Puritans and destiny

Keith Windschuttle




Review of:

Kevin Phillips, The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America, Basic Books, 1999, 707 pages


The thesis of this enormously ambitious, in some ways beguiling but fatally flawed book by Kevin Phillips is that there are strong cultural connections between the English Civil War of 1640-1649, the American War of Independence of 1776-1783 and the Civil War of the United States of 1861-1865. In each case, the protagonists on both sides were very much the same kind of people with the same religious beliefs, political affiliations and economic interests. And rather than representing three distinct contests, the wars should be seen as the deciding events in a long process that led from the origins of English Protestantism in the sixteenth century to the global dominance of the American political and economic system in the twentieth.

Over three centuries, Phillips argues, similar sides were taken in each of these three wars. On the long-term winning side were the constituencies of commerce, industry, the maritime sector, the centers of immigration, the principal cities, low church evangelical religion, and the proselytizing middle classes. The long-term losing side was based on landed agriculture, with its feudal remnants and servitude, its hierarchical and liturgical religion, and its greater ratios of horsemen, soldiers and cavaliers. "At each point in each nation's history," the author writes, "it was a necessity - perhaps it was also a destiny - for the former to push aside the latter." Ultimately, he wants us to see the present globalization of liberal-democratic politics and market-driven economics as both the fulfillment of the English Reformation and the irresistible emergence of a new imperial community of English-speaking peoples. "Not since Rome …" are the book's concluding words.

In the English Civil War, Phillips argues, the Parliamentary side was led by Puritans and other low church Protestants who came predominantly from East Anglia, especially the heartland counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex plus the adjoining shires of Hertford, Cambridge, Huntingdon and Lincoln. They were predominantly artisans and small manufacturers and many had connections to the maritime industries. They were the first backers of westward expansion, that is, expansion across the Atlantic. The Puritans who led the exodus to the American colonies of New England between 1629 and 1640 originated within a circle fifty miles in each direction from the East Anglian town of Groton, Suffolk. These eastern counties had traditions of liberty that stretched back centuries. They had been settled by Angles and Jutes and in the Middle Ages had comparatively large ratios of freemen and small numbers of servi and villani. This was where Anglo-Saxon opposition to the Norman invasion had been the fiercest and lasted the longest.

The cavaliers who supported the king in the Civil War were predominantly high church Anglicans, Roman Catholics, the aristocracy and rural gentry. Their ethnic background was more Norman and Celtic than Anglo-Saxon. The heartland of royalist support, Phillips says, was the north and the west of England. This was where Charles I recruited his army and raised his standard. The economic base of royalist support was manorial agriculture, while most soldiers in the king's army were the labourers and servants of large agricultural estates. The principal industrialists who supported the king were the holders of royal monopolies. Royalists and cavaliers were opponents of westward expansion.

The War for American Independence, Phillips argues, should be regarded more as a civil war within the colonies than as a colonial revolution against the crown. He says American historians have not done a good job of explaining the actual wartime loyalties and politics. Once these are seen in terms of British religious and ethnic tribalisms from the 1640s, many of the gaps can be filled in and the oddities explained. In 1775-76, Phillips writes, the colonies seethed with seventeenth century memories, suspicions and analogies. The war was led by New England Yankees, the direct descendants of the original Puritan settlers. They reproduced many of the political interests as well as the political geography of their ancestors. The "powder keg of the American revolution", Phillips says, was located in counties called Suffolk and Essex (Massachusetts Bay), as well as in places like Boston, Norwich, Chelmsford, Billerica, Dedham and Braintree, named by Massachusetts and Connecticut settlers for their East Anglia hometowns.

From New York, south to Georgia, on the other hand, there were major concentrations of British loyalists and would-be neutralists. Here were the places, Phillips writes, where the colonists' struggle might have been lost, and here were the locales in which the fighting became a bitter civil war. In South Carolina, for example, there was a civil war in which 103 battles were fought with no one but South Carolinians on both sides. There was a similar degree of acrimony in Pennsylvania.

The disagreements that led to the War for Independence show remarkable similarities, Phillips argues, to those behind the English Civil War. It was a fight over diverging interpretations of the rights of Englishmen and the British constitution. There were comparable objections from small producers to the policies of mercantilism and Crown monopolies. There were protests by Puritans and other anti-episcopalian dissenters against the monarchical imposition of Anglicanism and Catholicism. It was also an early version of class warfare in which less prosperous colonists were hoping to topple their own provincial elites, as well as the King and his English ministers.

Just as the victories of the Puritans in the English Civil War were not consolidated and, indeed, were to some extent reversed under the Stuart Restoration, so too was there much unfinished business at the end of the war of 1776-83, Phillips observes. The Articles of Confederation negotiated in 1787 left the United States with a great division between Northern and Southern interests. The federal system allowed slavery to flourish under political and constitutional protections unavailable in the British Empire.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the influence of Yankee New England was diluted by internal political divisions and by the triumph of southern or Jacksonian democracy, which controlled the Presidency for forty two of the years between 1801 and 1850. It was not until the formation of the Republican Party and the election of Lincoln that the Yankees were in a position to resume the struggle of their ancestors. By this time, however, there had been waves of Yankee migration westward from the old New England heartland. This had led to the creation of what Phillips defines as Greater New England, a cultural region stretching west through upstate New York, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota to Oregon and Puget Sound. The American Civil War occurred, Phillips argues, because this Greater New England was at cultural, religious and political odds with the Greater South.

Phillips claims the South's population included a high ratio of forbears from the old English western and northern frontiers as well as from the eighteenth century Celtic borderlands and mountain redoubts. So, once again, cavaliers and their Celtic-stock allies were lined up against the descendants of East Anglia. The structure of self-sufficient farms, shops and manufacturies that was the basis of the economy of Greater New England was "as incompatible with Southern slavery as the small-scale Puritan entrepreneurship of England's cloth districts, cheese towns, lead-mining hillsides and cutlery centers of the 1640s had been with the late-feudal manor agriculture and royally bestowed wine, soap and coal monopolies of Stuart England."

Phillips argues that these kinds of religious, cultural and ethnic differences provided the underlying rationale for the U.S. Civil War. He adds that, by the 1850s, these differences had stalled commercial progress and economic expansion as the major cultural groupings sought to defend their own vision of the future of the nation and sought to prevent their opponents from realizing their own.

Once the war started, however, and there was no Southern presence in Washington, Republican politicians and Northern capitalists pushed through the Congresses of 1861-65 what Phillips calls "nothing less than a neo-Hamiltonian revolution". This included a national banking system, uniform federal bank notes, a vast increase in national debt, a wide range of new taxes, a record level of tariffs to protect Northern manufacturers, a northern transcontinental railroad route, and a Homestead Act that would ensure westward expansion went ahead without slavery. The Yankee victory in the war unleashed Yankee economic dynamism that would eventually make the United States the most productive and richest country in the world.

… it is hard to avoid the sweeping assessment that the U.S. Civil War was another great watershed in which victory went to the zealous, skilled and destiny-minded minority - the principal cadre of which just happened to be descended from the intense and grasping Puritan and Yankee minority that had also been the largest single force in the two previous cousins' wars.

Phillips argues that each of the three wars was necessary. Each followed a prelude of at least a decade in which there had been attempts to resolve the underlying religious, cultural and economic conflicts between the parties. When politics failed, war broke out. He acknowledges that there are historians who in each case have claimed that the resort to warfare was unnecessary and that, had different political tactics been adopted, violence need not have arisen.

Once, quite possibly. Twice, conceivably. But not three times. Wars with the continuity of these are not accidents, needless eruptions, or the product of a misled and gullible public. Their origins go deeper… three times during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that same resort to arms would be accepted - after long debate, and when no other course remained - to resolve profound internal differences.

The Phillips thesis is attractive in several ways. It does not hitch the long-term course of history to a one-dimensional model based on, say, economics, as most leftist or quasi-Marxist explanations still do. Phillips weaves religion, culture, geography, politics and economics into a consistent multi-variable account. Indeed, he is persuasive in pressing the notion that among the cultural groups he discusses, it was religion that was the most powerful factor at work, influencing both the kinds of economic activity its adherents undertook and their political predilections. This certainly accords much better with the mentality of the English-speaking peoples from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries than the more familiar economic determinist models.

He also makes an energetic attempt to provide a coherent account of many apparent anomalies in the loyalties on both sides of the U.S. Civil War, such as why many New Yorkers supported the South, why much of the upper South was reluctant to join the Confederacy, and why the Butternut Midwest was as equally disdainful of Northern abolitionists as of Southern slave owners. Phillips uses his well-established expertise as an electoral analyst to provide a convincing county-by-county dissection of the cultural and religious factors and regional loyalties at work in the U.S. federal elections of the 1850s and 1860s.

But none of this is sufficient to save the thesis. It stumbles badly at its very first hurdle, that of the English Civil War, and never recovers. Phillips simply hasn't consulted enough of the research on this topic that has been published over the last twenty five years. He provides a very short bibliography on the events of 1640-49 that includes five works by the English Marxist Christopher Hill, two by Lawrence Stone and seven other books published between the 1920s and the 1960s. He is apparently unaware that the work of these authors has been subject to a sustained process of re-examination since 1975. None of the revisionists who have played well-publicized roles in this re-examination -- Paul Christianson, Conrad Russell, Anthony Fletcher, Kevin Sharpe, Mark Kishlansky, Jonathan Clark and several others -- are listed in Phillips's bibliography, and it appears he hasn't read them. Had he done so, he would have been forced to reconsider his account of the Civil War and especially the role of Puritans in it.

The Civil War of the 1640s was not a Puritan revolution, nor did the Puritans have the kind of dominance that Phillips attributes to them. Anglicans, Presbyterians and even aristocrats were more politically influential on the Parliamentary side. Moreover, the Civil War, it is now widely accepted, was not a manifestation of underlying social forces erupting onto the political terrain. The conflict did not represent any deep-seated dissatisfaction in the community at large but was predominantly the product of divisions among royal councillors. The revisionists have explained the Civil War as the outcome of short-term political problems, a breakdown in the fiscal system and disagreement over the forms of the church, which was itself an issue with long antecedents. In other words, it was neither a manifestation of irresistible cultural and religious forces nor of progressive ideologies. Rather, it was a conflict among England's political and religious elites. Had the king and his advisors managed the early disputes more adroitly, the war need never have happened.

Moreover, if Phillips's thesis about the political geography of seventeenth century England is correct, the industrial revolution a century later should have been the product of those intense and grasping Puritan entrepreneurs of East Anglia. Instead, it emerged primarily in the English Midlands and the north and north-west, the very regions of the country that Phillips claims had long been the bastions of feudal agriculture, liturgical religion, royalism and reaction.

While interpretations by historians of the U.S. Civil War remain more diverse than that of its English predecessor, there is still a healthy body of opinion that supports a not dissimilar case to that of the Stuart-era revisionists. In America, debates over issues like slavery and secession went deep into popular culture, as one would expect in a literate democracy with universal male suffrage, but on the eve of the war, out-and-out Northern abolitionists and Southern secessionists were both relatively small groups. Rather than a groundswell of social forces, it was the decisive actions of a political elite in the lower South that brought on the war and forced the rest of nation to take sides. No more than any other of its kind was the U.S. Civil War a product of historical necessity.

The claim that the events of 1861-65 liberated the northern entrepreneurial spirit and allowed the full flowering of American capitalism is also contentious. While there was certainly a tremendous growth of industries and cities after the war, the expansion of railroads actually slowed and historians still debate whether the war impeded more than it stimulated industrial progress.

In other words, the notion that the English and American Civil Wars were the products of an historic destiny struggling to fulfill itself runs counter to the findings of what is now the leading academic opinion about the former and a respectable body of interpretation of the latter. Phillips's thesis fails to properly address these alternative explanations.

One thing that the contemplation of history should teach us is that there is no such thing as destiny in human affairs, there are no outcomes that had to happen or were meant to be. History is made not by social forces that are irresistible but by men who are fallible, and most often by political elites acting on information that is imperfect, producing consequences that are unforeseen. Sometimes they act wisely, looking to the true interests of their countrymen and drawing on the best of their cultural and political heritage, sometimes they act dangerously and foolishly. The resort to warfare has very often been of the latter kind. And how many more times do we need reminding that throughout the entire course of Western history the most dangerous and foolish notion of all has been that a particular people have now assumed the mantle of Rome and are destined to rule the world.