Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 4

MetaxasWe are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

In this post we want to examine Metaxas’s understanding of the relationship between England and the thirteen American colonies, particularly as it relates to the concept of “liberty.”

As my students of colonial America are well aware, the so-called “13 Colonies” were very British at the time of the American Revolution.  In fact, much of what the colonists had learned about liberty and freedom stemmed from the fact that they were British subjects. Ironically, it was the British who taught the colonists how to rebel.  The British were the most liberty-loving people in the eighteenth-century world and they were proud of it. Their monarch was held in check by the people through Parliament, making them unlike nearly all other nation-states.  From the perspective of many of the founding fathers, the American Revolution was the correct and consistent application of British liberty to the imperial crisis over taxation.

But in order for Metaxas’s argument about American exceptionalism to work (we will discuss this in a later post), he must make a clear contrast between England and their rebellious colonies. For example, on p.19-20 Metaxas claims, in reference to the United States, that “back in 1776 and in the decades after, this nation was all alone” in embodying the idea of liberty and its “uniqueness at that time can hardly be overstated.”

On p. 9 Metaxas suggests that the role of “the people” in monarchical government would be “nonexistent.”  This may have been the case for France, Russia, or some other eighteenth-century European country, but it was definitely not true for England. Though the colonists portrayed the English government as tyrannical, it is way over-the-top to compare the eighteenth-century English monarchy to a “strongman dictator” like Saddam Hussein (p.18).

Metaxas uses the term “miracle” to describe the American idea of “self-government.”  He chides the Tories or loyalists, the nearly one-third of British-American colonies who did not support the American Revolution, for their “shocking” failure to embrace the cause of liberty.  He then continues to play the American exceptionalism card by asking : “After all, when in the history of the modern world had anyone entrusted its government to the people?” (p.20).  This is a fair point, but it assumes that the American founders had a much higher view of “the people” than they actually did.  In reality, most of the founders did not trust the people to govern themselves.  In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), Thomas Jefferson wrote that “government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.”  Alexander Hamilton called democratic government–rule by the people–a “disease” and a “poison.”

Did the idea of liberty develop in the United States in unique ways?  Of course it did.  But that is something that occurred over time.  It is difficult to draw a straight line between the eighteenth-century and today without taking into consideration the developments that existed in-between.  During the 1770s and 1780, the idea of an American monarch presiding over a new American nation defined by something similar to historic British liberties was still very much in play.

Stay tuned for our next segment in which we will discuss Metaxas’s view of the First Great Awakening and George Whitefield.

Project Reading

Here are my continued 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 reread Patrick Griffin‘s excellent, The People With No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764. I actually reviewed this book about ten years ago for the Journal of Presbyterian History, but this time around I was reading it with different eyes–the eyes of a historian working on a specific project related to Presbyterian life in the era of the American Revolution.

Griffin’s central argument is that eighteenth-century Ulster Presbyterians reinvented themselves as full-fledged members of the British Empire despite living lives on the geographical margins of that Empire. They did this by embracing mobility, Reformed Protestantism, and the language of British rights.

One of Griffin’s subtle arguments in the book centers on the identity of post-Great Awakening Presbyterians in British North America.  While he does not deny that Old Side and New Side Presbyterians had their differences following the 1758 reunion, he tends stress the sense of unity and consolidation that emerged in the wake of these divisive revivals.

Only a few historians have noticed the culture of consensus that emerged in the denomination between roughly 1745 and 1770.  Over half a century ago, Dietmar Rothermund developed this trend toward unity in Layman’s Progress: Religious and Political Experience in Colonial Pennsylvania. Robert Ferguson (The American Enlightenment) and Steven Bullock (Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order) also discuss it, albeit in the larger context of pre-revolutionary culture.

Griffin attributes this post-Awakening unity to a growing sense of Britishness among the Ulster Presbyterians in America,  He writes (p. 158):  “By the 1760s, these men and women achieved elusive unity after years of socioeconomic and religious strife.  They overcame division by rallying around a familiar concept, Britishness.”

In The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I also explored in depth this sense of community, harmony, and solidarity among post-Awakening Presbyterians, but I chalked it up to the influence of the British Enlightenment on the denomination and its leaders.  I think Griffin and I were barking up the same tree.

Why is this renewed sense of unity so important?  It is important because Presbyterians had to overcome their Great Awakening differences as a prerequisite for the establishment of a nearly unified front against what they perceived to be the tyranny of the British Empire in the years between 1765 and 1776.  This is the way I hope to take my argument in this project, expanding on what I wrote in The Way of Improvement Leads Home and what I argued in a 2008 essay in the Journal of Presbyterian History entitled “In Search of Unity: Presbyterians in the Wake of the First Great Awakening.”

Of course little of this historiographical nitpicking will find its way into my manuscript.  I am trying to write this book for a general audience and I am afraid that many readers unfamiliar or uninterested in Presbyterian history may find this stuff a bit dry.  This was a problem I faced in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Scholars of early American religion liked the first couple of chapters dealing with Presbyterian post-Awakening politics, but I lost a lot of my general, non-scholarly readers in those first two chapters–chapters that I thought were necessary to set the context for Philip Vickers Fithian’s life.  Many general readers who came to public talks where I expounded on Fithian’s fascinating life story told me later that they skipped over the first two chapters and picked up the story in chapter three, the point in the book where the biographical narrative begins to pick-up steam. The challenge for this project will be finding a way to tell this story of post-Awakening unity without losing my readership as the narrative builds toward the Revolution.

I want to mention a few things about Griffin’s take on the Paxton Riots as well, but I will save that for my next “Project Reading” post.