Hobgoblins: fear and politics in the 17th and 21st centuries

Like our own, the political culture of seventeenth-century England was shaped in no small part by its constituents’ fears; it was defined, as academics might say, by its Others, its excluded, resented, suspected, oppressed. In fact, it has been argued at least since Winthrop Jordan’s massive and still worthwhile study White over Black that the very same racist anxieties so vividly on display in this year’s Republican campaign and the past month’s coverage of and responses to Black Lives Matter have their origins, in part, in the seventeenth century.[1] It was then, after all, that both English colonization in the New World and sustained English involvement in the slave trade began — developments whose interconnections would culminate in the formation of slave-powered plantation economies in the Caribbean and on the North American mainland before the century was out.[2] It was then that the first English slave codes, legally enforcing segregation, were enacted. It was then that the Royal Society began its investigations into the causes of skin colour, and then too that the polygenetic theories later used to sustain racial hierarchies began to get attention.[3] And it was then, finally, that fear of black people rising up came to occupy space in the minds of English men and women, at least in those colonial settings where the enslaved had come to outnumber the enslavers.

Outside the confines of plantation societies, however, the fear that most saliently demarcated mainstream English politics in the seventeenth century was not fear of enslaved Africans or of black people in general. It was, instead, fear of Catholics. Like the variously pigmented and polyglot Others populating the fevered imaginations of the Trumpsphere today, Catholics — “papists” — came in many forms. They might be agents of a foreign power: Jesuits, French or Spanish spies pursuing political intrigues at a corrupt and suspiciously foreign-influenced court. They might be rebellious Irishmen, ungrateful for the civilization England had bestowed (by force, when needed and available) upon their island and bent on massacring their benefactors. They might be immigrants, ostensibly fleeing persecution on the Continent only to form a fifth column for an invading force. Or they might be hidden in plain sight, “recusants” from established English lineages, or English-born missionaries trained abroad, whose perverted loyalties were concealed beneath a veneer of smooth assurances, traitorous hearts and false tongues absolved by a distant pope — whose effigy, in times of stress, was paraded through the streets before being burned to deafening cheers.[4]

This was not just a matter of political theatre or periodic popular outbursts. Penal legislation condemned priests, assailed recusants, and excluded honest Catholics from political life, civic office, corporations (including trade guilds and merchant companies), and universities. And in periods of crisis, real or imagined, papists were the scapegoats of choice. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was almost immediately assumed to be the work of papists armed with fireballs, a belief soon confirmed by a disturbed man’s false confession — and execution. Perhaps most notorious of all was the great “Popish Plot” of 1678-81, ostensibly a plan to murder Charles II and foment a Catholic takeover of the kingdom, with the destruction of the Church of England and massacres of Protestants no doubt to follow. This phantom crisis claimed about two dozen lives, mostly through judicial murder, established a lasting division between “Whigs” and “Tories”, and nearly altered the royal succession before confidence in Titus Oates’s increasingly far-fetched and contradictory story waned. When Charles II’s Catholic brother James did take the throne, in 1685, and did begin to threaten the Anglican establishment, it was not long before the Glorious Revolution replaced him and his heirs with Protestants.[5]  (And all this is just to consider England; we can talk about Ireland another time.)

Much as anti-popery structured English political culture and constrained both expression and real political possibilities, racism structures our own. But there are, of course, differences. Our racism is not — that is, since the waning of the Jim Crow laws — so much a formal and legislative as an institutional phenomenon. It intersects in complex ways with class distinctions that did not exist in the same way in the seventeenth century, when indeed higher-status Catholics were often (not always; witness the Irish) the highest-profile objects of Protestant fear. The acceptability of openly racist discourse, though steadily increasing today, is not yet on a par with the detestation of popish ways that was the virtual price of entry into mainstream seventeenth-century political debate. (Though there is certainly a parallel to be drawn between the longstanding right-wing bogeyman of “political correctness” and early modern demonizations of toleration, each of which in its time was charged with causing national ruin and even calling down the wrath of God.) The institutions at the heart of our present troubles, notably a professional and militarized police force, did not exist and would not have had much public support from seventeenth-century Englishmen who disliked even the idea of a standing army.

The rationales at play were also different. Exaggerated as it was, anti-popery crystallized around a series of quite real events. English Protestants feared a Catholic armada in part because Catholic armadas had actually been sent, most famously in 1588. They feared plots to blow up the Parliament because such plots had actually been formed, as in 1605. They feared assassinations and massacres because assassinations (of the once-Protestant Henry IV of France and the Dutch William the Silent) and massacres (from St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 to the Irish rebellion of 1641 — the real death toll of which English calculations multiplied by at least 50 times, but which was significant all the same — to the Piedmontese Waldensians in 1655, and beyond) had happened. English Protestants feared that their king Charles II was selling out to Louis XIV, and he was; they feared James II would undermine the Church of England, and he did. This is not to argue that anti-popery was “right”, or to deny that the English gave as good or better than they got when opportunity offered (as with Cromwell’s sieges of Drogheda and Wexford in 1649, for instance). It is simply to point out that their paranoia, just as it had real historical consequences, was not wholly without an anchor in historical fact.

Consider now right-wing (and even some of the self-proclaimedly moderate) white responses to Black Lives Matter; the support for Trump from white nationalists — whether or not they identify as such — who have lost “their country” and want to take it back; the hysterical, tragicomic rage against “political correctness” as the root of national decline; the raving about “reverse racism” (reverse, presumably, because unlike actual racism it has no adverse consequences for the victim); the chill experienced when black people exercise the same Second Amendment rights as their white fellow citizens. What reality do these expressions reflect? The actual history of black people and other people of colour in the US is hardly one of violence against white people, property, or rights; it is very largely the reverse. As the wholesale fabrication of things like “Irish slaves” (so well explored by Liam Hogan, and so typical of this ugly political moment) inadvertently suggests, the current wave of bigotry — however dressed up in appeals to or laments for America’s “great” past — is an ignorant, bold-faced denial of history.


[1] It is simply obtuse to claim that (to quote Rudy Giuliani) “When you say black lives matter, that’s inherently racist”. Besides its wilful blindness to both literal meaning and practical context, that schoolyard retort ignores the basic (and, in any other context, easily grasped) distinction between focus and exclusion. In any event, Black Lives Matter evinces no irrational hatred of white people; to the contrary, its evident motivation is a wholly justified horror that black people are being killed on an almost routine basis by the authorities for negligible or fabricated reasons, generally with impunity. To interpret that horror as a threat to white people is to make quite a scandalous statement about what the emotional security of white people requires.
[2] The literature on these developments is vast; one important recent book on their relationship is Abigail L. Swingen, Competing Visions of Empire (Yale University Press, 2015).
[3] On the Royal Society’s interest, see Christina Malcolmson, Studies of Skin Color in the Early Royal Society (Ashgate, 2013); on polygenism and its legacies, see David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) and Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Whether or how far something like our idea(s) of “race” existed before the nineteenth century is a complicated question, but it does not need to be decided here.
[4] For the later seventeenth century in particular, see John Miller, Popery and Politics in England, 1660-1688 (Cambridge University Press, 1973), and Tim Harris, London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II (Cambridge University Press, 1987). Whether anti-popery was by that point more a “political” anxiety (about arbitrary government) than a “religious” one is a matter of debate. While it certainly meant different things to different people at different times, I think the contrast is misleading.
[5] A good overview of these events is provided by Tim Harris’s two volumes, Restoration and Revolution (both Penguin, 2006).

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