Essay: Civil Liberties and Temporary Security

Pages: 5 (1450 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Military  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] (Billy Budd VIII)

The irony here is that the lawless method of conscription means that naval service is taken advantage of by those who wish to escape the reach of the law. In other words, military service in Billy Budd is not just a form of prison, it is a form of escaping literal debtors' prison or worse penalty for those that "the London police were at liberty to capture." But Melville is careful in the third chapter of Billy Budd to contextualize precisely the moment in which this tale of military justice is taking place, in terms that sound more like the post-9/11 "homeland security" paranoia of a decade ago than they do like the 1797 of Melville's actual setting, when the Bill of Rights itself was only six years old:

It was the summer of 1797. In the April of that year had occurred the commotion at Spithead followed in May by a second and yet more serious outbreak in the fleet at the Nore. The latter is known, and without exaggeration in the epithet, as the Great Mutiny. It was indeed a demonstration more menacing to England than the contemporary manifestoes and conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory. To the British Empire the Nore Mutiny was what a strike in the fire-brigade would be to London threatened by general arson. (Billy Budd, III)

In other words, the narrative takes place directly after a naval mutiny during an actual war between Britain and France. The newborn revolutionary democracy of France came into rapid conflict with the imperialist monarchy of George III. Indeed, February of 1797 had witnessed an actual attempted French invasion of Britain, as part of the French Revolutionary Army's support of Irish insurrection under Wolfe Tone. The larger context involves, of course, not only the French but also the American revolutions. In other words, the society Melville depicts is one that is ripe for a sort of wartime paranoia about insurrections in general, and the military insurrection -- in which British sailors had risen up against the British navy itself. We are therefore meant to understand Billy's execution -- in other words, death not for warfare but for a crime that would be easily justified in a civil court on the grounds of self-defense -- to be Captain Vere's defense of what he sees as civil order and stability.

Yet the irony here is that Melville's novel can be read to some degree as a relatively straightforward story about "gays in the military" avant la lettre. This may be the reason why Melville withheld publication of the novella, which would only appear after his death: the emphasis on the physical beauty of "welkin-eyed" Billy (describing his only imperfection as his stammering speech) and the clearly homoerotic motivations of Claggart in provoking him seem to suggest that Billy's attractiveness causes gender confusion in the all male navy. But Vere himself justifies the public execution of Billy in the novel's climactic twenty-second chapter, where the suppression of mutiny is itself seen as an act of war:

"Ay, Sir," emotionally broke in the officer of marines, "in one sense it was. But surely Budd purposed neither mutiny nor homicide."

"Surely not, my good man. And before a court less arbitrary and more merciful than a martial one, that plea would largely extenuate. At the Last Assizes it shall acquit. But how here? We proceed under the law of the Mutiny Act. In feature no child can resemble his father more than that Act resembles in spirit the thing from which it derives -- War. In His Majesty's service -- in this ship indeed -- there are Englishmen forced to fight for the King against their will. Against their conscience, for aught we know. Tho' as their fellow-creatures some of us may appreciate their position, yet as navy officers, what reck we of it? Still less recks the enemy. Our impressed men he would fain cut down in the same swath with our volunteers. As regards the enemy's naval conscripts, some of whom may even share our own abhorrence of the regicidal French Directory, it is the same on our side. War looks but to the frontage, the appearance. And the Mutiny Act, War's child, takes after the father. Budd's intent or non-intent is [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Essay:

APA Format

Civil Liberties and Temporary Security.  (2011, May 16).  Retrieved May 20, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Civil Liberties and Temporary Security."  16 May 2011.  Web.  20 May 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Civil Liberties and Temporary Security."  May 16, 2011.  Accessed May 20, 2019.