Academic journal article Early American Studies

Trans-Atlantic Anti-Jacobinism: Reaction and Religion

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Trans-Atlantic Anti-Jacobinism: Reaction and Religion

Article excerpt

As historians have mapped the contours of an Atlantic history, they have produced important insights into the political experiences of the later eighteenth century. Historians of the Age of Revolutions have traced individuals who crossed intellectual and political borders and created hybrid Uberai and even radical ideologies. Suzanne Desan, Philipp Ziesche, and Janet Polasky have traced how Americans and other foreigners crossed the Atlantic to participate in the French Revolution. Jeremy Popkin has demonstrated ties of ideology between the French and the Haitian Revolutions. Seth Cotlar has described how Tom Paine's trans- Atlantic pilgrimage brought radical ideas to the early American republic. From these histories, the Atlantic World might be surmised to have been in the throes of radical reconstruction at every level.1

Yet it was not. Without discounting the very real political and social experimentation that occurred at many points, the arc of many of these narratives still points to the failure of these same experiments. The political openness of the early French Revolution led to Thermidor, Napoleon, and eventually the Bourbon Restoration, and the experiments in family life and social organization similarly found themselves curtailed. Britain delayed political reform for decades, and even American politicians limited the most radical impulses of the period. To account for this, a greater consideration of the forces arrayed against political re-creation, forces that struggled mightily to counter the very efforts advanced by radicals, is necessary. Against radical reformers were arrayed many reactionary activists who also functioned on a trans -Atlantic level, creating networks of cooperation designed to counter revolutionary radicalism wherever it appeared. These individuals and groups claimed the mantle of Anti -Jacobinism, thus associating any radical reform with the bloodshed of the Terror. This opposition to the French Revolution, although present in individual nations, gained force and variety through connections forged between individuals in multiple nations.2 Though neither a coherent organization, nor a "Conservative International," Anti -Jacobini s m still proved an important transnational political ideology and identity in the Atlantic world from the 1790s through the 1810s.

Anti -Jacobini s m as a movement linked individuals and ideas in Europe, England, and North America. The practices of writing and printing, correspondence, diplomacy, and travel all forged connections and kept the movement unified against a common enemy. Print culture described perceived dangers and communicated strategies to counter the threats. As print spread across borders, it cross -pollinated ideas and created real and imagined relationships. Print further proved a multivalent strategy, addressing differing groups and sections within the various nations, from elite thinkers and politicians to common men acting on political ideas to women readers in domestic settings. Government officials and diplomats moved through the Atlantic and met one another, just as intellectuals read books and newspapers from other nations, interweaving ideas and beliefs. The two most salient elements of this Anti-Jacobinism were concerns over political reaction and religion or, stated differently, vigorous defenses of the established political order and the received religious belief, which meant Christianity, whether Protestant or Catholic. Interlocked, these two main concerns of Anti-Jacobins inspired active response.

The fountainhead of antirevolutionary political thought was undoubtedly Edmund Burke. Writing before the French Revolution had even reached its most violent and radical stages, Burke articulated the lines of attack that subsequent Anti-Jacobins would pick up. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he decried the "spirit of innovation" and break from political traditions he saw in the revolution. Inspired by speculative political philosophers who without practical experience applied a priori, rationalist principles to politics (whether or not they were relevant in a specific national instance), the French Revolution ran roughshod over "human nature," customs, sentiments, morals, and manners. …

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