'The Guilt of Fragile Sovereigns': Tyranny, Intrigue, and Martyrdom in an Unchanging Regime (Virginia, 1829-32)
31 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2016
Date Written: April 7, 2016
“Regime change” has been called “a trendy new term for an old and special kind of intervention,” the toppling of those who displease or worry the United States Government. In an attempt to stretch “regime change” beyond simple coercive removal to encompass an ethics of accountability, and hence a measure of justification, the anthropologist John Borneman has proposed a tri-partite analysis of what regime change entails: government overthrow; military occupation and colonization; and caring for the enemy. The question arises whether the term can be stretched even further, or defined differently, to encompass instances of intervention against tyrannical rule beyond the sphere of interstate relations where it is currently lodged. To do so I turn here to a particular event – the Turner Rebellion, a slave rebellion that took place in Virginia in 1831 – and to recent work in political theory that dwells on the politics of counter-sovereignty. Rather than debate the ethics of one state’s decision to seek violent ascendancy over the leadership and population of another, therefore, here I attempt to stretch regime change to encompass a failed rebellion of slaves against a tyrannical slaveholding regime, an attempt to confront and lay low a guilty and fragile sovereignty by deploying a revolutionary politics of countersovereignty realized in conspiracy and self-sacrifice. I attempt also to analyze how this failed effort at regime change affected the regime itself, how it led fragile sovereigns to war with each other over changing their regime themselves, and how they too failed. Finally, we encounter decisive and successful change, although not in the nature of the regime in question but in the prevailing means of explaining it – epistemological rather than ontological change, in short, seeking to secure the regime from change by placing it in a realm beyond sovereignty and guilt, beyond politics and law, altogether. This episode of concatenated regime change is presented here to inform our own understanding of the phenomenon known as a regime, and our own attempts to construct schemata of change.
Keywords: Turner Rebellion, Slavery, Virginia, Regime Change, Borneman, Sovereignty
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