- The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution by Owen Stanwood
Owen Stanwood has produced a fine, focused monograph, analyzing late seventeenth-century efforts to reform the imperial administration of Colonial British America. The book is divided into a three-part narrative. In the first section, Stanwood traces the endeavors of late Stuart colonial administrators to bring centralized control over the disorderly English Atlantic Empire they inherited from the regimes of the British interregnum. The second section delineates the reception and implications of the Glorious Revolution in the English Atlantic colonies. The final section explores efforts, largely successful, of imperial administrators to reimagine the empire in the years following the events of 1688. The story then is one of efforts to centralize colonial administration prior to 1688—what Stanwood calls “Empire Imagined”—followed by the collapse of Stuart imperial ambitions in 1688, “Empire Lost,” followed in turn by efforts to create and impose a new imperial design, “Empire Regained.”
Stanwood deftly illustrates the importance of a rhetoric of anti-Catholicism at every stage of his narrative. British administrators, colonial elites, and the larger political societies of the various colonies, he argues, together crafted the successful British Atlantic Empire of the [End Page 456] eighteenth century from an abiding understanding of Catholic malevolence dating to the very beginning of English colonization. “The reconstituted empire,” Stanwood argues, “combined the centralization favored by royal agents” with a “militant Protestantism” grounded in long standing Protestant fears of Catholic plots and conspiracies (p. 4).
Stanwood is especially sensitive to and takes seriously the genuine fears expressed by the populace of the various colonies every bit as much as by local and imperial governors. Initial efforts to reform the empire—the first stage of Stanwood’s narrative—“proved difficult because they ran into the conspiratorial political culture of popish and Puritan plots that poisoned Anglo-American politics in the Restoration era” (p. 26). News of the invasion of England by William of Orange and the subsequent collapse of James II’s authority unleashed fears of Catholic menace in the colonies, and promoted deep-felt insecurity. Officials in New England and New York downplayed these rumors and popular fears, and failed to survive the crisis. In Virginia and Barbados, however, colonial governments “took them seriously” and “made a stand against the real or imagined Catholic enemies that threatened their polities.” In those places, local regimes “weathered the crisis and came out of it unscathed” (p. 86).
Leaders of the new colonial governments in New York and New England emphasized a new understanding of the English dominions. These men “sought very consciously to build a Reformed Protestant empire” and “understood America as a partner in a global Protestant movement” (p. 114). At the same time, however, they rejected imperial centralization. Instead they promoted a loosely structured confederation under the umbrella of the British crown that properly should be, they argued, duly respectful of local autonomy. The inability of local colonial governments to provide real security for their people, especially as warfare between England and France intensified, forced local elites and the people they governed to acknowledge the necessity of English assistance. “This revelation,” Stanwood writes, “led to a gradual shift away from the Protestant firebrands who had championed a decentralized empire, and toward some of the very people” who earlier had lead Stuart efforts to reform the empire prior to the Glorious Revolution (p. 146). By the turn of the eighteenth century, imperial officials increasingly “realized that anti-Catholic fear could be the ideological glue that held [the] Anglo-American empire together” (p. 179).
Stanwood’s argument is sophisticated and nuanced. He has synthesized a wide range of literature and has accompanied that effort with deep reading in an expansive array of primary sources. His chapters [End Page 457] consist of a series of impressive micro-narratives, focused on specific colonies and specific episodes, ranging from New Hampshire to Barbados. Much of his narrative, understandably, focuses on New York and New England; his...