies brought via the city's crucial maritime commerce. Further claims accused the British soldiers occupying Boston of contravening provincial laws controlling contagious disease, and of being transmitters of pathogens. Second, obedience to the Sugar, Stamp, Townshend, and Tea Acts was represented as certain to derail the provincial economy on which healthful bodies human and politic depended. By depressing domestic development, these laws would undermine the conditions necessary for healthful labor. By promising a continuing flood of imported British goods, they threatened to undermine the frugality considered necessary to health. The mother country was represented as preventing the province from exploiting its innately salubrious environment, and these representations were supported by the conviction that many imported goods were unhealthful. None of these views was new, but reflected points of view and preoccupations often expressed during the province's struggles over currency and taxation in the 50 years prior to the Revolution. Finally, diverging disease profiles led to the invidious comparisons between Old and New England that became a key justification for resistance. Depictions of the mother country as irremediably corrupt and diseased both stood in for views about her moral and political status and reflected real assessments of the corporeal health of her subjects. Remaining within the empire was represented as reducing Massachusetts bodies to the sickly state of British ones, and the move for independence was ideologically and emotionally justified as a necessary health-saving measure.

Subject Area

American history

Recommended Citation

Yoder, Martha, "Violation and immunity: The languages of politics and health in prerevolutionary Massachusetts" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152762.