Imagine a new land colonized by peoples from many countries. They push aside the natives, who offer varying degrees of violent resistance and are put down with merciless force. Imagine that after a perennial series of skirmishes between colonial powers, one of them finally wins—but then loses control after the colonists confederate and successfully fight for their independence. The former colonies, now independent states, soon fall to quarreling with one another, and a breakup is threatened. It is averted by the creation of a new central government, but before long the government is shaken by party strife, personal rivalries, and internal rebellions. Some of the states threaten secession. Foreign nations intrigue and attempt to intervene, and a new international war breaks out; the country is invaded and the Capitol is burned.
The story seems to be headed for a quick ending, doesn’t it? And these were only the surface manifestations. Beneath the storm of politics were the social upheavals: the breakup of families as children left home to seek better lands in the west, or as family members quarreled over politics; the abuses of freedom, from excessive drinking and gambling to dueling and rioting; the mounting tensions over slavery, tensions which were already creating new regional and cultural divisions in the country. America was coming unglued.
That the young nation not only managed to survive this critical period but to flourish, expand, and become a mighty continental power is testimony to an American genius for reaching beyond differences to find the sources of unity. But what were those sources? What made America stick together through an extremely critical period in its history? Three recent works by American historians shed light on these questions, first by describing the diverse, often conflicting energies unleashed in America during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then by giving us some glimpses of what finally helped to control those energies.
The first of these books, Jon Butler’s Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 (Harvard University Press, 320 pp., $27.95), is a sweeping view of British North America in the period 1680–1776. The setting looks serene today: the rolling landscape, the gabled houses, the white–steepled churches. What in fact was happening, Butler writes, was “a revolution that utterly transformed the original seventeenth–century British colonies, marking the creation of the first modern society in Britain’s colonies before independence.” A huge leap in transatlantic trade produced a corresponding increase in the standard of living, evident in everything from furniture to diet. (At the time of the Revolution, American soldiers were on average 3 to 3.5 inches taller than the British Royal Marines.) Literacy rates, especially in New England, far exceeded those anyplace in Europe, and these, together with a flourishing economy and a proliferation of newspapers, helped turn the country into what Butler calls “a raucous political hothouse.”
Butler’s book is fact–laden, so much so that it takes some effort to perceive its larger themes. The one that stands out most clearly is his account of the growing social diversity in America, which began early in the eighteenth century. We tend to think of the colonists as British, but it was Germans who constituted the largest European immigrant group between 1710 and 1770; at least 85,000 of them had arrived, along with significant numbers of Scots, Swiss, Swedes, and French. And Africans: from 1770 down to the American Revolution there were more African immigrants (involuntary, to be sure) than all European immigrants combined. Ten percent died in passage, and most of those who landed didn’t live long, but by 1760 African slaves constituted almost 40 percent of Virginia’s population and more than two–thirds of South Carolina’s. There were slaves in the North, too, but in few Northern states did they amount to more than 10 percent of the population. (In Massachusetts they barely exceeded 2 percent.) Because of slavery, Southern farmers were much wealthier than their Middle or Northern counterparts; sectional rivalries thus began as a result of what was rapidly becoming the South’s “peculiar institution.”
What about opposition to slavery? Butler gives little attention to this question. We know from other sources, including the two other books under review, that the force most subversive of slavery was religion. Some secular republicans realized that there was something a little strange about demanding liberty while keeping people in chains, but others insisted that that was just the point: they didn’t want to be treated the way they treated blacks! It took Christianity to turn the discussion from whiggish liberties to the deeper question of human brotherhood. The first antislavery tract in America, written by a Puritan named Samuel Sewall, compared slavery to the selling of Joseph into bondage by his brothers. That was the message carried to the public by Christian evangelicals and Quakers.
Butler’s discussion of religion appears largely within the theme of diversity: what fascinates him is the sheer number and variety of religious groups. Here his documentation is exhaustive, perhaps at times excessive. (“About 110 Protestant congregations had been established in New England by the first Puritans before 1680. But 80 more congregations were organized there between 1680 and 1710 alone, 300 were added between 1710 and 1740, and another 400 . . .”) At one point he starts to discuss traditional African religions in America, but then acknowledges “how little evidence exists that documents traditional African religious practice in Britain’s mainland colonies.” This leads him to infer that an “African spiritual holocaust” must have occurred. He dismisses the possibility that the African religions themselves may have lacked whatever it took to survive competition with Christianity, for those religions “bore breathtakingly expansive worldviews, theories of causality, systems of moral obligation, and supernatural vitality.” Then, having piqued our curiosity about those vital and expansive religions, he drops the subject.
Butler spends little time discussing the social effects of religion, apparently because he doesn’t think that there were many. There was a spate of church–building—“the sacralization of the landscape,” he calls it—but that was more than matched, he thinks, by the secularization of public discourse. The rhetoric of the time had its “origins” in religion and reflected “a kind of generic Protestantism,” but was conducted on the basis of arguments “characteristic of the secular eighteenth–century Enlightenment.” His evidence for this generalization is thin. He makes a fleeting reference to “many authors, including those who wrote for New York’s Independent Reflector,” and, in an earlier section, singles out John Adams as typical of those New Englanders who transformed their religion from the Puritan “conversion experience” to Enlightenment “civic morality.” Left out of account is the huge deposit of eighteenth–century pulpit oratory, from that of patriots like Samuel Langdon to the (often ill–received) Tory sermons of Jonathan Boucher and others. These sermons were based not on “civic morality” but on biblical Christianity, the religion of about 95 percent of Americans at that time. If the patriots fighting at Lexington and Concord were reading anything, it was most likely not Locke or Sydney but the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.
Nevertheless, Butler’s account of religion among political elites in the eighteenth century sounds about right. While few were actually Deists, their references to God tended to be rather distant and formal. God was “Divine Providence,” “the Creator,” or, in the ambiguous phrasing of the Declaration of Independence, “Nature and Nature’s God.” The social utility of religion was readily acknowledged. George Washington insisted that religion was one of the two “great pillars of human happiness,” the other being morality; and morality could not prevail “in exclusion of religious principle.” Even Ben Franklin abandoned Deism after concluding that it was not morally “useful.” But to find political discourse conveyed in a specifically Christian narrative we must either go back to the previous century or go forward to the next, when the leaven of revivalism had worked its way into American culture.
Butler’s book provides a useful account of forces in America set in motion early in the eighteenth century: the kaleidoscopic movement of nationalities and religions, the rapid growth of the economy, the new passion for display, the regional tensions, the tumultuous politics facilitated by newspapers and taverns. What the book does not tell us is what it was that finally contained these forces. For insights into that we can start with Dee Andrews’ account of the Methodists in America during the eighteenth century (The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760–1800, Princeton University Press, 352 pp., $59.50). As Andrews notes, historians have tended to lump together all the evangelicals participating in the Second Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals that began in the early 1800s. But Methodism deserves pride of place. By 1800 there were more Methodists than the followers of any other religious group in America, and the middle years of the nineteenth century were dubbed “the Methodist Age” by informed religious observers.
Though founded by an Englishman, John Wesley, as an Anglican missionary society, Methodism was always somehow involved in America. Wesley, who began as a devout Anglican priest, was sent to Georgia in 1735 to head a missionary society. Another early American influence on Wesley was a book by Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Edwards, the famous New England theologian and preacher associated with the First Great Awakening, persuaded Wesley that the ecstatic outbursts of religious “enthusiasts” were truly the work of the Holy Spirit.
Still, Methodism did not get off to a promising start in America. Wesley’s missionary work did not go well (after two years he returned to England), and he opposed American independence, which alienated American patriots during the Revolution. By 1784, however, he was thoroughly reconciled to an independent America, and within ten years after the close of the war, Methodism had adapted itself to the new nation more successfully than any other religion.
How did it happen, Andrews asks, that a British missionary society with little sympathy for American independence ended up with so many American adherents? Her answer seems to be that Methodism did a better job than any other religion in adapting itself to the conditions of America and its yearnings. What most distinguished Methodism from other kinds of Protestantism was its “missionary core,” which gave it an “unparalleled structure for continental expansion.” Tanned Methodist circuit–riders, their saddlebags bulging with clothes, medicines, and hymnals, carried evangelism to the edges of the frontier, while in the growing cities of the East, Methodist chapels were crowded with laborers, artisans, slaves, and manumitted freemen. Methodism was a religion of the upward–aspiring at a time when “self–improvement” was itself almost a religion in America. Unlike the earlier Puritans, Methodists did not spend much time in brooding self–examination. Their free–will theology—the one Anglican inheritance they preserved—encouraged them to take control of their lives, and, notwithstanding the shouts and “groanings” of Methodist camp meetings, their denomination soon became associated with sobriety and respectability.
Did Methodism help to bring the nation together? Andrews does not directly raise this question, but I think her answer to it would be a qualified yes. In some respects Methodism was a divisive religion. Andrews describes a number of cases in which Methodist conversions challenged old patterns of deference within families, creating conflict between parents and children, husbands and wives. The Methodists’ early opposition to slavery, even though it was later toned down, widened another kind of division, this one between North and South.
Yet there were powerfully binding forces in the Methodist faith. It was a “big tent” religion (a particularly apt metaphor, since its outdoor meetings were often conducted in large tents); it welcomed blacks and women into its ranks, and even elevated some to leadership positions; later, when some congregations attempted to marginalize blacks, independent black Methodist churches were formed. The ambition of Methodism was also broad and inclusive. Its goal, said one of its promoters, was to “reform the continent and spread scripture–holiness over these lands.” It reached out to people with little or no religious experience—people, Andrews writes, “as unmoored from past traditions as republican radicals like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson hoped Americans would be”—and brought them back into the Christian fold. Methodists were horrified by the dechristianizing campaign of the French Revolution, even though its target was the hated Catholic Church, and they helped to forge the American synthesis—which has always amazed French observers—of progressive politics and religious piety.
Inheriting the Revolution (Harvard University Press, 320 pp., $26), historian Joyce Oldham Appleby’s account of the generation of Americans born between 1776 and 1800, expands on some of the points made by Butler and Andrews. Where Butler writes about pluralism in pre–revolutionary America, Appleby tells us about pluralism run amok among the generation born after the Revolution. She cites DeWitt Clinton’s lament that a “violent spirit has split society asunder, has poisoned the intercourse of private life, has spread gloom over our literature, has infected the national taste, and has palsied the general prosperity.” America had broken with England, but now it seemed to many that the nation itself was falling apart, dissolving into warring factions. Looking back on those times, Appleby asks: “Could a people split into a dozen religions, shedding the social forms that separated mechanics from militia majors, divided between native–born and naturalized citizens, ever unify? And if so, on which and whose terms?” To the first question we know the answer. To the second question her answer is that in large measure the terms were set by evangelical Christianity.
The political radicals of the late eighteenth century made their own contribution to American democracy by establishing a system designed “to include most white men and a few black ones in the citizenry.” But then they “rested on their oars.” The task of pulling together the diverse groups within the new nation was undertaken by the leaders of the religious revival movements of the early nineteenth century, and they did it by infusing “their Christian morals into Americans’ public and personal lives.” Appleby writes evocatively about the role of the religious revivals in “arousing the slumbering spiritual longings of Americans,” awakening them “to the Christian message of love and change.” “Husbands and wives,” she notes, “drew closer together in communities of strangers; slaves found comfort, as did many others, in the promises held out by those who claimed Jesus as their Lord.”
It was not all sweetness and light. Like Andrews, Appleby notes that the new churches “played havoc with families,” sometimes setting spouses and siblings against one another, “and most threateningly, the young against the old.” Yet, also like Andrews, Appleby thinks that the end result of the revival movement was to provide a “moral compass” for believers, “an instrument of rare utility in a society with so much uncharted terrain.” Despite all the Christian denominations, she says, they were held in a common Protestant orthodoxy, an orthodoxy not of doctrine but of culture.
Evangelical Protestants had converged on the same values. They all sought a Christian America awakened to its missionary destiny and promoted a common set of qualities in their converts: they all wanted piety expressed in virtuous habits and good faith.
Those directly touched by the revivals of the early 1800s amounted to a quarter of the nation, but their values permeated the larger society, pulling it together at a time when politics threatened to tear it apart. Evangelical Christianity did not spare the nation its worst rupture in the 1860s. But when the Civil War was all but over and it came time “to bind up the nation’s wounds,” Abraham Lincoln spoke not of law or of rights but of reconciliation, healing, and renewal—the language of the revivals.
Taken together, the three books probe some of the thorniest questions of American identity. What was America, and what made it America? What stamped this country with the unique, identifiable character that we call American? What Butler highlights is young America’s astounding record of growth, modernization, and social diversification; these combined features, he suggests, are what distinguished America from other nations in the world. But what kind of glue held it all together?
Some might say that the question is meaningless, or at least unnecessary. They would contend that America did not have to have any grand principle of unity beyond the desire of its people to find a decent life for themselves. That seemed to be the view of Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a Frenchman who lived in America for a time in the eighteenth century and later wrote Notes from an American Farmer. Like Butler, he was impressed by the sheer diversity of the new land. (“I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations.”) What held the country together? Self–interest, he answered, made possible by “indulgent laws” that allowed people to work hard and prosper. But what happened when these self–interested folk started bumping into each other? What happened when, as DeWitt Clinton put it, colliding factions threatened to “split society asunder”? Didn’t the nation need some unifying principles?
For secular–minded republicans, the answer has always been: yes, the nation needed principles, and it had (and has) them. James Madison pointed to the principle of checks and balances and the commitment to a large republic, both designed to control the effects of faction. Other principles commonly embraced by Americans include constitutionalism, free speech, majority rule, minority rights, honesty, fair play, and equality of opportunity. Weren’t—and aren’t—these values enough to hold America together, or at least to keep its conflicts from getting out of hand?
The only problem here, as Appleby intimates, is that these principles don’t grip the hearts of ordinary people. They are splendid concepts, but they don’t go deeply enough, they don’t tap the elemental juices. If people hate one another, republican virtues aren’t going to bring them together; more likely they will become strategic weapons. So, for example, if one side loses under majority rule, it will invoke the principle of minority rights and carry the fight to the courts. Even a common commitment to equality is not enough to bridge angry differences over race relations in America—as is evident today in affirmative action controversy, where each side claims the mantle of civil rights. The mucilage for holding society together has to be made of thicker stuff than civic idealism.
In Appleby’s view, and perhaps in Andrews’, what finally brought Americans together in the early 1800s was evangelical Protestantism. Here was a faith that reached directly into the hearts of millions and then spread into the general culture. It was a religion not of dogmas and rituals but of ecstatic, life–changing experiences, and it packed enough emotional punch to break through longstanding social barriers—people usually seen as “the others” now could be called “brothers” and “sisters.” Moreover, it gave Americans a common, austere morality that kept freedom from degenerating into license, prompting Alexis de Tocqueville, who had visited America in the 1830s, to remark that “while the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare.”
We know the shortcomings of evangelical Protestantism. It often fell short of its promise of interracial brotherhood. In recounting his life as a slave, Frederick Douglass claimed that his master became especially abusive every time he came back from a revival meeting (although, as Andrews notes, Douglass himself worshipped at a Methodist chapel in Baltimore before escaping to the North). The evangelicals were also less than charitable toward fellow Christians of the Roman Catholic persuasion. Their blind hatred of “popery” put them on a collision course with the masses of Irish who arrived in the 1840s and ’50s. The evangelicals’ initial indifference to higher education put them on a different sort of collision course, this one with the scientific community, that culminated a century later in foolish campaigns against the teaching of evolution.
In recent times, evangelical Protestantism has demonstrated its resilience and adaptability. Without sacrificing its core beliefs, it has broadened its appeal and made common cause with other groups, including Catholics. Its participation in these broader coalitions shouldn’t surprise us, since many of the developments in modern America that are morally troubling to evangelicals are just as troubling to many other Americans. Is it possible, then, that there might be some new, more ecumenical “awakening” that could emerge from these shared concerns? No, not when it is put that way. Stirrings of the spirit can’t be conjured up by moral reformers. Still, we know that these stirrings have occurred a number of times in the past (by some counts, there were four “Great Awakenings”), and we have no reason to think that there won’t be more in the future. While their etiology will always elude us, it appears that they arrive during periods of turmoil, confusion, and drift, and that they leave only after they have deepened America’s moral understanding of itself. Perhaps, then, Americans have not yet finished “becoming America.”
George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.