Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 93 (May 1999): 60-64.
The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, and the Triumph of Anglo–America. By Kevin Phillips. Basic. 651 pp. $32.
Reviewed by Mark A. Noll
Perceptive students of the 1996 presidential election have noticed an uncanny trend that links geography, religion, and politics. Take the nine regions into which the U.S. Census Bureau divides the country. Rank the regions according to the percentage of the people who, according to an Angus Reid poll taken right before the election, affirm major tenets of evangelical faith and rank "high" in the practice of their religion. Then rank the same regions again according to the percentage of the popular vote for Bob Dole. You find that the rankings are almost identical (the Mountain region being the only exception: high support for Dole but relatively low in evangelical practice).
While many pundits ignored such relationships, sophisticated commentators knew they deserved serious analysis. An affinity for broad patterns of political and cultural understanding has been a driving force behind Kevin Phillips’ many books, beginning with The Emerging Republican Majority (1969). Its argument that the Republican Party would increasingly become the majority party of the South and that, on the basis of this realignment, a new conservatism would become much more important in American public life was a remarkably prescient forecast that, in fact, has described much of the nation’s electoral history over the last three decades.
Now Phillips has published a sprawling, audacious book which suggests that broad cultural analysis should be extended back in time and out in space in order to grasp essential features of American and British society over the last four centuries. By comparison to the considerations of this book, the United States’ recent election returns are mere epiphenomena. But, Phillips implies, those who seek intellectual purchase on these and other contemporary developments would do well to study the past.
The arguments of The Cousins’ Wars shy away from putting the past to use for predicting the future. Rather, they are relentlessly historical in contending that the three great civil conflicts of modern Anglo–American history exerted an enormous influence in shaping nearly every aspect of American and British life, as well as substantial elements of world history. First was the English Civil War of 1642–1649, which led to the triumph of Parliament and its Puritan allies over King Charles I and his royalist supporters. Second was the American Revolution, 1775–1783, which Phillips successfully depicts as both a dispute among Britons—colonists vs. colonists, English vs. English, Scottish vs. Scottish, over the proper application of British law, custom, and political traditions—and a war for American Independence. Third is the American Civil War, 1861–1865, which in Phillips’ vision sustained patterns of antagonism and principle whose major outlines had been drawn by the earlier conflicts. Phillips devotes almost five hundred pages to explicating the connections, recurring relationships, and symmetrical effects he observes in these three wars, while the last one hundred pages explain how he thinks this sequence of conflicts influenced American, British, and world history during the last 150 years.
The major difficulty in coming to terms with this book is the scope of what is attempted. It offers fairly detailed analyses of the three wars, it includes a series of mini–essays on the ways in which each of the wars resembles the other two, it provides lengthy accounts of strategy for each conflict, it attends patiently to national differences within the United Kingdom (English, Catholic Irish, Ulster Protestant, Scottish, even Welsh), it treats in detail non–English ethnic groups in the United States (especially the Germans and Irish), it gives full attention to geographical–political regions in the two nations (with many clear maps), it pauses at several places to chart the effects of the three wars on African Americans and Native Americans, it offers several provocative sallies about what America’s military–political history has meant for Canada and Mexico, and it patiently unpacks a whole lot of detailed electoral history in trying to chart long–term political consequences of the wars.
A modern professional historian may not be the best person to say how well Phillips has done in putting all of this together. As professionals we publish research whose major effect is to verify more and more about less and less. A combination of detailed reading and broad–based interpretation like The Cousins’ Wars is more likely to inspire grumpy huffing and puffing than reasoned response from my professional corner. Sinking to that level, I must point out that Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay did not order the execution of Quakers, that John Witherspoon came from Scotland to become president of Princeton in 1768 not 1766, and that Methodists were growing much faster than Baptists in the period 1780 to 1860. But so what?
Rising above such pettifogging, my immediate reaction is that, with perhaps one exception, Phillips has been remarkably successful in sustaining the major points he wants to make about these wars, their striking similarities, and their effects on British and American society. Phillips’ very success, in fact, arises from taking up the quest for larger meanings.
He avoids, for example, a besetting sin of much professional history by treating Britain and America together, refusing to equate modern nation–states with hermetically sealed arenas of cause and effect. In this virtue, as throughout the book, Phillips follows historians who in recent decades have insisted on the unity of "North Atlantic" history—that is, Britain, modern Canada, the United States, the Caribbean islands, and adjacent coastal regions of Europe and South America touched by the dynamics of British imperial expansion. He specifies in some detail the constant flow of communications, immigrants, immigrants returning home, ideals, merchandise, books, ideas, and other cultural products that have knit the North Atlantic region together.
Phillips’ conclusion that "religion, politics, war, and their interrelationships" constitute the major engine of history allows him to draw on expert work by historians who have begun to recover the determinative cultural significance of religion in British and American history. The reality that Phillips and these historians present is not that religion has been always an ennobling force. The abuses of Christianity have been many: religio–ethnic cleansing in Ireland and elsewhere, Bible–based mistreatment of Africans, religiously inspired riots (in London, Edinburgh, New York, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Mass.), and the exploitative use of religion to whip up partisan frenzy on both sides in all three conflicts. It is the case, however, that the Christian religion is salted very deeply into British and American culture, and that efforts to describe the past that neglect this presence—ennobling influences as well as demeaning uses—are simply bad history. Phillips understands the significance of religion for his history, and that understanding leads to some of the book’s most useful arguments.
A whole set of those arguments features connections between religion and region. Phillips shows, for example, that the low church, dissenting Protestants of East Anglia (northeast of London) were strong for Cromwell in the English Civil War, sympathetic to American rebels during the Revolution, and eager for a Northern victory in the American Civil War. Moreover, settlers from East Anglia made up much of the migration to New England where a low church, dissenting Protestant influence became a (perhaps the) key to bringing on the American Revolution. In addition, a low church, dissenting Protestant outmigration from New England to the states of the Old Northwest and Upper Midwest laid the groundwork for reformist Whig and abolitionist Republican political strength on the eve of the Civil War. Phillips is able to trace similar trajectories from Royalist strongholds during the English Civil War to Loyalist regions of Revolutionary America and cavalier strongholds of support for the Confederacy. At several points Phillips cautions against simplistic geographical determinism, but his own reading shows that regional religious attachments have had great political influences that have survived over long periods of time.
Phillips’ comparative perspective also allows him to explain why the American Revolution was a civil war and the American Civil War a revolution. In the Revolutionary War, the most aggressive opponents of American patriots (who were disproportionately Congregationalist or Ulster–Scot Presbyterian) were not King, Parliament, and British generals—in fact, several of the latter nurtured nearly traitorous sympathy for the American cause. Rather, the firmest opponents of American patriots were American loyalists—including Anglicans from the middle and northern colonies, Scottish–born merchants in port cities, and Scottish Highlanders in several southern colonies.
If the Revolution was America’s first Civil War, it was no less the case that the Civil War was a great revolution. As Phillips puts it, "The loose, possibly unraveling U.S. Confederation of early 1861 [inherited from the Revolution] and the emerging nation–state of late 1865 were almost different countries." Prior to 1861, America was a politically fragile, slaveholding, agricultural, Protestant–dominated, and largely isolationist nation. In the period after 1865 it became politically unified, free, industrial, religiously plural, and a budding world power.
Phillips’ ability to link the three wars hinges on his considerable success in making convincing conclusions about each of them individually. The English Civil War established the cultural and religious fault lines that in substantial measure defined the antagonists of the latter two wars. The American Revolution, despite the bitterness of its British–American and intra–American violence, enabled the United States and Britain to flourish, since both were spared what could only have been the ongoing, enervating exasperation of having to deal with each other as part of a single political entity. The victory of the North in the American Civil War was so thorough that the fault lines from the earlier wars in both Britain and America could no longer precipitate armed conflict. That result, in turn, led to the possibility of international Anglo–American cooperation,which began seriously before the end of the nineteenth century and climaxed spectacularly in the two world wars of the twentieth century.
Phillips argues these and other important theses with a wealth of detail and copious reference to existing historical scholarship. If there is a problem with the book, it is the rush toward the finish line. Phillips devotes short chapters at the end to arguing that wars have always been the key determinant of American electoral politics, that they were also the key to the imperial expansion of Britain and the United States, and that the worldwide spread of the English language was also materially advanced by the same conflicts. Perhaps so, but arguments about the twentieth–century, worldwide significance of the three Anglo–American wars are neither as amply discussed or persuasively documented as the book’s earlier, and extraordinarily provocative, arguments about the meaning of the three wars for Britain and America in the period from 1642 to 1865.
Which may bring us back to the 1996 election. Political punditry in the United States, with only a few exceptions, thrives on instant analysis. It has little use for history. How odd, and yet how beneficial, for one of the nation’s most successful political pundits to write a book like The Cousins’ Wars, for apart from the many fruitful discussions it should kindle among historians, it also suggests that only a flight from punditry will unlock the broader meaning of contemporary American politics.
Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College.