Through English politics from the 1530s to the 1820s and beyond, the most consistent theme of both popular sentiment and official ideology was anti-Catholicism. From the sixteenth century, Englishmen pictured the Roman Church not merely as a system of cruelty and intolerance, but as an international conspiracy operating through secret agents and with covert sympathy of fellow travellers. Deliverance was attributed to divine intervention in favour of Protestant England. An apocalyptic or millennial perspective on England’s and America’s history was generated principally in the context of Protestantism’s conflict with Rome.
In England, millennial expectations receded after the 1650s. In the colonies, especially Puritan New England, they evolved into the eighteenth century as an orthodoxy. New England society had earlier come close to being a theocracy; the sense of America as a religious experiment, as the new Israel, still gave stability and practical content to millennial hopes. British legislation on the American colonies in the 1760s could at once be seen in an ‘apocalyptical perspective’. The Stamp Act therefore quickly reversed a whole nexus of ideas which identified civil and religious liberty with British rule. Grenville’s stamps were described in language of the Book of Revelation as ‘the mark of the beast’. In cartoons, British policy was often personified as the devil.
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What prompted certain Americans to rebel? Historiographic tradition required that the trigger of rebellion should be external to the colonies, a reassertion of authoritarian ideology in 1760s Britain. But the old constitutional scenario of a sinister and concerted attempt by George III to resurrect monarchical absolutism is now untenable. This reopens the question of internal colonial triggers to the rebellion of 1776.
In both 1688 and 1766, the constitutional problems raised by questions of taxation, executive prerogative and parliamentary jurisdiction were turned from grievances into issues which evoked the passionate commitment of great numbers of ordinary men. Contemporaries recognised the part played by religious enthusiasm in the American cause. Secular enthusiasm had most importance for the small circle of men who formed part of the Jeffersonian Enlightenment. But the political commitments of most men were still an aspect of their religion; and this was already taking forms which were both new and distinctively American.
The American colonies in 1776 were in the grip of a momentous religious revivalist movement. The evangelical phenomenon known in the colonies as the Great Awakening began slowly in the 1740s, under the inspiration of the New Light Presbyterians, a highly politicized elite associated in the foundation of Princeton. From the 1740s it grew to become a mass movement, turning into a ‘landslide’ in the decade following 1765. By 1776, the Great Awakening had inspired in many colonists a vision of an imminent millennium. The expectation of a future moral transformation was matched by a condemnation of the sinfulness, luxury and corruption of past life and, especially, of English modes. It was an attack on privilege and hierarchy, an assertion of divinely-sanctioned popular sovereignty against the divine right of the English monarchy.
Colonial Americans were able to mobilise quickly between 1773 and 1776 because a millennial tradition of thought was available for instant activation. Mobilisation on the scale of 1776 is evidence against religious imagery being mere rhetoric. A break in the tie with Britain, a renunciation of existing rationales for American society, demanded and was easily given an alternative rationale, a biblically-supported vision of a new future.
Within the millennial vision, one component in particular still acted as emotional catalyst and political trigger: the fear of Popery. Its role was already an ancient one. The New England colonies were founded at a time of frenzied anti-Catholicism in England and carried this inheritance as a lasting and vivid theme in their moral and political discourse. Laudian persecution of Puritans added the element of paranoia. Consequently, the imperial challenges of the 1670s and 80s produced an even more hysterical reaction in the colonies than in England. By the mid-eighteenth century, the vocabulary of tyranny, slavery and arbitrary power was still grounded on the meanings of the key term ‘popery’. This heightened emotional temperature acted to sweep up and distort patterns of argument which might otherwise have provided grounds for caution rather than insurrection. American rhetoric in the 1760s and 1770s combined the same inconsistent elements as did that of England: beside contract theory and natural rights theory went the doctrine of the ancient constitution.
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