Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gordon S. Wood on the Founding Concepts of Rights---Part 2

By Phil Johnson

[Part 1 appears here.]

Gordon S. Wood continues:

The people's ancient rights and liberties were as much public as private, just as the king's rights--his prerogatives--were as much private as they were public. So-called public institutions had private rights, and private persons had public obligations. The king's prerogatives, or his premier rights to govern the realm, grew out of his private position as the wealthiest of the wealthy and the largest landowner in the society; his government had really begun as an extension of his royal household. But in a like manner all private households or families--'those small subdivisions of Government,' one colonist called them--had public responsibilities to help the king govern.

This helps us gain some understanding of the mindset the Founding generation had in relation to their own identity. Their experiences of the differences we see between public and private interests were not nearly as well developed then as ours is today. But, they were about to learn much.

Think of what Barry Alan Shain shows us in his Myth of American Individualism, how "localism" was so strong during the colonial years. They were a corporate people--maybe to the extent that we might call "groupthink" today. Now, with their parent-child relationship with Britain ended, they were thrown into the quandary of being forced to reconsider their ideas about private and public values.

As Wood reminds us,

"Governments in this premodern colonial society regulated all sorts of personal behavior, especially the moral and religious behavior of people, without any consciousness that they were depriving people of their private liberty or rights. Of the nearly 2,800 prosecutions in the Superior and General Sessions courts of Massachusetts bet wen 1760 and 1774, over half involved sexual and religious offenses, such as fornication and using profanity. Many of the other prosecutions involved drunkenness, slander, and various violations of decency and good manners. ... Royal governors did not have legislative policies, and assemblies did not enact legislative programs. .... The colonial assemblies still saw themselves more as courts making judgments rather than as legislatures making laws. ... In William Nelson's survey of the Massachusetts General Court in 1761, he could find 'only three acts that were arguably legislative in the sense that they changed law or made new law.'"

The separation of powers was still little more than a vague concept at that early time. The idea that there was such a thing as individual rights was just as obscure.

25 comments:

King of Ireland said...

More traditional societies tend to be more collective in thought. But I think the case is over exaggerated here. Mass. possibly the most dogmatic colony. While I think Martin Luther got a lot wrong I do see that he focus on individual relationship with God had a huge impact on the emergence of "individualism" in the Western World as his ideas spread.

Do not forget that Humanism had been around for almost 300 years at this time. Did they look at rights the same way we do today? Probably not. Was this concept not on the radar screen they way Wood seems to think? I need to see some serious evidence to believe that one. So far I have not.

Pinky said...

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An argument can--possibly--be made for individualism in opposition to the idea of communal think.
But, Wood is focusing on the fact that Colonial Americans were ill equipped to even imagine a explicit difference between the private (individualism?) and the public way of understanding the foundations upon which rights might be erected.
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I think we as students can take this in different directions; but, there is good reason to see how the private/public image was so blurred into being almost one and the same during the Revolutionary Era.
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The consequences of the immature (is there a better word? adolescent?) ability for being able to even comprehend the combination of the ideas of a republic, private, and public combined with the communalism so prevalent in late colonial North America put quite a burden on our ancestors as they struggled to accept responsibility for this new society.
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And, I suspect the same puzzle has been put to Christianity over the centuries. While Jesus taught that individuals could have a personal relationship with God just as he experienced, the traditional way of looking at it was that the relationship humans had with God was a result of the group to which they belonged. And, while a lot of the orthodoxy may not want to admit it, that attitude of group salvation persists in most churches today. Consider that we think of the Saved as being hmembers of the Body of Christ. Hadn't that anthropomorphic model been prevalent in Western Civilization from the getty-up?
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What Jesus taught about the individual was quite a break though in the human ability to communicate thinking from one to another. Maybe it was starting to flower in the early years of the Republic?

Tom Van Dyke said...

An argument can--possibly--be made for individualism in opposition to the idea of communal think.

Well, what I think Wood is getting at, and Barry Shain even more, is the contrast to the view of rights in 2009, what we might call "radical individualism," where there's no difference between liberty and license.

This concept was beyond the imagination of the Founding era, and you see in Locke or Samuel Adams or GMorris the same idea, that society has a right to self-preservation, and individual rights exist only where there is no conflict.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tradition does 'imagine" itself to be the epitome of "enlightenment". But, it is not. It is not scientifically based or supported. And those that try to support it sceintifically are fundamentalists, whether they are of the "faith kind" or the "scientific bent".

The Founding Fathers believed in what is one our currency, "out of MANY, ONE"...We the PEOPLE...that meant that we had an identity as a nation of liberty...AND it meant that we believed in REPRESENTATION AND it meant that we believed in a VOICE through a VOTE>>>>democracy cannot be representative without A voice throught A VOTE...

NO one has said that individuality was license. I have stated over and over that I believe IN the LAW....but NOT CANON law....but our Constitution and DOI...

Phil said that he wished the military would be mandantory. I "imagine" his view is due to "duty driven" public commitment...which is all well and good, but a mandantory military, is also a militarized STATE, that DEMANDS DUTY at the expense of individual liberty....of conscience or "right"...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tradition does 'imagine" itself to be the epitome of "enlightenment". But, it is not. It is not scientifically based or supported.

Ah, here's where Edmund Burke comes in. Tradition [taken as a whole] certainly is scientifically supported---it's what got us out of living in caves to where we are at this very moment, typing on computers to each other, in warm places with indoor plumbing.

What did NOT get us to where we are is any given proposed radical change, which is completely unproven by experience and real-world testing.

Which is why Burke, although supporting the American Revolution as needed reform, was much wiser than Jefferson in opposing the French revolution, which wanted to reinvent society from scratch, calling itself "enlightened."

We know that what we have now is the product of tradition, and it's "scientifically" [historically] proven that it works. Any radical change may not and must not threaten to bring the ceiling crashing down.

King of Ireland said...

Tom hits the nail on the head with the license argument. The Founders all thought rights came with responsibilities. Radical individualism is destroying this nation. It has already destroyed the schools. The kids think any way is an ok way. The belief that there is a right way to do things is gone. It is to each its own. This is were radical libertarian thought misses too.

King of Ireland said...

Tom stated:

"Which is why Burke, although supporting the American Revolution as needed reform, was much wiser than Jefferson in opposing the French revolution, which wanted to reinvent society from scratch, calling itself "enlightened."

They threw the baby out with the bathwater and no lasting change occurred. America built on a foundation that was already there. One could say it was the 4th period of Revolution in England. Adams cites the first three in my post today. It seems every generation has to battle it out to maintain their rights.

I think Luther threw the baby out with the bathwater too.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ah Knat, eh?

Motivation and involvement comes from identifying with a group, whether that be a fraternity, community, church or nation. One does not have to be motivated where they think they belong...where belief, and belonging affirms behavior toward the individuals so committed.

To suggest that an individual must behave as if he belongs, that is, as if he believes and adheres to a certain locale, then is cruel and unusual punishment. Belonging is a human need, and motivator. Any leader knows this to be true.

But, if there has been years of not belonging when one has tried to be a part, then there is disheartenment. This is normal for the human. Trust has to be re-built. And agendas have to be laid aside, unless the agenda is to re-build the individual in their trust...this is kind and loving, something that Jesus talked about..

As to poverty, that is THE social issue, just as global warming is THE scientific isse to "unify" everyone (nation) to build focus and enforcements which have to be under-written by taxes of one kind or another. This is abuse of the social and scientific disciplines...there are as many social and scientific concerns as there are individual scientiests...

Pinky said...

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Phil said that he wished the military would be mandantory. I "imagine" his view is due to "duty driven" public commitment...which is all well and good, but a mandantory military, is also a militarized STATE, that DEMANDS DUTY at the expense of individual liberty....of conscience or "right"...
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Nah. My reason for believing in the draft is that America cannot much longer endure a professional military that is led by men who study war and try to impose their philosophies on our civilian society.
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When America's sons and daughters are drafted into the military against their desire, that will influence our military objectives as a nation. Until and unless civilians recognize how the military works, they will not understand how undemocratic the service really is. The military/industrial complex must be cut down to size.
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I have the utmost respect for people that put their life on the line for the rest of their society. But, military leaders are another story. They are not ALL respectable.


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Angie Van De Merwe said...

I dare you to find one organization that doesn't have a 'bad apple".

We have found the military in every way to be more than polite. They have noble ideals in protecting our country's values. I applaud those that serve and I value their commitment.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As to poverty, that is THE social issue, just as global warming is THE scientific isse to "unify" everyone (nation) to build focus and enforcements which have to be under-written by taxes of one kind or another. This is abuse of the social and scientific disciplines...there are as many social and scientific concerns as there are individual scientists...

A liberal wants to help the poor.

A leftist thinks he can cure poverty.

That's the difference as I see it, and I'm sticking to it.

King of Ireland said...

The digital divide is going to bring an exponentially larger crater size gap between the rich and the poor. It is the third wave. 90% of the world missed the second wave of great change called the Industrial Revolution. The gap between rich and poor consumes us today. But there is little that can be done about it.

The train comes for everyone but only a few want to jump aboard. I teach poor migrant farmer kids. They get it the same way I used to teach the elite from DC. Most could care less what I have to say. Education is just not valued in the home. Not much anyone can do about it except call all aboard and hope you can paint a picture that makes them want to come along for the ride.

Chances are most in the world will not. If factories changed the world what is the internet gonna do? Capitalism is the answer. It always has been.

Pinky said...

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Capitalism is the answer. It always has been.
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Capitalism is one of those things about which our Revolutionary Era ancestors had little understanding. But, they sure were able to lay the foundation for it to grow to what it has come to be.
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I'm reading another book you might enjoy.
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I expect Part III in this series will deal more specifically with your comment.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Phil, Adam Smith published "Wealth of Nations" in 1776. I see Smith in Madison's writings, and I think you nail it---industrialization would come later, but capitalism was finding its feet. The Americans [and British] were prepared.

Indeed there is what's called Anglo-American economics, which differs from "continental" economics---France, etc., let alone the Third World, which has had its head up its ass.

But India and China are enjoying unprecedented prosperity, having at last abandoned socialism.

As for yet another of your left-leaning book recommendations, I will say that the "corporatism" if not simply financial manipulation it condemns was also condemned by Adam Smith, and is different from capitalism.

Or, as Pope Benedict argues, it's capitalism untethered from moral responsibility, and it's the untethering that's the problem, not capitalism.

Hell, you could beat somebody to death with a crucifix. In fact, a crucifix would make for a very efficient weapon, physically and metaphorically...

Pinky said...

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I don't know about "left-leaning" anything.
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It's to my interest to uncover information that will help me gain a better understanding of who we were and what influenced us to be that way during the Founding era.
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I try not to stay away from something when it is repudiated by others. I don't agree with the left/right dichotomy as it is touted today.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

OK, fine. But when you have a far-lefty like Greg Palast blurbing the book---no, that the author uses a far-lefty like Greg Palast by choice to blurb his book---then, unless balanced by a Glenn Beck or something, it's obviously tailored to an audience who knows who the fuck Greg Palast is.

I don't blame you for not being up on your politico-literary politics, but there it is.

I'd rather we all read the Founders and Plato and Aristotle, and Locke and Sidney---and Adam Smith---and make up our own minds. Do some thinking on our own about the source material instead of swallowing somebody's regurgitation of it.

I'm sick of the partisan noise machine, and I think you are too, Phil. What I write here is based only on reading the originals. Adam Smith for one is as much a liberal as he is a conservative.

I'm a liberal. Just ain't a leftist.

Pinky said...

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Here's a shot by Greg Pabst.

http://www.gregpalast.com/

Tom Van Dyke said...

Still going after Bush. How pathetic, how...2006.

Brad Hart said...

I've heard Wood make this argument before in Radicalism of the American Revolution It's an interesting idea to think about. The separation of the private and public life/private and public rights and responsibilities is an important issue to understand. I think it also plays into the importance that the founding generation put on the concept of HONOR. For example, Washington could take people questioning his faith, his intelligence, his decisions, etc. but he NEVER EVER tolerated an insult to his honor.

I've often wondered how the concept of honor (which seemed to be a public thing) played into what Wood is getting at here.

Brad Hart said...

So I was thinking this over a glass of apple cider when the concluding words to the Dec. of Ind. popped into my mind:

We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our SACRED HONOR.

Yes, life and fortune are nice things but interesting to see that it is HONOR that is recognized as being "sacred." Maybe I'm just reading too much into this but I still think that the concept of public honor is of paramount importance and is something we need to understand when discussing this era.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Brad,
Wasn't honor based on their sense of justice for the individual in liberty of conscience? This was a pledge of one patriot to another, in defending the ideals of our country, life and liberty...

Pinky said...

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I haven;'t finished with Wood yet; but, so far I haven't run across any thoughts on HONOR in the essay I'm reading.
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I seem to know that honor has been a big thing for a long time. It kinda goes along with pride, doesn't it? How many men have died defending their honor?
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But, your other comments seem to be right on as far as Wood's teaching is concerned.
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Oops, It seems that since this protection of one patriot to the other was pledged in the context of the DOI against the "enemy" of the British Crown. It was a social compact, yes?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I would say that "honor" harkens back to classical [Greco-Roman] philosophy, "pagan" if you will, but also in contrast to "modern" philosophy.

the term is

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnanimity

and George Washington for one [and mebbe really the only] lived by it.

"Magnanimity," however, overlaps but is surpassed---subsumed---by "Christian charity," which was even more a Founding dynamic.

Something I've done some work on, but too subtle for most fora, even this one. I present this for those who want to dig deeper on their own. It's part of how the Christianization of Greek thought took it to the next step, just as imago Dei, man being made in the image of God, surpasses Greek thought in the development of human rights.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

depends on the circumstances....in some situations, behaving in a magnaimous way would be stupid, like holding up the "Sermon on the Mount" as the ethical standard. Ideals are important, but cannot be ultimately affirmed, because we live in an imperfect world, with conflicting interests. This is why we have contracts, which are regulators of interests.