Revolutions: Transatlantic and Religious

The correspondence from the AHA continues to roll into the home office here at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” Jonathan Den Hartog teaches American history at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. A former student of George Marsden, he is working on a fascinating study of the religious beliefs of the Federalists. I have read some early drafts of his manuscript and I can’t wait to see the finished product. You may remember that a few months ago we blogged about an essay Jonathan wrote on the religious views of John Jay.

Jonathan reports on two panels he attended last weekend at the AHA meeting in San Diego. I think both of them will be of interested to our readers. Enjoy! –JF

This report comes in a little bit late from the AHA, but I thought it might be worth reporting on a few other sessions that hadn’t been noted but have a bearing on the Way of Improvement blog.

On Friday I attended a session called “Across and Between Revolutions in the Transatlantic World.” This very notion of Transatlantic revolutionary connections raises issues of Cosmopolitanism vs. Localism. I was primarily drawn to hear Sarah Knott’s paper on “The Age of Revolutions as an Age of Witnessing.” I had been most impressed by Knott’s work on Sentiment in the Revolution, and I wondered if she was going to connect it to religious witness. I was disappointed on that front. Although she saw earlier connections to witnessing in court and witnessing in Reformation-era martyrdom, her main concern was to describe Atlantic tourists who served as military reporters and political philosophers. They gave “eyewitness” accounts. Hence they were both observing and advocates.

The clearest expression of the links between Cosmopolitanism and the interest in Transatlantic history came from Janet Polasky who described “Revolutionaries without Borders: Radicals in the Revolutionary Atlantic.” She saw these revolutionaries active in politics (such as Tom Paine and Joel Barlow present in Revolutionary Paris), in abolition (Equiano, Grenville Sharp, and the work of settling Sierra Leone), and in traveling and observing. However, in her conclusion she gave away the game. She praised these transatlantic radicals because “they pioneered an alternative to Nationalism for us, their heirs.” As an historian, she was celebrating those who rejected nationalism in favor of radical alternatives. This was giving easy praise to Cosmopolitanism and rejecting narrow parochialisms like national identity.

Suzanne Desan was scheduled to talk about “British and American Radicals in Revolutionary Paris,” but she changed her topic to talk about a single individual in the French Revolution, Anarcharsis Clootz, who wanted to embody the universalist ideals of the Revolution but who ultimately met his downfall by aligning himself with a local faction. By pushing too hard for de-christianization he ran afoul even of the Jacobins and was sent to the guillotine.

Amidst this celebration of transatlantic movements, it took the sober voice of Jeremy Popkin to point out that events at different locations on the Atlantic rim could work at cross purposes with each other. By focusing on the Haitian Revolution, he traced how events and decisions made both in Haiti and in Paris led to the ending of slavery in France. Rather than a straightforward development, though, he argued that the results came out of conflicting visions that only gradually moved in a single direction. Popkin’s account brought some balance to the panel through the realization of historical irony, rather than the tone of celebration for transatlantic revolutionary and radical movements.

A second panel focused more particularly on religion in the American Revolution. In fact, it sought to bring “New Perspectives” on the topic. Thomas Kidd presented material from his forthcoming book of God of Liberty (with Basic Books). He used Thomas Jefferson and the Baptist John Leland to describe how both evangelicals and enlightened figures could support the American Revolution. Kidd described 5 overlapping ideas supported by both groups, including that liberty is a gift from God, that soul liberty (rights of conscience) are necessary for the state, and that religion supports morality and virtue. The commentator described Kidd’s perspective as “neo-consensus.” I’m not sure that’s exactly right. Although Kidd did not emphasize conflict in the American Revolution, he did attempt to explain how the Revolution could be popular for a wide array of religious groups, thereby showing how American Christians might adopt “republican” language.

In a similar vein, I argued that John Adams was another figure who demonstrated how Rationalists might find ways to accommodate religious groups to the Revolution. Rather than discussing Adams’s personal religion, I turned to describing how Adams encouraged public religiosity and even establishmentarian forms during the push for independence, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution which established Congregationalism, and his presidency. Adams thus shrewdly cultivated a reputation as a religious figure and used language which would build religious support and sympathy.

Finally, Jane Calvert presented the findings for her amicus curiae brief which she and historian Nathan Kozuskanich recently submitted to the Supreme Court, which next year will hear a gun case originating in Chicago. This Chicago case questions the Court’s findings in the Heller case from DC last year. Calvert suggested that during the founding, the general ethos moved from a republican view of Constitutionalism (more inclined toward liberty and individualism) to a Quaker Constitutionalism (focused on group rights and duties). This led her and her co-author to suggest that the 2nd Amendment be understood as a protection of group-rights to self-defense (through militias), rather than as an individual protection. Not surprisingly, she took issue with Justice Scalia’s reading of both Pennsylvania’s politics and his originalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights.

Both panels, then, raised questions about the Revolutionary Era, the world of P.V. Fithian. They showed the real alternatives open to individuals at the time. The first panel was more focused on Cosmopolitan enlightened attitudes, even to the point of celebration. The other demonstrated how religious beliefs intersected with political ideals in the American environment. Amidst a fair amount of fluff at the AHA, these two panels at least raised issues to consider deeply.

-Jonathan Den Hartog

2 thoughts on “Revolutions: Transatlantic and Religious

  1. John, I just ran across a Bernard Bailyn lecture that argues it was America's provincialism against cosmopolitanism that was key in America's “exceptional” worldview, and why her history is different than cosmopolitan Europe's.

    Franklin used to exaggerate his bumpkinness in Paris, and as I recall, Jefferson as president purposely met the British ambassador in housecoat and slippers.

    Anyway, I liked it and thought I'd pass it on.


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