Of the Persecuted and the Politics of Patronage

Two New Books on Colonial New England and Reconstruction North Carolina
By Edward J. Blum

Bean was the smartest person on the earth and in the heavens. One of the genius children who helped humanity win the Formic War against the “buggers” in Orson Scott Card’s famous sci-fi novel Ender’s Game (1985), Bean eventually got his own spin-off novels. The first was Ender’s Shadow and the second was Shadow of the Hegemon. They narrate how Bean rose from a puny, persecuted street kid (who had to align with a bully who enacted his power by eating bread from the hands of starving children as they offered it to him) to a brilliant military general (all before he was fifteen years old). At one point, while trying to gain information from a bigger child without offending him, Bean sheepishly says, “Don’t be mad at me.” Bean knew that when a “little kid” implored a “bigger kid” this way, the bigger one would feel silly and relent. Bean learned to use his brilliance and his slight build to his advantage. Bean’s adventures came to mind as I recently read two new and terrific books in the ever-growing list of wonderful monographs in American religious history. (do any of the rest of you think we’re in a Durkhemian collective effervescence of scholarship where the number and quality of books is so outstanding that we have entered a new phase in the profession? I do!)

The first is Adrian Chastain Weimer’s Martyrs’ Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New Martyrs' mirror : persecution and holiness in early New EnglandEngland. Following in David Hall’s tradition of focusing on the literary cultures and imaginations of New Englanders, Weimer shows that notions of persecution were central to self-identities and struggles in early New England. Congregationalists, for instance, had legal, political, and religious power yet styled themselves as a “church of the oppressed.” They even viewed minority challengers like Antinomians, Quakers, and Baptists as the persecutors (rather than as we typically think of them as the persecuted). For good measure, these groups countered by presenting themselves as persecuted. The Separatists had an especially intense “martyr-based identity,” and Weimer shows some of these tensions beautifully in her discussion of the debate between Cotton Mather and Roger Williams over who was persecuted most. Weimer’s book is a delight. Whether discussing the reading habits of colonists and their love-affair with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,(which was conveniently (providentially? :) ) reissued in 1632 to performances of “cheerful suffering,” Weimer takes us from discussions of high theology to instructions for children in the New England Primer. 

Perhaps one of the most important arguments of Martyrs’ Mirror is the point that sensitivity to persecution had an unintended result of softening Congregational power. Over time, religious tolerance grew, in part because Congregationalists respected, nay revered, the rhetoric and performance of persecution. This also led to attempts to conceptualize suffering Native American Christians as martyrs and thus somehow a holy part of the community. Colonial America is not one of my primary fields, but this book certainly convinced me of the various rolls concepts of persecution played in colonial New England.

The second book that has recently drawn my attention is Gregory Downs’s Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908. If you have met Greg at a conference, then probably two things have jumped out at you: his infectious smile and his golden “CCNY” pin that sits on his suit lapel. If you then speak with Greg, you’ll quickly realize how thoughtful he is. And if you read Declarations of Dependence, and you are anything like me, then you’ll conclude that you’ll never be able to teach Reconstruction or talk about American political development as you did before.

I know that many of the blog readers don't consider Reconstruction a hot topic. It seems to have no particular contemporary cache (like the new right) or a small-but-earnest clientele longing for a history (like the white evangelical left). But Reconstruction has a lot to offer. It had a sexy ministerial scandal (what was Reverend Beecher doing, exactly, with Mrs. Tilton? Had prayer ever felt that good?). Reconstruction had a shoe-salesman-turned-evangelist riveting the nation, with Supreme Court justices sitting on his revival stages and former Confederates presented to northern audiences as friends and brothers. Reconstruction had waves of African American church exoduses in the South that were so fascinating that Reginald Hildebrand could use the quote “the times were strange and stirring.” Joshua Paddison has shown that religion played a crucial and diverse role in California during the years, and the time even has Mark Twain ... and if you don't like Twain, then I hope you dislike my posts because I long to be in his company.

Declarations of Dependence is a study of North Carolina from the Civil War to the emergence of the progressive era (although there is a coda that pushes into the Great Depression) and how everyday citizens interacted with political figures. Downs looks at how Tarheels forged dependency into a political style. Rather than claim their yeoman or republican “independence,” white and black Tarheels deployed the “politics of dependence” where they wrote as “suffering” women and men in need of help from the “superior” political leaders. Downs claims that this was a political system and sentiment of patronalism – where the citizen-state relationship was boiled down to one of an embodied patron. Everyday people prostrated themselves to government officials, such as Zebulon Vance who beautifully performed this politics, and political leaders dolled at favors and gifts to those in need. As Downs shows, this was a brilliant way for government to deal with the “sometimes delusional expectations” of the citizens for help. They could give to some and not to others, but be seen as benevolent by all.

Front CoverStated the above way, the argument may not seem that novel. But it is. For instance, if Reconstruction is understood as defined by the political culture of patronalism, then the end of Reconstruction was neither the political compromise of 1877, nor the rise of reunified white supremacy. The killer of this Reconstruction was Progressivism!!! As Progressives endeavored to rationalize state governments, as they endeavored to create a government that was dispassionate and abstract, they freed the state from being obligated to listening to individual’s particular needs or wants. Maybe someone else has argued that Progressivism killed Reconstruction, but I’ve never seen it and in Downs’s book, it seems almost plausible. If may not launch a thousand ships of essays or books, but it should get some scholarly attention.

Religion factors heavily in Declarations of Dependence, but again for ways we would not necessarily expect. Typically we think of Reconstruction as an era of religious autonomy making. As African Americans created their own churches, schools, and institutions, religion seemed to function toward independence. Yet, as Downs shows time and again, religious language was crucial to dependence. Everyday women and men supplicated in ways that transformed mercy and grace from simple and personal virtues into obligations of the state.

There’s more in both of these marvelous works that I could focus upon, but when I think back to the hero Bean, I can’t help but realize how effectively he played the persecution game and dealt with problems of being a patron. Neither of these books addresses contemporary politics or society, but certainly we can hear echoes from how many groups seem today to want to play the oppressed minority card to how dependency is an accepted fact of American legal culture that is wrestled with as much as independency. 


Edward J. Blum said…
One point I did not make, but definitely wanted to mention, was that Downs's endnotes are a tour de force themselves. Any graduate student who has to answer questions on Reconstruction, politics, private-versus-public spheres, should take a look. He makes some incredible corrections there, my favorite is where he quotes a very well known and brilliant historian chalking the language of dependence up to "political inexperience." As I read Downs, there was nothing inexperienced about it. It was not only tactical, but brilliantly tactical.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks for these good write-ups, Ed.

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