The Myth of American Individualism
The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought
By Barry Alan Shain
The most contentious debate concerns which of two political philosophies, liberalism or republicanism, best describes the political thinking, moral precepts, political institutions, and long-term aspirations of the Revolutionary and Founding generations.
Until the last two decades, there was no such debate because there was only one claimant to the role of reigning 18th-century political philosophy: the still-vibrant philosophy of liberal individualism.
The upstart alternative, some historic form of republicanism, was not widely understood as such until it was recently pressed into service. The standard view shows a nominally Christian people who sought fulfillment in overcoming the self, in corporate membership, and in an active political life.
Individual sacrifice and active participation of all citizens in the life of the polity are attractive to secular scholars who are not satisfied with the moral depth of liberal individualism.
He was disappointed in his search for a communal American past. What he found was more Calvinist than he had anticipated. Late 18th-century Americans proved not to be the idealized, politically active citizens eloquently defended by Hannah Arendt and her followers. Americans proved to have little interest in forming dialogic communities where life’s meaning was gained through political activity. Most were more interested in possessing everlasting life through Christ’s freely given grace by serving their religious and geographical communities.
Americans lived voluntarily in morally demanding agricultural communities shaped by reformed-Protestant social and moral norms.
The thought was not predominantly republican. But it wasn’t individualism either.
He thinks that Americans have been misled concerning their
democratic and communal inheritance by those who have sought to shape a history
that meets the needs of
In the first part of this book he will look into the public good. In the second part liberty.
For Revolutionary-era Americans, the common or public good enjoyed preeminence over the immediate interests of the individual.
There were as many as 8 kinds of liberty – natural, familial, prescriptive, political, spiritual, civil, philosophical, and individualistic. In all but the last of these various senses, liberty characterized a voluntary submission to a life of righteousness that accorded with objective moral standards as understood by family, by congregation, and by local communal institutions.
------On Studying 18th-Century American Political Theory--------------
He does not intend to provide an all-encompassing historical
narrative of the Revolutionary era, nor to explain how
Most important of his sources have been sermons. Unlike the dry and legalistic concerns of most political pamphlets, the questions they usually addressed were those of the “role of God in men’s affairs, the nature of man, the origin and purposes of government.
There is a bridge between the politicians (who populate our
history books) and the obscure farmer.
Rather than them, Preacher’s moral sermons are more likely to reflect
the thoughts of the common man and woman in
Some may even argue that the reformed-Protestant and communal vision of the good lie he has described was the idiosyncratic possession of a small, self-selected population. But to prove this they have to do more than show letters from the elite to each other.
------The Myth of American Individualism: A Straw Man?----------
Political scientists almost uniformly believe that in 1955 Louis Hartz offered the final word on the individualistic nature of the American foundational political thought and culture.
Most political analysts (including Samuel Huntington) have strongly endorsed Hartz’s basic view.
Political works don’t touch group good and so therefore not thought important. Check the not political then.
-------On Reading 18th-Century American Political Thought-------------
American Political Science traditionally studies the society as a whole. It was more Aristotelian.
Two Big Errors:
First, some students of the period may have equated an absence of texts defending a particular understanding of the good with a lack of interest in the subject. This probably comes from our tendency to emphasize the canonical in our studies. Just the Federalist.
Second, it appears that Americans’ readily discoverable interests in regimes and political institutions have been conflated with their much less visible understanding of the good.
He fears that Americans’ salutary and abundant concerns about government abuse of power, and how best to provide needed limits on it, has been taken as evidence that they similarly embraced a liberal theory of the good. Not individualism, but local control is the corollary that best fits.
STANDING: THE PUBLIC GOOD, THE INDIVIDUAL, AND THE COMMUNITY
Three Discourses in Defense of the Public Good
“Americans in the years surrounding the Revolution were not adherents of political individualism; they were opposed to political theories that gave priority to “the liberty, rights or independent action of the individual.”
They were not collectivists in the way that fascists are commonly portrayed. For the Americans, the public good was not an ultimate end, but an intermediate.
Revolutionary-Era Americans believed that the needs and good of the public must be given priority over the individual. But that is not equivalent to what is described as a common theory of the good.
Such a theory of the good, or communalism (as opposed to collectivism and individualism) is a commitment to a particular moral vision wherein human flourishing is to be pursued through familial and communal shaping of the individual. Communalism doesn’t see the society or family as the end. It is a means to self perfection.
Communalism is local. Giving pre-eminence to the big can be destructive of the local. They didn’t have this in mind.
The Dillys,18th-century British publicists widely
Three sets of mutually reinforcing and overlapping theoretical positions can be teased out of late 18th-centruy ethical, religious, legal and political literature. They are: classical, Renaissance, or Whig republicanism; reformed-Protestant-derived social and political theory; and early modern (moderate Enlightenment) rationalism.
AKA rationalism, pietism, and republicanism.
---------The Public-Centered Revolutionary Years--------------
“The larger Number (Caeteris paribus) is of more worth than the lesser and the common happiness is to be preferred to that of Individuals.” Expressed the common feeling.”
John Brown said “the first Foundation of civil[society was that] the habits of the youthful Heart [should be formed in] coincidence with the general welfare.”
Pastor Moses Hemmenway, said, “no individual ought to hold his natural right of independence, if it stands in opposition to the general interest – it would seem that men’s entering into civil society was a matter of duty as well as right;”
Noah Webster, on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence argued that, “it is needless to discuss the question of natural right as distinct from a social state, for all rights are social, and subordinate to the supreme will of the whole society. The common or public good was a standard that no one in the 18th-century could comfortably attack.
---------------Public rather than Private Good – Republicanism-------------------
Corruption was understood as a “failure to devote one’s energies to the common good, and a corresponding tendency to place one’s own interests above those of the community.”
Monarchy is actually less government. Republicanism is more (controls morals).
Americans didn’t adopt republicanism out of ignorance. The admonitions of Montesquieu, Hume, Hobbes,
Lolme, and the progressives among American Loyalists
(who argued that a rejection of monarchy and an adoption of republican
-------------Public rather than Private Good – Reformed Protestantism----------
Protestant communalism is the full name he gives this version of the common good.
“if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are to love the public better.”
The traditional Christian view of the just relation between the individual and the community is not individualistic in any modern sense; it is morally restrictive.
Still popular teaching in the 17th century taught that the source of all man’s unhappiness was his selfishness. Thus, for the committed reformed Protestant, living without public spirit was equivalent to living without God.
----------Public Rather Than Private Good – Modern Rationalism-----
Early modern rationalism, the third major influence on
social and political thought in Revolutionary America, also emphasized that
virtuous individuals were to sacrifice short-term or irrational interests to
benefit the common good. Although
Enlightenment thought, in its many guises, was of limited interest to
Rationalism, which defends the needs of the individual, but only those that were rationally justifiable, was not simple. Defensible interests, for example, were sharply contrasted with licentious ones, which were idiosyncratic to some individuals. A law that forbids me to do what I could not, as a sane being, conceivably wish to do is not a restraint on my freedom. But rather true freedom was something akin to self-imposed restraint.
That particular wants of the individual, so cherished by 19th-century Romantic individualists, were not among those protected by the dictates of 18th-century rationalism.
True liberty is not the being able to do what we will, but the being about to do what we ought to will. To do otherwise is to behave like a savage or beast.
To the degree, then that the individual good, public good, and individual reason converged, the public good was to serve as the benchmark for each of the others.
Yet this rationalistic world can only be understood in terms of the assumptions of the age, ones that “conceived of nature as harmony and human society as part of the natural order. If the universe is governed by reason then there will be no need for coercion; a correctly planned life for all will coincide with the full-freedom – the freedom of rational self-direction – for all.
A Sketch of 18th-Century American Communalism
First most Americans were dedicated, in theory and practice, to local rather than central and national political, religious, and economic organization. Second they insisted that it was the responsibility of these local institutions to shape and make possible their members ethical existences. Aristotle taught that a political community, “must devote itself to the end of encouraging goodness”; otherwise it sinks into being “a mere alliance.”
Aristotle – Politics 1280b
The Oxford English Dictionary states that communalism is “the principles of the communal organization of society: a theory of government which advocates the widest extension of local autonomy for each locally definable community.”
Individual autonomy, as it is understood today, would have been viewed as inconsistent with human flourishing – in fact, it would have been seen as a form of sinful degeneration. The geographic isolation of 18th-century villages almost demanded it. Ninety five percent of Americans lived in rural, largely agricultural communities. And most Americans were proud that they lived in such communities.
Localism had been considered the essence of the American political tradition.
Americans believed local control was a Protestant birth right.
Whether Anglican or separatist, we [the English] have a notion of Church and nation. In the American states, even Anglicans speak of only village and congregation. (said a Visiting British minister)
Another reflection of Americans’ insistence on local control was their embrace of Federalism. They thought it would allow them to pool their military and economic strength while keeping local control of the individual.
George Clinton feared the citizens of different states would lose any sense of themselves as particular people.
Alexander Hamilton is one of the celebrated state-builders who we celebrate in history books. But he wasn’t successful. His (and those like him) contempt for parochialism was not the only factor that led the nationalizing elite to oppose localism. The local community had traditionally exercised near absolute power over he lives of its members. They needed such controls because it served as the front line of defense against the presence of undesirable individuals and minorities. They guarded against physical, social and religious pathologies. Local communities were, therefore, little concerned aobut the loss of freedom for nonresident individuals with “communicable” diseases (from smallpox to bad morals).
17th century Americans believed community was not “an aggregation of individuals,” but instead “an organism, functioning.”
Man is designed by god and nature for life in a civil society, without which he cannot arrive at the full development of which his nature is capable.
“Love of country does not import an attachment to any particular soil but rather it imports an affection to that moral system, or community which is governed by the same laws. Government is a combination of the whole community against the vices of each particular member.
Their fixed telos for individual members demanded intolerance, for tolerance “led neither to improvement nor regeneration. In this world a man’s most intimate affairs were the legitimate concern of the whole community.
Moral pariahs either reconciled themselves with the community or they were expelled by the villages. Individual dissidents were always free to pull up stakes and depart to other places. During the Revolutionary years and the 150 years preceding them, what [one] could not choose was self-defined, individualistic freedom.”
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of early 19th-century
“If there is any one principle dearer and more sacred to all others in free governments . . . it is that which asserts the exclusive right of a free people to form and adopt their own fundamental law, and to manage and regulate their own internal affairs and domestic institutions.” Said Senator Stephen Douglas at the midpoint of the 19th century.
-----------Social Historians’ Portrait of a Communal People-------------------
In 1953, political scientist Clinton Rossiter wrote that “the central governments of the colonies exercised even less control over local institutions than did the mother country over he colonies.”
Some historians argued that English settlers were
“Americans” due to having to resist Stuart centralization, a resistance that
pitted small congregations against meddling bishops. This incipient American communalism occurred
when dedication to parochial political control had already begun to become anachronistic
By mid17th century,
This idea of a Christian Utopia was true beyond the Northern
plantation. “the founders of
Most men and women continued to live within overlapping and concentric circles of family, congregation, neighborhood, parish, town, and country.
95% of the population lived in places with one hundred to one thousand residents. As late as 1870, “fewer than one-in-four Americans lived in places of twenty five hundred or more.”
They acted more like European peasants than mobilized activated entrepreneurial individualistic men.
When significant ethical or religious differences developed between divergent groups, “separation was often seen as the only solution. The communities of the province simply could not conceive of successfully maintaining structural diversity. Harmony required homogeneity.”[ii]
Largely because of their internal diversity, it is the Middle colonies, unlike the more ethnically homogeneous colonies to the north and the south that are often seen as being the birthplace and repository of American individualism. Zuckerman says that they had the origins of American liberalism in them. But he means at the state/colony level. Not down in the villages.
Our attachment to parochialism, narrowness of view may the essence of our political genius.
Evidence that addresses how various ethnically homogenous communities coexisted in Middle states shows that each group adhered to traditional European patterns of local intolerance in separating itself from its ethnically or religiously distinct provincial neighbors.
This widespread lack of self-consciousness among less-articulate Americans may help explain the distorted image such Americans have of their social and political foundations.
Quakers were committed to voluntarism and a certain kind of individualism. But it was for reasons religious rather than secular, and reactionary, not modern.
Yet it wasn’t until the 19th century that others began to join the Quakers in viewing morality as primarily a private rather than a social or local government concern.
The only thing that all Americans could agree on was their genuine hatred of the Quakers.
--------------Two Disputes and One Concern: Much
Few students deny the 17th century colonies were morally intrusive. They are less sure about the 18th century. He is more static. He wants to recover their essential underresearched political theory.
Two controversies must be considered to resolve this.
One is whether rural Americans were commercial farmers enmeshed in a largely cash economy. Many say since the Americans maintained private farms and so they must have been individualistic and materialistic. On the other side are those that hold it was a family-based community-oriented culture. Lately there has been a consensus that most colonists were enmeshed in trans-Atlantic trade.
But as late as the early 20th century subsistence and cash economies coexisted. And the link between commercialism and individualism isn’t sustainable. We were mobile in the 18th century and becoming increasingly litigious. Yet the portrait of much recent scholarship shows they were extreme localists, moderately patriarchal, racist, xenophobic, sexist and clearly intolerant of moral and religious deviance. P. 77
The second controversy is whether or not the towns of
Keith Thomas claims the rising number of witchcraft
accusations at the beginning of the 17th in
In some ways, then, the War of Independence itself might be
seen as an oddly reactionary communalist effort to resolve the tension the
two. But in the resistance to
But Alexis de Tocqueville observed, American towns in 1835 continued to “regulate the minor details of social life [and] to promulgate such orders as concern the health of the community and the peace as well as the morality of the citizens.”[iii]
Localism and the Myth of American Individualism
The localist and communal character of 18th-century
There is reason to believe that that milieu was bordering on
anarchical or atomistic when compared to centrally administer European
Cultural particularism (elevation of local truth) was one of the banes of the Enlightenment. Centralization of reason and power has been demanded by progressive thinkers during much of the last two centuries. In the late 18th century, the self continued to be understood as the center of human sinfulness. In the language of rationalism, it was the embodiment of human estrangement from nature’s perfect ordering of the universe.
-------------Localism Misperceived: The Genesis of the Individualist Illusion--------------
H. Pekelis argued in the 1940s that local communal hostility toward the provincial or the imperial (national) center had been systematically conflated with a common 20th-century hostility toward all authority. He believed his contemporaries had mistakenly identified individualism with an intolerance of a central authority. He said individualism seems to be in reality collectivism within a smaller group. Localism had been confused with individualism and a later Romantic hostility to all authority.
After their visits Alexis de
Tocqueville and Michael Chevalier each independently used the recently coined
French word individualisme to describe 19h century
De Tocqueville said individualism was a mature calm feeling that made one “to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and friends . . . [leaving national] society at large to itself.” Isn’t this localism? P. 92
Being Catholic too. All that wasn’t centralized was individuaisme.
-----------------Familism, Not Individualism----------------------
Because of the size of
This intolerance created a pluralism that inadvertently created individualism. This was its origin, not an ideology of individualism.
Family life is often mistaken for individualism. And family is often seen to be a regressive force on individualism. As modern feminists have made clear, any attempt to infringe upon the individual soils its purity.
All of early puritan ethics rested on a ladder from God to community to family and only then to one’s self.
Rights for males came from being the head of a household. American social and political norms were not dedicated to serving the interests of adult white males at the expense of women and children in their ethnic communities. God the family and community were to be served. The adult white male was awarded his preferred position with all the responsibilities that were entailed, only when he was the head of a household. Being white and male was not enough.
In some places all single people had to live with a family. Living without life and children was a form of rootlessness, immaturity, or sacrilege that was viewed, with suspicion.
Even the family was not alone. They were subject to invasive community control, just as individual family members were to the head of the household.
This watch was in keeping with
distrust of all people – fathers, pastors and kings alike. The Quakers were the exception. In 1727, in
----------------The Hated, Sinful Self: Surrogate for Individualism------------------------
We rejected things of the self (self-interest, selfishness, self-centeredness, self-love). Michel Foucault even believes that until the end of the 18th century the self did not exist. Glorification of the individual as a source of value did not exist.
It was the 19th-century opponents of the self that created the term individualism. It designated the disintegration of society which started with the French revolution.
Most Americans at the end of the 18th century were opposed to it.
The passions of the self had to be constrained within a social framework and little freedom was needed beyond that required in the service of familial, societal, divine or rational ends.
The preceding was mitigated for the rulers during the revolution. They were drawn from the upper-middle ranks of politics and commerce and frequently were engaged in commerce that was intercolonial or international in nature. During the Revolutionary crisis, these men, defended passionate love of country and advocated extreme forms of corporate oversight. This laid the ground for the individualism we have. And after the revolution, many had a somewhat more positive view of the self.
They embraced classical Whig republicanism. But even it upheld that, “ the citizen must cancel out the man, the patriot must collectivize his love for himself and the individual must give himself to the whole. ; he dies as a particular and is reborn.” “In a healthy polity, each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, and interest of the whole body.”
The revolution was in part to take us away from the influence of the cosmopolitan British with their infidelity, selfishness, luxury and irreligion, drunkenness, lewdness, breach of matrimonial vows – in a word, ‘modernity’. The self was widely thought evil even by enlightened leaders.
---------------American Communalism: Limits and the Loss of Consensus-----------------
Our localism kept us from authoritarianism though. Our ideas differed widely. And our differences did much to keep a nationwide intolerance from developing much beyond racism and sexism. Enlightened city centers, diversity of towns and the availability of land helped blunt oppression. You had the freedom to “settle in with your co-believers in safety and comfort and exercise your right of oppression.” There were also a lack of coercive instruments. No army or police. Limitation did not though mean a positive regard for individual or minority rights. English common law helped here too. But these safeguards were usually aimed to prevent abuse of power from central power and arbitrary monarchs. Rights in the eighteenth century were thought of as restraining arbitrary government rather than as liberating the individual. This offered scant protection to deviant individuals.
You could conform or depart. Otherwise, tarring and feathering, vigilantism, and lynching awaited you. The Loyalists please for freedom of the press and conscience were cavalierly ignored.
The factor that swayed the elite in the early 19th century was Romanticism. It preached the glorification of the ideal of individualism.” Emerson was the apostle of this. It was so powerful that some doubt the revolution could have come later. The divinity of instinct and self not being conducive to sacrifice. A chasm between the more rural values and the city ones grew. Melville and Hawthorne were the spokespersons against this new individualism.
Three Leading Views of the Individual, Plus One
Most Americans accepted that the space surrounding the individual was to be conditioned by a socially mediated ethics
-------------------Individualism and the Public/Private Continuum---------------------
Today “everyone knows [that] morality consists of tearing down the restraints on personal autonomy [and] of fighting repression.”
The theorist most responsible for having popularized the
distinction between positive and negative forms of individual freedom is Isaiah
Positive freedom is understood as freedom to lead one prescribed way of life.
This contemporary negative understanding of personal liberty was foreign to the Revolutionary generation. Most Americans would have been uneasy with the idea that there that individuals should enjoy freedom from the public and even familial moral interference. The founding generation protestant did not mean freedom from authority so much as it means positive liberty toward the goals of a dedicated Christian life. Rationalists would mean freedom is when a “good man has conquered himself”
-------------Three 18th-century Views of the Individual----------------------------------
Republicanism, reformed Protestantism and early modern rationalism supported varying, though limited, degrees of individual freedom. However, they did so because of their concern with developing that part of the individuals being that was eternal.
Republicanism was committed to fostering the virtue of citizens and gaining immortality through public fame and family honor.
Christianity wanted you to go to heaven.
Rationalism desired that the noumenal individual achieve his or her unique dignity and highest well-being through harmonizing with the larger cosmos.
Without a public to serve, the individual would be without an audience for his deeds. The individual would necessarily be unable to obtain glory, honor, and everlasting memory, and life would become short and brutish.
The republican perspective, however, is incompatible with the claims of individualism in which the individual possesses presocial rights that the public cannot abrogate. Republicanism thus helped ease the transition to individualism without directly valuing the individual in an abstract or universal fashion.
Reformed Protestants transformed this into highly communal ways.
Finally rationalists felt society was a forum in which the individual was to develop quasi-divine rational capacities. In the rationalist conception of the individual it was one’s destiny and duty “to acquire perfected personality through the ascent to God.
The capacity to make informed rational choices concerning moral conduct was understood to be the quintessential element that made humans truly human. Yet this ability to order one’s internal cosmos in accordance with the larger one was possible only because of the divine spark.
It is not human shape, but human reason that places man above the beasts of the field.
To John Locke, “natural law freedom to perfect our nature in
performing our rational duties to God runs parallel to
---------------Republicanism, Rationalism, Christianity, and Individualism-----------------
Republicanism’s role as a link or conduit to 19th-century individualism, should have been predicted. Reformed Protestantism and early modern rationalism were less able to serve as pathways to individualism.
The tradition was that love thyself should be replaced with love thy neighbor. The community pastoral role, however, did not disparage the centrality of individual salvation. Rather it was a recognition of an unaided person’s inability to serve God.
The community from this perspective, was no more than a tool. Yet it was a most necessary one. God was best served by a community of believers.
Rationalisms division of body and soul agreed with reformed Protestantism. Governments were responsible for placing individuals beyond their own capacity for moral debasement.
This rationalism is at odds with particularism as the thought transcended this particular space and time.
The central aspect of late 18th-century social and political thought was what the Romantics were so dissatisfied with , and would declare war on in the early 19th-century. Yet in comparison to rationalism and reformed Protestantism, classical and Renaissance republican authors had adopted a more tolerant view of the individual.
In classical republican thought Sallust (an American fave) said vice and virtue were separated by a surprisingly little distance.
The republican tradition demanded dedication to the public good, but without insisting on stripping away that which made an individual unique.
One’s public being thus mirrored one’s fame and reputation was to be acted like a part in a play. The polis offered the ordinary citizen a participation in greatness.
------------------The Twisted 18th-Century Path to Individualism--------------------
Republicanism’s tolerance for the love of honor played a useful though largely unintended role in making the elite less communal. Publius became a fitting name. In contrast reformed Protestantism and rationalism seemed too noble for modern people.
The Scottish Thomas Reid had argued that self-interest and ambition were defensible forms of rationality. Publius could then reject communalism.
They went from a bible commonwealth to a secular
Rationalism couldn’t be a conduit because it held to objective ethical standards.
There were two beliefs, though, that Revolutionary Americans didn’t want to give up: One was that there was a moral cosmos linked to the heavenly order.
Secondly that the public good must be awarded preeminence over that of the individual.
Later Romantics would attack both. But no American of whom we have record would go there. But the belief in the fallen nature of man slid.
The idea that you have to suffer much for your country was replaced with the pursuit of wealth and pleasure.
The normative political theory was thrown off at the end of
Hedonism was met with resignation, not enthusiasm. They did not hold that the disappointing average man was the morally preferable basis upon which to organize American political and social lives.
Many have asserted that Pubius’ greatest novelty was not institutional innovations he suggested, but the assertion that government was not the achievement of a particular moral quality of civic life, but , rather, the guarantee of individual security.”
And, at the adoption of the constitution, the moral meaning
of society was lowered AT A NATIONAL LEVEL.
It was only a few decades ago that a wholesale extension of federal standards of tolerance into local communities, to the relief of suffering minorities, but not without determined resistance for local majorities.
At least until the middle of the 20th it was “local and state governments” that stopped due process to non-conformers and minorities.
We are not alone in the tension between community and individual. But we were able to give the individualists elite room at the top and the communalists their space too until recently. But the articulate defenders of communalism disappeared, that was left to local yokels. But it stayed strong in practice.
THE MEANING OF
Americans, said a loyalist critic, talk incessantly of liberty.
------The 18th-Century Understanding of
For Revolutionary-era Americans, “PERFECT LIBERTY” is the Latitude of voluntary conduct informed by Reason, and limited by Duty.” Are those that just follow their own corrupt natures (like animals) free? They are slaves!
A second meaning was political liberty. Enfranchisement.
A third was liberty of conscience. This one may be the granddaddy of our modern liberties. On inspection, however, this apparent continuity is also illusive. Because the liberty of conscience no longer carries the heavy responsibilities formerly associated with the exercise of religious duties.
Their freedom of conscience was a corollary of finding truth. Ours does not require a morally defensible hierarchy of moral truths.
A Fourth definition is the absence of slavery. But slavery for them also indicated a disordering of the soul in relation to God’s or nature’s moral structuring of a purposeful universe. Contrast slave, says C.S. Lewis, with Master who leads a life of duty and responsibility.
As men are intelligent moral agents they have no liberty as such. It is agreeable to their nature that they should have none.
The danger of the French Revolution was that it tried to change liberty to licentiousness.
--------Eighteenth-Century Liberty: An Introductory Typology-----------------------
He has found 8 different meanings of liberty. They are: philosophical (freedom of the will), political, spiritual (or Christian), prescriptive, familial (economic independence or autonomy), natural, civil and individualistic (modern individual autonomy).
Appleby notes that our sense of freedom was the one least known to them. And that their most common was political liberty, the right of a corporate body (usually local) to be governed by its citizens, that dominated the secular thought of Americans.
An anonymous pamphleteer in 1776 wrote, “if any citizen were at liberty to do what he pleased, this would be the extinction of liberty.”
There were liberties, via precedent, that were due to Americans as British subjects. This is plural and not the abstract liberty. In fact, there were different liberties for folks at different levels of society. These are understood to be of a contractual nature between the British government and the English people. Being loyal, you do not forfeit your privileges. These rights and liberties were from the crown to a locale.
The revolution forced the adoption of the more abstract sense of natural rights.
What was needed to balance out liberty and licentiousness was Christianity’s job
Rights were to keep the local safe from the national.
The 1925 Gitlow v
Appleby does not discuss familial liberty nor spiritual Christian liberty. Freedom via Christ from sin. And freedom from the old testament law. There was no freedom to sin. Spiritual, corporate political and liberty of religion were the only liberties allowable for many.
Having property was for the general good of the society under whose protection it is enjoyed. Familial independence was economic, but not social. If you fell from being freestanding Christians . . .
This understanding of liberty meaning independence went from Locke to Kant to Rousseau.
A state of society necessarily implies reciprocal dependence on all its members.
This sense of freedom was cultivated so that a man could undertake important responsibilities in his community at large.
“Be pleased to be informed that you are bound to conduct
yourselves as the Society with which you are joined, are pleased to have you
conduct, or if you will please, you may leave it.” Samuel Adams 1770. “Determinatus” (
An examination of the American understanding of spiritual liberty invites an exploration of the critical role played by original sin in Americans’ conception of liberty, and, by extension, in their political thought.
Original sin was an almost unchallenged belief.
Even if Revolutionary America were a land in which the majority of the citizens may have been formally unchurched, it was still a country in which, the idiom of religion penetrated all discourse, underlay all thought, marked all observances, gave meaning to every public and private crisis.
“Puritanism provided the moral and religious background of fully 75 percent of the people who declared their independence in 1776”; possibly “85 or 90 percent would not be an extravagant estimate.”
As Ben Franklin noted in his autobiography, (p 21-22) the two most commonly owned and read books were the Bible and John Bunyan’s Puritan classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
In Europe, as Philip schaff notes,
even in Protestant countries in Europe, “most of he city and the village
churches, the universities, and religious foundations, point to a medieval”
Catholic origin. In
Cato argued that happiness is the chief End of Man, and saving his soul is his chief Happiness. And that Religion and government are the beginning and End of everything.
John Adams reminded
The Declaration of Independence was written to appeal to European audiences, and thus used the Enlightenment language of “social compact and inalienable rights.” The state and national fast proclamations, however, spoke to the “ranks of the militia and citizens” who were fighting the war. And accordingly spoke of spiritual purges, sin, contrition and humiliation and God’s blessing for his repentant children.
The bondage of corruption, the tyranny of evil lusts and passions. Being free from these was the greatest capacity of man being considered in a private capacity.
A life of liberty could only be lived when the individual was aided by extrapersonal forces, such as those found in a close-knit Protestant community.
This distinction between the freedom to act in ways that might be legal though morally unacceptable (defined as license) and the freedom to act in rationally or religiously responsible ways (defined as liberty) was the fundamental distinction Americans maintained between liberty and license. P. 200.
Without law, liberty loses its nature and its name, and become licentiousness.
And righteous action should preferably result from uncoerced submission.
The woman’s own choice makes a man her husband. A true wife accounts her subjection her honor and freedom.
One submitted in service to God, country, and family, in that order.
Because the Protestant neither followed divine command (Judaism) or rituals (Catholicism) they could be sure of their salvation.
Calvin knew that people often followed their licentious passions and so ruined themselves eternally and their communities.
Like ancient Hebrews they knew they were being judged collectively because of their public covenant.
American’s accepted that those who are unwilling to be free must be force to be free.
------------Spiritual and Corporate
In 1794 Thomas Dyche’s dictionary, “libertine” was still defined as “one who lives without restraint, and pays no regard to the precepts of religion,” and “licentious” as “Unrestrained, wild, ungoverned, presumptuous” Liberty was seen as “the acting and behaving within those reasonable bounds that the law has appointed, and being protected therein by a magistrate”
If one doesn’t repair to their Protestant houses of worship, it strikes at the whole.
It was incumbent on public and church officials, therefore, to demand private and public contrition (confession; state and later national days of fasting and humiliation) on a regular basis and to regulate offensive behavior.
Privacy as we know it was little valued in the 18th century.
Americans could be prosecuted for breaking any number of Sabbatarian laws (many vestiges of which still exist): for not attending church services, for not paying taxes to support a minister they might revile, or for swearing or profaning the Lord. In addition they faces criminal prosecution for moral breaches such as committing fornication or sodomy, being economically unproductive or idling, being highly disrespectful of one’s parents (at one time a capital crime), gambling or cockfighting, drinking too much in public or even at home, smoking tobacco, dancing or putting on a ball, or more generally, living in a disorderly or ungodly manner.
Freedom of press and speech were usually only applicable to legislative debate or publick men in their publick conduct.
From a reformed Protestant perspective, only spiritual liberty could prepare a person to exercise corporate political liberty.
Yet by the end of the 18th, the elite rationalists did not yoke liberty to Christianity. But closely allied was inner or metaphysical freedom.
The liberty that they sought demanded the same kind of suppression of the passions as that sought by more orthodox Christians.
Second these men were often as publicly committed to religion as pastors. They considered it to be an essential precondition of social order and a crucial prop for the kind of government they were creating.
In the Late 18th pamphlets and newspapers were growing in importance – particularly in urban centers – but for sheer public exposure or influence neither could match the sermon.
-----------Original Sin: A Formative American Influence---------------------------
Freedom is not acting at random, but with reason and rule. Those who walk after their own lusts, are clouds without water, carried about of wind.
The nature Americans sought was not a Romantic in search for individual autonomy, but a Newtonian one suitable for a people living within a divine order who sought to restrain corrupt souls.
The highest state of liberty subjects us to the law of nature and the government of god.
Original sin stood between humans and their liberty. It is clear why most Americans believed that only the local group could effectively walk with a fellow citizen, by necessity a sinner, and help him or her to lead a more righteous life.
No human, no matter how elevated, could be trusted with power, Therefore, we needed checks and balances.
Equality came out of all of us being sinners. This, not the Enlightenment, was our impetus for relative equality. Our fallen, not our great, nature.
But the greatest result of original sin was the Revolution itself. In the book of judges it says, “wherever absolute power is given to a prince there the glory and the dominion of God is injured.
Humans were not perfectible.
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton’s reiteration of this them in the Federalist is well known, and even celebrated. Thus are factions born.
The French were showing what happens when you abandon such humility.
People, not poorly designed social institutions, are responsible for suffering.
The American rationalist is different from the enlightenment and the Christian. In that he thought that education and personal will could overcome his or her bad elements without superpersonal agents. But almost all strictly disagreed and followed Calvin’s doctrine.
Godwin and Publius did the solar system Newtonian, powers balancing each other out system of political design.
All late 18th Americans believed that a life of liberty rather than license demanded passions, lusts and selfishness be at least properly channeled if not controlled.
The modern individual would be at best tolerated, not celebrated, by them.
----------The Community And The
The theocratic ends previously used to defend the need for corporate oversight were slowly coming to be doubted and challenged. Was community to help save souls, to enforce obedience to God, or to serve the temporal needs of the community?
Calvin said all laws are preposterous that neglect the claims of God.
At the dawn of the Revolution, this was agreed upon. Yet in 1765, the year of the Stamp Act, we see a shifting balance from the idea that law glorifies god to that it keeps civic order.
The Continental congress wanted a day of humiliation fasting and prayer that we may with united hearts confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ. Sin was still being fought, even if for new, more worldly ends.
People in the South have such a view too.
For the last two decades of the 18s, speakers and authors continued to distance themselves from any association with a regime of individualism or Enlightenment optimism.
In late 18th political liberty included two
strands: republican and English political liberty. In
When Revolutionary era Americans “spoke of their rights, their ‘liberties, immunities, and privileges,’” they almost always meant collective “self-government.”
In the 1770s, majoritarianism was defended as one of two fully inalienable rights. The will of the politically enfranchised majority had preeminence in all matters except when it stood in defiance of the other unalienable rights, religious conscience.
Bythe last decade of the century, the traditional focus of political liberty that was local, majoritarian and communal came into competition with a newer sense of it that was national, centralizing and moderately individualistic.
It was not until well after the Civil War, however, that traditions of political liberty shifted decisively and permanently away from local communalism and toward nationalism and individualism.
Their description of their violent separation from
The lure of increased political liberty, understood as the corporate right of self-government, was the central claim advanced by the Dontinental Congress in its efforts ot attract future Canadians to join.
Being ruled by laws which they themselves approve. Indeed of the five particular benefits discussed, only that of habeas corpus related “merely to the liberty of the person”
Nevertheless, the Majoritarianism so readily associated with
Revolutionary-era political liberty was not a precept that had been
traditionally valued in the villages of
The right to corporate privilege of a people was ironically an English one.
In the Declaration of Independence Jeff said his stated goal was to assign to “free and independent states” those rights that often are associated with “Locke’s free and independent individuals.” Equality was understood to be a right of individuals that is transferred to civil society upon entering it. Thus loyalists being persecuted would have gotten a different view. You cannot understand the Declaration of Independence without understanding all the state constitutions and such surrounding it.
The intended European audience needed to see that the cherished rights of life, liberty and property were not individual trumps that could ever e exercised against one’s legitimately constituted and sovereign people. Blackstone said rights or private immunities are those which society allows the individual to retain.
Right to personal security is the right not to be physically harmed. Personal liberty means the right to move on. These were rights that kept you safe from the monarch.
The NY constitution says no member of this State shall be disenfranchised or deprived of any of the rights or privileges secured to the subjects of this State by the constitution unless by the laws of the land, or the judgment of his peers.”
Same caveat was added by Congress to the New Northwest Territories.
The Declaration of Independence was to set forth the emerging American understanding Said Jeff.
Political liberty of the group and religious conscience were the only rights seen to be unalienable.
Nations as well as individuals, act for their own benefit, and not for the benefit of others.”
“And that the authorities of our own constituting maybe respected by ourselves as the most certain means of having them respected by foreigners.”
George Washington – His farewell Address
GW says that our decisions are binding. And the basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and alter their constitutions of government. The constitution which at anytime exists until changed. . . is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government, presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
GW was afraid of the genie coming out of the freedom words bottle.
English political liberty was usually defined as a people’s right to political representation, to the nearly indistinguishable right of majoritarian consent to laws (esp. with regard to taxation), and the right to trial by a jury of ones peers. It was Protestant, not republican. More immediate than a political vision.
Herein the right to a trial by jury of peers was critical. You make the laws, and then you enforce the laws. Jury trial was not a defense from society, it was a implement of society.
It is the quality of being a good neighbor that makes a man a good citizen, or better a citizen at all. Citizenship was not pre-social.
This English liberty emphasizes the role of active consent rather than passive acquiescence. You needn’t craft all legislation (like Renaissance republican theory) but you needed to actively participate in enforcement as a community member.
And voting in an election was the second source of liberty. This meant that the community would oversee itself. This was opposed to monarch or a few overseers AND it didn’t imply nobody could interfere with you. It was self-governance and it was governance.
Not even Madison, the person most likely to, would take on Majoritarianism frontally.
To make sense of the American Revolution, fought against the greatest 18th-century defender of individual rights, their most valued secular understanding of liberty would have to have been corporate and political, not individual and private.
Turning now to the Republican vision, it was said by some to have its roots in the Hellenistic Mediterranean basin with its principle instantiation in Italian renaissance republics.
But republican liberty was not just individuals coming together. It was a commitment to a moral vision. A commitment to a public good which is prior to and characterizable independently of the summing of individual desires and interests.
Neither was I majoritarian nor Protestant. It was based on a really strong intrusive communalism.
Intrusiveness wouldn’t have been hard for Revolutionary-era Americans, but the goal of man being taking part in a political process would have been. The road to salvation is Christ.
Classic republicanism wasn’t defended really until the attacks on Slavery made it come out of the south.
Rousseau said in his Social Contract, the individual is nothing the citizen is everything. Not American.
Our model saw politics as not intrinsically valuable, but
instrumental. Our model was much more
tied with Puritans than pagan
------------------------Civil Liberty: A Corporate
Webster said political liberty was for a state and civil liberty was more the theory of men in a state of society only restricted to that needed to guarantee safety.
But the question wasn’t brought up in that way in
He notes that political people had less time to reflect than ministers and so were less scholarly and accurate.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, as late as 1840, “diverse municipal laws appeared to me so many means of restraining the restless ambition of the citizens within a narrow sphere and of turning those same passions which might have worked havoc in the state to eh good of the township or parish.” 1:337.
The Concept of
Because of the absence of a legal market in Cuacasians in
When labor and industry may be lawfully taken without their consent folks are to all intents and purposes really slaves.
Also the inability or unwillingness to be self-governing, or more specifically the inability to control bodily lusts and passions, and above all else selfishness make you a slave.
Not living in accord with the divine and rational ordering of the universe was slavery.
American authors, especially before the Revolution, were
generally unconcerned about the plight of African slaves in their midst. The relationship with
Africans were usually portrayed as natural slaves, an idea to which their putative acceptance of their bondage bore witness, and thus their enslavement was recognized as an absolute embodiment of public and private dependence, dishonor and sinfulness.
But the metaphor tells us a lot about the thinking.
Autonomy and self-governance were so much more important due to the specter.
The enlightenment made slavery scientifically justifiable due to genetics.
-----------------Slavery: The Absence of Political and
Hume and Burke pointed out our hypocrisy.
Some said that chattel slavery was necessary to some being independent. Some disagreed on the grounds that you were then dependent on the slave.
----------------------Slavery to the Passions------------------------------
Passions overtaking the rational nature of man also made him a slave. This was serious Protestant stuff.
And remember this life of ordered and rational liberty was only possible within a community of same. Subjection to communal standards were a big part of achieving liberty.
A drunk is a slave, a thief is a slave, they are slaves to Satan. Break your chains!!!
Rationalists and Protestants had this same meaning, as
They were like stoics who contrasted freedom with a heteronomous condition of a man whose choices go against the universal rational order and are accordingly immoral. Spinoza and Burke and Montesquieu had similar views.
And abolitionists later pointed out that slave owner’s passions were allowed to run rampant. They disagreed about who was really a slave: the brutalizing master or his brutalized human “property.”
----------------------Tyranny, License, and Slavery------------------------
Community kept you free. A tyrant was, by definition, without community and therefore could not be free. Tyrants were as out of control as slave masters. They have no other law but their will. He would be licentious because he stood outside of the community and the natural order it was a part of.
Because of original sin, Americans did not have confidence of a man to control himself outside of such confines.
Aristocracy brought the tyrannical licentiousness of great men, isolation that of small men.
Just because 18th-century folks were not individualists does not mean they were Renaissance republicans. They were Protestants, whose idea of fulfillment was not linked to political life.
One should also note the role of Protestantism unintentionally played in nurturing presocial rights via the idea of religious conscience. This was due to its importance in salvation.
We didn’t move assuredly towards English individualism. We jostled with its being balanced with community and Protestant oversight. Indeed the Revolutionary war can be seen as an effort to stave off the modernizing Enlightenment advances. And the latter stayed national and the Protestant community part local. This lasted until the mid 20th century when the elites behavior transformed our tradition. With communication tools and confidence the national government asserted itself.
Though the roots go back to the Revolutionary generation it was a post-World War Two implementation of Supreme Court decisions that supplanted the popular but intolerant communalist tradition. And African Americans lives were changed for the better.
But this necessitated a revisionist history.
This turn to republicanism and liberal individualism
overturned two hundred years of scholarship.
It is hard to say whether recognizing our Protestant heritage can make a shift in elite or political norms. There is a multilayered insulation that guards this myth.
That was an agricultural slaveholding time. Now is urban and ethnically, racially and religiously diverse population in a postindustrial world.
And it is doubtful whether most moderns, especially minorities, appraised of this tradition would want to return to it. But some might. Some have said the size and lack of community is antithetical to morality.
But there is immediate intellectual illumination to be gotten. The uniquely individualistic track explains little from the revolution to slavery to small town life.