In his important Revolutionary pamphlet, A summary view of the rights
of British America (1774), JeVerson posited a direct parallel between the
migrant German peoples who crossed the North Sea to settle in dark-age
England, and their descendants who had left England to establish over-
seas colonies in North America:
â€”Ã• Adams, â€˜A dissertation on the canon and feudal lawâ€™, in Adams, Works (Boston, 1865),
III, p. 455.
â€”Å’ Adams, â€˜Dissertation on the canon and feudal lawâ€™, III, p. 464.
â€”Å“ S. R. Hauer, â€˜Thomas JeVerson and the Anglo-Saxon languageâ€™, PMLA 98 (1983), 879;
M. Peterson, The JeVerson image in the American mind (New York, 1960), p. 415.
â€”â€“ E.g. Hauer, â€˜JeVerson and the Anglo-Saxon languageâ€™; R. Mott, â€˜Sources of JeVersonâ€™s
ecclesiastical viewsâ€™, Church History 3 (1934), 267â€“84.
274 Points of contact
Our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the
British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all
men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them;
of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under
such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public
happiness. That their Saxon ancestors had, under this universal law, in like
manner left their native wilds and woods in the north of Europe; had possessed
themselves of the island of Britain, then less charged with inhabitants, and had
established there that system of laws which has so long been the glory and
protection of that country. Nor was ever any claim of superiority or dependence
asserted over them by that mother country from which they had migrated.â€”â€”
Unsurprisingly, a couple of years later when independence had been
declared, JeVerson wanted Hengist and Horsa â€“ according to tradition
the leaders of the Saxons who had Wrst landed on the shores of Kent â€“ to
adorn the seal of the new nation.â€¦Â»Â» Hengist and Horsa were more than
totems. JeVersonâ€™s Saxonist identity rested on twin pillars, with the
analogy in the situations (and freedoms) of Saxon and American settlers
bolstering identity from the claim of direct ethnic descent. For JeVerson,
the parallel reinforced his radical anti-feudalist and anti-clerical vision of
what American society could and should be.
JeVerson believed that America should be free of many of the engines of
oppression which had disWgured the old world, including post-Norman
England: â€˜America was not conquered by William the Norman, nor its
lands surrendered to him, or any of his successors. Possessions there were
undoubtedly of the allodial nature.â€™â€¦Â»â€¦ The anti-feudalist reform of Vir-
ginia society began straight away in 1776, when the Virginia assembly
passed JeVersonâ€™s bill abolishing entails.â€¦Â»Â Such reforms were predicated
on JeVersonâ€™s deWntion of the authentic Gothic heritage. He wrote to
Edmund Pendleton: â€˜Has not every restitution of the ancient Saxon laws
had happy eVects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that
happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet
devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the eighth century?â€™â€¦Â»Ã€
The Saxon past was also central to JeVersonâ€™s intensely felt critique of
encroachments on manâ€™s natural liberty of conscience. JeVersonâ€™s theol-
ogy was in essence a commitment to the pure simple system of morality
espoused by Jesus, and complementing this core a critique of the corrup-
â€”â€” Thomas JeVerson, Summary view of the rights of British America (1774: London, 1774
edn), pp. 7â€“8. See J. Ellis, American sphinx (New York, 1997), pp. 31â€“4, for the Saxonist
theory of expatriation.
â€¦Â»Â» M. D. Peterson, Thomas JeVerson and the new nation (New York, 1970), p. 98.
â€¦Â»â€¦ JeVerson, Summary view, p. 37.
â€¦Â»Â Peterson, JeVerson and the new nation, pp. 60, 113â€“14; C. Ray Klein, â€˜Primogeniture and
entail in colonial Virginiaâ€™, WMQ 3rd ser. 25 (1968), 545â€“86.
â€¦Â»Ã€ D. Wilson, â€˜JeVerson vs. Humeâ€™, WMQ 3rd ser. 46 (1989), 58â€“9.
Varieties of Gothicism in the British Atlantic world 275
tions, both doctrinal and institutional, of the basic Christian message.â€¦Â»Ãƒ
JeVerson denied the divinity of Christ, arguing that such a belief was part
of the corruption of a moral doctrine into a superstitious Christology.
Paul and Athanasius had both injected pagan philosophy into the simple
way of Jesus. These primitive and patristic corruptions of the message of
Jesus had been followed by the institutional iniquity of the rise of priest-
craft â€“ â€˜an engine for enslaving mankindâ€™ â€“ and prelacy, including tithes
and other ecclesiastical taxes, and the machinery of persecution.â€¦Â»Ã• In the
case of England, JeVerson argued that a designing clergy had begun under
the Saxons to adulterate its free Gothic institutions. In deWance of the
received juridical wisdom found in Hale and Blackstone, JeVerson argued
that Christianity was not part of the common law, and did not enjoy its
protection. For the common law was that body of custom inaugurated by
the Saxons on their settlement in England in the Wfth century; but the
conversion of the Wrst Saxon king took place only about 598, and the last
Here, then, was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was
in existence, and Christianity no part of it . . . If therefore from the settlement of
the Saxons to the introduction of Christianity among them that system of religion
could not be a part of the common law, because they were not yet Christians, and
if, having their laws from that period to the close of the common law, we are able
to Wnd among them no such act of adoption, we may safely aYrm (though
contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is nor
ever was a part of the common law.â€¦Â»Å’
JeVerson was not so much Anglophobic as driven by an uncompromis-
ing form of Anglophilia â€“ anti-Normanism. Norman corruptions disgust-
ed him, but he remained attached as a Saxonist patriot to the true
libertarian spirit of the motherland. However, such feelings were compli-
cated by JeVersonâ€™s logic. His personal brand of Gothicism granted him
an oddly detached view of England. For JeVerson believed that the roots
of his Gothic ethnie lay in Germany. England was the scene of the Wrst
great migration, America the second.â€¦Â»Å“ Perpetuating the libertarian
values of the racial stock mattered more than any temporary territorial
Despite the winning of independence, American nationhood remained
â€¦Â»Ãƒ A. Koch, The philosophy of Thomas JeVerson (New York, 1943), ch. 4; E. Sheridan,
â€˜Introductionâ€™, in D. W. Adams (ed.), JeVersonâ€™s extracts from the Gospels (The Papers of
Thomas JeVerson, 2nd ser., Princeton, 1983), for the variations in JeVersonâ€™s theory of
Christian corruption over the course of his long intellectual career.
â€¦Â»Ã• Mott, â€˜Sources of JeVersonâ€™s ecclesiastical viewsâ€™.
â€¦Â»Å’ Thomas JeVerson, â€˜Inquiry whether Christianity is a part of the common lawâ€™ (1768?), in
M. DeWolfe Howe (ed.), Cases on church and state in the United States (Cambridge, MA,
1952), p. 11. â€¦Â»Å“ JeVerson, Summary view, pp. 7â€“8.
276 Points of contact
to be constructed.â€¦Â»â€“ The federal Constitution reXected the continuing
strength of colonial particularisms and a reluctance to submerge local
corporate identities in an undiVerentiated national republic. Moreover,
the framers of the Constitution, although anxious to construct a mechan-
ism capable of resolving the problems incident to a continental republic,
retained considerable admiration for the English constitution.â€¦Â»â€” Even as
it was superseded by their eVorts, the English constitution remained a
cynosure of the American founding generation. In spite of a growing
self-consciousness about the â€˜new nationâ€™ and of American diVerence,
Saxonism continued to enjoy some currency.
The English heritage continued to exercise American political culture.
There was, quite naturally, considerable ambivalence about the ideologi-
cal signiWcance of Americaâ€™s English heritage. Outside the ranks of the
Hamiltonian Federalists, modern England was viliWed as a wen of corrup-
tion and social decay.â€¦â€¦Â» Historic Englishness was less controversial,
though there was considerable debate â€“ and doubt â€“ about the extent to
which American law was founded on the historic precedents of the
English common law.â€¦â€¦â€¦ The Anglo-Saxon era would remain a usable
past for an independent America.â€¦â€¦Â
During the 1790s the vexing question of Anglicisation was prominent
in the agenda of American political, economic and social debate. The
Hamiltonian strategy for economic growth seemed to involve replicating
the British Wnancial revolution in the new republic. Republican opposi-
tion to the Hamiltonian system drew heavily on the anti-Walpolean
critique of the Robinarchy which had been such a prominent feature of
English political culture in the 1730s. JeVersonians envisaged modern
England as a corrupt commercial nation weighed down by legions of
stock-jobbers. The eighteenth-century British Wscal-military state was a
leech which had drained the vital spirit of liberty out of the formerly
vigorous English nation. England was now experiencing the rapid onset
of national decrepitude. JeVersonians revived the English politics of nos-
talgia which contributed to an agrarian ideology which was, ironically,
Anglophobic in its anxiety to avoid the fate of contemporary English
society. Moreover, among JeVersonian republicans, the tradition of Fran-
Murrin, â€˜Roof without wallsâ€™.
McDonald, Novus ordo seclorum, ch. 2.
D. McCoy, The elusive republic (1980: New York, 1982).
B. Mann, â€˜Legal reform and the revolutionâ€™, in Greene and Pole, Blackwell encyclopedia of
the American revolution, pp. 438â€“9; JeVerson to Randolph, 18 August 1799, in The
portable Thomas JeVerson (ed. M. Peterson, 1975: Harmondsworth, 1977), pp. 479â€“82.
â€¦â€¦Â D. W. Howe, The political culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), p. 39; Kliger,
Goths, pp. 106â€“10; Kliger, â€˜Emerson and the usable Anglo-Saxon pastâ€™, JHI 16 (1955),
476â€“93; T. F. Gossett, Race: the history of an idea in America (Dallas, 1963), ch. 5.
Varieties of Gothicism in the British Atlantic world 277
cophilia, which dated back to the crucial support received from the
French monarchy during the War of Independence, was enhanced by the
advent of the French Revolution. Yet this JeVersonian compound of
Francophilia, a critique of English debilitation and an anxiety lest the
United States become corrupted by an imitation of English models
continued to coexist with Anglo-Saxonism. Indeed the myth of Anglo-
Saxon simplicity, both social and institutional, complemented the JeVer-
sonian ideals of agrarianism and minimal government.â€¦â€¦Ã€
JeVerson himself remained a radical whig Saxonist long after the win-
ning of independence. Merrill Peterson has noted that, â€˜even after the
ultimate appeal to nature in 1776, the shadow of the English heritage,
hovered over JeVersonâ€™s mindâ€™.â€¦â€¦Ãƒ According to Craig Walton, English
whig historiography supplied the â€˜historical precedent for republicanism
and for popular sovereigntyâ€™.â€¦â€¦Ã• JeVerson was delighted by the appearance
in 1796 of John Baxterâ€™s A new and impartial history of England which was
essentially Humeâ€™s text with the oVending tory (as it seemed to JeVerson)
passages removed. JeVerson praised Baxterâ€™s work as â€˜Humeâ€™s History
republicanizedâ€™.â€¦â€¦Å’ Even towards the end of his life JeVerson continued to
be exercised by the central debates of English whig historiography. Writ-
ing in 1824 to the English Saxonist radical Major John Cartwright,
JeVerson remained obsessed with his Saxonist interpretation of English
history and with Humeâ€™s critique of whig historiography. Hume, â€˜the
great apostle of toryismâ€™ was denounced as an apologist for Norman
usurpation. JeVerson remained committed to a vivid ethnic interpretation
of the course of English constitutional history: â€˜It has ever appeared to
me, that the diVerence between the whig and the tory of England is, that
the whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the tory
from the Norman.â€™â€¦â€¦Å“ It was not simply that JeVerson remained a radical
whig in his politics: it was also an ethnic allegiance to Saxonism. JeVerson
had long studied Anglo-Saxon philology, probably from the 1760s, yet as
vice-president of the new independent nation in the late 1790s he still
found time to compose an essay on Anglo-Saxon grammar. Moreover,
thanks to JeVersonâ€™s inspiration and pressure, the University of Virginia
included Anglo-Saxon in its curriculum when it opened in 1825.â€¦â€¦â€“ He
â€¦â€¦Ã€ L. Banning, The JeVersonian persuasion (Ithaca and London, 1978).
â€¦â€¦Ãƒ Peterson, JeVerson and the new nation, p. 57.
â€¦â€¦Ã• C. Walton, â€˜Hume and JeVerson on the uses of historyâ€™, in D. W. Livingston and
J. T. King (eds.), Hume: a re-evaluation (New York, 1976), p. 390.
â€¦â€¦Å’ Colbourn, â€˜JeVersonâ€™s use of the pastâ€™, 69; Walton, â€˜Hume and JeVersonâ€™, 389â€“93;
Wilson, â€˜JeVerson vs. Humeâ€™, 65â€“8.
â€¦â€¦Å“ JeVerson to John Cartwright, 5 June 1824, in The portable Thomas JeVerson, pp. 577â€“82;
Pole, Political representation, p. 438.
â€¦â€¦â€“ Hauer, â€˜JeVerson and the Anglo-Saxon languageâ€™, 880, 883, 891; Wilson, â€˜JeVerson vs.
278 Points of contact
did not intend Old English language study to be narrowly philological in
its inXuence, but to be of wider social signiWcance, in particular for an
understanding of the American legal heritage. JeVerson remained con-
vinced of the importance of a full knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon heritage
to the formation of the American republican citizen.
Saxonism played an even more central role in the political thought of
James Wilson, who was, after James Madison, the most sophisticated and
inXuential political philosopher among the ranks of Americaâ€™s founding
fathers. It was Wilson who solved the problem of locating sovereignty in
the system of separated executive, legislative and judicial branches in the
new American Constitution, by positing the subordination of the ma-
chinery of government to the ultimate, though notional, authority of the
American people.â€¦â€¦â€” Thus Wilson was in a sense the creator of a full-
Xedged doctrine of American democratic nationalism. Yet he did not
understand the founding generation to be forging American nationhood
de novo; rather, he conceived American republicanism to be restorative of
the ancient Anglo-Saxon constitution. Throughout his â€˜Lectures on lawâ€™,
delivered at the College of Philadelphia in 1790â€“1, Wilson took pride in
the ways in which both the United States and the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania had in their constitutions restored fundamental elements of
Anglo-Saxon law and government, which had been lost or corrupted in
the mother country. In his own special sphere of jurisprudence, Wilson
proclaimed: â€˜The common law, as now received in America, bears, in its
principles, and in many of its more minute particulars, a stronger and
fairer resemblance to the common law as it was improved under the
Saxon, than to that law, as it was disWgured under the Norman govern-
Wilson viewed the spirit of American republicanism as a direct renewal
of Anglo-Saxon principles, a Saxonist phoenix arising from the ashes of
the English libertarian tradition, not as a modern invention: according to
Wilson under the early Anglo-Saxons there had been no hereditary oYces
and dignities, only an open meritocratic system of oYce-holding in which
respect was paid to the oYce rather than to persons. Even the apparently
novel machinery of the federal constitution had a Gothicist pedigree.
Wilson perceived the Saxon heptarchy as a confederacy, and discovered
the same forms among the ancient Germanic peoples described by Taci-
tus, such as the Suevi.â€¦Â â€¦ Indeed, the principle of confederacy was part of
the â€˜geniusâ€™ of the Germanic stock. Wilson had reimagined himself, an
â€¦â€¦â€” Wood, Creation of the American republic, pp. 530â€“1.
â€¦Â Â» James Wilson, â€˜Lectures on law delivered in the College of Philadelphiaâ€™ (1790â€“1), in
The works of James Wilson (ed. R. G. McCloskey, 2 vols., Cambridge, MA, 1967), I,
pp. 348, 420. â€¦Â â€¦ Ibid., I, pp. 252â€“3, 433â€“4; II, p. 576.
Varieties of Gothicism in the British Atlantic world 279
independent American, as a political heir of the Anglo-Saxons, and the
new American republic as a Gothic community â€“ though he himself was
born in Scotland,â€¦Â Â a nation which until the early eighteenth century had
enjoyed a predominantly Gaelic identity.
The Scottish Enlightenment and the rediscovery of a
Gothic North Britain
A mild form of Gothicism was a vestigial presence in the political culture
of early modern Scotland, largely conWned to the sphere of feudal juris-
prudence. Traditionally, Scottish identity found expression in the much-
vaunted continuity of Scotlandâ€™s monarchy back to the ancient Gaelic
kingdom of Dalriada in the west Highlands.â€¦Â Ã€ However, from the middle
of the eighteenth century the Scottish political nation rejected the ancient
constitutional myth of an elective monarchy in its Gaelic past, and in its
stead Scots adopted a Gothicised identity. By this, I mean that Scots
recognised the ancient Celtic origins of their nation, but acknowledged
that Scotlandâ€™s historic institutional forms were largely accounted for by
the reception of feudal inXuences during the middle ages. In particular,
the new sociological whig historians of the Scottish Enlightenment em-
phasised the discontinuity in Scotlandâ€™s history between its primitive