The historiography of the American Revolution and Founding period has been dominated for more than two decades by works that follow the examples of Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood. In their books, particularly Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) and Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1967), the two historians posited—among other things—that America was a nation founded on a certain odd strain of English opposition thought. Whether it be called “Old Whig,” “Commonwealth,” or by some other name, this thought was held by the two historians and, following their teaching, by most historians to have been at the root of the American Revolution.
One who in any way is familiar with the course of colonial history before 1774 might read such a book and wonder what had happened to America between 1607 and 1774. How was it that a group of colonies whose first settlers had ranged, by our standards, from the very religious to the exceedingly fanatical had come to base a revolution on the entirely secular principles of “no taxation without representation” and—especially in Wood’s latest book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution—the elimination of social stratification?
This account makes no sense either to the general reader or to the professional historian familiar with the history of the colonies. What has been needed is a book to tie the religious history of North America to the break with Great Britain. J. C. D. Clark’s The Language of Liberty is that book.
Clark, who is a religious, not a political, historian, and who is English, points to one of the main shortcomings in the discipline of history in America today. Whatever the field, whether it be Revolutionary America, World War II, black history, or the twentieth-century South, analysis of the effect of Christian belief on political or social events at issue is virtually absent from the “leading” works in the field. (Edward Ayers’s recent The Promise of the New South is the exception that proves the rule.) Explaining such an oversight may be relatively easy, as it is traceable to the typical historian’s lack of interest in Christianity and preoccupation with, in the words of C. Vann Woodward, finding a “useable past” (i.e., writing books with current political application). However to excuse the failure to take into account the attribute of identity the people under consideration viewed as the most important one is simply impossible.
Clark’s premise is that there was nothing in any way exceptional about the American Revolution; rather, the term refers to an overarching movement typical of a series of sectarian clashes within Great British and to that movement’s constituent conflicts within the individual colonies (themselves also manifestations of long-simmering disputes). The book’s organization is based on the idea that it was not political language, but legal and theological discourse, that formed the coin of the intellectual realm in early modern Anglo-America. Clark’s achievement lies in showing how that coin bought the Revolution in America—despite American Revolutionaries’ basic disagreements.
The Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, the Act of Settlement, and the accession of the House of Hanover had formed the common inheritance of Englishmen. Despite their different interpretations of these events, Englishmen of different religious perspectives, on both sides of the Atlantic, celebrated them in the middle of the eighteenth century. Historians of the Bailyn-Wood school have long noted the breakdown of English patriotism in America after its apogee, with the victory over France in the Seven Years’ War, in 1763. What they have not noted is that the immediate aftermath of 1763 saw the fracturing of the American acquiescence in English common-law notions of sovereignty, this fracturing driven by American objections to the place the explication of Blackstone gave to the Anglican Church.
If England’s was a society whose established Protestantism lay at its center, and if that Protestantism still owed much to Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox notions of the proper structuring of society, America’s various schismatic groups objected to that establishment on a growing number of bases. Of particular concern were the Trinitarianism of the Anglican creeds and the episcopal structure of Anglicanism.
Clark says—and here he has the support of the leading expert on colonial Virginia’s politics, Charles Sydnor—that the colonial assemblies were not seen by their members or those who elected them as vehicles for the “mobilisation and expression of public opinion,” so the theory that grounded the legitimacy of government on the consent of the governed can be seen not to have been a response to the practice of representation (pointing out in a footnote that the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, like continental legislatures, had met behind closed doors, and that no one had complained). It was instead, he says, a manifestation of the covenant theology of, for example, Congregationalists and Presbyterians.
Americans had learned to conduct their public debate in the idioms of law and religion. As they began to see a threat to their ancestral way of life from the King in Parliament, the colonists fell back upon a communal notion of themselves, and not upon Lockean individualism. Coke’s doctrine of the allegiance of the godly to their sovereign was replaced by group opposition to a “godless” monarch. As Jack Greene showed in Peripheries and Center (1986), American and British conceptions of their common constitution grew apart; he omitted to say, however, that it was the growing dissimilarity of ethnicity (in the Greek sense) between metropolis and colonies that fueled the mushrooming dissatisfaction with the Anglican-Hanoverian order: by 1776, three quarters of Americans were Dissenters, while England remained more than 90 percent Anglican. Notwithstanding Bailyn, Wood, et al., theology still shaped conduct. Even those writers whose works have garnered attention from American historians, such as Trenchard and Gordon, had political views that were driven by their own dissenting religious views, and those of their writings that were not directed at sectarian issues were never reprinted in America! The absence of reprints of their most tendentious letters undercuts the idea that Trenchard and Gordon were any more popular here than in Britain. In fact, the record of American publishing in the days leading up to and following the Revolution lays the ax to the base of the Wood/Bailyn scholarship: that is the idea that there was a “universal secular idiom of politics” in British North America.
The splintering of the Anglican hegemony had its roots in ecclesiology and Christology. While the former has obvious implications, those of the latter demand explanation. Generally, as Clark maintains, those who were not Trinitarian Anglicans in their Christology—who did not hold, after the formulation of the First Ecumenical (First Nicene) Council, that Father and Son were, in the Emperor Constantine’s formulation, “one in essence”—tended toward social and political radicalism as well. Clark cites an Anglican text of 1808 as saying that reduction of the Son to the status of a creature (which has been called, since the time of Saint Constantine, Arianism) acted against the idea that man is a fallen creature, thus removing the (Augustinian) idea that man is depraved. Some of the ideas of the American Dissenters, such as the Socinians’ idea that the non-Arian position on subordination was unknown to the Apostles, seem to show that the Dissenters’ grasp of various theological tools—such as Greek (the first sentence of the Gospel of John disproving their position)—was weak to non-existent. All of this acted to make the Anglicans involved in the religious disputes in America increasingly frustrated, for ideas of the nature of man inconsistent with theirs led to attacks on the establishment, even as those ideas were essentially impervious to rational disagreement and rebuttal. The Dissenters’ belief that man was naturally good led them to deduce, in the mode of Rousseau, that corruption was a result of corrupt institutions, and to cast about for such institutions. As Clark says, “The tyranny of sin was subtly transformed into the tyranny of kings and bishops.”
Anglican observers could not help but notice the correlation of Deism, the fashionable pseudo-theism of the eighteenth century, and Harringtonian republicanism. It led, in time, to the autonomy of reason in the thought of Kant, and the trend was well underway in the Revolutionary period. Anglicans in America reported to the mother country that they noted a confluence of heterodoxies, but they had no explanation. One is tempted to say they should have pointed to ego (the root of all sin), yet they did not do so, perhaps because of their own theology’s weakness.
Locke himself is the most obvious example of a Dissenter whose influence was great and whose motive was sectarian, not secular. He was an anti-Trinitarian, opposed to Anglicanism, and his Two Treatises on Government display the kind of “creative” thinking on the authority of inherited institutions (in his case, even on that of fathers) for which Dissent was reputed to be responsible at the time. What the American reinterpretation of the Revolution after the war made into secular natural rights doctrine, people at the time saw as part of ongoing sectarian disputes.
America’s post hoc reinterpretation of the Imperial Crisis obscures other attributes of that conflict, too. Not only were many of the divisions of the time sectarian, but the question was not nearly so simple as a united North America versus a united Great Britain. America had her friends (predominantly among Dissenters) in the motherland, and the Revolution had a large number of opponents in North America. Not only that, but the Americans were divided along sectarian lines—American Baptists, in particular, offering lukewarm support, at most, to the war effort. John Adams, among others, recognized at the time that one of the leading objections Americans made to the form of English rule was that the claim of Parliamentary supremacy and omnipotence in Blackstone’s formulation left no rights of conscience whatsoever immune to legislative tampering. This view was buttressed by the Congregationalists’ view of their commonwealth, which was that men were morally entitled to set up a new government and pull down an old one whenever it pleased them.
Once the war was behind them, Americans remade their history, agreeing that “religious liberty” (in reality, not the establishment of a neutral regime, but establishment of the extreme Dissenters’ preferred relationship between church and state) and rule of law as the definition of liberty had been the ends all along. Yet, the American regime, unlike the British, soon elevated the courts over legislators and the group over individual conscience in radically new ways.
The American “mission” was unlike the motives that drove Americans to revolution, concludes Clark, for it had nothing to do with Arianism, Deism, or other sectarian stances. Instead, other countries were soon seen either as “democratic” in the manner of America or as objects of “reform.” Liberty, the term at the center of the early modern British Empire’s internal conflicts, was jettisoned as a goal. Instead, America became millennial; the results, says Clark, include the war of 1861-1865 and the adoption of an odd, irreligious “civil religion” at once more ethical and more materialistic, more libertarian and more deferential to mass opinion than any other. In undertaking this experiment, to which they gave millennial names such as novus ordo seclorum, Americans had to attack the inherited wisdom of the West (by denying, for example, the truth of Montesquieu’s dictum that republics must be small).
America became, in a sense, the most heterodox of heterodox countries, for, as Clark notes, she soon devised her own indigenous religion. First, her central icons became the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which she now houses on the altar of a temple located in downtown Washington, D.C. (Clark notes that the Magna Carta is displayed “in an obscure showcase in an ordinary gallery of the British Museum.”) Her saints (no politicians, they!) were the “Founding Fathers,” to whom they built temples and erected monuments all over the country, substituting their birthdays for the Christian equivalent: saints’ days. As Woodrow Wilson noted, obeisance to the Constitution—publicly flaunted—became more pervasive than the divine right of kings, and the (soporific) Pledge of Allegiance eventually replaced the old Christian creed. (Soon, if some politicians have their way, the elevation of the American flag over the cross will be enshrined in the Constitution via a “desecration” amendment.) To complete the picture, one political theorist called the Supreme Court “a kind of secular papacy.” Despite the high rate of formal religious observance, “practically every species of traditional orthodoxy in Christendom is intellectually at war with the basic premises upon which the constitutional and legal structures of the Republic rest.”
Thinking conservatives will have noted that this description of America’s civil religion is accurate, and they will have also noted that every “Founder” whose thought they know well—be he John Jay, Edmund Randolph, or John Adams, let alone James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, or Thomas Paine—was, to say the least, heterodox. The Language of Liberty shows that America’s identity lies in her heterodoxy, her origins in Dissent and more radical thought. For students of Russell Kirk, M. E. Bradford, and other conservatives who have tried (without much success) to persuade the historical profession that the Founders were not all Deists or atheists, this book will be a bracing, though a convincing, explanation of what the Founders and those who elected them to positions of leadership were.