- Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607–1876
In this work, Nicholas Guyatt demonstrates that invocations of providence played a significant role in creating the American nation. More than just a word study or intellectual history, the work shows that beliefs in providence—“that God intervenes in human history” (3)—changed in emphasis over time and had very real implications for national development. Extensively researched and wide-ranging, the book covers the use of providential ideas from the first English settlements to the end of Reconstruction.
Guyatt provides a valuable conceptual framework for understanding the multiple uses of providence. Putting aside concerns about providence [End Page 151] for the individual, Guyatt focuses on a “national providentialism,” the belief that God intervenes in the experiences of nations. He then identifies three important substrands. His overriding concern is with “historical providentialism,” “that God imagined a special role for certain nations in improving the world and tailored their history to prepare them for the achievement of this mission” (6). Guyatt labels a second strand “judicial providentialism,” in which God directly judges nations because of their moral commitments. The third strand is “apocalyptic providentialism,” in which God directs events to complete the end times. This third strand has much in common with the “millennialism” discussed by historians such as Ruth Bloch and Nathan Hatch. In contrast to these historians, Guyatt believes these apocalyptic visions were not very important for nationalist projects. Instead, he focuses on the interplay of judicial and historical providential ideas.
Guyatt presents a rich, complex argument about the uses of national providential ideas in early America. The first half of the book maintains a transatlantic focus, demonstrating that national providentialism was part of Anglo–American culture, not something uniquely American. Although colonists, especially New Englanders, nurtured a historic providentialism, it was not yet nationalistic. Not until the imperial crises of the 1760s and 1770s were colonists able to articulate a providential language that justified separation. Guyatt shows that, during the Revolution, Britons struggled to describe a providential purpose for their nation, while Americans succeeded in marshalling providence to recruit and inspire soldiers and civilians. Beneath the seemingly universal belief in God’s national purposes, however, lay strategic fault lines, which would soon appear as the nation confronted political challenges like Ratification and the rise of political parties with conflicting visions of the nation. Both Federalists and Democrats struggled to articulate the divine will for America’s relation to other nations and to respond in light of the French Revolution, thereby producing competing providential interpretations. Ironically, the end of the War of 1812 allowed for a reconciliation of the parties, as they could both reaffirm a divine plan for the nation and locate that plan westward, rather than toward Europe.
Guyatt delves deeply into the problematic presence of Indians and African Americans (both free and enslaved) for a providential American vision. These racial groups did not seem to have a place in the emerging “white republic.” In the debates over Indian removal, colonization, and abolition, reformers criticized the nation and called for more ethical conduct [End Page 152] through an appeal to judicial providentialism, predicting divine judgment if the nation continued its errant ways. Although Manifest Destiny offered a comforting vision of providential territorial expansion in the 1840s, it had no ability to hold the nation together in the crises of the 1850s. The Civil War produced competing providentialisms in the North and South. Southerners reworked American providential language for their new nation, an attempt that failed as Union armies advanced. Northern preachers and writers turned the judicial argument—God was judging the nation because of slavery—to reinforce the historical argument: God had great plans for the nation but could not reveal them until the nation ended slavery. In Guyatt’s description, Lincoln was less a visionary in his use of providence and more of a moderate who reflected and restated common attitudes of the war years. This renewed historical providentialism contributed to the reconciliation of...