Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution • Owen Stanwood • Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011 • x, 278 pp. • $45.00
Reviewed by Carla Gardina Pestana, W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. She is the author of Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World (2009).
Owen Stanwood's Empire Reformed pursues two purposes. It presents the Glorious Revolution (and particularly its colonial iterations) as arising largely from fears of Catholic conspiracy; and it embeds that event into a larger analysis of efforts to reform the empire from the 1670s to the early eighteenth century. In Stanwood's telling, colonists came to accept imperial oversight as a bulwark against French and Indian enemies. Once the empire was perceived as dedicated to the defense of Protestantism and liberty, colonists reconciled themselves to it. Although his account ultimately focuses most closely on New England and New York, it ranges widely across various colonial regions and offers an interpretation of the coup in England as well.
The colonies were drawn into the imperial orbit by their fear. Fear of Catholics had a long pedigree by the 1680s, and it was exacerbated in the colonies, particularly those closest to Spanish or, by this period, French enemies. Rumors of a Protestant coup around the figure of William of Orange raised hopes of a return to Protestant rule along with anxiety about the truth and portent of events. Stanwood argues that those political leaders—like deputy governor Edward Stede of Barbados—who responded to colonists' fears with empathy and action weathered the storm of revolution; while those who dismissed concerns were likely to be ousted by nervous colonists. Rather than see revolt in Boston (for instance) as an opportunistic move to throw off an unpopular government already assumed to be papist and tyrannical, Stanwood finds a more spontaneous effort to rid the colony of leaders who refused to allay fears arising from unconfirmed rumors of revolution.
Much of the book is taken up with limning the process of acceptance of empire that took place after the Revolution. The men who launched their colonies' copy-cat rebellions, especially in New England and New York, were willing to support the anti-Catholic foreign policy of William and Mary but sought to do so within a decentralized Protestant empire in which local autonomy was maintained. Jacob Leisler's ill-fated scheme to attack New France without assistance from England represented the most elaborate attempt to put this vision into effect. With time and a string of failures, however, the colonists came to see a central imperial system as the only way to succeed. Governor Richard Coote, the earl of Bellomont, eased acquiescence as the first imperial official to harness the anti-Catholicism of the colonists behind royal government. The working-out of a “Reformed” empire culminated, as does the book, with his governorship (1697–1701); a brief epilogue uses Francis Nicholson to demonstrate how much the empire had changed over the course of his career, which spanned the 1680s to the 1720s.
Reinstating religion to a central role in the Glorious Revolution, Stanwood makes a persuasive case for its causal role in both England and America. His discussion of Catholic conspiracy is generally subtle and compelling. Occasionally he overreaches. The obligatory effort to explain witchcraft fears in Massachusetts in terms of Catholic conspiracy is less convincing. Treating the post-Revolutionary writings of colonists as a public relations campaign to besmirch the reputations of the men they overthrew seems to undermine the argument that the revolutionaries responded to their new leaders' failure to take their fears seriously. Such minor criticisms aside, The Empire Reformed offers a convincing account of the Glorious Revolution and a significant argument about the creation of imperial structures in the colonies.