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Cousins' Wars:
Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare & the Triumph of Anglo-America


by Kevin P. Phillips,
400 pages,
ISBN: 0465013694


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Family Feuds
by Nathan Greenfield

Kevin Phillips chose his title well: by invoking the idea of a family romance, he both telegraphs that there is an Anglo-American world (to which we Canadians belong, though not quite in the way he imagines), and he opens up enough space for forgotten tales that reveal much about our relations.

In The Cousins' Wars, Phillips draws links from the English Civil War of the 1640s, through the American Revolution and the American Civil War. He shows how the Anglo-American world has seen arbitrary royal and political power challenged and defeated by insurgencies that had their roots in what was once called the Low Church-i.e., in the dissenting Protestantism of the time.

The stories he tells about the cousins, our cousins, are themselves worth the read. Puritans from Massachusetts Bay returned to England to fight for Parliament. Maryland, the colony with the largest number of Catholics, saw fighting between those who supported Charles II and the colony's Puritans. The Puritan Army that installed William of Orange included black colonial soldiers from the Dutch West Indies. The fact that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were up to their eyeballs in debt to English banks goes a fair way towards explaining their willingness to "dissolve the Political Bands which have connected" England and America. Hessians were hated because they were billeted on the population and because their moonlighting drove down wages. Jeffrey Amherst's greatest contribution to history wasn't, Phillips argues, his victories here, but rather his refusal to take the King's Commission because it would have meant fighting fellow Protestants. During the American Civil War, New York considered declaring itself a free port. And the world has not long remembered Abraham Lincoln's second greatest contribution to America: by buying the only German newspaper in Illinois and directing it to support him in the election of 1860, he both won the White House and set the Germans on a path to becoming Anglicized, giving Generals Pershing and Eisenhower and Admiral Nimitz to our century.

The first part of Phillips' thesis-that these wars "rescripted society, economics and government on both sides of the Atlantic"-is grand enough to put him at odds with, what Jack Granatstein has dubbed, "particularist historians". (Particularist historians eschew politics and war in favour of the "everyday", which is somehow assumed to exist outside of politics.) The second part of his thesis will likely raise hackles from both postmodern and post-colonial historians. Phillips argues that, along with the now damned expansionist ethos that led English Puritans to regicide and to found Massachusetts Bay, and their descendants to settle the upper Ohio Valley, these people forged a politics in which non-conformist religion and entrepreneurial zeal combined to create the more open political systems of their respective periods.

In other words, even while including chapter-length caveats of the English treatment of the Irish and of slavery and its tragic aftermath, Phillips argues that the world bequeathed to us by the Puritans was ever more open to political involvement by, what he calls, "ordinary folk". And he's got the numbers to prove it. Prior to the challenge to Charles I, England's "political nation" consisted of some tens of thousands of nobles; the one that took his head consisted of approximately 200,000 shopkeepers, petitioners, and traders. In 1775, the English political nation totaled 400,000, the majority of whom opposed war with their co-religionists across the Atlantic. By 1865, its official total was more than one million. But, as Phillips argues, despite the economic dislocation caused in England by the loss of Southern cotton, millions of England's own (disenfranchised) workers were supportive of the North; England, therefore, was kept from siding with the Confederacy, which means that the political nation of England was even larger, as was recognized in the Electoral Reform Act of 1867.

Phillips' attention to religion will strike many as odd, except perhaps for the section on the English Civil War. However, even here there is much to learn. Contra the impression left by the less edifying sections of Aereopagitica, religion (especially real or imagined popery) was not at the centre of the first challenge to Charles I. In 1640, Parliament-not just the future Puritans of East Anglia, but also Archbishop Laud's Anglicans-demanded an end to special courts, illegal taxes, and a reduction in Royal power. Only in late 1641 with the publication of the Great Remonstrance did Puritan objections to High Church Popery take shape, and that followed Charles' flirtation with Catholic Political Absolutism la France, symbolized best by Charles' Catholic bride, Henrietta Maria. Forty-seven years later, the last Stuart, James II, lost the throne (though not his head) largely because he too was seen as lusting after the religio-political position of the Bourbons.

The American Revolution and the Civil War were surely something different; by the latter, millions of Catholics, not to mention Mennonites, Baptists, and others, had emigrated to America. No, says Phillips. Pre-revolutionary debates about taxation (much of which was raised to pay the costs of kicking the French out of Quebec) are not as good a predictor of positions once the Revolution broke out as tradition has it. Lexington, Concord, Boston-the areas that spearheaded the break with England-still identified with their forefathers' and mothers' rejection of the Royal Prerogative and absolutism. New York State proves the point: there, support did not come from the Dutch city but from the upstate parts settled by New Englanders. Across the colonies, areas with high numbers of dissenting Protestants-mainly Congregationalists in the scheme of the day-supported breaking with England. By 1776, Congregationalists had had a decade's experience holding Congresses and running provincial committees of correspondence that convinced them America could run its own affairs. Catholics, High Church Anglicans, and Presbyterians opposed the war; their concentrations in New Jersey and New York explain these states' shaky positions.

Military historians have long noted the importance of the Battle of Saratoga: had the Americans lost it, the Revolution would have almost certainly failed as Burgoyne would have been able to march south and destroy Washington's rag-tag bunch hiding in the New Jersey backcountry. Phillips adds something new to the story: an explanation for why Burgoyne, Gage, and Sir Guy Carleton were so bad, which, given the latter's brilliance in the war against France, begs an explanation. Unlike Jeffrey Amherst, they took commissions. But all three thought of themselves as peace commissioners as much as generals; Burgoyne actually wrote to Lord North asking for this commission, while still in the field. They may have commanded troops, but their convictions lay closer to the London petitioners who agreed with the Americans that George III's actions were tantamount to a Popish plot. Indeed, when sitting in Parliament, these generals sided with Protestant dissenting ministers and the London bourgeoisie, who claimed that the third George of Hanover was akin to a latter day Stuart. Direct rule of America, these generals agreed, offended both the Rights of Englishmen and their Protestant understanding of the individual as an actor in the world. Phillips argues convincingly that the British General Staff felt that a war to destroy their cousins was not worth winning.

The Civil War too saw the victory of those who traced their religious roots back to the East Anglian counties that gave Cromwell his strongest support. It's no accident, Phillips argues, that abolitionism was stronger in New England or in that part of the Ohio Valley settled by those who came from Massachusetts. Perhaps the best symbol of this, a point Phillips misses, is Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Boston-bred novelist who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin while living in Ohio. As noted, Londoners supported the North. The Civil War was the third time in just over two hundred years that those who supported freer trade, entrepreneurial expansion, economic nationalism, nonconformism in religion, and Maritime as opposed to an agricultural world view triumphed. The cousins' ties-this time between the lower order of the English political nation and the North (both William Makepeace Thackeray and, surprisingly, Charles Kingsley supported the South)-kept England from intervening. Had it done so, the Anglo-American world would have been rent, with incalculable results. Locally, it would have meant that notre arpents des neiges would have known real war more recently than in 1812. Globally, it means that the Anglo-American alliance that fought and won World Wars I and II would have been close to impossible to create. No matter how the war would have turned out, it's impossible to imagine England withdrawing the fleet from American waters (what Phillips rightly sees as the key link in the chain that connected the two North Atlantic powers) in the fifteen years after a major war with America.

As the third largest branch of the family, Canadians are part of the story, though not exactly in the way Phillips tells it. Canada for him is but a larger Bermuda, for, despite some sympathetic groups, we didn't join the rebellion against England. The Canada Act of 1791, which established appointed legislative chambers modelled on the House of Lords, was, as he says, a Tory reply to the Spirit of `76-that is, a rejection of the American-style democratic polity. And while Phillips makes a convincing case that the Canada Act recapitulates the retreat from Radical Puritanism that marked both Cromwell's Protectorate and, especially, the Restoration, he's wrong to suggest that this reaction is the deep structure of Canadian politics.

Perhaps because few in our house have attended the Low Church-indeed, Catholics have always been a majority here-Phillips has trouble recognizing how our version of reformist politics developed. Halfway between the Second and Third Cousins' Wars, in 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie, an Orange Protestant, and Louis Joseph Papineau, a Catholic, led rebellions. The family compact may not have run a Star Chamber, but it was an autocratic system that aped George's and would have loved to echo Charles' court. Papineau's demands for an end to rents would have been quite familiar to the East Anglians who objected to farming tax.

But there is more that Phillips should note about the more quiet ones in the family. George Brown, a stout Scotch Presbyterian, used his paper, the Globe, to support the American anti-slavery groups, free trade, and representative democracy. Phillips makes such good use of the religious maps-showing, for instance, how between 1936 and 1940, support for America's intervention in Europe rose in areas settled (as much as a century earlier) by Yankees, Congregationalists, and Episcopals (descendants of the Puritans all)-that it would have been interesting to see him deal with Prince Edward Island's Ned Whelan. An Irish Catholic member of P.E.I.'s delegation to Charlottetown, Whelan represented the island's poorest, most ill-educated group, which, in all three of the wars Phillips discusses, was the backbone of conservative, even reactionary, positions. Yet, Whelan's constituency supported him as he argued for non-denominational schools, universal manhood suffrage, and, most importantly for the farmers on P.E.I., an end to the power of Landlordism; indeed, Whelan's supporters saw Confederation as the way to get out from under the Colonial Office which had supported the Landlords.

Phillips' argument that each war ended up enlarging the political nation is true, but the way he casts it makes war sound almost essential. Again, we provide the counter example. Jacksonian Democracy and the English Reform Act of 1867 may be more famous and both affected more people. But, by 1810, two years before Old Hickory got his moniker and a decade before he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Sir James Craig, Governor of Lower Canada, complained that here "scarcely one farmer in a thousand" was without the vote. Our political forefathers achieved this remarkable level of enfranchisement by the most Canadian of methods: governments set the threshold of property ownership so low-forty schillings, to be precise-that they effectively enfranchised every male, though no one admitted that was the point. No doubt many who debated the rules of Canadian franchise felt the push of the winds of the 1640s and 1776; but, as Phillips should have noted, the bureaucrats and politicians who held sway here discovered that the riotous winds of the past can be harnessed peacefully. 

Dr. Nathan M. Greenfield is the Canadian Correspondent for the Times Education Supplement and the Pop Culture Historian for CBC Radio One's Definitely Not the Opera.

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