Surprise! Evangelicals Were Once Radical Economic Populists Who Planted the Seeds of Our Own Struggles Against the 1%
Photo Credit: University of Texas Press
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Editor's Note: You wouldn't know if from the way the Rev. Billy Graham cozies up to today's elites, but Evangelicals were once the staunch enemies of America's privileged class. In his new bookFounding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation, William Hogeland wipes away the cobwebs, slogs through the fog of historical consensus, and challenges the cherished myths of both the left and the right to take a clear-eyed look at what was really going on in late 18th Century America when the Revolution was born.
In Hogeland's refreshingly unsentimental account, which favors primary sources, the Great Myth of founding era struggles as a unified front of liberty-loving Americans v. British despots instantly dissolves. In its place, we see that across the newly forming nation, especially in the western regions, economic radicals were agitating to fight regressive taxation, absentee landlords, and privilege among their own countrymen. Popular accounts of the Revolutionary Period obscure the fact that ordinary working Americans mounted aggressive challenges to rich oppressors at home and risked their lives to see an America develop that truly represented "We the People" -- and not just a small group eastern merchants, planters, and financiers. And they met with determined resistance.
Hogeland tells the story of how these populist-minded Americans pitted themselves against the early architects of high finance -- battles that resulted in protests, clashes, and sometimes violent rebellion. All of us, he reminds us, tend to view the founding era through modern ideological lenses that blur the vitality and complexity of the period. Tea Partiers view early protests against taxation as challenges to big government instead of the calls for fairness and economic equality that they were. Liberals and progressives are often uncomfortable with millenialist visionaries whose reading of the Bible and end-time religious ferver drove them to champion programs of economic equality as part of their vision for Christian revelation.
Woven into the story ofFounding Finance is the fascinating figure of Herman Husband, a charismatic Evangelical philospher who loved America, but despised the growing concentration of wealth. His full-throated calls for economic fairness troubled the likes of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton as much as those of radical rationalists like Thomas Paine – challenging their views on liberty and equality. Today, Evangelicals have been largely co-opted by the right, but their predecessors who existed outside the elite structures of established churches often shared common purpose with secular populists, promoting ideas on communal property, progressive taxation, and profit-sharing. Evangelicals like Herman Husband thought their desire for radical economic and social equality was in line with the high-Whig love for liberty embraced by the famous leaders of the Revolution. They came to see that they were wrong. But these economic justice-loving Americans are the ancestors not only of the Progressive Party, the New Deal, and the Great Society, but their legacy lives on in the battles we must wage today in an era of rising economic inequality. - Lynn Parramore
From Chapter 2: “Riot, Regulate, Occupy (1765 – 1771)”
Herman Husband lived in hope of imminent Christian millennium and therefore owned no slaves. He was a rich tobacco planter and entrepreneur from Maryland’s eastern shore, and in 1754 he left his home and traveled south, deep into the North Carolina backcountry. He wanted to make money and to build the biblical Canaan.
But Husband stayed in North Carolina to do something more: disconnect American government from economic privilege. Seventeen years later, he would flee on horseback minutes ahead of arrest and hanging, a fugitive from justice for his defiance on behalf of small farmers, artisans, and laborers. By then, Herman Husband was on his way to becoming one of America’s first full-time activists for economic and political equality.
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.
But because the right’s free-market ideology is diametrically opposed to founding evangelicals’ efforts to get government to restrain wealth and legislate equality, Christian conservatives don’t know about them, and the right goes on vainly trying to make our great founding rationalists into holy rollers. Modern liberalism can’t embrace early American economic activism either: that activism was saturated not merely with faith but with an especially illiberal kind of faith, the evangelical and millennial kind, whose calls to action are predicated not on scientific calculations for social improvement that modern liberals prize, but on spiritual warfare for transformation of the very terms of human relations, ultimately of human existence.
Today’s political liberals keep trying to press the wellknown founders, whose attitudes about religion were intellectually sophisticated, into serving as ancestors for modern American political progressivism. Meanwhile many of our real founding activists for economic equality remain obscure because they were evangelicals. The result is that we don’t know what happened in our founding.
By no means alone in either his evangelicalism or his activism, Herman Husband was nevertheless a dramatic and revealing case. In 1739, when he was fifteen, he heard George Whitefield preach. A twenty-five-year-old English superstar, Whitefield was touring America, attracting crowds outdoors and causing a sensation. In Philadelphia he preached on the courthouse steps to 8,000 people. In North East, near the Chesapeake Bay, 1,500 came, and Herman Husband was one of them. He had questions, and Whitefield’s preaching began answering them.
Only personal faith, received not through forms of worship but as direct experience, gave new spiritual birth, Whitefield said. Conversion wasn’t an idea or a practice but a feeling. Denominations legally established by colonial governments weren’t just useless to salvation but actively obstructed salvation. Only new, spontaneous, emotionally alive churches, he said, could bring about a saving inner change in people, acceptance of forgiveness of sin.
It was the Great Awakening. We often think of that phenomenon as fire and brimstone and railing against sexual pleasure. But as early as the 1720s, ministers were preaching especially hard against the greed, laziness, and materialism that they felt American society was encouraging. The Awakening was in many ways a youth movement, and in a time of xenophobia among colonies, it was the first American enthusiasm to sweep across boundaries and bring what today we think of as the country together, against establishments. In every denomination and province, established churches, called “old light” and “old side,” were condemned for spiritual deadness by “new lights” and “new sides.” Unestablished sects like Baptists, known for spontaneity and enthusiasm, gained new members. Services went on outdoors. Revival was both the style and the goal. Acquisitiveness—in some old-side Calvinists’ view a sign of virtue, even of possible grace—now looked to young Americans like lust for material luxury, sin.
Old-light ministers pushed back. They castigated what they saw as the Awakening’s preference for individualism over doctrine. Liberal theologians had been trying to get rational, Deist ideas into the churches; they condemned the Awakening’s appeal to mere feeling. Bosses were dismayed to find field hands and factory laborers dropping work to attend outdoor services. As the Awakening went on, and began losing its novelty among maturing members of the better-off classes, evangelicalism settled into working-class parts of American society. It stayed there.
In 1739, when the young Husband heard the young George Whitefield preach, the Awakening had begun to see itself as a sign of the biblical millennium. Prophesied for Christians in the Revelation of St. John and certain books of the Old Testament, the millennium involves an end time, a universal war, the last judgment of all souls, and the establishment for the saved of permanent bliss in divine love. The Great Awakening’s millennialism was at once more forgiving and more social—more American, perhaps?—than many earlier forms. The terrible last judgment depicted in classic theology, Awakening preachers began to suggest, might not be necessary. All might be brought into God’s love gradually and without horror. The end of history might be accomplished in the perfect happiness of life here on earth. Even the second coming of Christ might, in Awakening theology, be accomplished by the infusion of Christ’s redeeming love in all people. A sign would be the dissolving of distinctions between rich and poor. From the 1740s on, evangelicals in America were calling for radical social and economic change, tantamount to millennium.
Filled with spiritual purpose, Herman Husband grew into manhood at odds with his parents. They were exponents of classic early-American upward mobility. His grandfather had survived a term as an indentured tobacco worker—mere survival in bonded servitude was an accomplishment—and then married a landed widow, obtained appointments in law enforcement, planted his own tobacco, and diversifi ed with an ironworks. He left a big inheritance. Herman Husband’s parents moved east to the shore, bought almost two thousand acres, and built a brick house on the main road on the east side of the Susquehanna River. They were slaveowning tobacco farmers, second-level gentry in a society that prided itself on cavalier elegance.
Growing up in luxury, the boy rejected what seemed to him his parents’ spiritually empty and morally corrupt lives. His family joined other rich Anglicans every week in church, but the teenage Herman saw no hope for salvation in their polite devotions, when they horribly abused others through the institution of slavery. Indeed, their church looked like what people then called Popish, corruptly Roman Catholic, the Antichrist on earth. And the pleasures of the Chesapeake planting class—gambling, riding, dueling, partying—gave him no pleasure at all.
He became what later youth movements would call a seeker. He wanted to fi nd the group that would, in biblical terms, be yeast to ferment the sea, bring on the millennium. He spurned his parents’ Anglicanism and joined the Presbyterians. He left old-side Presbyterians to join the new side. Then he left new-side Presbyterians to join the Society of Friends, the Quakers. For a time the Quakers seemed spiritually radical enough even for Herman Husband. They described
the holy spirit as indwelling love. They resembled early Christians for having been persecuted in both England and New England. They recognized all people everywhere as children of God, so they strongly opposed African slavery. They had no ritual forms or shows.
And they were pacifists. Quaker pacifism would come to form one of the most problematic elements in Herman Husband’s activism.
Quakers were by no means constrained by vows of poverty, however. When he came to the North Carolina backcountry, Herman Husband owned a big tobacco plantation of his own. He was a partner in two copper mines and a smelting business; he had investments in a Caribbean shipping firm.
Years later, an old man, Husband would be admired by some and scorned by others as a barefoot prophet and frontier preacher, but in his thirties he was a focused and effective American businessman, enjoying great financial success while hoping for the millennium in America.
Like so many other businessmen of his generation, in the 1750s Husband saw enormous financial opportunities in what people called “western land.” Seemingly endless expanses of thick, tall timber, pine barren, piedmont, deep valley, and rocky ledge were inhabited by native people, and had been used by white hunters and trappers who moved in and out, but pioneers had never yet cut those forests and dug, fenced, and farmed that soil. The American west began in the east, in woods at the ends of fi elds seen through westfacing windows. It rolled all the way to the foothills, up and over the forbidding Appalachian chain: Berkshires in Massachusetts, Green Mountains in what were then called the Hampshire Grants, Adirondacks in New York, Alleghenies in Pennsylvania, the Blue Ridge in Virginia, Smokeys in North Carolina. White efforts to expand that way had always met with problems. Grotesque violence prevailed between natives and frontier whites. In 1768, George III drew a line down the crest of the Appalachians. By royal proclamation, he forbade white settlement west of what was now called the Proclamation line.
Settlers were not deterred. Patrolling the line reliably was nearly impossible. When they could, people moved across it, squatted, and traded atrocities with the Indians. Ambitious speculators meanwhile registered titles in land offices for trans-Proclamation lands with defiant impunity.
But when Herman Husband came from the Maryland shore to the western backcountry in the 1750s, the Proclamation line hadn’t yet been drawn, and Husband found promising land well east of the mountains in forests in the North
Carolina piedmont. He was operating on behalf of a consortium he’d formed for the purpose of land speculation there. He began buying parcels of likely backcountry woods, ripe for improvement. He soon owned ten thousand acres on the Sandy Creek and the Deep River. By 1762, he’d settled his family permanently on a farm.
Still a Quaker, he attended the Cane Creek Meeting. He wrote to Lord Granville, who owned the upper half of the colony; he wanted Granville to keep the Anglican Church from establishing itself as the legal religion of the backcountry, and to prohibit African slavery there. Husband was beginning to see his new, western home as the ideal place to establish the egalitarian society that would be a sign of the millennium.
Then one day he rose to speak in the Cane Creek Meeting. He condemned Quaker discipline. Every church, Husband complained, prevents its members from voicing revelations of the spirit when those revelations confl ict with procedures of the church. All churches kill spirit.
He was expelled from the Society of Friends. The relentlessness of his quest for revelation had left Husband on his own. He was forty. Unchurched, he would now put his spiritual insight into action.
Husband had long seen human government and the millennium as separate: government the dry, merely temporary necessity, something to improve but not perfect in advance of human transformation; the millennium that eagerly anticipated transformation itself. Now, however, he was looking at the social and economic situation in the western backcountry. He saw the possibility of achieving human redemption by ending corruption in government. This new phase of Husband’s quest—at once political, practical, and millennial— would make him a social and economic radical and lead to his flight from North Carolina, a fugitive of the Regulation.
The problems that the North Carolina Regulators became adept not only at opposing but also, thanks largely to Herman Husband, at describing, point to economic distress that made life hard in many parts of pre-Revolutionary America. Causes of distress came down to three things that combined to stifle ordinary people’s aspirations: tenancy, debt, and corruption.
Or, to flip that description the other way, the problem for ordinary Americans was caused by a far smaller, more powerful group of Americans: landlords, lenders, and officials who made representative government the landlords’ and lenders’ tool. Historical imagination has allowed us to associate economic oppression in colonial America with snobbery and corruption supposedly characteristic of the English elements in government (shorthanded as “Tory”) in opposition to democracy and honesty, supposedly characteristic of Americans. Landlords and lenders in founding-era America offer a prime example to the contrary.
Early American landlords and lenders are not unfamiliar to us. One way of talking about them is to use terms all classes used then, also used in founding history today: “the merchants” and “the planters.” The colonial merchants and planters are famous mainly because in the 1760s and ’70s so many of them, far from expressing any inherently Tory tendencies, resisted England especially strongly. Merchants and planters and their lawyers became the American revolutionaries we’ve come to call founding fathers.
Merchants traded merchandise within the imperial system called mercantilism. Planters produced the agricultural raw materials—lumber, tobacco, indigo, rice—on the grand scale that fed the system. Merchants are usually associated with the middle and northern colonies and planters with the South, but there were big plantations in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York and mercantile operators making deals throughout the South; planters also bought and sold, like merchants. Merchants usually owned ships, but they also sometimes owned interests in farms. Agents and brokers for merchants and planters sat in coff eehouses, taverns, and dockside warehouses in London and in the American seaboard towns, making deals and striking bargains for theirvarious principals.
While American colonies had their own governments, the British Parliament made rules under which colonists operated in global markets. Parliament’s goal was to manage competition, balance interests throughout the empire, protect British industries, and promote British projects. For colonial merchants and planters alike, that process could make life complicated and tense. Acts of Parliament proliferated and overlapped. They reached so far into daily life that their names were sometimes cozily specific even as their effects were annoyingly complex. The Hat Act of 1732, for example, prohibited Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania from exporting furs to Holland because Holland was selling those furs to France, and France was thereby underselling the British hat industry. American hatters responded to the Hat Act by making and selling their own hats within the colonies, but that undermined hat imports to America from England, again hurting English hatters, so Parliament passed a new law prohibiting American hat sales outside a hatter’s colony.
The Molasses Act of 1733 corrected a situation that discouraged American importers and distillers from buying molasses from English sugar planters in the British West Indies: French West Indies planters were underselling the British in the North American market because the French government, also mercantilist, barred import of molasses into France for fear of rum’s killing the French brandy business; England, meanwhile, was prohibiting import of American meat and fish, in order to protect the English meat and fi sh industries, and that gave Americans a chance to sell meat and fish to the French West Indies in exchange for cheap molasses. Parliament therefore slapped a high duty on molasses imported to America from anywhere but the British West Indies, stopping American trade with the French.
The White Pine Acts reserved timber for British ships, to avoid Baltic imports. London’s role in fi nance was aided by an act prohibiting private banking in America. The Iron Act of 1750 limited production of American iron in order to stimulate iron imports to America from Britain. It went on and on.
Historians have long argued over which came first, American love of smuggling or American love of liberty. Many of the first families of America—both the merchants and the planters—opposed and sometimes avoided English rules. They included the Hancocks, leading import-export Bostonians; the Boston branch of the Adams family, who invested in the Hancocks’ business; the Dickinsons, who grew tobacco on the Delaware and Maryland shore; the Livingstons of New York, rich through slave trading, who raised grain on their vast Hudson River estates; the shipping fi rm of Charles Willing in Philadelphia, where commercial and fi nancial sophistication grew fast; the dashing Lees of Virginia’s Northern Neck and the comparatively staid Harrisons of Virginia’s James River; the Pinckneys, who grew indigo in South Carolina. Objecting to England’s trade laws was an elegant, establishment American position.
It was when American lawyers started arguing that a defense of ancient English liberties justified American objections that the best-known part of the founding story begins. In 1758, the twenty-six-year-old lawyer Patrick Henry asserted
in Virginia’s “twopenny” cases that the Privy Council’s voiding a law of the Virginia assembly made the king effectively a tyrant. In 1761, James Otis argued in the Massachusetts “writs of assistance” cases that searching American ships without specific warrants violated rights guaranteed British subjects by the British constitution. The discussion sharpened when Parliament went beyond what American lawyers and lawmakers had long acquiesced in seeing as its legitimate role—legitimate, if annoying—in balancing imperial trade through tariffs. In the 1760s, with new acts known as the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, Parliament didn’t hope merely to balance imperial trade. It was trying to raise a revenue for the royal treasury.
To liberty-loving Americans, that was a tyrannical innovation in Parliament’s lawmaking power. Taking property solely for the purposes of revenue, without the consent given through representation, seemed to violate essential rights. Consent of the governed went back at least to the Magna Carta, when in 1215, on a fi eld at Runnymede, barons sat King John down and made him sign an agreement that limited his power. Article 52 of the Magna Carta prohibits the king from taking property at will, by levying a tax, say, or just moving his retinue into someone’s castle. He may take property only by consent of the owner. The American gentlemen who in the 1760s and 1770s became resisters to English trade laws called themselves “Whigs,” looking backward to English Whigs of the seventeenth century and the oldest English traditions in government.
In Philadelphia, the lawyer John Dickinson, writing as “A Farmer,” demonstrated the unconstitutionality of Parliament’s taxation for revenue without representation. American merchants, planters, and lawyers read and repeated the Farmer’s words. The stakes kept going up. When Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, it declared its right to tax Americans at will, for any purpose, whenever it wanted. With the Townshend Acts, it did tax them. When Boston suffered occupation by the British army, British tyranny in America seemed unrestrained.
The colonial assemblies responded extralegally. In 1774 and 1775, they sent delegates to the Continental Congresses in Philadelphia. The Delegates adopted a policy of strong, unified colonial resistance to England, ultimately rejecting a competing policy of moderation, accommodation, and loyalism. By the time the British began moving troops out of Boston to Lexington and Concord, in the spring of 1775, many American planters, merchants, and lawyers were ready to fight.
As potted as I can get it, I think that’s a pretty fair tracking of the famous founders’ progress toward the American Revolution. Some have called American merchants, planters, and lawyers touchy, even paranoid, hysterically immersed in seventeenth-century writings on liberty that in England amounted mainly to a literary movement, not a realistic political agenda; others try to show American assemblies as almost superhumanly consistent in their moral opposition to English overreaching. I want to look at what I think today’s most influential history glosses over, explains away, deemphasizes, or simply ignores, regarding the planters, merchants, and lawyers who became the famous American revolutionaries.
That is: In the view of many little-remembered small farmers, artisans, mechanics, and laborers, who made up the overwhelmingly greater part of American society, those upscale, liberty-loving men had long been running the colonial legislatures for the benefit of themselves and to the detriment of everybody else. Parliament and Crown weren’t the only oppressors in colonial American society. For many ordinary people, they were by no means the most direct oppressors.
Rich Americans were.
Here is where we may begin to see mutual hostility, not mutual support, between ordinary Americans and the famous leaders in the Revolution. And here is where Herman Husband began a career that would one day put him in opposition to some of the most famous of those men.