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Republicanism: Religious Studies and Church History meet Political History

  • Dana W. Logan

Republicanism, both of these authors teach us, by the mid-nineteenth century became indistinguishable from the aims of religion in the United States. A broad array of protestants agreed that the aims of religion cohered with the political principle of republicanism—or the principle that men could only achieve freedom through self-rule. Noll usefully shows that this concept of republicanism underwent a series of changes from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth. Beginning in the late eighteenth century republicanism referenced liberty from tyranny, man as citizen, and virtue as a kind of constraint on individual interests. Noll, however, argues that two versions of republicanism competed in this earlier period: communitarian republicanism, based in “the reciprocity of personal morality and social-well being,” and liberal republicanism, which valued the independence of the individual. Noll and Modern argue that by the mid-nineteenth century, the liberal version won out. Citizens imagined their freedom to be enabled by a market-based society more than by a community of virtue. For political historians these definitions are not new or controversial, but for historians of American religious history republicanism is an unlikely category of analysis because we see it as “political theory” rather than theology. But as both Noll and Modern argue, republicanism became the very substance of theology in the United States.

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1 Noll, America's God, 57.

2 Noll's own appendix on republicanism is an excellent place to start for this historiography: ibid., 447–451; also see Doolen, Andy, “Rehistoricizing the Power of Republicanism,” American Literary History 19, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 120140; and Rodgers, Daniel T., “Republicanism: The Career of a Concept,” The Journal of American History 79, no. 1 (June 1992): 1138.

3 Noll, America's God, 215; Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 51.

4 Modern, Secularism, 91, 109, 167, 184, 235.

5 Ibid., 114.

6 Noll, America's God, 81.

7 Ibid., 214.

8 See Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1978).

9 Noll, America's God, 215.

10 See Paul A. Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763–1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1987); Paul A. Gilje and Howard B. Rock, Keepers of the Revolution: New Yorkers at Work in the Early Republic (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1992). Gilje and Howard Rock show how the working classes understood republicanism as the basis for strikes and mobs. Sean Wilentz also famously argued that artisans felt a special claim to republicanism that manifested in the first American labor movement. See Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (New York: Oxford University, 1984).

11 See Philip Joseph Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1998), 63.

12 Rodgers explains that this consensus (that republicanism extended all the way into the Jacksonian period) emerged in the 1985 issue of American Quarterly. After labor historians, historians of women, and southern historians also claimed the term. Rodgers, “Republicanism,” 30.

13 Modern, Secularism, 17–18.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
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