Charles Wollstonecraft – by Wayne Bodle

This is the second of a series of posts by Wayne Bodle on the lives and works of the Wollstonecraft family in America. 

The disappearance of Nancy Wollstonecraft’s botanical pictures may have been due to   “careless spelling,” a common enough phenomenon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the blizzard of vowels and consonants in which their surname was draped were helpful in recovering Charles when internet keyword search became available in the late twentieth century.   His literal digital fingerprints were left everywhere after Mary sent him to America in 1792.  As scanning of primary sources proliferated, he materialized like a photograph in a darkroom sink.  Little of it made much sense in that fragmented context.  Mary sent her “favourite sibling” away because, in her liberal (or radical) religious (or political) circles, America was an innocent post-revolutionary (or colonial) republic. Britain was a reactionary anti-French Revolutionary state. Or Charles traveled to locate a wilderness farm to which Mary and/their siblings might migrate.    Or increasingly, because as her “present blister,” she simply wanted him to be out of her way.

If Charles had gone to Goshen, New York, he might have fit this Crevecoeurian dream, but in John Dickinson’s Pennsylvania a “farmer” could be anything that he wanted to be.  He was swept up into a land speculation bubble that extended from Maine to Georgia.  Scattered evidence suggests that he pursued women, as a 22 year-old might have been expected to do, but one of their mothers—contradicting her spouse—depicted him as hardly a rake.  The Vindication of the Rights of Woman was in Philadelphia coffeehouses in late 1792, but there is no reason to think he had read its chapters in draft.  In February of 1793, Senator Aaron Burr, of New York, stayed up nights to read the Vindication, but their paths did not cross until years later, if ever.

When the bubble burst, Charles joined the American army being raised in 1798 for the “Quasi-War” with France.  How he bootlegged his surname past officials tasked with excluding officers who were not Federalists is a mystery.  Mary would have been appalled by his choice of professions, but she might also have admired the bourgeois skills that made him a paymaster in functional terms rather than an artillery lieutenant—his formal rank. He served mainly at Fort Jay in New York harbor and traveled a lot.  His disciplinary record was very colorful.  Some of it involved infractions with, or about, women, but shooting his commanding officer’s prized ducks   nearly got him cashiered.  Instead, in dueling courts-martial in 1803, his counter-charges drove the commander out of the army. His political connections were real, but still largely obscure.

Charles dined at President Jefferson’s table in late 1805.  Paymaster affairs took him to West Point, an artillery post before it became a military academy, where he found a wife.  In post-Purchase Louisiana, he helped to patrol the ambiguous boundaries of the “Neutral Ground” with Spanish Texas, but he also invested in “filibustering” expeditions aimed at overthrowing Spanish colonial rule there.  His most visible traditional military activity came in a support role at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.  But appropriately, given his kinship status, his marital history and its consequences are worthier of book-length treatment than his martial exploits. The experiences of his mostly-female connections and offspring—two wives, a daughter, a grandson, two reputedly “illegitimate” or “adopted” progeny, and one or more figures who I describe as “honorary Wollstonecrafts in America,” trace some material and behavioral, rather than merely intellectual, reverberations of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas across the century after her death.   I hope to briefly introduce those persons in another post.  I welcome suggestions or research leads.

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