Monday, September 3, 2007

Nicholas Guyatt's "Providence and the Invention of the United States"

Nicholas Guyatt is an Assistant Professor of History at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. He has two new books out this year: Have a Nice Doomsday: Apocalyptic Christianity and American Politics and Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1865.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the latter and reported the following:
Page 99 isn't the best page of Providence and the Invention of the United States. In fact, I would urge you to read another page if you only have time to look at one. (Pages 98 and 100 are close by and more exciting.) The book offers a new answer to an old question: how did Americans come to think that God had a special mission for the United States? A lot of historians have explored this topic in the past, but my book approaches the question a bit differently. Instead of talking about Puritan missions or errands into the wilderness, I argue that most people in Britain and America before 1800 believed that God (aka Providence) was responsible for everything that happened in the world -- then I explain how Americans developed the unusual belief that God had a special plan for America, while Britons had a hard time believing the same thing about their nation.

Page 99 is towards the beginning of chapter three, which compares the providential rhetoric of American Patriots during the Revolution with similar rhetoric from British newspapers and political debates. The evidence is really fascinating -- even when the war was going badly, Americans confidently declared not only that God wanted them to win, but that he would make the United States into a massive and powerful country that would bring liberty to the world. The Brits, meanwhile, got depressed about God’s purposes and their nation’s future – some even wondered if Britain’s providential role has been to give birth to America.

Providential rhetoric helped Americans to present the early United States as much more promising and accomplished than it really was – a useful device when you consider Britain’s military might during the Revolution, or the nasty political fights within the early republic between 1783 and 1815. But providential confidence had a darker side – it encouraged Americans to overlook or deny those moments (or people) in their history that didn’t fit easily with the idea that God loved America. In the second half of the book, which explores Indian removal, slavery and ‘manifest destiny’, you can see this very clearly.

A paragraph from page 99 (and the first four lines of page 100):

Providentialism had, since the 1650s, oriented American history toward an extraordinary future. Its proponents in the 1770s and 1780s offered this grand future as a counterweight to America’s parlous fortunes in the present. A Connecticut newspaper noted in 1775 that “the conduct of providence and the course of empire since 1757” confirmed that “America will be the grand theatre on which will be displayed both civil and religious liberty in meridian splendor.” Patriots elsewhere made extravagant projections of American population increase; one preacher predicted in 1776 that the United States would comprise 192 million people at its bicentennial (a figure not far short of the actual number of 218 million). As the British army took New York in the autumn of 1776 and ejected the Congress from Philadelphia a year later, Patriots tried to shore up the United States in the present by aggrandizing its divinely favored future. In his sermons in 1776 and 1777, Massachusetts minister Samuel West noted that God intended America to be “the asylum of liberty and true religion” and that “Divine Providence had laid a foundation for our becoming a nation at once.” These predictions of an enormous population for the United States bolstered the claim that God favored the ragtag Patriot forces in their current battles with Britain. It was as if the United States had to become an enormous nation in the popular imagination to win a more modest independence in practice.
Read an excerpt from Providence and the Invention of the United States and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue