What about John Locke?
Tracing intellectual influence is difficult, and it is certainly possible that even if late-eighteenth century Calvinists remained committed to their faith that their political views were shaped by other traditions. A variety of political ideas were competing for attention in mid-to-late-eighteenth century America, but it does not follow that all ideas were equally influential. An important argument of this essay is that the political theory of many founders is best understood as being heavily influenced by Reformed political thinking. Yet many scholars argue that the founders were influenced by a version of John Locke’s political philosophy that is sharply at odds with this tradition.
In his 1922 book on the Declaration of Independence, Carl L. Becker famously remarked that most Revolutionary Era Americans “had absorbed Locke’s works as a kind of political gospel.” Almost seventy years later Isaac Kramnick echoed Becker’s conclusion that “Locke lurks behind its [the Declaration’s] every phrase.” More recently, Scott Gerber has argued that the primary purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to protect a Lockean understanding of natural rights, and Barbara McGraw has asserted that “Lockean fundamentals . . . shaped the conscience of the American founders” with respect to the role of religion in public life. Numerous scholars, writers, and activists have made similar arguments.
In many instance, academics making claims about Locke’s influence simply attribute any reference by the founders to individual rights, government by consent, and/or the right to resist tyrannical authority to Locke, apparently unaware that Reformed thinkers had embraced these concepts long before Locke wrote his Second Treatise. In doing so, they ignore the possibility that Locke’s political philosophy is best understood as a logical extension of Protestant resistance literature rather than as a radical departure from it. Obviously if this interpretation is correct (and I am very sympathetic to it), any amount of influence Locke had on America’s founders would be unproblematic for the thesis of this essay. Locke’s influence would be cooperative with the influence of the Reformed tradition rather than competing with it.
However, a number of prominent scholars have argued that Locke is a secular political thinker who attempted to ground his theory of politics on the natural rights of individuals. In the context of the American founding, for instance, Michael Zuckert has contended that key documents like the Declaration of Independence must be understood in light of this secularized Lockean liberalism. In The Natural Rights Republic he supports this position by showing that Jefferson’s political ideas were very different from those held by the Puritans. In doing so, he virtually ignores the development of ideas concerning consent, natural rights, religious toleration, and resistance within the Reformed tradition. As well, it is not self-evident that the Declaration of Independence should be understood solely in light of Jefferson’s views, particularly as Jefferson claimed that he was “[n]ot to find out new principles, or new arguments” but that all “its authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day.”
Zuckert may be correct in his observation that Jefferson, in the Declaration, traced “rights to the creator, that is, nature.” However, there is little reason to think that most Americans thought the Declaration’s “Creator” was anything other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And they certainly did not think they were signing a document that “mandates” a “secular politics.” As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remarked in a different context, the Constitution cannot be interpreted according to “secret or technical meanings that would not have been known to ordinary citizens in the founding generation.”
Assuming for the sake of argument that there is a significant difference between Reformed political theory and Locke’s political ideas, the question remains as to how influential Locke was in early America. With very few exceptions, Locke’s works were not even available in America until 1714 when a bulky three volume edition of his writings began appearing in university libraries. Even then, American elites were primarily interested in his Essay on Human Understanding, and there is no evidence that Locke’s Second Treatise was a part of any college curriculum until the War for Independence. The first American edition of one of Locke’s works was published by the senior class at Yale in 1742. This group of seventeen men, ten of whom went on to become ministers in Reformed churches, apparently hoped publication of A Letter Concerning Toleration would encourage Connecticut’s General Assembly to be more accepting of New Light Calvinists (who were theologically more conservative than the Old Lights).
By the 1760s and 1770s, American Patriots appealed to Locke with some regularity as an authority to support American resistance to Great Britain. Yet, as Donald S. Lutz has shown, the Bible was referenced in political essays far more often than Locke’s works—indeed, more often than the works of all Enlightenment thinkers combined (34% to 22%). Moreover, only 2.9% of the citations to individual authors between 1760-1805 were to Locke (by contrast, 8.3% were to Montesquieu and 7.9% were to Blackstone). That Americans’ interest in Locke was not boundless is suggested as well by the fact that the Second Treatise was not published in America until 1773, and that it was not republished in the United States until 1937.
If Locke’s works were late to arrive on America’s shores, the Bible was virtually omnipresent in New England from the first days of the Puritan settlements. As Daniel L. Dreisbach has demonstrated, the Bible retained its cultural dominance well into the founding era. Many founders continued to look for the Bible for moral guidance, and virtually all of them referenced it regularly in their public and private speeches and writings. This reality is often overlooked because founders assumed a familiarity with Scripture and so did not include textual citations. As Benjamin Franklin explained to Samuel Cooper in 1781,It was not necessary in New England, where every body reads the Bible, and is acquainted with Scripture phrases, that you should note the texts from which you took them; but I have observed in England as well as in France, that verses and expressions taken from the sacred writings, and not known to be such, appear very strange and awkward to some readers; and I shall therefore in my edition take the liberty of marking the quoted texts in the margin.
In addition to the Bible, books containing the essential elements of Reformed political thought were accessible to political and ecclesiastical elites from the colonies’ inception. A thorough and systematic study of which Reformed books were available at what time has yet to be attempted, but Herbert D. Foster has documented the availability of classic texts by John Calvin, John Knox, Theodore Beza, Stephanus Junius Brutus, Peter Martyr, and others. The respect Puritan leaders had for their European predecessors is reflected well by John Cotton’s statement that “I have read the fathers and the school-men, and Calvin too; but I find that he that has Calvin has them all.” Yet, as Perry Miller pointed out, “”[i]f we were to measure by the number of times a writer is cited and the degrees of familiarity shown with his works, Beza exerted more influence than Calvin, and David Pareus still more than Beza.” This is significant for our purposes because the latter two thinkers had significantly more radical theories of resistance than did John Calvin.
Moving to the founding era, political leaders generally, but particularly those from New England, often owned or referred to Reformed literature. It is not surprising that Princeton President John Witherspoon owned Calvin’s Institutes, Beza’s Rights of Magistrates (1757) and Buchanan’s The Law of Scottish Kingship (1579). More intriguing is that the Unitarian-leaning John Adams declared that John Poynet’s Short Treatise on Politike Power (1556) contains “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke.” He also noted the significance of Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos and works by James Harrington and John Milton. Similarly, late in life Adams wrote that “I love and revere the memories of Huss Wickliff Luther Calvin Zwinglius Melancton and all the other reformers how muchsoever I may differ from them all in many theological metaphysical & philosophical points. As you justly observe, without their great exertions & severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.” It is noteworthy as well that George Buchanan’s De Jure Regni: or the due right of Government was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1766—the same year Parliament passed the Declaratory Act.
Educated American leaders were generally familiar with Locke by the 1760s, and few thought his political philosophy was at odds with traditional Christian or Calvinist political ideas. This is indicated by the willingness of Reformed clergy to appeal to him as an authority in sermons and pamphlets. For example, in his 1776 election day sermon to the Connecticut General Assembly, Judah Champion urged state leaders to resist British oppression. The vast majority of his sermon relied on Biblical and theological arguments, such as when he contended that “liberty and freedom” belong “to us, not merely as men, originally created in God’s image, holding a distinguished rank in his creation, but also as christians redeemed by the Blood of CHRIST.” Yet this indisputably orthodox Congregationalist did not hesitate to cite Locke’s Second Treatise on the origin of government.
Michael Zuckert suggests that the clergy’s use of Locke is evidence of “a Lockean conquest, or at least assimilation, of Puritan political thought.” However, if one recognizes that Calvinists had long advocated political ideas similar to those later articulated by Locke, and that most New England ministers were by any measure orthodox Christians, it is more plausible to conclude that these ministers viewed Locke as an ally to be cited to defend concepts well within the bounds of Reformed Christianity. Most Reformed ministers in this era were well-educated and sensitive (perhaps too sensitive) to any hint of theological heterodoxy. If Lockean and Reformed political theory are really as different as Zuckert suggests, is it not odd that virtually no Reformed minister objected to the use of Locke by his fellow Calvinists?
By comparing Lockean and Reformed political theory I do not mean to suggest that these are the only intellectual traditions present in the founding era. I make the comparison because a secularized version of Locke’s ideas is most obviously at odds with Reformed political theory. Many aspects of Whig, classical republican, and Scottish Enlightenment thought, to name just three other widely discussed intellectual influences on the founders, seem informed by or compatible with Reformed thought. For instance, Robert Middlekauff has suggested that “Radical Whig perceptions of politics attracted widespread support in America because they revived the traditional concerns of a Protestant culture that had always verged on Puritanism.” Similarly, many concerns often attributed to the classical republican tradition, such as fear or corruption and concentrated powers and the belief that the state should promote virtue, seem to be more readily explained by Christian commitments.
This is not the place to provide a full critique of the many works arguing for different intellectual influences on America’s founders. My central concern here is to provide a sketch of an intellectual tradition that has been too often ignored by students of American political thought. If nothing else, I hope to have shown that simplistically assigning all references to natural rights, consent, limited government, and a right to rebel to the influence of John Locke is problematic. Given the political culture of eighteenth century America (especially New England), there is a strong prima facie case that such appeals were based on Reformed political theory. To be sure, it is unlikely that many citizens read Reformed political thinkers directly, but neither did they read Locke, Rousseau, or Blackstone. However, many of them attended churches where they at least occasionally heard Reformed political ideas from their well-educated ministers. Moreover, political leaders in New England, many of whom graduated from the Reformed colleges of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, heard annual election day sermons from Congregationalist clergy which contained significant political content.
26. Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922; New York: Vintage Books, 1942) 27; Isaac Kramnick, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 293; Scott Douglas Gerber, To Secure These Rights: The Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Interpretation (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 199-200; Barbara A. McGraw, Rediscovering America’s Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), xv, 23-24, 61-66. See also Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), passim and Michael Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) 15-27. Barry Shain argues persuasively that political scientists and law professors are especially prone to view the American founding in profoundly individualistic terms in Myth of American Individualism, 3-18.
27. See, for instance, Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) and John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the ‘Two Treatises of Government’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 256. There are indisputably tensions between Locke’s theological views and Calvinist theology.
28. See, for instance, Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (London: Oxford University Press, 1962); Michael Zuckert, Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002).
29. Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, passim. Zuckert also offers a close reading of the text of the Declaration, and on occasion he refers to a few other founders, but he focuses disproportionately on the sage of Monticello. Thomas S. Engeman and Michael Zuckert, eds., Protestantism and the American Founding (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004) contains a restatement of Zuckert’s thesis, essays responding to it, and a rejoinder by Zuckert.
30. Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, 1-89; Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, in Adrienne Koch and William Peden, ed., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1944, reprint, New York: Random House, 1993), 656-57.
31. Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, 76, 141. District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S.Ct. 645 (2008), at 648.
32. John Dunn, “The politics of Locke in England and America in the eighteenth century,” in John Locke: Problems and Perspectives: A collection of new essays, ed. John Yolton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 45-80, see esp. 69-71. Dunn concludes with respect to the American Revolution, “[f]or the American population at large the revolution may have been about many things, but in a very few cases can it possibly have been thought to have been in any sense about the Two Treatises of Government of John Locke” (80).
33. Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953), 491, note 111; John Locke, A Letter on Toleration 3rd (Boston: Rogers and Fowle, 1743); M. Louise Greene, The Development of Religious Liberty in Connecticut (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1905), 121; Franklin Bowditch Dexter, Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, October, 1701-May, 1745 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1885), 698-722. Of course Lockean ideas could be transmitted through other means, but the relative inaccessibility of his works on politics must be taken into account when assessing his influence.
34. Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review 78 (1984), 189-197, esp. 192-193; Clark, Language of Liberty, 26.
35. Dreisbach, “The Bible in the Political Culture of the American Founding,” in Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (mss. in possession of author). Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Cooper, May 15, 1781, in John Bigelow, ed., The Works of Benjamin Franklin (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 423-24. Similarly, Joyce Appleby writes that the “most important source of meaning for eighteenth-century Americans was the Bible.” “The American Heritage—The Heirs and the Disinherited,” The Journal of American History 74 (1987), 809.
36. Herbert D. Foster, Collected Papers of Herbert D. Foster: Historical and Biographical Studies (Privately Printed, 1929), 77-105. See also, Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939; reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 89-108.
37. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (Hartford: Silas Andrus and Son, 1885), 1: 274; Miller, The New England Mind, 1: 93.
38. Morrison, John Witherspoon, 81; Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), 6: 4; John Adams to F.C. Schaeffer, November 25, 1821 in James H. Hutson, The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 15-16. George Buchanan, De Jure Regnie: or the due right of Government (Philadelphia, 1766). In the Constitutional Convention Luther Martin (who, in spite of his name, was hardly an exemplar of the Protestant Reformation), read passages from “Locke & Vattel, and also Rutherford [presumably Lex, Rex]” to show that states, like people, are equal. Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), 1: 438.
39. Judah Champion, “Christian and Civil Liberties” (Hartford: E. Watson, 1776), 6, 8. One of the earliest and most famous examples of a cleric’s use of Locke is found in Elisha Williams’ sermon, “The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants” (1744), in Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1998), 1: 55-65.
40. Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, 172.
41. Steven M. Dworetz makes a similar point about the American clergy’s use of Locke in The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 32-34, 135-183. I include the word “virtually” in the last sentence simply because I assume some Reformed minister in the era must have questioned the use of Locke by his co-religionists. However, I have not found such a minister.
42. Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution: 1763-1789, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 52.
43. James Cooper notes that Congregational “ministers frequently addressed questions of church government in their sermons.” Cooper, The Tenaciousness of the Their Liberties, 31. Election day sermons were attended by civil and ecclesiastical leaders and were often printed and distributed throughout the colonies. Shain, Myth of American Individualism, 7; Martha Louise Counts, The Political Views of the Eighteenth Century New England as Expressed in Their Election Sermons (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1956).
Friday, July 2, 2010
Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part IV
By Mark David Hall