Messer on Mullins, 'Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution'

Author: 
J. Patrick Mullins
Reviewer: 
Peter C. Messer

J. Patrick Mullins. Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. 240 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2448-5.

Reviewed by Peter C. Messer (Mississippi State University) Published on H-War (January, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53930

J. Patrick Mullins’s Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the America Revolution explores the political thought and recounts the political activism of a prominent Boston minister in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The book follows Mayhew’s intellectual journey from his days as a student at Harvard where he developed an attachment to the reasoned and rational principles of natural theology; to the pulpit of the Boston’s West Church where he championed this heterodox vision of Calvinism; to his role as a defender of the Whig interpretation of the Glorious Revolution against High Church Tories who Mayhew believed were hijacking the event in defense of the doctrine of  passive obedience; to his championing of an ascendant British Protestant empire in the wake of the French and Indian War; to his opposition to the proposed colonial bishop, which, in response to the crises of writs of assistance and the Stamp Act, transitioned into a broader criticism of an empire that had abandoned the principles of religious and civic liberty that underpinned the English constitution.  

The book’s merits lie primarily in its exposition and not its argument. The latter is undermined by Mullin’s unproven, and, frankly, unprovable, claim that Mayhew was “the most politically influential clergyman in North America and the intellectual progenitor of the American Revolution in New England” (p. ix). Mullins provides no metric to evaluate Mayhew’s contribution relative to those of any other clergyman, or even any serious discussion of any other clergyman’s influence; where, the reader asks, does John Witherspoon fit on this scale, and how can the man who educated James Madison be dismissed without even a mention? The principal contemporary evidence that Mullins offers in defense of his assertion for Mayhew’s importance comes from the recollections of John Adams, who can hardly be considered a disinterested observed of such things, as he had several dozen axes to grind with contemporaries over who should claim credit for inspiring the American Revolution. Mullins provides slightly more evidence, though again he relies principally on Adams, to establish Mayhew’s singular importance in New England. In this case, Mullins makes clear that Adams, and a few other prominent patriots, found Mayhew’s arguments to be well made and compelling, but the contention that Mayhew played a decisive role in the formation of Adams’s, or anybody else’s, political ideas is supported more by inference than evidence (pp. 41-42). Without doubt, Mullins, echoing the work of other historians, makes a good argument that Mayhew was a significant figure in the development of colonial opposition to imperial authority in the years before the American Revolution who merits our attention, but he has needlessly overstated the case.

The limits of Mullins’s argument should not obscure the merits of his exposition. Father of Liberty offers a compelling illustration of a familiar historical process: the important, even decisive, role that ministers, through a deft application of Calvinist theology to contemporary political events, played in disseminating and popularizing the Real Whig ideology.   Mayhew makes for a particularly useful illustration of that process because his prominence and influence has left an impressive documentary record, which Mullins very ably mines to reveal how basic theological principles and familiar religious concerns easily bled into the Real Whigs’ concerns over the corrupting influence of power in the British government. Moreover, Mayhew’s twenty-five-year engagement with the questions of reason as a guide to human action; the relationship between governors, whether civil or ecclesiastical, and the governed; the connections between civil and religious liberty; and the role of the British Empire, Parliament, and church in furthering or hindering these principles provides a useful illustration of a loyal colonist’s gradual estrangement from the empire. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in that regard involves Mullin’s exploration of the “Indian Affair,” a personal dispute between Mayhew and Governor Francis Bernard over whether the latter accepted a gratuity to hear a petition submitted by Indians from Martha’s Vineyard. The little-known event, which Mullins persuasively suggests could and even should have been quickly resolved as a case of misunderstanding, took on an outsized significance for both Mayhew and Bernard because ideological differences between the two men encouraged each to see bad faith where there was none. The affair, in other words, highlights how difficult communication and compromise had become between the representatives of the empire and the self-styled defenders of colonial liberties on even mundane matters, making it highly unlikely an easy resolution could be found to more weighty questions surrounding Parliamentary authority and colonial responsibility. 

Father of Liberty unapologetically subscribes to a New England-centered ideological interpretation of the American Revolution. When tracing the evolution of Mayhew’s ideas over time and placing them in the broad context of transatlantic and intercolonial conversations about the nature of secular and ecclesiastical authority and the evolution of imperial policy, this approach is appropriate and serves Mullins well. On occasion, however, this perspective leads him onto unsteady ground. For example, Mullins too readily attributes ideological motives derived from Mayhew to the Boston crowd that burned Andrew Oliver in effigy and attacked his house, when it need not have meaningfully compromised his broader point to acknowledge that the “common people of Boston” quite probably had motives and agendas of their own (p. 158). Such slips will primarily trouble the specialists in the years leading up to the Revolution whose scholarly inclinations lie in social history and may pass unnoticed by those who share Mullins’s ideological perspective or whose interests lie in the intersection of religion and politics more generally. 

Father of Liberty’s strength as an illustration of the relationship between religion and ideology in the coming of the Revolution might well make it a useful addition to the undergraduate classroom, especially if paired with samples of Mayhew’s sermons. Advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students interested in researching the same topic will probably also find the historiographical essay that makes up the bulk of the book’s introduction quite useful. Its scholarly appeal will probably lie chiefly with those specializing in Mayhew, for whom it will be essential, and in the relationship between theology and politics in the coming of the American Revolution. 

Citation: Peter C. Messer. Review of Mullins, J. Patrick, Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53930

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