Anti-Catholicism Strikes Again!

The Protestant American Revolution: A Brief Review of Brendan McConville’s The King’s Three Faces --

by John Fea

After taking on Disney in my last post, it is time to turn back to what is, at least for me, safer ground. The topic is the American Revolution and Brendan McConville’s brave and provocative new interpretation, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (UNC Press/Omohundro Institute, 2006). McConville offers a devastating critique of the so-called ‘Whig” interpretation of early American history. He argues that the narrative of eighteenth-century life we have come to embrace is too “forward looking,” too “liberal-capitalist,” too “democratizing,” and too driven by the American Revolution. McConville describes the latter as the “scholarly vortex that sucks all that came before it into its deterministic bowels.” His gripe is with a form of teleological history that fails to interpret colonial America on its own terms. If we forget that the American Revolution happened we can see the thirteen colonies for what they truly were—strong bastions of British royalism where most ordinary people held a deep affection for the monarch well into the 1770s. (Many believed that the Hanovers were “semi-divine.”).

The actual American Revolution was not the inevitable result of decades of Enlightenment-inspired anti-British sentiment. It was rather a sudden, abrupt, heart-wrenching break with England that was driven more by anti-Catholicism than ancient or contemporary ideas about politics. This view of the American Revolution makes sense despite the fact that it might frustrate and infuriate many. Rhys Isaac’s endorsement of the book is telling: “Here is a work so controversial that some will barely be able to sit still as they turn the pages.”

According to McConville, the people of the American colonies loved their king and they displayed this love through a host of rituals and public celebrations. As might be expected, most of these celebrations had an anti-Catholic flavor to them, particularly during times of war with France or in the wake of the Quebec Act of 1774. This devotion to the Hanover King was rooted in his identity as a defender of Protestantism, so when it appeared that George III would not defend the colonists against what they perceived to be a violation of their (Protestant) rights, they reacted with fury, not unlike a scorned lover. As McConville notes, “This understanding of the conspiracy suggests that the idea of a secular political culture at all as we would experience it is anachronistic.”(p.262).

Anyone who teaches the United States survey course needs to read this book. It makes for a wonderful foil to the Whig view of the American Revolution that most of our students bring with them to the classroom. It just came out in paperback, so I hope to assign it in my “Age of the American Revolution” course. It is also worth noting that McConville is an “early American historian,” meaning he would not define himself as an “American religious historian” in the way some of those who read this blog might define themselves. I have found that much of the best scholarship on religion in early America is often embedded in books like McConville’s--works that treat religion as one of several factors informing seventeenth and eighteenth-century life and events. These books, because of their subject matter and titles, are unlikely to catch the eye of so-called “American religious historians.” This is unfortunate since The King’s Three Faces is a major contribution to the study of Protestantism in eighteenth-century America.

If interested, HNN has published my extended review of the book. I should also add that McConville is co-organizing a major conference on anti-Catholicism in early America in conjunction with the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at Penn. The call for papers is open until Sept. 15, 2007.


Phil said…
Thanks for the notification about the book. You've whet my appetite to read more. The line of argument in McConville's book sounds as if it will give me a whole new framework in which to think about the pastoral dismissals I examine during the Revolutionary period (in my hopefully-soon-to-be-finished-dissertation.) The book sounds like it might also work well when read alongside Tommy Kidd's _The Protestant Interest_, a book that examines, in part, the anti-Catholic thrust of 18th century evangelicalism.
jfahler said…
As someone who will be student teaching 8th grade American history (in Ohio this means colonial - Civil War), I found this to be extremely interesting and worthy of "regurgitating" into my future lesson plans.

Also, the suggestion of anti-Catholicism is fascinating, drawn together in a way I haven't yet considered. If McConville's thesis is correct, perhaps the subject requires more attention in religious studies - I know that I admittingly consider it on the sidelines of my senior thesis as something that "just happens" as a result of an overly Protestant population.
Russ R said…
Thanks John - I've sometimes thought that with the Revolution (and in other areas as well), religious historians have been too quick to take their cues from the political and cultural historians and too hesitant to focus directly on religion (something like what Harry Stout has called the "religion and ..." syndrome). The result was worthwhile studies on the religious aspects of Republicanism, but continued lack of attention to religious aspects of the revolution, such as anti-Catholicism, fear of an Anglican bishop in America, etc.

I've been thinking about submitting a proposal on anti-Catholicism and revivalism/anti-revivalism, but I'm wary of over-commitment.