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  • William Smith’s Catonian Loyalism, Race, and the Politics of Language
  • Christopher A. Hunter (bio)

In early 1776, all Philadelphia knew where Rev. William Smith’s loyalties lay. That February, at the behest of the Continental Congress, the Anglican clergyman and provost of the College of Philadelphia presided over an elaborate memorial service for Richard Montgomery, the American general killed in the failed invasion of Quebec. The city’s notables packed the new German Reformed Church to hear Smith venerate the man he called the “Proto-Martyr to your rights” (Oration 23).1 After comparing Montgomery’s and Cincinnatus’s devotion to “virtue, liberty, truth, and justice,” Smith no doubt surprised many in the audience by praising Montgomery’s “loyalty to his sovereign” (24, 31–). Quoting the Olive Branch Petition, a six-month-old last-ditch effort to avert the Revolution, Smith boldly declared, “the delegated voice of the continent . . . supports me in praying for a restoration ‘of the former harmony between Great Britain and these Colonies’” (33). But the king had refused even to read Congress’s olive branch, and the delegated voice of the continent no longer saw reconciliation as a viable possibility. Privately, John Adams seethed at the “insolent Performance.” New Jersey delegate William Livingston moved that the Congress thank Smith for his service and publish his speech, but the motion was withdrawn after Adams and other radicals objected that Smith had “declared the Sentiments of the Congress to continue in a Dependency on G Britain which Doctrine this Congress cannot now approve” (R. Smith 505). Undeterred, Smith published An Oration in Memory of General Montgomery (1776) himself, ignoring counsel from Livingston and Benjamin Franklin to omit the reference to the Olive Branch Petition and his reflections on Montgomery’s loyalty to the king (Franklin 376). Indeed, Smith did just the opposite, adding a preface declaring, “whatever claim he may have to the appellation of a good Citizen or Friend to Liberty” must rest on his efforts to prevent American independence (Oration 4).

William Smith understood liberty and good citizenship to be mutually [End Page 531] constitutive: civic virtue demands freedom from compulsion while true liberty requires voluntarily subordinating individual interest to the commonweal. Between March and April 1776 Smith continued to make the case that reconciliation with Britain was the surest path to liberty, publishing a series of essays that are among the most important of the era’s many attempts to stem the rising tide of independence. More learned than James Chalmers’s Plain Truth (Philadelphia, 1776) and more widely available than Charles Inglis’s The Deceiver Unmasked (New York, 1776), the full series appeared in three separate Philadelphia newspapers and the Annapolis Maryland Gazette (see the appendix). Smith signed these essays “Cato,” invoking a pair of texts more normally associated with his opponents: Joseph Addison’s play Cato (1713) and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s political essay series Cato’s Letters (1720–23). As Smith’s nom-de-plume and invocations of “public virtue” suggest (Oration 10), republicanism—which Gordon Wood has called the “ideology of the American Revolution” (“Classical Republicanism” 12–13)—was also the ideology of one of the Revolution’s most vocal opponents.2

This essay’s three sections explore the origin and progress of William Smith’s Catonian Loyalism, both for what they reveal about the republican resistance to Independence and for the distinctively literary responses Smith’s particular brand of Loyalism provoked from the more Revolutionary quarters of the print public sphere. The first section traces the roots of Smith’s political views to the 1750s, when he first used Addison’s Cato to help articulate a defense of a white Protestant empire. In the years surrounding the French and Indian War, Cato provided Smith a way to focus his ideas about citizenship and political liberty. In 1776 these ideas about kinship, virtue, and empire met with fierce resistance. The essay’s second section turns to Smith’s Cato essays, which marshaled his theological and philosophical expertise in an attempt to forestall the dissolution of the empire. More than any of his contemporaries, Smith recognized the impossibility of translating his republican ideals into print, and the final section...


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