Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What Was Enlightenment About America's Founding

My co-blogger at American Creation, King of Ireland, is exploring some of the reformed roots of America's Founding. There's no doubt there was a powerful Christian influence, both reformed and natural law (arguably implicitly Catholic).

However there were lots of other things as well. "Christian" is just one of five of Bernard Bailyn's ideological sources of the American Founding, the others being British Common law, Whig, Greco-Roman, and Enlightenment. And keep in mind these sources bled into one other and many of ideas and thinkers behind them, John Locke, for instance, "fit" into more than one category.

What I see as Enlightenment about the American Founding -- why I think it dominated aside from the fact that they were living in the age of Enlightenment -- is that the Founders used their reason to pick and choose from what they wanted (i.e., the Bible, the Greco-Roman tradition, Calvin, Blackstone, traditional natural law teachings) and discard the rest.

With Calvin for instance, whatever it is they might have taken from him, they didn't agree with his teaching that even the worst of tyrants properly command divine submission from subjects.

Now, there are some later Calvinists who seemed more generous than Calvin on resistance theory, Rutherford, Ponet, et al. However even they are little cited by the Founders and ministers and philosophers they followed. I do recall John Adams reciting some of those names in classic Enlightenment fashion, making nominal reference to them as he vomited up names from various ideological sources.

Samuel Rutherford was cited by America's Founders little if at all. But if he did influence them, again, it was in a qualified Enlightenment sense where they took from him what they wanted and rejected what they didn't like. For instance, Rutherford (like most of the other "Calvinists") was horrific on religious liberty issues. Here is Rutherford on Servetus' execution:

It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spiritual and diabolic cruelty to many thousand souls, whom he did pervert, and by his book, does yet lead into perdition.


This is anti-American Founding 101.

Likewise with Blackstone, supposedly the origin of the concept of "Nature's God." Ironic in that the Declaration of Independence is an anti-Blackstonian document. Blackstone taught, in no uncertain terms, when the King and Parliament (i.e., British Rule or the particular way in which they split power) take action, no power on Earth can undo it.

Here are Blackstone's exact words on Parliament's power:

It can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible; and therefore some have not scrupled to call it’s power, by a figure rather too bold, the omnipotence of parliament. True it is, that what they do, no authority upon earth can undo.


As Gary North put it: “Blackstone was wrong: beginning eleven years later, the American colonies undid a lot of what Parliament had done.” North also properly observed: "They [America's Founders] took what they liked from his [Blackstone's] system and ignored the rest." [See the following, pgs. 20, 102.]

Likewise with Locke, the most important philosopher who influenced America. He didn't believe in extending religious liberty to atheists or Roman Catholics. But Jefferson explicitly noted, where Locke stopped short, they would go further.

And they did.

5 comments:

Pinky said...

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I might be a slow learner.
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It is beginning to dawn on me that the single most influential force underlying the American Founding was the experience the Founding Fathers had in self-government. It was--by far and away--the single most influential force that led to the American Creation.
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And, research that ignores the separate experiences of each colony from each other seems more like an attempt to prove one ideological approach or another over the simple truth of reality--all gobbeldegook aside.
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In this light, Puritanism, can be seen as foretelling the Grand and Noble Experiment for it was a deviation supported by the idea of self-government. And, we are able to easily see Calvinism coming into the picture like one of a variety of tributaries feeding into the main stream of the total American Experience. And, Calvinism, itself, has tributaries feeding into it.
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We should not allow ourselves to be duped into buying any superstitious ideology regarding America's Founding.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Now, there are some later Calvinists who seemed more generous than Calvin on resistance theory, Rutherford, Ponet, et al. However even they are little cited by the Founders and ministers and philosophers they followed. I do recall John Adams reciting some of those names in classic Enlightenment fashion, making nominal reference to them as he vomited up names from various ideological sources.Now, there are some later Calvinists who seemed more generous than Calvin on resistance theory, Rutherford, Ponet, et al. However even they are little cited by the Founders and ministers and philosophers they followed. I do recall John Adams reciting some of those names in classic Enlightenment fashion, making nominal reference to them as he vomited up names from various ideological sources.

Do you recall John Adams writing of
[orig doc here]

http://books.google.com/books?id=YGUSAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA4&lpg=PA4&dq=%22john+adams%22+poynet&source=bl&ots=n8CpdmJaYC&sig=-WgV5Jnt-gMehiQcErqLgDPJIAQ&hl=en&ei=hdfhS_n_IsTflgeakbjQAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CDYQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q&f=false

"[A book] by John Poynet, DD," was printed in 1556, and contains all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke.

Ponet and the Vindiciae contra tyrannos had been around for at least 150 years, ample time to have soaked into the minds of Calvinists like Samuel Adams, who was perhaps the leading force in kicking off the American Revolution. Sam wouldn't even have needed to read them to know what was in them, which is why "presbyterianism" was specifically blamed by the British for the revolution.
More from Kopel:

http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:cAh3SR9UaA0J:www.davekopel.com/Religion/Religious-Roots-of-the-American-Revolution.pdf+black+presbyterian+american+clergy+revolution+black&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjMn_stwo6PTZqgLGT9leivsfNsfhECXKYxobueNS6B29OKXRzP05ZpgxF0WCcr5DUqBQ_mwEEaz700FvZ8_vI9KgQTNRNHyyO7ThFFt2J6-YgRQZWxJHnldvJjljNRLbHCqA2u&sig=AHIEtbQ0LzEMbkvUTJz6Jf2RAonalfKqMg

Note the "Black Regiment" of presbyterian clergy fighting for the revolution.

King of Ireland said...

Jon,

Tom already hit on my first objection above. "Defence of Constitutions" not only list these writers it ties all of their writings together into one central theme that later generations kept building. It was nothing new what Locke wrote.

"With Calvin for instance, whatever it is they might have taken from him, they didn't agree with his teaching that even the worst of tyrants properly command divine submission from subjects"

You have to add in the part of interpostion. Calvin may have been a little more conservative about interposition than his later disciples but he still allowed for resistance of magistrates. The most important principle(other than imago dei) that ties all of this togehter is that the law was king and no one was above it. This was because of the social contract.

Anyway, Tom is right in that this site is not about debate(though I think getting competative juices flowing sometimes brings out the best arguments) but joint inquiry. We have list of a bunch of people that Adams cited here. I was going to start with Vindicae but I cannot find the whole thing anywhere on the internet. Then it hit me that what we are looking at is progression of thought away from idolization of authority some common in that day to a more rights oriented outlook.

In other words, is Locke a more evolved version of Calvin and others or was it really some new that rejected more traditional Christian thought?

I can go through them all and post on it but then you would only get my slant. Is there a way we can go through the primary sources and divide it up somehow or maybe we pick a person and both do a series of posts or something. It is not something that we have to do in a hurry.

King of Ireland said...

Jon,

I would also add that common law whig theory had some serious Christian roots that I know you somewhat acknowledged but I think not enough.

I think you need to really read some of the links Tom has been citing lately that seem to point to the Age of Reason that embraced Christianity being a British thing and the Enlightenment that threw it out being two seperate movements.


I see a movement that is very receptive to what Toffler calls the 'Third Wave' that is secular in nature. It seems to be split between libertarian and statist secularists that are very pro-Science and often hostile to religion. What I am waiting for is the religious cohort like Locke and others that embraces it. I think as progressive as he was Jefferon(ironically) doomed the rural part of America to a backwoods Christianity and ignorance that we still see today by rejecting the Industrial Revolution. (see Mark's post today)

King of Ireland said...

Kopel states:

"Historian John Patrick Diggins writes that Americanhistorians have concentrated on political ideas whileunderplaying “the religious convictions that often undergirdthem, especially the Calvinist convictions that Locke himselfheld: resistance to tyranny….”

I have been saying the same thing. They take the philosophy they like and reject the theological underpinnings. Just like the French printing the second part of Locke's Treatise and not the first that is filled with theological arguments and scriptural references.

He clearly links Locke to Calvin. Look forward to reading more of this. I think the trouble we are having is that we look at Locke and someone like Frazer sees that he may have been a unitarian and labels him "Enlightenment" but fails to realize that his political theology is right in line with others that are clearly not Enlightenment.

For socio-historical purposes the political theology is much more relevant than the personal beliefs. If I am write Jefferson either used or was forced to use(by Adams and the Congress through edit powers) Christian resistance theory arguments and it is clear that he was probably closer to Deist than Christian.

But even he I think would acknowledge inalienable rights grounded in man being made in the image of God.