Project Reading

Here are my continuing thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I just finished re-reading Peter Silver’s award winning Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America.  It is an excellent book, certainly worthy of the 2008 Bancroft Prize.  Silver argues that the diverse population groups of the Middle Colonies solidified into a single people during the Seven Years War when they began to define themselves as white people over and against the native American populations on the frontier.

I was particularly interested in Silver’s treatment of the Paxton Riots and the pamphlet wars that came in their wake.  He does not give much credence to the idea that the rioters were motivated by religion, but he does not ignore the fact that many of the rioter’s opponents believed that Presbyterian faith had something to do with their violent behavior toward the Conestoga Indians.

Silver writes:

…besides being European savages, they were also certainly “aw Presbyterians,” who had stupidly understood what they did as “fetching the Lord’s Battles” against Old Testament enemies.  It became a truism that the killers had seen themselves as the predestined elect and their victims–real and potential, Indian or European–as heathens.  The idea had no detectable documentary basis, but contemporaries felt strongly that it made sense….

Silver may be correct when he writes that there is “no detectable documentary basis” for believing that the riots were religiously or theologically motivated, but he fails to say much in this section about John Elder, the Presbyterian minister who may have organized the rioters (probably because we do not know much about him). I need to dig deeper on this front.

After reading Silver’s book I am beginning to think that a religious interpretation of the Paxton Riots may be more difficult than I originally thought it would be.  If I remember correctly, Kevin Kenny’s Peaceable Kingdom Lost: the Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment may have more to say on the matter.  Patrick Griffin’s The People With No Name is also in the queue.  Whatever the case, I have decided against writing a proposal for this conference, but there is a good chance that my mind will change in the next few days.

Silver’s book also reminded me just how much the Presbyterian interest in Pennsylvania was driven by anti-Quakerism.  I am still trying to sort out if this was a religious anti-Quakerism or a political anti-Quakerism.  Probably a little bit of both.

Stay tuned.