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 recently reread Kevin Kenny’s Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment.  It is a wonderful introduction to the Paxton Boys story and I highly recommend it.  While Peter Silver interprets the Paxton saga through the lens of race, and Patrick Griffin interprets it through the lens of British liberties, Kenny argues that the Paxton Boys were motivated largely by a desire for land, personal security, and vengeance.  As he writes on p. 231: “Their concerns remained, as ever, resolutely local.”

Kenny spends more time than Griffin and Silver exploring the Paxton Riots in the context of Presbyterianism, but religion is not his primary interpretive lens.  After reading Peaceable Kingdom Lost I think I can put together a pretty good narrative chapter on the riots as a Presbyterian event so I decided to submit a proposal to this conference.  I typed it up in a hotel room in Indiana, PA the night before one of my daughter’s volleyball tournaments and submitted it with an hour to spare before February 1 (the deadline for submissions) came to an end.  (The next morning my daughter told me she was mad at me for not getting this done sooner as she needed her rest for the tournament.  I felt much better after they won the tournament!). 

I am still trying to figure out how and if to explain the Paxton Riots in the context of the American Revolution.  Contrary to many nineteenth and twentieth-century historians, Kenny makes it clear that the Paxton Boys were not harbingers of the American Revolution in the sense that they fought for “liberty and equality for all.”  While they fought against propriety privilege in colonial Pennsylvania, they were more concerned with self and local interests.

For Kenny, the Paxton Boys were harbingers of the American Revolution in the sense that their harsh treatment of native Americans reached “fruition during the American Revolution, when exterminating the Indians became an act of patriotism.”

From reading Silver, Griffin, and Kenny I have collected a nice list of primary sources that I need to read.  I am putting together a comprehensive list of Paxton-related pamphlets and will soon be making the ten mile trip to the Dauphin County Historical Society to read the papers of John Elder.

Stay tuned.

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 want to continue with my thoughts on Patrick Griffin, The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764.

Griffin offers a slightly different interpretation of the Paxton Riots than Peter Silver does in Our Savage Neighbors. As I discussed in a previous post in this series, Silver’s interpretation of the riots is focused almost entirely on race.  Griffin, while not ignoring that race was a factor, interprets the riots through British rights language.  In other words, the Paxton Boys believed that they had legitimate grievances against the Pennsylvania Assembly. They did not feel that they were being represented by the provincial government and thought that the government was not doing enough to deal with the Indian problem on the frontier in the wake of Pontiac’s Rebellion.  The riots were a manifestation of their fight for the rights afforded to all British subjects. Griffin writes:

But the [Indian] wars had revealed as never before their [Scots-Irish] marginal status in Pennsylvania and their impotent voice in an empire that they believed they had a significant hand in fashioning and defending.  

And this:

…for these people holed up in small forts in times of dangers on a bleeding frontier or fleeing east from dispossessed Indians, British liberty took on new, troubling meanings.  Britishness underscored a right to life and property, a liberty that negligent government officials alienated at their own peril.  For frontier settlers, however, the unifying logic of such concepts could also justify the slaughter of Indians both hostile and friendly.

Griffin’s book has me more optimistic about the possibility of a religious (Presbyterian) interpretation of the Paxton riots.

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.

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.

Project Reading

Last night I finished Richard Alan Ryerson’s masterful The Revolution is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia.  (I am glad to see that the University of Pennsylvania Press has issued a new edition of this classic).  Ryerson’s book first appeared in 1978, but it remains the best treatment of the complicated system of radical committees that were created in Philadelphia in the decade prior to independence.

The Revolution is Now Begun provided me with a good historical background to the revolution in Philadelphia, but it also confirmed my belief that the story of Presbyterians and the American Revolution needs to be told.  Ryerson was sensitive to the role of Presbyterians in the Philadelphia Revolution, but only to a point.  His book reminded me that Presbyterian politics in Philadelphia was much more dominant in the mid-1760s and in the immediate wake of the Revolution than it was between 1765 and 1776.

Having said that, Presbyterians still played an important role in the coming of the Revolution in Pennsylvania.  Ryerson’s book provided me with a cast of Presbyterian characters that I need to explore more fully.  These characters include Benjamin Rush, David Rittenhouse, Robert Smith, John Bayard, William Bradford, Joseph Deane, Thomas Barclay, Peter Chevalier, Thomas McKean, James Mease, Charles Thomson, and Joseph Reed.

I am looking to supplement my reading of Ryerson with James Hutson’s Pennsylvania Politics, 1746-70: Movement for Royal Government and its Consequences and Owen Ireland’s Religion, Ethnicity, and Politics: Ratifying the Constitution in Pennsylvania.  Stay tuned.