I’m exploring American Creation, the interesting group blog I mentioned in a recent post on the evangelicalism of the 18th C. socially radical working-class, who play dramatic roles in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.
These American Creation (AC) bloggers have unusual backgrounds (like me) and write skeptically and knowledgeably about prickly matters that bear on today’s conflicts between secularist liberals and the religious right. I’d call the group high conservative, in a kind of refreshingly old-fashioned sense. They bring thinking from the University of Chicago to their posts, making reference to Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom (oh, man!), Aristotle, Sidney; they’re deeply interested in “natural law,” the origin of rights, reason versus revelation, and the proper relationships of religion and government. And they think these are key American topics.
That ain’t me. Another way to put it: they actually care about the religious thinking of the famous founders, and they’re eager to parse it to death. I’m not sure there’s really all that much there (I suspect AC thinks about the issue more than the founders themselves did). When it comes to American 18th C. religion, I’m excited by the millennialism and evangelicalism and in some cases mysticism of the less rich and prominent, with roots in Quaker, Digger, Leveller, Muggletonian and other dissenting English enthusiasms, which I think had a more profound, if sometimes subterranean, effect on the action, though perhaps not so much on the published thought, of the era. The AC focus is relentlessly on the nuances of elite intellectual history. Me, I like the distressing realpolitik of elite action – and the intellectual and spiritual history (and the distressing realpolitik) of the non-elites.
AC gets into how Enlightenment rationalism combined with Christianity in 18th C. Whig America to liberalize both religion and government. In that sense, and in part because they’re conservative, they’re liberal. And I think they’re right to associate the liberalizing of religion with the development of haute-Whig republicanism, which defined the class of American founders who, as one of the AC writers wittily defines them, made it onto our currency (and, I note, tried to hold back democracy and radical social change). Illiberal American religion, the kind I’m interested in, led to other ideas about government, socially radical and at times utopian ones, which the upper class, across the rationalist-Christian-Deist spectrum, found revolting, silly, and infuriating, and yet at times, for political reasons, depended on, without acknowledgment.
One key AC idea is that today’s American liberal democracy may differ fundamentally from the European version, just as the American revolution differed from the French in not being populist and, in a certain sense, not millennial, not an effort to start human society over, to redeem it. The realpolitik I’m interested in, and the action adventures in my books, complicate, shall we say, that idea.
Anyway, in the process of considering these differences, I’ve come to appreciate AC’s liberal/conservative ways of defending the separation of church and state and the first amendment as a whole, and their debunking of a lot of poorly considered ideas coming from today’s religious right.
And yet, and yet … When it comes to a post and some comments on George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy
, AC reveals some of the limitations that their focus on thought, not action, and on government, not politics, places on a close, critical reading of history. I won’t review the whole Newburgh conspiracy here. It’s an exciting and dark story. There’s a good bit about it in The Whiskey Rebellion
, and (free of charge) in my Boston Review article on the cult of Alexander Hamilton
. (Problem with reading that article on line is that BR now interrupts it with a promo for a book of my essays. But my two comments in the comment section might help clarify?). And I just remembered: another of my freebie accounts is here
The short version: In 1783, Robert Morris, the financier of the Continental Congress, his assistant Gouverneur Morris, and their young protegé Alexander Hamilton colluded with disgruntled elements in the Continental Army officer class to threaten the Congress with military coup.
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