Tenting On The Old Campground

Obviously A Cavalier...
Obviously A Cavalier...

The Historic Present had a post at the beginning of the month in which Lori Stokes linked the American Revolution to the English Civil Wars: essentially, the post argued that the event of a Puritan government in England, far from pleasing their co-religionists in the colonies, instead offended both their own puritanism and their sense of independence. (The Protectorate oversaw, after all, a significant strengthening of colonial government.) This exacerbated social tensions within the colonies, and by the Restoration America knew only conflict with England. This theory doesn’t quite explain why the breach was yet a hundred years off, but it goes some way I think to indicating the moment at which colonial society and culture began to separate more prominently from the mother country’s.

It also reminded me of Kevin Phillips’s The Cousins’ Wars, the thesis of which is that shared strands run right through the English Civil Wars, out the other side of the Revolution, and into the American Civil War of 1861-5. I was sold the volume in the bookstore on the site of the battlefield of Shiloh (I assume based largely on the fact that I was English), and didn’t expect a greal deal from it, despite its size. Yet I still regularly think about its central arguments, even though I rarely see it referred to by anyone else. The book’s premise is certainly contentious and historically difficult (Phillips is a political analyst, not a historian). Yet I’ve aways been guiltily attracted to its neatness.

The grand framework of The Cousins’ Wars [can be stated as …]: putting a new political religious, and war-based perspective around the dual emergence of America and Great Britain. This framework, in turn, yields the following thesis: that from the seventeenth century, the English-speaking peoples on both continents defined themselves by wars that upheld, at least for a while, a guiding political culture of Low Church, Calvinistic Protestantism, commerically adept, militantly expansionist, and highly convinced, in Old World, New World, or both, that it represented a chosen people ad manifest destiny. In the full, three-century context, Cavaliers, aristocrats, and bishops pretty much lost and Puritans, Yankees, self-made entrepeneurs, Anglo-Saxon nationalists, and expansionists had the edge, especially in America. [pp xiv-xv]

Though the book admits its martial focus, I think it still conflates an awful lot of historical patterns and movements in this grand design: can Anglo-Saxon nationalism really be usefully identified in the politics of 1640-60, and is it useful to think of the Union Army as fighting for Calvinistic Protestantism? (The fierce Christianity of Stonewall Jackson, a general for the Confederacy, shares far more with Cromwell than would Ulysses S. Grant’s, after all.) Yet Phillips does some good work in tracing ethnocultural links between England and America which can inform the historian tempted to make links.

The historiography of the English Civil War in particular is notoriously hot-tempered, and historians of the period currently seem locked in to a holding pattern of preaching caution and ambivalence: make no conclusions and suspect frameworks to be generalisations-by-stealth. Phillips’s work is at times guilty of making assertions which sit uncomfortably with this carefulness. Nevertheless, it remains a nourishing and informative – if not finally convincing – argument, and is worthy of more attention … and perhaps more studied research.


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