Royalism and Savagery in the New Common-Place

By John Fea

The July 2008 Common-Place went on-line yesterday. There is not much on religion here, but two book reviews caught my eye. First, Kathleen DuVal reviews Peter Silver's Bancroft-Prize winning Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. This is the story of the violent relationship between the Scots-Irish (mostly) and native Americans on the Pennsylvania frontier. I have given the book a quick skim (perhaps I will give it my own review here when I eventually get around to reading it) and I think the readers of our blog might find it interesting. In many ways, the conflict on the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania frontier was a religious and racial war, with the white Presbyterians displaying savagery toward the Indians, and white Quakers suffering persecution for defending the natives and advocating for peace. Duval writes:

Silver's superb analysis and stunning prose create unsettling implications for other times of war. Lambasting Quakers' efforts at peace and toleration as "collusion with killers" (108) and accusing thoughtful people of being "tasteless" (85) for discussing context when white bodies had been damaged—these attacks on reason are hardly confined to eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. In Silver's skilled hands, they are both historically specific and frighteningly timeless.

The other review is of Brendan McConville's The Kings Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776. (See my coverage of the book on this blog and my HNN Review). Benjamin Irvin writes:

Readers who wish to burn their own golden calves must lace up their boots, for McConville ranges far and wide. His analysis of rough music and skimmington as rituals for the enforcement of early American gender norms ranks among the very best treatments of the subject. And yet not until a belated and maddeningly brief discussion of patriarchy and family roles does McConville relate those folk customs to the rise and fall of royal America. (Would that the Elizabethtown Regulars who flogged a notorious wife beater on his "Posteriors" had instead branded the royal arms on that same spot [183].) Similarly, McConville's chapter on imperial reform offers a fruitful exploration of the many imaginative proposals floated by imperial consolidators for the reorganization of Britain's eighteenth-century dominions. Aligning this book with a late renaissance in imperial history, this chapter points the reader toward a breathtaking vista of Albion and Indian what-might-have-beens. It further discloses certain colonists' willingness to resolve their political grievances within a constitutional framework, a testament to their thorough integration into the British Empire. And yet this chapter stands apart from the rest of the book in its detachment from the ceremonial and material culture by which British North Americans avouched devotion to the Crown.

I have been spent the last week or so in the archives reading the letters of Anglican priests. The combination of Irvin's review and my own findings has reminded me that there was a very vibrant religious royal culture in early America. But the concerns of Anglican clergymen about those pesky "Dissenters" also suggests that this culture was constantly under attack. Whatever the case, McConville's work will serve as a staring point for some of my own work.

(Also of note: Lloyd Pratt reviews Matthew P. Brown's The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading and Book Culture in Early New England).


Mike Pasquier said…
May I also suggest reading Trevor Burnard's essay, "A Passion for Places: The Geographic Turn in Early American History." It's a great piece of speculation about why historians of early America pay so much attention to place, space, region, and geography. He makes some interesting comparisons with what seems a geography-less approach to 20th century American history.
Anonymous said…
Peter Silver's Bancroft Prize is well deserved. He's an historian's historian, and a writer's writer. The story he tells with such vividness and narrative grace--intricate, complex, unsettling--is all the more welcome In an era when soundbites and easy takeaways pass too often for scholarship. We both had fellowships from Yale a decade or so ago, and somewhere I still have the xeroxes of some early portions of the book he passed around then. He hadn't published much in the meantime, and I kept waiting for this book to appear and to stun the profession. I'm so glad it has. Read it.

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