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Response to Review no. 1023

Daniel Clinkman does an excellent job of summarizing the key points and arguments of Wellspring of Liberty. I particularly appreciate his focus on the agency of religious dissenters and the circumstance of the American Revolution as being at the center of the development of religious freedom in America. As he notes, this conclusion contrasts with earlier works that suggested religious liberty was inevitable, guaranteed by the Great Awakening, or warmly embraced by ‘establishment’ patriots.

Given his very useful review, I have only a few comments. First, Clinkman expresses some concern that in my effort to place the dissenters at the center of these developments, I may have unfairly minimized the impact of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. That was certainly not my intent. Rather, I sought to show that ‘[a]lthough Jefferson and Madison played essential roles’, and without them the foundation of religious freedom ‘would not have been so plumb, nor perhaps spread so far’ (pp. 165, 169), the historiography and legal literature has failed to recognize the importance of the dissenters. This relative lacuna has permitted critics to claim, wrongly, that religious freedom is a creation of 20th-century secularists and a few 18th-century characters out-of-touch with the mainstream. In any case, Clinkman’s concerns should be adequately addressed in my next project, tentatively entitled The Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, Our Heritage.

Second, I agree with Clinkman that Wellspring is in the tradition of Michael A. McDonnell’s noteworthy Politics of War. I suggest, however, that the politicization of the dissenters during the war and their fight for freedom in return for mobilization is a better example of the empowerment of the disenfranchised during the war than the primary examples relied upon in McDonnell’s study (p. 44 and n.2). I would have been interested in Clinkman’s thoughts on this argument.

Finally, the reviewer suggests several times that the book should have been longer, for example engaging much more of the history of the dissenting communities and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps this would have been useful, although there would have been a commensurate danger of losing the focus on the dissenters’ negotiations for freedom. I am, however, stymied in further comment as this is the first time that anyone has ever suggested that I wrote too little on a topic.