Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Project Reading: "In Pursuit of Equal Liberty"

As some of my readers know, I am working on a project on religion and the American Revolution, with a particular focus on Presbyterians.  I am not yet sure how this project will unfold or how it will be disseminated, but I do plan to continue my research in the archives this summer.

In the meantime, I am doing a lot of reading on the subject.  Since my project deals with Presbyterians as both a religious group and a political group, I am reading widely on the history of the American Revolution in the mid-Atlantic.

Since I am always looking for something to write about here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I thought I would start a new series called "Project Reading."  Feel free to follow along as I get better acquainted with some of the books I am processing for my work on this project.

I just finished Joseph Foster's In Pursuit of Equal Liberty: George Bryan and the Revolution in Pennsylvania (Penn State, 1994).  I did not know much about Bryan until I cracked Foster's book, but after reading it I am convinced that Bryan will play a role in the story I hope to tell on Presbyterian politics in revolutionary Pennsylvania.  Chapter 2: "Strengthening the Presbyterian Interest" and Chapter 3: "Bryan and the Emergence of Presbyterian Politics" have proven to be very helpful in making sense of the role that Presbyterians played in Pennsylvania politics during the mid-1760s.  I am eager to read Bryan's journal this summer at the Library of Congress.

Connecting the religious developments in the Presbyterian Church between 1740 and 1776 with the emergence of Presbyterian political factions has not been easy.  Foster's book does not link them to my satisfaction, but it does give me another historical actor (Bryan) to consider in the process.  This book reminds me of several things:

1.  Presbyterian politics in Pennsylvania was often driven by anti-Quakerism

2.  Despite the radical and violent Paxton Boys, most Presbyterian leaders (Bryan included) were motivated more by reason than passion and moderation over patriotic rage.  (I made a similar argument in The Way of Improvement Leads Home).

3. In the wake of the First Great Awakening, Presbyterian attempts at reconciliation (between the Old Side and New Side) were more complicated, especially in Philadelphia, than how I portrayed them in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Nevertheless, it does appear that denominational healing did take place between roughly 1745 and 1765.

4.  The Presbyterians were active supporters of the very democratic 1776 Pennsylvania State Constitution, but I am not prepared yet to argue that all or even most of them supported it.  Stay tuned.

I need to compare my notes on Foster's biography of Bryan with notes I took a few years ago on Melvin Buxbaum's Benjamin Franklin and the Zealous Presbyterians.  I also need to look more closely at Richard Ryerson's The Revolution Has Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765-1776.

Other suggestions for things I should read on this front would be much appreciated.