The Conservative Christian Alliance and the Liberal Revolutions of 1848

Timothy Mason Roberts’ Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism provides one of the best scholarly treatments of American intellectual, political, and religious interactions with the rash of liberal nationalist revolutions that rocked Europe in 1848 and 1849. Citizens of the American republic sympathized with revolutionaries who looked to overthrow autocracy, archaic privileges for nobles, and throne and altar religious establishments, but remained intransigent towards liberal revolutions in practice. The slaveholding South naturally feared the possibility of unfettered talk of the rights of man making its way to the ears of slaves. Northern conservatives associated the new revolutions with the French Revolution of 1789, and could hardly be counted on to endorse what they believed was a repeat of a godless and bloodthirsty assault on the political order, no matter how imperfect the Ancien Regime was. Protestant religious leaders in particular worried that liberal revolutionaries might overturn not only monarchy, but also the socio-legal framework that upheld morality and virtue. The liberal and democratic tendency to try and perfect institutions, notes Roberts, terrified Protestant ministers like South Carolina’s James Henley Thornwell. The Gospel, argued Thornwell, did not make the present state a perfect one, and the church’s mission was not to make heaven on earth. Americans who sought in Protestantism a license to create utopia were inevitably disappointed by the responses of southern Protestants, and northern Protestants as well.[1]

Northern Protestants disliked chattel slavery but often shared with their Southern counterparts suspicion towards liberal ideology. William Adams, the minister of New York City’s Central Presbyterian church, rejected outright Enlightenment foundations of liberalism. “The theory of a social compact,” declared Adams, “as set forth by Rousseau in his famous work ‘Sur le Contrat Social,’ and adopted by other politico-philanthropic writers is alike visionary and atheistic.” The idea of a social compact was “just such a theory as might have been expected from a man so vainly fond of paradox that, when the Academy of Dijon proposed the question, ‘Whether science and civilization were serviceable to human happiness,’ he was forward to espouse the negative side, though against his convictions of truth, because affording him a better opportunity to distinguish himself by startling novelties.” God, Adams argued, “made the necessity of law and government. Governments never did originate in the mere preference and contract of individuals, who, up to that time were without any government at all. Compacts, constitutions may, indeed, be framed by men, and between men, regulating the form in which government shall be administered.” The reality and the necessity of government “depends not at all upon human choice. Talk of a state of nature! When, where was there ever a tribe of uncivilized savages who did not recognize the necessity of some form of law among themselves, rude, barbaric though it was, hereditary or delegated, the will of the oldest, the richest, or the strongest.” The bloodiest pirate-ship that ever prowled on the windward station had its laws, Adams contended. There could be “no association of men without them. There is a liberty which is fostered by the gospel, but that liberty is not lawlessness. The most frightful evil which Christianity teaches us to deplore, is anarchy and licentiousness.” Despising governments was, Adams warned, “an inspired description of the most dangerous of men. Men are not to be left in all things to follow their individual will.”[2]

In practical terms, Timothy Roberts notes, Protestant ministers remained aloof from the liberal national movements of 1848. While many extolled liberal democracy on the United States, they did not necessarily believe that European peoples and states were ready for liberal democracy. There was, argued Roberts, a conservative Christian alliance between various Protestants and Roman Catholics against the revolutionary tide that rolled over Europe in 1848. “By 1848 church ministers and religious scholars in the United States, Protestant and Catholic alike, had endured some seventy-five years of challenges to traditional church authority.” The liberal revolutions, despite the traditional antagonism between protestants and Roman Catholics, revealed an essential commonality.” Despite Protestant and Catholic efforts to distinguish their respective doctrines “via events in revolutionary Europe, those events ultimately revealed the similar views of the two groups regarding social upheaval in the United States, a phenomenon counter to the traditional opposition of the faiths.” While antagonism between the faiths was “often the rule…international events such as the 1848 revolutions” aligned “conservative Protestants and Catholics ideologically, even as they continued their doctrinal sparring.”[3]

Conservative Protestants in the United States, both North and South, extolled republicanism and liberal representative institutions. Adams and Thornwell, like most American Protestants, upheld political norms that could be rendered as liberal and even democratic in the nineteenth century. But they stopped short of reflexive sympathy for revolutions predicated on an ideology of liberal democracy. Liberal democratic ideologues in France actuated neither liberal politics, not democracy; liberal democrats in Hungary brought about a nationalist revolution predicated on the political power of magnates–the upper echelon of Hungary’s aristocracy. Other revolutions tended towards anarchy, or worse. American Protestants affirmed liberal democratic practice in their own republic, but that did not in their minds mean they were bound to sympathize or support revolutions in the Old World, liberal, democratic, national or otherwise.

[1] Timothy Mason Roberts, Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 112-113.

[2] William Adams, Christianity and Civil Government: A Discourse Delivered on Sabbath Evening, November 10, 1850 (New York Baker and Scribner, 1851), 13.

[3] Roberts, Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, 107-108.


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