Surprise! Evangelicals Were Once Radical Economic Populists Who Planted the Seeds of Our Own Struggles Against the 1%
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Deemed eccentric by the privileged whose privilege he assailed, and largely ignored by history, Husband was by no means eccentric in his beliefs. Many thousands of ordinary Americans of his time shared his desires and tactics. The roots of modern American protest, specifically over finance and economics, shoot deep into the colonial period. Yet in contradiction not only to what the conservative Tea Party movement, in naming itself, asserts, but also what many Americans across today’s political spectrum have good reason to assume, our early struggles over money and government, and over the proper relationship between them, were by no means always struggles between American colonists and English authorities. As in today’s political arguments over debt, taxes, and public and private finance, ordinary, less privileged Americans and better-off, better-connected Americans vied with one another, throughout the period before the Revolution, for control of government policy regarding money.
That the better-connected and better-off had the overwhelming advantage will come as no shock. They include all of the famous founders, across the political spectrum of the day, from Alexander Hamilton to John Adams to Samuel Adams
to James Madison. As we’ll see, they all rejected the radically egalitarian ideas about economics and finance espoused by many ordinary people in eighteenth-century America. Many historians have praised the famous founders for carrying out what is called a “moderate” revolution, eschewing economic and social egalitarianism that in the French Revolution led, only shortly later, to terror and totalitarianism. In being what we call moderate, the founders weren’t resisting temptation. It came naturally to them. Thomas Jefferson was unique among them even for fl irting with radical populism. He did that mainly in letters, not in action.
Yet rioters and protestors for economic equality had a powerful impact on our founding too. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, Herman Husband and thousands of his neighbors rebelled against authority that they considered economically corrupt. Their rebellion is known to historians as the North Carolina Regulation, and it gives history some headaches. Because the royal governor of North Carolina put down the uprising, in 1771 at the Battle of Alamance, nineteenth-century historians, looking backward through the lens of American independence, saw the North Carolina Regulation as a rehearsal for supposedly inevitable revolution against England. Some modern historians, too, view preindependence uprisings like the North Carolina Regulation as evincing populist moods they see climaxing in American independence.
There were important conflicts, however, between the Regulators and the men who became famous revolutionary leaders in 1776. The Regulators had an economic agenda that discomfited upscale American patriots as much as it discomfited British authority.
One of the strangest things about the North Carolina Regulation, from today’s perspective, is its religious inspiration. Herman Husband and other leaders of the uprising saw themselves as working toward the millennium, that culmination of human existence prophesied for Christians in the rule of Christ, prelude to an eternal state of perfect happiness for the saved.
Today’s political liberals lean secular as a group. They associate rationalist skepticism with famous American founders like John Adams, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. The religious right attacks that association, deploying Christian-sounding quotations from those same founders to cast the biggest names in founding history as Bible-believers. What episodes like the North Carolina Regulation suggest to me is that both sides are looking for founding historical validatio in exactly the wrong places. If today’s religious rightists want to find evangelical fervor in founding-era America, they don’t have to rope in men like Washington, whose regard for something called Providence seems to me about as nonevangelical and nonmillenarian as it gets. There were real evangelicals in the founding period, with politics really biblically inspired. Herman Husband and the North Carolina Regulators are among them.