The Last War of Religion

David Armitage

  • The Language of Liberty, 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World by J.C.D. Clark
    Cambridge, 404 pp, £35.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 521 44510 8
  • The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Anti-Federalist Speeches, Articles and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification. Vol. I edited by Bernard Bailyn
    Library of America, 1214 pp, $35.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 940450 42 9

All rebellions resemble one another, but every revolution is revolutionary in its own way. The French wrote the classic modern script for revolution – utopian, transformative and bloody – but even they recognised that the prologue to their drama had been playing in America since 1776. When viewed from 1789 or 1793, however, the American Revolution looked distinctly unrevolutionary. No Louis lost his head after Lexington; no American Bastille was stormed; no Robespierre emerged among the staid Ciceros and Cincinnati of the founding generation. What, then, was so revolutionary about the American Revolution: the colonists’ successful rebellion against the British Crown, or the building of a nation under a novel Constitution which inspired the French to flattering imitation? Gordon Wood has argued powerfully, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), that the real revolution lay in the transformation of ‘a monarchical society into a democratic one unlike any that had ever existed’, though even this may underestimate its constitutional legacy. The United States resolved ancient political conundrums that still bedevil European and British politics, problems such as federal government, divided sovereignty, democratic rule over an extended territory and the separation of powers. Since the lessons of the ongoing American experiment are unknown to parts of Europe, notably Britain, the American Revolution may still be unfinished.

Looking back in 1818, John Adams asked a fundamental question: ‘But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.’ Historians have probed the hearts and minds of the people extensively of late, to explain both the origins of the rebellion and the consequences of the Revolution. They have argued over whether the Revolution’s roots lay in the works of John Locke or those of the English Commonwealthmen, in liberalism or Classical republicanism, in the language of natural rights or the discourse of civic virtue. At stake is the political identity of the United States itself, whether as the first of the liberal democracies or the last of the Classical republics.

A modern revolution is often imagined to be a secular millennium: the question of its religious roots has accordingly not bulked large in arguments over the American Revolution. Now that Jonathan Clark has discovered America, however, religion becomes the centrepiece of an interpretation which banishes all other explanations as anachronistic or incomplete. Clark is the man who put the Tory back into British history with his iconoclastic account of English Society 1688-1832 (1985), which painted England’s ancien régime as a hierarchical, aristocratic and monarchical society under the hegemony of the Church of England, buttressed by its bishops, defied only by Dissenters, and with no schisms wrought by ‘isms’ such as individualism, radicalism or liberalism. In his new book, the American colonies appear as the nightmare of that ancien régime, a serpent’s nest of republicans and Dissenters ready to throw off their allegiance to Parliament, Crown and Church in the name of natural rights and religious heterodoxy. Neither liberalism nor Classical republicanism can account for the Revolution or for its consequences because, Clark argues, ‘early-modern societies were essentially sectarian in their dynamics.’ American rebels did not perform their revolutionary task in Roman costume and with Roman phrases; they borrowed speech, passions and allusions from the Old Testament. When Clark’s real aim has been achieved, when the historiographical transformation of English Society has been accomplished for America, Habakkuk once more supplants Locke.

The American Revolution was not, then, the first of the democratic revolutions, it was the last of the wars of religion. This redescription effectively defamiliarises the Revolution, though how much it can explain is less clear. Clark leaves the term ‘war of religion’ undefined and seems unsure whether American events simply ‘retained the characteristics of a war of religion’, or if, more generally for the rebels, it was ‘a holy war, either in the literal sense that religion identified their enemy, predisposed them to resistance and vastly heightened the emotional temperature, or in the more general sense that patriotic zeal derived its force by analogy with religious enthusiasm’. The strong form of Clark’s thesis is based on three contentions: that the only important political ‘discourses’ in the early-modern Atlantic world were those of law and religion; that only within these discourses could disobedience be articulated and hence mobilised into rebellion; and that the target of such rebellion was the specifically ‘Anglican’ sovereign of King-in-Parliament born during the English Reformation, confirmed by the Restoration settlement, and pronounced mature after the Glorious Revolution. In the context of the British Atlantic world, the American Revolution was accordingly a ‘rebellion of natural law against common law and a rebellion of Dissent against hegemonic Anglicanism’ and these ‘were the same rebellion, since their target was the unified sovereign created by England’s unique constitutional and ecclesiastical development’.

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