Book Review: Redemption from Tyranny: Herman Husband’s American Revolution by Bruce E. Stewart (Charlottesville, VA and London: University of Virginia Press, 2020)
On a spring day in 1775, two Pennsylvania judges placed an exorbitant bond on a participant in a public protest against the British government. The judges were not simply Loyalists trying to put down Patriot demonstrations. One of the judges was Arthur St. Clair, who would go on to be a Patriot general in the American Revolution and a President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. Why then did he collude with Bernard Dougherty to financially squeeze the demonstrator Herman Husband? Perhaps an answer can be found in the fact that Herman Husband had arrived in the Pennsylvania backcountry with the same idea as St. Clair—both men desired western land in the years between the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and the beginning of the American Revolution. But while St. Clair had married into the colonial elite and was connected to the faction of elite wealthy land speculators, Herman Husband identified with the yeoman farmers of the backcountry even while he tried to amass lands to himself. St. Clair’s conflict with Husband provides a window into the diverse world of American colonists during this pivotal time. The Revolutionary Era was fraught with tensions between colonial elites and those “below” them in the social hierarchy: perhaps no man’s story demonstrates this reality better than that of Herman Husband, the once Quaker who applied his ideals of religious individualism to radical politics. Bruce Stewart’s Redemption from Tyranny tells his story.
In Redemption from Tyranny: Herman Husband’s American Revolution, Stewart argues that the American Revolution was far more than the political separation of thirteen colonies from Great Britain. Rather, it involved inter-colonial contestation over basic aspects of American society. Stewart gives a picture of the Revolution that is centered on “common people” and integrally related to “the rise of radicalism” and the “contested concepts” of equality and democracy. While Husband thoroughly imbibed the racial and patriarchal hierarchies of his day, he was a liminal figure when it came to categories of class, religion, and politics, moving across the social strata and religious denominational divides of his day with ease. By looking at Herman Husband, Stewart is able to demonstrate and explore the economic, social, and religious diversity among American Revolutionaries.
Tracing Husband’s entire life, Stewart ties together a single narrative from the religious ferment of the Great Awakening to the economic struggle of the Whiskey Rebellion. Along the way, he explores the tension of backcountry land expansion, the promise of revolutionary furor, and Husband’s disappointment in the establishment of the Constitution. Throughout his life story, Husband embraced the identity of a middling white farmer against the social elites of his day and stressed the value of the individual conscience and political activism.
Redemption from Tyranny follows a chronological path through Husband’s life. Chapter One traces how Husband’s ancestors came to America and worked their way up in social status. It then turns to consider Husband’s early years and religiosity, narrating young Herman’s turn from the nominal Anglicanism of his childhood and embrace of the passionate revivalism of the Great Awakening, Eventually, Husband went so far from his original Anglicanism as to latch onto the individualistic teachings of the Quakers. In Chapter Two, Stewart underscores Husband’s individualist growth: he rejected even Quaker authorities, trying to better his status through land ownership in North Carolina; he also clashed with elites. Husband embraced political activism while trying to maintain moderation in his involvement in the North Carolina Regulator movement, as Chapter Three describes. Chapter Four narrates Husband’s pursuit of self-betterment in Pennsylvania following his failure in North Carolina and describes his optimism for the Revolution. The final chapter reveals an aging Herman Husband expressing his chagrin at the early Republic’s lack of a more democratic structure; in his disappointment, he turned for hope to a fantastic interpretation of Christian millennialism and westward expansion. The narrative completes its declension arch as Husband, unable to moderate the Whiskey Rebellion, still receives blame for it and dies soon after being released from jail.
Throughout the body of the book, Stewart remains focused on the story of Herman Husband. He gives context that adds to the reader’s understanding without distracting the reader with tangents or devolving into detailed historiographical analysis. In his Conclusion, Stewart explains how his work contributes to historiography and our understanding of the revolutionary era. Stewart relies on several historiographical traditions to interpret Husband’s story. In Stewart’s account, revivalist individualism from the Great Awakening influenced Husband’s later political individualism, echoing the older scholarship of Patricia Bonomi and Rhys Isaac on the social effects of religious temperaments that went beyond institutional influence. Rather than merely echoing Bonomi and Isaac, however, Stewart synthesizes with other schools of interpretation, noting the importance of religious-social attitudes, class consciousness, radical Whig theory, and civic millennialism in shaping Husband’s Revolutionary vision and experience. In Stewart’s view, Husband not only connects religiosity with Whig politics, but his identity as a yeoman farmer bent on land acquisition is also part of his story—Stewart stresses Husband’s identity as a radical farmer. Stewart thus draws on numerous strands of historiography to explain Herman Husband, showing the value of synthesizing different emphases for developing a holistic view of the Revolution.
Stewart’s willingness to take advantage of numerous historiographical lenses mirrors the way in which he engages with diverse facets of the American Colonial/Revolutionary experience. The Revolutionary world was one in which webs of class, politics, religious beliefs, geography, and race intertwined and shaped one another. Stewart illuminates some of that complexity in how he shows ongoing tensions between farmers and elites regarding land and class, explains the importance of the currency crisis to the common man, deftly handles Husband’s anti-slavery yet racist vision for American society, discusses American division and Loyalism, and demonstrates the significance of Indian wars and lands to the Revolutionary experience.
Stewart’s accomplishment as a writer is that he does all these things through a narrative account of a single man. Just by relating Herman Husband’s life, Stewart leads his readers through an insightful discussion of colonial class struggle, economic development, religious individualism, political activism, revolutionary fervor, early national fiscal policy, and millennialism. Redemption from Tyranny thus provides an engaging and readable account of a little-known figure whose story sheds light on numerous historiographical concerns and ties together many strands of American Revolutionary experience.
See Patricia Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America, updated edition (original publication, 1986), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia: 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
The historiography on Whig theory is too extensive to mention here, but for a recent take on Whig theory’s influence on the Revolution and the Christianity of the era, see Mullins, J. Patrick. Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017. For classic examinations of millennialism in the revolutionary era, see Nathan Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1977); Ruth H. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Stewart’s connection of religious ideas and Whig political theory echoes Mark Noll’s influential synthesis approach (the blending together of evangelical belief, republican political theory, and commonsense moral reasoning), while also factoring in land acquisition and backcountry expansionism, providing an insightful connection to recent work on the importance of western land and Indian relations to the American Revolution. For example, see Colin Calloway, The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). For Noll’s synthesis, see Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).