Blog: “Rage and Fury Which Only Hell Could Inspire”

The Rhetoric and the Ritual of Gunpowder Treason in Early America

by Kevin Doyle

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot,
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason,
Should ever be forgot.

This verse, first recorded in Britain in 1826, makes a plea for the remembrance of a fifth: November 5, 1605 – the date of the discovery and the suppression of a conspiracy to assassinate King James I of England; detonate Westminster Palace, the house of Parliament; and, ultimately, replace the anti-Catholic monarchy of England with a protectorate favoring the Church of Rome. In early 1606, weeks after the collapse of this plot, the king endorsed and the Parliament passed “An Act for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God Every Year on the Fifth Day of November”; some sixty years later the legislative assemblies of the American colonies started doing the same. Thus was the remembrance of “gunpowder, treason, and plot” born on both sides of the Atlantic, as a deliverance from terrorism in the early modern world, first as Guy Fawkes Day in England and then as Pope’s Day in America.*

The British history on this holiday is much more complete than its American counterpart. Very little, in fact, is known about the history of the Fifth of November in British North America.

Nonetheless, as early as 1662, November 5 became in the New World a day of humiliation and thanksgiving, honoring the preservation of church and state. In the years that followed, the Fifth energized larger towns (e.g., Boston, Charleston, Newport, New York, Savannah, Williamsburg). In and after the Restoration, the clergy and the government led the commemoration of this date, with the first composing sermons on the evils of popery and the second sponsoring cannonades, fireworks, parties, and toasts. Then, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, “the common sort” – a great mass of apprentices, artisans, children, farmers, laborers, sailors, servants, and slaves -appropriated the memory of the Plot from the elite, retaining the anti-popery of November 5 and building, marching, and torching effigies of the devil, the pope, and other enemies of freedom. (After 1688, the Fifth also doubled as a celebration of the arrival, and the ascent, of William III.) Then, in the mid-1730s, this cast revitalized the day, adding physicality, revelry, and vandalism. But this crowd was no ordinary crowd, for, unlike its counterparts in America, it was organized on behalf of an ideology of religion – an argument asserting the wickedness of Catholicism and the righteousness of Protestantism. The force that assembled on the Fifth re-politicized this date in the middle of the eighteenth century, stressing its hatred for absolutism in politics and religion. For, here, in the midst of the First Great Awakening, the Second Jacobite Rebellion, and the Sev-en Years’ War, this extralegal body politic celebrated with more anti-popery and more violence: Fighting and parading, it prepared a way for the resistance (i.e., the responses to the Stamp Act and the Quebec Act, then burning effigies of taxmen on the Fifth) that would, in the end, become a revolution — the War for American Independence.

In and after this revolution, Pope’s Day lost much of its appeal while Independence Day proved the new holiday of choice. But, if effigies of the pope faded from the scene, the memory of this conspiracy did not suffer much in the new nation, for the remembrance of the Fifth found new venues and won new meanings. And the referencing of the Plot became a matter of politics. It served as a metaphor for a multitude of current events (e.g., the re-election of Jefferson (1804), the War of 1812 and the Hartford Convention, the Nullification Crisis, the rise of the Whig Party in America, even talk of emancipation). For, in the partisan press of the early nineteenth century, an allusion to Gunpowder Treason operated as an allusion to danger, immorality, and oppression. As such, this evocation of the past – an English past – became a catchword, a weapon of choice, in the language of democracy and the politics of the nation, even in the time in which the Fourth of July first trumped the Fifth of November in popularity.

In addition to advancing the first monograph on the Fifth of November in this country, this dissertation will aim to produce a new political history and a newer study of popular religion in British North America and the United States. I will construct a long history of the anniversary in early America, beginning with a review of “the dark period” of 1606-1662 (in the Chesapeake and New England), the time between the establishment of Guy Fawkes Day in England and that of Pope’s Day in America. I will at times conduct a comparative history of these two holy days, analyzing the relationships between empire, holiday-making, and Protestantism while doing so. At other times, I will write vignettes of individuals who bridged two “worlds” of the anniversary, such as Benjamin Harris (England, America), Samuel Sewall (animosity for holidays, reverence for the Fifth), and Isaiah Thomas (participation in Pope’s Day and the print culture of the 1800s). I will close-read almanacs, diaries, instructionals, letters, newspapers, sermons, and schoolbooks as a means of understanding the process by which the memory of November 5 was appropriated, reconstructed, and re-politicized. Turning to the middle of the eighteenth century, I will assess the influence of the Fifth on the Great Awakening and the American Revolution and vice versa. I will investigate what became of Pope’s Day after 1783 and scrutinize the many ways in which the creative arts and the partisan press made frequent use of the memory of the events of 1605. I will consider how that memory arose in new places after the war and whether or not the parties of the republic, like the crowds of the colonies, evoked the Fifth as a warning against absolutism. And I will question the retention of English culture and English history in the early republic.


* William Hone, The Every-Day Book:  Or, Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements Vol. I (London:  Hunt and Clarke, 1826); “An Act for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God Every Year on the Fifth Day of November,” 3 James I cap. 1.  Note that Guy Fawkes was not the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot.  That honor belongs, instead, to Robert Catesby.  But Fawkes was the one charged with the responsibility of lighting the gunpowder.

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