<<

. 46
( 52 .)



>>

“• James Otis, The rights of the British colonies asserted and proved (Boston, 1764), in B. Bailyn
(ed.), Pamphlets of the American revolution 1750“1776, vol. I, 1750“1765 (Cambridge,
MA, 1965), p. 441.
268 Points of contact

political culture.“’ The Norman Yoke thesis appeared too in one of the
most inXuential pamphlets of 1776, Tom Paine™s Common sense, which
was scathing in its denigration of the Conquest: ˜A French bastard
landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England
against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally
original.™““
Americans were not all subscribers to the Norman Yoke thesis. How-
ever, there appears to have been a widespread view that English constitu-
tional history since the Saxon golden age had been, for one reason or
another, a story of decline and corruption. The Virginian politician
Richard Bland (1710“76), writing in 1766 against the taxation of the
colonies by the metropolis, claimed that it was the legislation of the reign
of Henry VI restricting the county franchise to forty-shilling freeholders
which had fatally undermined the ancient freeholding democracy of the
Anglo-Saxon constitution.““
Anglo-Saxonism was a fundamental component of the republican
ideology of corruption which has been shown to be the dominant ideo-
logical motivation behind the Revolution. Gothicism added a vivid emot-
ive ethnocentric dimension to the revolutionary language of civic human-
ism. The Anglo-Saxons with their local tithings and hundreds embodied
the republican ideal of participatory self-governance, while in their sim-
plicity of lifestyle they represented something of a native English Sparta.
In this way the dependence of liberty on virtuous manners came to be
illustrated not only by classical exempla but also with reference to the
familiar course of English history. English freedom had been at its most
vigorous, unrestrained and democratical in an era while the Saxon race of
independent sturdy plain-living yeomen had yet to taste the fruits of
luxury. Thus the history of England blended with the message of com-
monwealth ideology and the ideals of the non-importationist ˜homespun™
movement championed by American patriots.“”
Saxonist primitivism was an important ingredient in the common-
wealth idiom identiWed by Bailyn as the crucial ideological conWguration
of American patriots.“» Worried colonists used the ready-made code of
“’ Colbourn, ˜Dickinson™, 278; Colbourn, Lamp of experience, pp. 153, 159; Colbourn,
˜Thomas JeVerson™s use of the past™, WMQ 3rd ser. 15 (1958), 64.
““ Thomas Paine, Common sense (1776), in Paine, Political writings (ed. B. Kuklick, Cam-
bridge, 1989), p. 13.
““ Richard Bland, An inquiry into the rights of the British colonies (Williamsburg, 1766), in
C. Hyneman and D. Lutz (eds.), American political writing during the founding era 1760“
1805 (2 vols., Indianapolis, 1983), I, pp. 70“1; Pole, Political representation, pp. 436“8, for
Plantagenet liberties and the suVrage restriction of 1430.
“” E. Morgan, ˜The Puritan ethic and the American revolution™, WMQ 3rd ser. 24 (1967),
3“43. For New England, see G. Nash, The urban crucible (Cambridge, MA, 1979),
p. 345.
Varieties of Gothicism in the British Atlantic world 269

oppositional whiggery to read between the lines of contemporary Wscal
reforms. Anxiety about tory conspiracies found conWrmation in the larger
picture of English constitutional degeneration. Although Saxonism was
only one contributing factor to the escalation of hostile posturing, and to
the raising of the ideological temperature of political debate, it was none
the less a vital one which gave Americans a powerful imaginative and
compelling sense of the values for which they were struggling. Moreover,
it persuaded conservative colonists that it was the mother country, not the
colonists, which was innovating and perverting accepted historic ways.
Thus the eventual break towards independence could be presented less as
a novel bid for separatism, and more as an attempt to construct a cordon
sanitaire between an enervated motherland whose corrupt people, sunk
in luxury and eVeminacy, had forgotten their ancient libertarian manners,
and the vigorous, virtuous and, as yet, uncorrupted colonists of North
America who were striving to preserve their ancestral freedoms.“¦
The American version of the English Gothic heritage was prelapsarian.
It was the desire to recover a lost Englishness in a new Eden which
transformed a heightened admiration for the English libertarian heritage
into a drive for independence from the beloved mother country. Ameri-
can independence was part of a project of restoration “ restoring to the
descendants of the free Anglo-Saxons an ancient constitution which had
been progressively corrupted in England itself. Americanisation was part
of an attempt to realise an idealised Englishness, to recover a golden age.“ 
Colonial political culture had nurtured a Gothic fantasy of England
which the motherland could not sustain. In the process of disenchant-
ment, Americans began to perceive the English nation as alien to the
authentic values of English nationhood as preserved in the North Ameri-
can colonies. Independence became, in a sense, the only viable option for
the maintenance and repair of the moth-eaten fabric of Anglo-Saxon
liberty.
The strategy of imperial reform and retrenchment which followed the
Seven Years™ War appeared to endanger the loose arrangements under
which the colonies had developed assemblies, modelled on the mother
parliament, which had the customary right to control taxation. Gren-
ville™s plans threatened the rights of overseas Englishmen to withhold
consent from taxation through their own parliamentary institutions.“À
American fears were compounded by the legacy of the Revolutions of

“» Wood, Creation of American republic, p. 31.
“¦ Bailyn, Ideological origins; Wood, Creation of the American republic, p. 36; J. G. A. Pocock,
The Machiavellian moment (Princeton, 1975), pp. 507“8.
“  F. McDonald, Novus ordo seclorum (Lawrence, KS, 1985), p. 76.
“À MiddlekauV, Glorious cause, pp. 126“7.
270 Points of contact

1689 when the colonists had, on word of the Glorious Revolution in
England, rebelled in their respective colonies against the existing re-
gimes.“Ã The association of these colonial revolts against imperial reform
with what was perceived as a revolution to preserve the ancient constitu-
tion in the motherland created an ideological framework through which
to view the events of the 1760s and 1770s. It seemed natural to connect a
new batch of imperial reforms with further threats at home to England™s
traditional constitution and liberties.
Moreover, the threat to the existing privileges of the colonial assemblies
coincided with the appearance of the new strain of Saxonism in English
radical polemic. The reception of this radical Gothicism among the
frightened colonists enabled patriot pamphleteers to exacerbate anxieties
about Wscal measures by tracing their provenance to the wider corruption
of the English constitution. Saxonist history helped both to reinforce this
picture of a degenerate, oppressive Normanist England, which had fallen
prey to the forces of tyranny, and to point up the contrast with the free
˜Saxon™ colonies of America.
American patriots challenged parliamentary sovereignty only when it
threatened their customary rights and the status of their colonial assem-
blies, but they did not reject English identity outright. According to John
Murrin, the colonists demanded the common rights of Englishmen, ˜not
unique privileges for Americans™.“• They insisted that they were as Eng-
lish as metropolitan Englishmen, and feared that their location on the
margins of the English world might result in exclusion from their full
heritage of entitlements. William Hickes wrote: ˜As a colonist my most
ambitious views extend no further than the rights of a British subject. I
cannot comprehend how my being born in America should divest me of
this . . . If we are entitled to the liberties of British subjects we ought to
enjoy them unlimited and unrestrained.™“’
This assertive English ˜provincialism™ coincided with the reception of
the full-blown interpretation of English constitutional corruption. Trans-
atlantic distance reinforced a misreading of English politics: the rhetorical
strategies of ousted Old Corps whigs, which included a Xirtation with
oppositional ideology, were accepted as gospel. The myth of a revived
neo-toryism under George III and his favourite, the unfortunately sur-
named John Stuart, Lord Bute, heightened the sense that the threatened
Englishness of the North American peripheries was the authentic Anglo-
Saxon libertarian tradition, unlike the bastardised tory Normanism of
George III™s England. As well as dramatising the “ technical and negoti-
“Ã D. Lovejoy, The Glorious Revolution in America (New York, 1972).
“• Murrin, ˜Roof without walls™, p. 340.
“’ William Hicks, The nature and extent of parliamentary power (Philadelphia, 1768), p. xi.
Varieties of Gothicism in the British Atlantic world 271

able “ diVerences with Westminster, Gothicism also salved consciences in
America about breaking allegiance. Patriots contended that the mother
country which had changed, but not America, which remained true to
historic English values. Hence, as Wood points out, the break from
England did not entail a departure from the principles of the ancient
English constitution, only from their supposed perversion under a de-
based regime.““
The events of 1776 were a revolt in defence of existing privileges, not a
movement to liberate an oppressed nationhood. There was no American
national consciousness, and even the sense of an American national
interest was embryonic: as late as 1754 the colonists had proved indiVer-
ent to the Albany Plan of Union, a scheme for intercolonial co-operation
in the interests of imperial defence against the French.““ Given the lack of
a distinctive ˜American™ identity, the transition from colonial loyalism in
1763 to ˜American™ independence in 1776 is hard to explain. The Calvin-
ist resistance theories held by the Congregationalists of New England and
the presbyterians of the middle colonies go some way towards accounting
for rebellion,“” but not for the escalation towards nationalism. The same
proviso holds true for natural rights, which obviously enjoyed a wide
currency during the 1770s. Indeed, natural rights “ to enjoy trial by jury,
to be governed by consent and to be taxed through one™s own parliamen-
tary bodies “ were scarcely distinguishable from English liberties, and
often yoked together.”» Although the language of natural rights was not
limited in its appeal to any one constituency within the colonies, it lacked
the emotive force of other “ more particular “ ideological formations,
whether ethnic or confessional.”¦ It seems unlikely that natural rights

““ Wood, Creation of the American republic, pp. 32“3, 200“2.
““ Greene, Peripheries, pp. 157“8; R. Merritt, Symbols of American community, 1735“1775
(New Haven, 1966); A. G. Olson, ˜The British government and the colonial union,
1754™, WMQ 3rd ser. 17 (1960), 22“34; J. Bumsted, ˜˜˜Things in the womb of time™™:
ideas of American independence, 1633 to 1763™, WMQ 3rd ser. 31 (1974), 533“64;
E. Marienstras, ˜Nationality and citizenship™, in J. P. Greene and J. R. Pole (eds.),
Blackwell encyclopedia of the American revolution (Cambridge, MA, and Oxford, 1991), pp.
669“72.
“” A. Baldwin, The New England clergy and the American revolution (Durham, NC, 1928);
B. Bailyn, ˜Religion and revolution: three biographical studies™, Perspectives in American
History 4 (1970), 85“169; J. C. D. Clark, The language of liberty 1660“1832 (Cambridge,
1994), pp. 122“3, 264“6, 276.
”» For a historiographically sophisticated refurbishment of natural rights ˜liberalism™, see
T. H. Breen, ˜Ideology and nationalism on the eve of the American revolution™, Journal of
American History 84 (1997), 13“39, which quotes the Newport Mercury, 14 September
1767: ˜To enjoy our natural rights and the liberties of English subjects, is the supreme
felicity of mankind . . . Natural rights, and the liberty of English subjects undoubtedly
belong to Americans™ (38).
”¦ See Bonomi, Under the cope of heaven, which presents a convincing case of emotional
mobilisation drawing upon existing tensions arising out of the Great Awakening.
272 Points of contact

alone were used to construct the imaginative platform which bridged the
distance between the negative rhetoric of grievance and the visionary
rhetoric of nation-building.
There was no single route across this bridge. The New England errand
into the wilderness, the millennialist message of struggle with such forces
of evil as the papacy and the corrupt monarchy of George III and the
history of Saxon freedom together provided complementary myths of
America™s situation capable of subverting traditional allegiances. Millen-
nialism contributed to the emergence of the dispute between the colonies
and the government of the mother country as a clash between virtuous
freedom and a dark tyranny.”  To some extent the glorious providential
history of New England was able to provide an identity for Americans
struggling for independence from the mother country. Until the middle of
the seventeenth century, New England identity had been orientated
towards the reformation of England. The Restoration led to a reorienta-
tion of New England identity as an overseas refuge from a fallen England.
Henceforth, New England provided a model for the rejection of English-
ness.”À However, the New England tradition had little resonance in the
middle and southern colonies. Saxonism, on the other hand, was not
limited geographically in its inXuence.
Gothicism featured prominently within the political thought of the
leading patriots both in New England and in Virginia. In Massachusetts
John Adams (1735“1826) spoke the language of Gothicist radicalism and
used it to anchor his sense of identity: in his view, Hengist and Horsa were
˜the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honour of being descended,
and whose political principles and form of government we have as-
sumed™.”à One of Adams™s principal works of polemic, and his earliest
claim to ˜patriot™ fame, was a series of essays entitled ˜Dissertation on the
Bonomi™s nuanced study of the ways in which conXicts between Old Lights and New
Lights (including Old and New Side presbyterians) created an intercolonial culture of
public contestation provides a more convincing link between the Great Awakening and
the Revolution than the pioneering work of A. Heimert, Religion and the American mind
from the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1966). For the role of
anti-episcopal campaigns in mobilising patriot opinion, see C. Bridenbaugh, Mitre and
sceptre (New York, 1962); W. Hogue, ˜The religious conspiracy theory of the American
revolution™, Church History 45 (1976), 277“92.
”  See e.g. J. Berens, Providence and patriotism in early America, 1640“1815 (Charlottesville,
VA, 1978); C. Beam, ˜Millennialism and American nationalism, 1740“1800™, Journal of
Presbyterian History 54 (1976), 182“99; Bloch, Visionary republic; M. Lowance Jr, ˜Typol-
ogy and millennial eschatology in early New England™, in E. Miner (ed.), Literary uses of
typology from the late middle ages to the present (Princeton, 1977); S. Bercovitch, The Puritan
origins of the American self (New Haven, 1975). However, for a corrective, see M. Endy,
˜Just war, holy war and millennialism in revolutionary America™, WMQ 3rd ser. 42
(1985), 3“25. For the convergence of republican and millennialist discourse, see
N. Hatch, The sacred cause of liberty: republican thought and the millennium in Revolutionary
New England (New Haven, 1977). ”À Stout, New England soul, ch. 3.
ӈ Quoted in Colbourn, Lamp of experience, p. 171.
Varieties of Gothicism in the British Atlantic world 273

canon or feudal law™. Adams was an anti-feudalist, though he fell short of
the full-blown commitment to allodial tenures found in the writings of
Thomas JeVerson (1743“1826). Concerning the English settlers in
America, Adams wrote:

To have holden their lands allodially, or for every man to have been the sovereign
lord and proprietor of the ground he occupied, would have constituted a govern-
ment too nearly like a commonwealth. They were contented, therefore, to hold
their lands of their king, as their sovereign lord; and to him they were willing to
render homage, but to no mesne or subordinate lords; nor were they willing to
submit to any of the baser services. In all this they were so strenuous, that they
have even transmitted to their posterity a very general contempt and detestation
of holding by quitrents.”•

It was this approach to the feudal corruptions of England which inspired
in Adams a sense of American diVerence from the motherland: ˜The
canon and feudal systems, though greatly mutilated in England, are not
yet destroyed. Like the temples and palaces in which the great contrivers
of them once worshipped, they exist in ruins; and much of the domineer-
ing spirit of them still remains.™”’
In Virginia JeVerson articulated a similar strain of radical Gothicism.
JeVerson™s lifelong obsession with the English Saxon past began through
his connection with George Wythe, in whose practice he began his legal
training in 1762.”“ The history of the common law was for JeVerson, as for
so many other colonial patriots, the foundation of their Anglo-Saxonism,
though for JeVerson his fascination with Anglo-Saxon culture was to
extend far beyond the obvious terrain of legal shibboleths into the more
obscure areas of ecclesiastical antiquities and Saxon philology.”“ His
Saxonism remained a vital aspect of JeVerson™s political personality, and
was signiWcant not only in stirring his patriotic opposition to Westmin-
ster, but also in determining the radical version of American politics
which he espoused, and which he transmitted to posterity as the JeVer-

<<

. 46
( 52 .)



>>