The Protestant-Communal Foundations of American Political Thought

In 1819, Benjamin Constant argued that the apparently unitary concept of liberty in actuality described two sharply distinct understandings: one variant which was most “dear to the ancient peoples,” and the second which was “especially precious to the modern nations.” He explained that what most differentiated these two understandings of liberty was the status awarded to the individual. Indeed, ancient political liberty was fully compatible with “the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community.” From this perspective, “no importance was given to individual independence,” and each individual “was a slave in all his private relations.” Conversely, modern liberty, he explained, is most concerned with protecting private pleasures or individual independence, which he claimed was “the true modern liberty.” Moreover, according to Constant, Americans, as citizens of one of the most modern nations, were necessarily adherents and defenders of this modern notion of liberty.

For much of the next 150 years, the judgement of Constant and that of his countrymen, de Tocqueville and Chevalier–that America was a land fully dedicated to modern liberty and thus individualism–was widely accepted and repeated. This perspective was dominant until the 1960s and 1970s when a group of historians challenged this received wisdom. They contended, quite to the contrary, that Americans of the Founding era had been adherents of an understanding of liberty close to that associated by Constant with ancient political liberty. Instead of a dedication to individual liberty and material gain–that is, to modern liberalism–these historians argued that eighteenth-century Americans were a communal people who had sought to give meaning to their lives through political activity and thus are best understood as adherents of classical republicanism.

The debate regarding which of these two political philosophies, liberalism or republicanism, best describes the political thinking and long-term aspirations of the Revolutionary generation has been remarkably strident. But the level of acrimony is understandable given that the answer has broad contemporary political implications. As one journalist explains, at the heart of the raging cultural war between contemporary conservatives and liberals “are competing moral visions of what the Founding Fathers meant by ‘ordered liberty’: how to balance individual rights with the social responsibilities on which families and communities depend.” And as one might expect, each of the two foundational philosophies understood this balance differently and awarded contrasting legitimacies to the immediate needs of the individual and those of the community.

Inspired by this debate and the persuasiveness of the republican revisionists, I began researching this period expecting to recover from the years surrounding the American Revolution a well articulated public philosophy and an institutionalized set of practices which emphasized the need for individual self-sacrifice and the active participation of all citizens in the life of the polity. I hoped that by recovering what I expected to be the republican, communitarian character of America’s past, that truly American alternatives to the present narrow range of individualistic options would be made available so that Americans might remember who they were as a people and think more clearly about who they might become.

Such expectations prepared me to discover that contrary to mythic beliefs widely held by the general public, Americans in the late eighteenth century were not a people who had founded colonies and then a nation “around a pervasive, indeed, almost monolithic commitment to classic liberal ideas,” such as “individualism, freedom, [and] equality.” Yet in contrast to what those historians who defended a “republican” reading of the Revolutionary era have contended, I found that Americans did not hold to a republican outlook that was anthropocentric and independent of a Christian or a rationalist faith in an omniscient God. Not altogether surprisingly, I uncovered instead that eighteenth century Americans were a parochial reformed Protestant (or put more broadly, Christian) people whose thought was (to the contemporary republican apologist, inconveniently) strikingly dependent on a Christian origin or natural ordering in the Cosmos. Unlike the idealized Machiavellian urban republican citizens sought by the late Hannah Arendt, rural Americans were more interested in their religious communities, their families, local agricultural matters, and acquiring Christ’s freely given Grace than they were in personal development through direct participatory political activity.

Therefore, both of the two regnant contemporary paradigms, “classical republicanism” and “liberal individualism,” have proved unsatisfactory. Although they have their place in the totality of the Revolutionary drama, the defenders of each model have been guilty of greatly exaggerating the coherence, hegemony, and institutional strength in Revolutionary America of their preferred body of thought. They do so while virtually ignoring more powerful, though today less useful, influences on the speech and practices of the majority of European Americans; such as the reformed Protestant foundations of almost all the Colonies and their citizens; the deeply formative role of their common-law legal inheritance (that also finds its roots in Christian moral and legal thought); and the hold that various “lived” English agrarian traditions of local communalism continued to have on them.

This confusion is understandable because it is so easy today to forget that in the years 1765-85, those that surround the birth of the Republic, America was a nation of Protestant and communal backwater polities still marked at the beginning of the Revolutionary years by widespread adherence to the principles of a balanced monarchical government. Indeed, regarding the lowly status of the recently uncovered classical republicanism in the colonies, one historian has convincingly argued that “only in 1776 did republic, republican, and republicanism change from defamatory cliches“ to being taken generally as ”terms with affirmative connotations.“ Similarly, in this land of largely autonomous reformed Protestant village communities (or counties in the South) the revolutionary and atheistic liberalism of Hobbes and Mandeville was, at least in speech and writing, thoroughly reviled. Henry May has noted that ”authors like the atheist Hobbes or anti-moralist Mandeville, had little to say to the busy, serious Protestant inhabitants of British America, and such unsettling writers were in fact little read.“ In short, the exaggerated attention shown to liberal individualism and classical republicanism probably speaks more to the needs and sensibilities of contemporary urban and secular commentators in search of a useful past than to the historic reality of a rural and Protestant people nestled in a caring and purposeful universe of divinely inspired meaning.

Accordingly, study of eighteenth century American political thought must be framed less by the secondhand analyses of republican and liberal apologists than by the insights of, for example, Alfred Chandler, who reminds us that America was overwhelmingly localist and that “in 1790 only 202,000 out of 3,930,000 Americans lived in towns and villages of more than 2,500.” And as Harry Stout has argued, eighteenth century America was just as overwhelmingly Protestant as rural and that one must reject as “unsatisfactory the suggestion that ideas of secular ‘republicanism’ ” or liberalism were the ideological triggers “of radical resistance and violence in the Revolution.” Preference, therefore, must be given to explanatory accounts of American speech and behavior that begin by recognizing the overwhelmingly rural and Protestant character of late eighteenth century America, instead of historical analyses that demand that Americans be viewed predominantly through filters better suited and normally associated with urban secular populations. (Is it surprising, though, that urban secular scholars have created an American past in their own image?)

Thus, late eighteenth century Americans were neither a noble nor heroic people in the classical or Renaissance republican cast, nor an avaricious one in the modern individualistic mold. The vast majority lived voluntarily in morally demanding reformed Protestant agricultural communities defined by overlapping circles of community sponsored and assisted self-regulation, and even self-denial, rather than by individual autonomy or political self-expression. In the eighteenth century, then, as through much of American history up to the first decades of the twentieth century, Americans were preponderantly Christian, rural farmers who held to a strained and eclectic political vision that defies facile characterization. But clearly for them, the public’s needs were to be awarded preeminence over the immediate ones of discrete individuals. In particular, the autonomous self, that combination of wants and passions that has replaced the soul as the essential core of man in modern thought, was then understood to be the center of man’s sinfulness or, in the language of rationalism, as the embodiment of his estrangement from nature’s (God’s) perfect ordering of the universe. This estrangement was best reflected in man’s selfishness, an aspect of his being that was deplored by most eighteenth century Americans. For our forebears, unlike for us, the truly autonomous self was neither an ultimate ethical category nor the center of moral worth.

When the eighteenth century American understanding of liberty is examined, one also finds that they believed that liberty in all but one of its various forms characterized a voluntary submission to a life of righteousness that accorded with universal moral standards mediated by divine revelation and the authoritative interpretive capacity of congregation and community. Liberty was framed by numerous aspects of eighteenth century life and thus took on seven different meanings: political liberty, spiritual liberty, English prescriptive liberties, familial or personal independence, natural liberty, communal civil liberty, and the beginnings of the contemporary understanding of the fully autonomous self that is free from social constraints regarding self-referential behavior. But, it was only this last sense of liberty that was genuinely looking forward to nineteenth century individualism. And in Revolutionary America this understanding of liberty was still of no importance.

More critical than this licentious view of liberty in understanding the political thought of the Revolutionary generation was their perception of slavery, which was viewed as an antipode to liberty and thus of importance in shaping its contours. And surprisingly, slavery understood as chattel enslavement was not among those meanings most frequently encountered in Revolutionary-era American political essays. Instead, in the polemical political writings of the period, slavery broadly conceived defined the absence of political liberty for a corporate body and, on the personal level, one’s sinful incapacity to control passions and desires. In all cases, the inability or unwillingness to be self-governing is what defined a “slave,” and this correct understanding of the meaning of slavery in the late eighteenth century is a missing keystone in a still incomplete reconstruction of Founding-era American social and political thought.

In short, America’s most authentic political inheritance is a democratic, Christian, and communal understanding of the good human life that is too often forgotten, but nevertheless is its most enduring political tradition. This legacy is not the politically noble and existentially self-creating secular past that continues to be pursued by republican revisionists. Neither, however, is it illusory. And this authentic and powerful inheritance still resonates with the religious and social beliefs of most Americans. Thus, for many it still might be of importance that Revolutionary Americans were a people deeply committed to a moderate vision of Christian community, family, and an ordered Cosmos and opposed to norms that were implicitly individualistic and licentious. Although incapable of being readily appropriated by contemporary secular elites, it is an understanding of how human beings flourish that can enrich present-day American thought by greatly expanding what is authentically American and, thus, what is effectively conceivable.