An Interview with Owen Stanwood on The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution

Randall Stephens

Owen Stanwood is an assistant professor of history at Boston College and a scholar of early America and the British Atlantic world. He has published in the Journal of British Studies, the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, French Colonial History. His wonderfully readable first book, The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) looks at "how fears of Catholicism galvanized and transformed Anglo-American political culture during the last decades of the seventeenth century."*

In the interview below I ask Stanwood about his research and writing on antipopery, the intersection of politics and religion in the 17th and 18th centuries, the workings of empire, and the state of the field.

Randall Stephens: You write about the significance of English antipopery in the 17th century. What impact did antipopery have on the political and social order of the age?

Owen Stanwood: Early modern antipopery was above all a language, a form of discourse. Protestants considered "popery" to be a binary opposition to their own, true religion, and thus used conversations about the nature of popery to define the contours and boundaries of their own faith. In the English context, this had both theological and political effects. In the church, different kinds of English Protestants, whether high church Episcopalians or Puritans, critiqued the other side by pointing out their similarities to Catholicism. These same debates often carried over into politics, since many people believed that the theology of popery usually coincided with tyranny and absolutism. So on a number of occasions, most notably the English Revolutions of the 1640s and 1680s, people justified overthrowing their kings by claiming that the monarchs intended to overthrow the true Protestant church. These charges, of course, were usually false, but they had great rhetorical power.

Stephens: Fears of Indian and Catholic plots in the late 17th century, you observe, fueled colonial anxieties. Did New England colonists see those as combined forces?

Stanwood: For most of the 17th century, they did not. Even as late as King Philip's War in the 1670s, most New Englanders saw Indians and Catholics as distinct threats. From the 1670s through the 1690s, an important transition took place. American colonists gradually began to conflate these dangers; they started to believe that Indians were not independent actors, but simply shock troops used by French papists to carry out their bloody schemes. This was important for a number of reasons. For one thing, it represented a molding of the European anti-Catholic tradition to fit conditions in America. And it ended up changing the way colonists perceived Indians. If they had earlier been targets for conversion, and possible allies against Catholic enemies, now they appeared to many English as unconvertible enemies debauched by Catholic superstition. In my mind, this led to new, even more poisoned relations between whites and Indians in the 18th century—and provided a key context for the political transformation that lies at the heart of my book.

Stephens: Could you say something about how militant Protestantism shaped the founding of the American colonies?

Stanwood: Militant Protestantism affected the colonies from the very beginning. First off, English overseas endeavors had a Protestant purpose from the early days of colonization, in that the English, along with the Dutch and French Protestants, wanted to provide a Calvinist counterweight to the Spanish and Portuguese, who dominated the New World. In time the English state stepped back from these religious motivations, but during the seventeenth century the American colonies became favorite refuges for any number of English and European radicals. The Puritans and Quakers are the most well known of these groups, but by the 1680s the colonies from New England to the Caribbean abounded with all kinds of Protestant rebels, from Scottish Covenanters to English Baptists to French Huguenots. Many of these people fled what they considered Antichristian tyranny in Europe, and made it their imperative to keep America Protestant. This is important to remember when we try to understand how imperial politics developed.

Stephens: You write that the “story of the making of empire must necessarily be both intensely local and transatlantic in scope.” How did the aims of London officials and the goals of New World colonists come into conflict? From your reading of the sources, how did empire “work” in the late 17th century?

Stanwood: During the 1670s and 80s officials and colonists feuded for a number of reasons. Essentially, the crown wanted to create a more streamlined, centralized empire to replace the hodgepodge of local arrangements that characterized the 17th-century empire. This reform stepped on a lot of toes, as many of those who had the most power in the colonies found themselves out of favor. It only became a popular movement, however, when ordinary people began to see imperial reform as something that threatened them. Many people started to see imperial reform as part of a massive Catholic plot—mainly because the main proponent of these reforms, King James II, was Catholic, and because people associated centralized power with the pope and Catholic rulers like France's Louis XIV. As people became more frightened and distrustful of their leaders, the empire hardly worked at all; in fact, it was laughably dysfunctional. What all of this suggests is the importance of political rhetoric in running an empire. During the 1680s, rulers were not speaking the same language as the people, and this doomed the first plans for imperial reform.

Stephens: Would you say something about how political unrest in London reverberated across the Atlantic?

Stanwood: The political unrest that most concerns me is the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-89, when James II lost his kingdom to a popular rebellion led by the king's daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. The effects of this revolution in the colonies were manifold. Many of James II's colonial governors were hard at work reforming the empire, and once colonists heard that the king had fled England for France, they believed that their leaders intended to betray them to the enemy. A series of outrageous rumors circulated from Barbados to Boston, telling of a coordinated design by the French, Indians, Irish servants, and James II's cronies to replace the English system with "popery and tyranny." False though they were, these rumors led to popular rebellions in three colonies, and also provided a language—that of paranoid antipopery—that future imperial leaders could use to keep the empire together.

Stephens: How do you think historians’ understanding of the religio-political milieu of early America has changed in the last 30 years?

Stanwood: There have been two very important transformations, both of which have influenced my research. First, historians of early American religion, like early Americanists generally, have moved away from a national narrative and turned toward a transatlantic one. They now understand that phenomena like Puritanism or early evangelicalism cannot be understood as purely American, but as global movements. In a linked development, historians of religion have turned much more toward popular or "lived" religion, an understanding of how the beliefs of ordinary folks had an impact on history. My book builds on both of these traditions, in that I show how the religious beliefs of ordinary people—in this case, regarding the evils of Catholicism—led to important political changes that altered the face of global politics.


Christopher said…
Thanks for the interview, Randall and Owen. I've started the book and when I finish, I'll post my thoughts here on the blog. I'm anxious to jump back into it now!