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The Empire Reformed

The Empire Reformed describes how, in the era of the Glorious Revolution, imperial leaders and colonial subjects created new political bonds based on their common desire to save English America from the designs of French "papists" and their "savage" Indian allies.

The Empire Reformed
English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution

Owen Stanwood

2011 | 288 pages | Cloth $45.00 | Paper $26.50
American History
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Popery and Politics in the British Atlantic World

Chapter 1. Imperial Designs
Chapter 2. Catholics, Indians, and the Politics of Conspiracy

Chapter 3. Rumors and Rebellions
Chapter 4. The Empire Turned Upside Down

Chapter 5. The Protestant Assault on French America
Chapter 6. Ambivalent Bonds
Epilogue: Nicholson's Redemption

List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction: Popery and Politics in the British Atlantic World

On 4 June 1702, a crowd of worshippers gathered in Boston to pay homage to their departed monarch. William III had died the previous March, and as the Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth noted, seldom had there been a more heroic leader. William had been "A Good King," Wadsworth preached, because he "Imploy[ed] his Power and Authority for the good of his People." The king's greatest moment had been the manner in which he had come to the throne fourteen years earlier. At that time, England and its dominions were in "languishing circumstances," ruled by a Catholic monarch, James II, whose policies alienated many of his subjects. They were "quite depriv'd of Liberty and Property," Wadsworth remembered, "having their Religion, Laws, and Lives in utmost hazard; sinking under Arbitrary Power and Tyranny; almost overwhelm'd with Popery and Slavery." William, then the Prince of Orange, bravely "came over the sea to help them," engineering the coup that became known as the Glorious Revolution and establishing the Protestant faith and limited monarchy in Great Britain for good.

In its time, Wadsworth's paean to William was an utterly uncontroversial statement—one probably recreated by dozens of ministers around the king's dominions. In this case, however, an ordinary event gave testimony to great political changes that had occurred on the far reaches of the empire. In the years before William's accession, colonial Americans had reputations as refractory subjects. None were worse than New Englanders, and in that region, Congregational ministers had particular reputations for disloyalty. The first royal governor in the region, Edward Cranfield of New Hampshire, believed there would be no peace in the colonies until the king "remove[d] all such their Preachers who oppose & indeavour to disturb the peace of this Government." However bad the ministers were, they were only a step removed from colonial subjects as a collective group, who engaged in open rebellion with an alarming frequency during the late 1600s. The problem was that rulers and subjects often had different ideas about how politics and governance should work, about how the empire should be constituted. These rifts combined self-interest and ideology, with religion lying just below the surface. People like Cranfield believed that the king had wide latitude to decide how he ruled his foreign plantations, and that subjects had the responsibility to obey him—a duty they cast in religious terms. Colonial subjects, on the other hand, had become used to some degree of autonomy. Some of them, especially Reformed Protestants like Wadsworth, believed that people had no duty to obey an ungodly or tyrannical ruler. The general disobedience of Americans led many imperial administrators to believe that only a show of brute force could make the empire work.

After 1689, however, a new political culture developed in the American plantations. While they never lost their rebellious streak, colonial Americans came together, in the words of one New Yorker, as "true protestants subjects" of the English monarch. The reconstituted empire combined the centralization favored by royal agents like Cranfield with the militant Protestantism espoused by Wadsworth. This new kind of politics worked because ordinary people believed in it, and they did so, overwhelmingly, out of fear. From the 1670s through the beginning of the eighteenth century, colonial Americans lived in almost constant anxiety: of attacks by French and Indian enemies; of tyrannical exactions from their rulers; of subversion from within by dissident religious groups or by African slaves. In many cases, colonists described these threats using the language of conspiracies common in early modern Europe, especially the Protestant rhetoric of Catholic plots. Indeed, the language of anti-popery provided a constant backdrop for political intrigue around the colonies. This fear had the potential to tear the empire apart, to cause rebellions against authority and subvert royal government. In some circumstances, however, fear could bring the empire together, as long as royal officials learned how to harness it. This book tells the story of how that happened, of how popular fear allowed the English, and after the Act of Union of 1707 the British, to build an empire.

The story of the making of empire must necessarily be both intensely local and transatlantic in scope. Imperial leaders had to deal with dozens of local contexts: colonial societies that had developed, in some cases over decades, in relative isolation both from each other and from the metropole. What worked politically in a Puritan outpost like New Hampshire necessarily failed in a plantation society like Barbados. At the same time, colonial subjects of the crown, no matter where they lived, shared certain assumptions about politics. They can be boiled down into four basic rules. First, Anglo-Americans believed in the sovereignty of the king, that he enjoyed theoretical power in the plantations. Second, and somewhat contradictorily, they believed that local people, and the institutions of local governance, should have broad latitude in actually running things. Third, the vast majority felt that governments at whatever level should be Protestant, and defend subjects' "Protestant liberties." Finally, rulers had the obligation to keep people safe, to defeat whatever enemies threatened from within or without. These four rules, needless to say, contradicted each other in numerous respects. What was the line, for instance, between royal sovereignty and local autonomy? And what to do if a king, like the Catholic James II, seemed likely to subvert Protestantism? Finally, how much should people sacrifice the first three principles in the name of the fourth, a desire for security? English people struggled for most of the seventeenth century to answer these questions, and colonial subjects had their own answers.

The crisis that eventually produced this imperial consensus emerged from a particular moment in English and British politics. Inhabitants of the colonies, in many cases, came from England or Europe themselves; their political understanding depended on both the peculiar heritage of England and Britain, and a constant communication of ideas from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Of course, colonial subjects lived hundreds of miles from the center, and they never simply replicated English political culture. Nonetheless, the imperial transformation emerged from the complicated political and religious divisions of Restoration England and its British and European neighbors. During the late 1600s, England experienced a "crisis of popery and arbitrary government," an upsurge in fear that divided the nation into two rival parties, created new religious animosities, and eventually pushed England toward a new role in European power politics. Only by beginning in England can we understand how and why the empire changed.

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