New Jerusalem in the Alleghenies; or, the Madman of Bedford County
by Ed Simon
Herman Husband – itinerant preacher, politician, regulator, radical – would amble among the woods surrounding Pittsburgh. Here on the trans-Appalachian frontier, the native North Carolinian with his shoddy patchwork clothes and with his biblically long beard either echoed the prophet Jeremiah or prefigured John Brown. Amongst the cleared gun smoke of the Seven Years War and the American Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion he had visions, visions of that western frontier that stretched epically on to Drake’s millennial Nova Albion on the Pacific coast. For Husband the unbridled promise of this western world – and the Appalachians were the west before they’d ever be split between north and south – was of an Empire of Liberty where those old dreams of the Earth being a common treasury for all could be realized (of course the fact that those lands were already occupied was another issue). Boston has its conservative Adams, Philadelphia her innovative Franklin, New York the self-invented Hamilton, and Virginia of course dignified Washington and intellectual Jefferson. Pittsburgh, she does not have any founding fathers; but, if we are to declare there to be one, let us make it the madman Herman Husband.
Husband believed that it was in this “western country” that humanity would “produce an everlasting peace on Earth,” that Christ would return and that this would be the “glorious land of New Jerusalem.” But he was no simple fundamentalist theocrat, Christ was coming to inaugurate a Godly communist state where work was for the common good, for “God sent the true Republican form of Right Government… in which the body of the People will have Supreme Power to choose [the] Supreme Law of the Land.” An illegitimate king sat on a throne in London, so the rebels of the thirteen colonies were divinely charged to spread not salvation but liberty through this country. Where he prophesized that one day a fully formed, golden Jerusalem would descend here among the Alleghenies, a Hesperian utopia, a westerly millennium. The Bible speaks of paradise, but Husband preached of Pittsburgh.
For Husband the American Revolution was not interpreted through Enlightenment rationalism, but rather with a type of religious mysticism. He was a radical in the mold of his contemporary William Blake, who wished to break our “mind forg’d manacles,” for whom a cleansing of the doors of perception would make everything appear infinite. Husband’s was an anarchist’s gospel, with a golden thread linking him back to the non-conformist dissenters of the English Revolution a century before like the great Leveler Gerard Winstanly, or even further back to the medieval Peasant’s Rebellion when the radical priest John Ball asked “When Adam delved and Eve span, /Who then was the gentlemen?” For these Christian anarchists, rejection of Mammon was to worship God; to fight our economic order was to enter Heaven. For Husband, this creed first manifested itself with his participation in the North Carolina Regulator’s Rebellion, then his embrace of the American Revolutionary ideal (including an unlikely friendly correspondence with Benjamin Franklin) and finally with his disillusionment with the Constitutional Convention, and an embrace of the French Revolution while becoming a major participant in the Whiskey Rebellion. Ultimately Husband would, like many a broken-hearted romantic, come to see his past heroes like Washington and Franklin as participants in the same Babylonian corruptions as the British aristocracy.
Despite his unconventionality as a political thinker, he was elected twice to the state legislature, a participant in the 1790 Pennsylvania state constitutional convention, and as Wythe Holt points out in his indispensible article about him, Husband was also “constable, township tax assessor, auditor of road-maintenance accounts, and county commissioner.” Rarely have misty-eyed utopian mystics also been such dutiful bureaucrats. And after the assembly at Parkinson’s Ferry in 1791 he became the people’s representative to what would be remembered as the Whiskey Rebellion. Despite the relative local esteem he was held in, his apocalyptic preaching led to James Madison and Jefferson calling him the “mad man of Bedford” County.
While the Whiskey Rebellion is sometimes misremembered as simply a tax protest that prefigures some sort of American libertarianism, the reality is a bit more complicated. Dissent arose after the first federal tax leveled against a domestic product was enacted; the legislation was conceived of by the Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton as a way to pay down the national debt incurred as a result of the War of Independence. What might seem estimably fair today was viewed as anything but on the western frontier from New York to Tennessee, where the law was seen as an unfair imposition on poor farmers (many of whom used non-perishable liquor as a type of currency), as being passed without proper legislative representation from the west (which after all, the Revolution itself was fought over), and with its flat-rate excise clause an undue burden on small distillers. The flat-rate was an option for those mostly eastern distilleries who were able to pay it, and was not unfairly seen as a means of promoting the growth of massive business on the coast at the expense of individuals in the west. And so taxes went unpaid; armed resistance was organized.
As the first major constitutional crisis following that convention a few years before in Philadelphia, the federal government’s ultimate victory in western Pennsylvania signaled the strength of the new political order. Far from being some sort of Ayn Rand libertarian rebellion, the insurrection was against a regressive tax whose goal was the consolidation of a private economic oligarchy among an entitled few. The Whiskey Rebels themselves knew this of course, with Jacobin Liberty Polls raised throughout western Pennsylvania, as heads to the east worried about guillotines. Far from being a Howard Roark-style revolt of the wealthy, the Whiskey Rebellion was a good old-fashioned uprising of the poor and oppressed. In Pittsburgh the spirit of 1791 was the same as that which motivated other battles in the perennial Manichean war between the classes. It was the spirit of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, or the English Revolution of 1640, or the French Revolution of 1789, or yes, of 1776. It was said that David Bradford, the eventual radical leader of the rebellion, viewed himself as a type of Pennsylvanian Robespierre, the cockcrow red of the Phrygian cap sitting metaphorically upon his head.
The theater of the rebellion was the frayed palimpsest that is the terrain of western Pennsylvania; a rebellion that was barely a rebellion was fought on a landscape where space can be collapsed into time. This country evidences the strange synchronicity and correspondences of history, where the significance of place can be excavated like relics from the strata. It was the chief executive himself, Washington, who marched on the region (the only time a sitting president has done so) across a topography he knew well from his days as a British officer in the French and Indian War. The radicals had once met at a meadow of English loss from that war known as Braddock’s Field, where one day Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thompson Steel Works would rise. Husband had himself raised one of those liberty polls (with the phrase “Liberty, but no Excise”) at the town of Summerset, near where a hijacked airplane on its way to Washington DC would one day crash. The drafted militiamen who would march on Pittsburgh were enlisted from Philadelphia, as indeed they would be again during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 when a national paper said that Pittsburgh was in the deathly grip of red Communism. Ultimately the march on western Pennsylvania was a victory for the government, and thus a demonstration of the power of the Constitution that was after all in large part designed to reduce the rank and base democracy, which the framers saw as threatening the power of the nation during the years of the Articles of Confederation.
The end result of the uprising was that twenty-four men would be charged with treason, only ten would actually stand trial (including Husband), and only two convicted, both of those ultimately pardoned. More sober representatives for the rebel cause such as Hugh Henry Brackenridge, novelist, lawyer, and founder of what would become the University of Pittsburgh, found their respectability restored with the ascent of the Democratic Party upon Jefferson’s election to the presidency. Even the more radical leaders of the movement would find a type of exoneration; Bradford would escape only later to find himself pardoned by Adams. Husband however, was brought back in chains to the east, where he was held in a Philadelphia prison. It was said that Husband’s Jacobin preaching had been so affective that the president mentioned his capture as specifically paramount. Eventually the magnanimous victor Washington had the preacher’s charges dropped, but not before the now elderly Husband caught a chill, dying on his way back west where he believed his New Jerusalem would yet descend, ultimately one of the few people to actually lose his life as a result of the rebellion.
Husband may have died for an idea, but more importantly he lived for one, and it was a concept germinated in those groves he used to wander. The Arcadian visions of the man are inseparable from the geography of his life. In short, this liminal land between the civilized east and the western frontier was the progenitor for his utopian thought. Husband’s Pittsburgh was the first metropolis of the western frontier; its history is comparatively short when compared to those cities on the east coast. Part of France for longer than it was ever a British colony, Pittsburgh signaled the limits of Anglophone expansion in the eighteenth century. In Boston, or Philadelphia, or even in construction-heavy New York there are traces of a colonial past that almost abut against the European Renaissance; Pittsburgh’s history seems much shorter. But brevity of the place is illusory, there has long been a charged, spiritual power, perhaps generated by those shrouded green hills or the rivers cutting through them. Husband was not even the first to dream of paradise here, in the twelfth century the Huron Great Peacemaker and his follower Hiawatha travelled through what was then a destitute country and formed the Iroquois Confederacy. And Husband would not be the last to dream of Eden in western Pennsylvania, as indeed in the early nineteenth century the Seneca Prophet Handsome Lake would receive similar apocalyptic visions while in Pittsburgh, or as with the sages of the Second Great Awakening who witnessed revivals firing down the Allegheny line, making the whole country glow with the fervor of faith, like heated coals.
The Appalachians run like a crooked spine parallel to the Atlantic coast. White settlers – mostly Scots-Irish – wished to populate the fertile Ohio River Valley but were prohibited by the Crown, a sticking-point in the Revolution of course. Pittsburgh may have been young, but as the gateway to that new frontier it was the locus of so many American dreams, and from the violence between settler and native of so many American nightmares. But Husband was not originally of this land, he had been born in the east, in the Piedmont country where a motley assortment of English, Scots-Irish, and even heretical Italian Waldensians existed. In his home country, Husband first began that task of forging an Apocalyptic American Adam, a New Man here in the New World. Once a Presbyterian, then a Baptist, eventually a Quaker and finally a Church of no man but only God. He would, true to the customs of the Friends, doff his cap to nobody. He took his hat off to nothing known or unknown, whether English or American, and he recognized no kings, whether one in London or a thousand in Philadelphia. His was a gospel of individuality, but also of community. Husband may have supremely believed in a literal God, but that being was identically with the conscience of man. For Husband felt that the Inner Light of man was conversant and equivalent to the Holy Spirit of the Lord; he knew, lived, and exhaled that perennial philosophy which is threaded through everything from the Upanishads, to Spinoza, and to Blake. But Blake had his Lambeth; here Husband had his Pittsburgh.
Husband’s radicalism came from his readings of Christ, not Cato, as was the case with those rational deists who would meet in Philadelphia. But he was no pious theocrat; rather his politics came from reading the Bible in its infernal or diabolical sense as that contemporary and spiritual compatriot Blake may have put it. For Husband the great code of the scripture was not a system of binding and social control, rather if read askance or upside down it provided a manual for the destruction of Babylon – and everything could be Babylon. He certainly didn’t first acquire this belief from his family; they were High Church Episcopalians from that Cavalier colony of Maryland – slave owners too. But, during those years when a gospel fire burnt down the Atlantic coast from Boston, Massachusetts to Savannah, Georgia, years known as the First Great Awakening, he heard the pulpit preaching of a minister named George Whitfield. Many men had heard Whitfield preach, indeed sometimes crowds of 30,000 on at least 18,000 separate occasions, from Jonathan Edwards who shared the preacher’s deep sense of sin and salvation, to that old devil Benjamin Franklin who couldn’t help but respect the minister.
For Husband, Whitfield affected a deep change, he imparted God’s gift of grace to the young farmer. He could never stay within one church though, Husband found himself moving from the incense and bells of his family’s Anglicanism, to the fervency of Whitfield, to that of the “New Light” Presbyterians, and finally to those most radical of non-conformists, the Quakers. Their sect was viewed with suspicion in England, and they were barred from all sorts of offices, but the laissez faire religious attitude of the New World largely left them unmolested – except when it didn’t. A Quaker family just north of the Mason-Dixon line in a mythic place called Pennsylvania may have owned the largest private landholding in the world; but the radical pacifism and the implications of non-allegiance to any government still made these Christians suspect to Church and State alike. During the Reformation the schismatics may have called for a “Priesthood of all Believers,” and a sola Scriptura understanding of God’s word, but only the Quakers were radical enough to say that the inner light is that voice of God dwelling in all people’s chests, that in silence the divine’s voice can be heard over the dun of life. For Husband the idea that all people were equal was not an abstraction, and it was not a convenient legal fiction. The equality of all before the Lord was deeply, intuitively, fundamentally true.
We can see the disappointment of failed prophets and revolutionaries (which is all of them). Yes, to be alive is bliss, and to be young is very heaven, but the revolutionaries who don’t have the dignity to die in their wars will inevitably see their compatriots sell out. So that spirit of liberty (if any such thing exists) left England (if ever it did dwell there) and came to find itself among the cedars and poplars and pines of the Carolina coast where young Husband learned the lessons of a radical gospel (which is just to say the regular gospel as it is given to us), and it then found itself at his Pennsylvania country homestead. Husband’s premonitions of a coming apocalyptic rebellion against the Beast of Babylon never came to pass, if anything the Moloch of industry was enshrined in that very place he saw New Jerusalem as descending, but for a short time this man could see the bright burning apocalyptic ribbon of the frontier spreading not commerce and capitalism but rather the radical equality of man from sea-to-shining-sea.
There is no monument to Husband and his name is not known to schoolchildren. There is no Paul Revere trail for Husband, no signs affixed to inns and taverns that read, “Herman Husband slept here,” and his face is not on currency. He is not a founding father, but he lived in their world, and he envisioned one more perfect than they did. He was one of the roughs, a cosmos, an American. Herman Husband deserves our respect not because he forged a new nation, because he didn’t, and not because he was a coherent political thinker, because he wasn’t. But in that perennial dream, whether born of faith or reason, which posits that a better world isn’t just possible but also that men and women deserve it, he may as well be Thomas Jefferson. Husband’s gospel was one of radical egalitarianism, and he knew deep in his very sinews and joints and ligaments that apocalypse is the working man’s utopia, that there is a field on the other side of what is right and wrong, a garden on the west shore of that river, and its name is “Millennium.” Husband’s very life was a scripture, his actions and his preaching its sacred words, and he breathed that foolish truth that knows that the earth belongs to the meek, the Kingdom of heaven to the poor, and that the peacemakers are the children of God. When Husband stood at that confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela, facing that westward Ohio which bifurcates this nation between North and South, he saw what should have happened, not what did.
In reality that push to the west dragged across the continent, despoiling and murdering, and perhaps there was no version of history where this wouldn’t have happened. But, at least for a brief period, in Husband’s brain he envisioned an ecumenical, egalitarian, democratic utopia spreading west to the blue waters of California. Before there really was an America Husband envisioned a more perfect union. There was radical potential in those years of the Articles of Confederation, and perhaps the historians are right, the Constitution needed to be drafted to consolidate power, that the weak country would never have survived without the centralization of federal power. And maybe Hamilton was correct, men are not angels, and citizens certainly never are; maybe the Federalists were right, too much democracy is a dangerous thing, the crowd quickly becomes a mob. But even if Husband was a fool, or if Husband was crazy, there is poignancy in those liberty dreams he had; for the farmer understood that the United States is a human construction, imperfect and finite, but that America, well America is different. She is a mythic concept, as perfect and imaginary as Utopia, or Cockaigne, or the Hesperides, or Ultima Thule, or any of the other imagined nations in that atlas of perfect places. Husband was a citizen of that nation, and so he can be perfect in a way that Washington, or Jefferson, or Franklin, or Hamilton never can be. For the poor men and women who hungered for a new gospel, not of chapter and verse that act as ball and chain reconciling the oppressed to the needs of their masters, but rather of the emancipatory potential hidden within those words. Holt writes that “They had no difficulty understanding the New Jerusalem because it was what they needed and longed for.” Husband’s New Jerusalem may have never descended, but in his dreams and words, he was already an inhabitant of that city.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at edsimon.org or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.