Tag Archives: empires

The Course of Empires: Whig View of History

John-Locke-Second-Treatise-of-Government-Cover-Page    The dissenters had a sharp and heightened view of political tyranny. We are talking about people who were sensitive to the abuse of power. By the 1720s, the Whigs were amassing a body of political thought that linked together political and ecclesiastical tyranny with the accumulation of executive power surrounding the monarch. Looking at the precedents of ancient Athens and Rome, they saw that republican governments tended to be subverted if that republic acquired an empire. The massive colonial administration would bring accumulation of power around an executive, and corruption would quickly set in. There would be buying and selling of offices and privileges. This is what happened to their native England. Its combination of monarchy and parliament was losing its balance of power towards growing executive power and arbitrary privilege. The wealthy Church of England was on the side of this executive power. When it comes to theology, they were not as strict as their Puritan predecessors, but they did share with the Puritans the belief that high-handed monarchial power is always supported by ecclesiastical privilege. Therefore these men of the commonwealth were the champions of the inalienable rights of humanity to life, liberty and property, in the footsteps of John Locke, and the inalienable rights of conscience in the traditions of English religious dissent.

George Marsden writes that “one could hardly overstate the importance of this Commonwealth heritage in shaping American revolutionary political thought.” Most Americans were dissenters. Even those who were Anglicans, like the Virginia gentry, were outsiders to royal privilege. Those who held political or social power in America stood to lose if the full-fledged English system was exported to the colonies. So when the English authorities, after 1763, began to take more interest in reorganizing her new expanded North American colonies, many colonists were understandably alarmed. And they stated their alarm in the terms and language of their Commonwealth or Real Whig heritage. This dissenting tradition would become the basis for the republican outlook that long dominated American political thought.

These fears were compounded by the militant anti-Catholic sentiments of many colonial revolutionaries. In a real sense of sad irony, those who were the champions of freedom and liberty did not extend these natural rights to those who they considered to be their mortal enemies. The Catholic population, who lived mostly in the middle colonies, was often discriminated against and generally tolerated. They were not the problem. Some Catholics, such as the influential Carroll family in Maryland, supported the Revolution and had hopes of making the American Catholic Church more republican. The real problem was that the thirteen English colonies were still Protestant enclaves in a mostly Catholic hemisphere. One could say a cold war mentality lingered. This was especially true in New England, home of the Congregationalists, the Puritans. On multiple occasions in the course of the eighteenth century, amidst much religious fanfare, the men of New England mobilized the militia for military action against French Catholics in Canada. In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, they rejoiced that French Canada (Quebec) was finally in British i.e. Protestant hands. But the rejoicing soon ended and they were quite chagrined that the Quebec Act of 1774 the British government of Canada allowed for continued tax support of the Catholic Church and allowed for the continued spread of Catholicism in the trans-Appalachian west (upper Midwest).

Most of the American revolutionaries took for granted a republican (Whig) view of history that had grown out of the British religious and political experience. They associated tyranny with the Middle Ages and the marriage of ecclesiastical and royal power. “Thus,” as John Adams wrote, “was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude to the pope and his subordinate tyrants.” Revolutionary thinkers like Adams saw Protestantism as crucial to the rise of freedom. According to this view, Protestantism opened the door for reason and common sense to challenge superstition and privilege. Here and elsewhere dissenting Protestant and Enlightenment views would blend more than they would disagree. Both parties saw superstition as the problem and common-sense reason as the answer. Both saw Catholicism (and to some degree Anglicanism) as defending monarchy and the authoritarianism of the Middle Ages and dissenting Protestantism was on the side of liberty and freedom.