Providence and the Invention of the United States: 1607-1876.

Author:Fluhman, J. Spencer
Position:Book review
 
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Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876. By Nicholas Guyatt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 326pp. $75.00 cloth; $24.99 paper.

Of the various historiographical myths laid low by Nicholas Guyatt's penetrating analysis, American providential exceptionalism is dealt the most devastating blow. In response to the seemingly axiomatic contention that Americans have long embraced a unique sense of national "chosenness," Guyatt offers convincing evidence that national providentialism was neither exceptional nor innately American. Tracing several strands of providential thinking from their English roots through more than two centuries of New World modification (and amplification), Guyatt transforms, providentialism from a static "given into a historical problem and, in the process, injects new insight into the ideological frameworks grounding the Revolution, early Republic nationalism, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The book's scope is dizzying but Guyatt manages the mountains of material well, stays on his interpretative, main points, and ultimately contributes significantly to early American intellectual history.

The book's virtues are legion. His subtle readings of providential texts reveal not one, but three, versions of "God's hand in national history." Modulating as they did between what Guyatt dubs "judicial," historical, and apocalyptic readings of history and national destiny, English and American commentators were as likely to put providentialism to use in pursuit of "concrete political goals" as to make and remake English or American "identity" (p. 4). This taxonomy of providential thinking is helpful, to say the least, and serves to substantially revise less nuanced treatments of religion and the founding, for instance, because previous studies have typically failed to accurately weigh American dependence on such diverse British sources. This textured analysis also allows Guyatt to discern that while providential readings could call Americans to duty, they could also help obscure glaring problems such as post-emancipation racial injustice. Notions of providence could as easily sacralize the status quo as frame social or political change, in other words. Irony and tragedy abound...

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