John Witherspoon's American Revolution: Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States

By Gideon Mailer | Go to book overview

{ CHAPTER 1 }
“A ROAD TO DISTINCTION VERY
DIFFERENT FROM THAT OF HIS MORE
SUCCESSFUL COMPANIONS”
Augustinian Piety in Witherspoon’s Scotland

In December 1776, at the height of the American Revolutionary crisis, the Scottish Presbyterian minister Alexander Carlyle delivered a pro-British sermon titled The Justice and Necessity of the War with Our American Colonies Examined. Preaching to his Edinburgh audience, he defended the moral philosophy of his fellow Moderate churchmen as well as Anglicans in “South Britain” and claimed that misguided American patriots lacked similar ethical and philosophical guidance. Their “treatment of the episcopal clergy,” indeed, was “remarkably barbarous” and showed no concern for those from South Britain who were “indisputably the firmest barrier against fanaticism, either in religion or politics.” American Revolutionaries were prone to “intangle the many in the mazes of sophistry” as they eschewed their debt to mainland British culture. Under “this government,” Carlyle claimed, “we have lived with more security and happiness than any nation ever did…. Far superior to the republics of antiquity, the government of Britain has maintained the rights of human nature, with a happy equality.” Thus it is “just and necessary to shed our blood now, in reducing our ungrateful children to a sense of their duty…. Nor is it our interest alone that obliges us to reject their demands, but their interest also.” Only with British metropolitan support could Americans continue to enjoy religious, cultural, and commercial liberty: “Under this government against which they revolt, they have been free and happy, and have grown to that height of wealth and population which, we say, has made them forget or despise all obligation, and aspire at independency.”1

By the early nineteenth century, Carlyle’s view of the cultural context of

1. Alexander Carlyle, The Justice and Necessity of the War with Our American Colonies Examined; a Sermon, Preached at Inveresk, December 12, 1776, Being the Fast-Day Appointed by the King, on Account of the American Rebellion (Edinburgh, 1777), 13, 14, 16, 18–20.

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