Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The positive contributions of the Puritans to the American founding

One doesn't hear much in the way of praise for the Puritans nowadays, but Peter Augustine Lawler over at First Principles has posted an essay reminding us why the Puritans are important for understanding American culture, and important in a good way:  Praising the Puritans.  Lawler's analysis is particularly insightful, I think, in comparing the moral traditions of liberty that developed separately in New England and in Virginia.  The New England variety, informed by Puritanism, was both more communitarian and egalitarian than the slavocracy that developed in Virginia.  Lawler's analysis is well worth a read.

32 comments:

Mikewind Dale said...

Thanks.

I would also like to note that with things like The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, Moses, His Judicials, and The Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the Puritans were the pioneers in constitutionalism, practically building on the theories of continental Reformed Christian federalists like Theodore Beza and the anonymous Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. John Locke's theories were based on the same tradition as the Puritans' theories were, and so we shouldn't we surprised when see that the Mayflower Compact displays social contract in 1620, 12 years before Locke was even born. The Puritans are the foundation for the limited rule of government by powers delegated in a constitution.

Mikewind Dale said...

(I am conflating the Pilgrims and the Puritans a bit, but they were both part of the same basic religious movement, only the Pilgrims were more extreme, wanting to break with the English Church rather than reform it. But they were two different approaches within one single movement.)

Jason_Pappas said...

What might Roger Williams think of “a civil, a moral, a federal liberty” that this author finds in Puritan New England.

As I read the article it sounds as if the Puritans were if not socialists at least welfare statists. The author uses the word egalitarian. Is this a good description of Puritan New England?

I notice that the author is hostile to the philosophy of John Locke. There seems to be a growing hostility towards Locke at the ISI. Interesting.

Pinky said...

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Much can be said about the Puritan society; but, I must say that that Lawler has done a great job with his spin.
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Everyone should read what he has written.
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Great to say the least.
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Mikewind Dale said...

I didn't see any spin. As I read Lawler, the Puritans had a sort of libertarian egalitarianism, in which the welfare of the poor was ensured by the voluntary and willing charity and virtue of the citizens. There were no laws making a welfare state, and there were relatively few legal limitations on the government (compared to the United States's Constitution, for example), because the virtue of its citizens was sufficient. A Puritan belief in God was enough to prevent political corruption and ensure the welfare of the poor. That's the way I read Lawler, at least.

Mikewind Dale said...

I am not learned enough in Locke's moral philosophy. (I have learned only his political philosophy.) But the feeling I get is, that at least according to Lawler, Locke's philosophy had all the political libertarianism of the Puritans but without the religious virtue. The Puritan political libertarianism was accompanied by a religious virtue that made a more powerful government unnecessary, but Locke had only half the equation. I don't know if that is a correct reading of Locke, but it at least seems to be Lawler's reading, right or wrong.

Pinky said...

Maybe the word, spin, was not the best choice. I meant to connote his angle--the way he handled the subject. I think he did a fantastic job and I would like to shake his hand for having done it.
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Pinky said...

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"The Puritan political libertarianism was accompanied by a religious virtue that made a more powerful government unnecessary..."
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I don't know about "unnecessary". It was more like it that the Puritan ethic over rode any government that it did not control.
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At least from what I've learned about Puritanism.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Mikewind---Lawyer's buying into the increasingly popular Noll/Zuckert "Straussian" trope that underneath Locke's outward religiosity is a "radical individualism" if not hedonism.

This may be true, but I see no evidence the Founders read him that way.

Mikewind Dale said...

Yeah, I was skeptical, because as far as I knew, Locke was a religious Christian. Perhaps an unusually Enlightenment-ish rationalist Christian, but a Christian nevertheless. He was certainly not secular. So even without knowing more than that, I would assume that chances were, Locke tended more towards the side of Puritanistic charitableness and virtue, than towards the side of hedonism and selfishness.

And I'll say that Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration" reads like straight Protestantism, plain and simple. His arguments are the same as those of the Baptists, which is why the Baptists loved his essay. The first publication of Locke in America, was by a group of Connecticut Baptists in the 1740s. So I still don't know whether or not Locke was charitable, but I can at least say he seems to have been a religious Christian in general.

But I decided I'd just go with the flow, and accept Lawler for the sake of argument. If what he says about Locke doesn't apply to Locke, then it applies to someone else instead. His argument against hedonism and selfishness stands, whether or not his invocation of Locke is correct.

Thanks for pointing out the provenance of his argument, however.

As for Locke's interpretation by the Framers, I'm not even sure there was much of one at all, except by Jefferson; see here. But be that as it may.

Pinky said...

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I think, sometimes, there is a tendency for us in this games oriented culture to grab the ball we assume someone has passed and to run with it toward the goal line. I know that's what I do sometimes.
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But, to use words like, Lockean, and, Lockenaism, are not to connote that the object is in complete agreement with Locke. It only means that there is some comparison.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Mikewind, what I'm getting at is this "esoteric" Locke---the radical, underneath the window-dressing---may be the "true" Locke. But it's not the one the Founders built on, unless as you might agree, "liberty" as the Calvinists understood it also is really "modernity" that leads to radical individualism if not hedonism.

I like Lawler very much, BTW, but I think he's following Noll down a dead end on Michael Zuckert's "Straussian" Locke.

This essay by Thomas G. West [a sort of "Straussian" himself] has been most helpful to me:

http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=WT01F1

And BTW, I'd love to read more from you on the Calvinists' role in developing the mechanisms of our republican government, and I have a special interest in Theodore Beza, who was John Calvin's immediate "successor."

Most studies of Calvinism seem to begin and end with Calvin himself, a grave error.

bpabbott said...

Re: "[Locke] was certainly not secular. So even without knowing more than that, I would assume that chances were, Locke tended more towards the side of Puritanistic charitableness and virtue, than towards the side of hedonism and selfishness."

I think this relies too heavily on a modern false dichotomy. The rise of secularism was not manifested by an animus for religion ... quite the opposite. Locke applied secular methods for the purpose of preserving religion, and other institutions, from corruptions (admittedly the term, secularism, did not arise until much later than Locke's day).

I think Locke qualifies as a devout theist who applied secular methods. For him scripture and reason must be consistent. When they were not, reason was applied as the most reliable tool for separating religious truth from corruptions.

From this perspective, there is some good merit to associating Puritan, charity, and virtue with Christianity, but I don't see the merit in associating hedonism and selfishness with secularism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ben, the argument isn't exactly that secularism necessarily leads to selfishness ["radical individualism"] and hedonism, only that it would be impossible under a thoroughly Puritan political theology.

And it is implicit in Noll/Zuckert's [and perhaps Rowe's] argument that the "poison pill" hiding under Locke's outward religiousness is a radical individualism, since the "Straussian" Locke [and not only Straussians see Locke this way---it's simply based on a deep reading of Locke's "apparent" contradictions] is indeed radical, not traditional.

So secularism can be blamed for radical individualism, but again, it's not a necessary result of secularism, but apparently a result just the same, the liberty vs. license thing.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Rowe:

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2008/09/noll-on-zuckert-and-christian-america.html

Pinky said...

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Of course, you know, there are other ways of viewing the teachings of the Apostle Paul and Jesus than the main liner one that is so popular today.
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Some of us believe that Jesus sets the example of individualism when he expresses the idea that every person has the personal right to have a relationship with God just as the one he shares with his Father God.
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So, the roots of individualism are easily seen in Christian teaching.
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King of Ireland said...

Tom,

I think we need to explore the whole liberty vs.license concept some more around here for sure.

I also find it is at the heart of many of the discussions and divisions behind the Tea Party.

Amazing that this whole founding thing has taken the nation by storm. The more things change the more they stay the same.

I think a good place to start is the Scholastic, we discussed when I got into Manegold and all that and cannot remember for sure what he called it but think it was the, idea of a window of autonomy.

I think after much thought 1776 in America was Liberty and 1793 in France was license. Strauss conflates the two and screws the pooch.

Mikewind Dale said...

"So, the roots of individualism are easily seen in Christian teaching."

Indeed, I see Baptist and Locke-ian separation of church and state as merely being the most rigorous Protestantism, taken to the furthest logical conclusion. It's the Protestantism of Protestantism.

"And BTW, I'd love to read more from you on the Calvinists' role in developing the mechanisms of our republican government, and I have a special interest in Theodore Beza, who was John Calvin's immediate 'successor.'"

I really don't feel qualified. I've read a few secondary sources, enough to know the gist, but not enough to feel qualified to write a secondary source myself, other than a few paragraphs of summary. Certainly not an entire article. But I found Douglas Kelly's The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th Through 18th Centuries to be very useful. Also, I have not yet read the following book, but excerpts I've seen of it, seem to be excellent: The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism by John Witte, Jr. In fact, here is an article by Witte, largely about Beza's work, drawn from the aforementioned book.

bpabbott said...

Tom, thanks for the explanation.

For me Secularism is more method oriented, and Protestantism more goal oriented.

Hence, during the period each emerged , I find the combination of secular methods and Protestant theology to be complimentary.

I often wonder how necessary each was for the other ... meaning, from a historical perspective, is it appropriate to separate the two?

Jason_Pappas said...

What I finding missing from the Lawler article—and missing from most contemporary conservative expositions—is the forgotten virtue of industry. Here is an interesting place to look for the cross fertilization of philosophy and Calvinist religion. Locke’s defense of property rights starts at the first exercise of the virtue of industry—mixing one’s labor with the soil. Boston-born Benjamin Franklin’s moral writings are infused with maxims exhorting industry and frugality. The culture of self-reliance and self-responsibility are extensions of cultivating such a virtue.

Has this moral dimension of pre-Revolutionary America been a topic of discussion here?

I still see Lawler as giving us a paternalistic Puritan society (while I see the Founders rejecting paternalism). His denigration of private worldly virtue suggests the virtue of industry isn’t on his radar. While he may find civic virtue abounding in 17th century New England, he sees it in conflict with private virtue. I’d suggest the opposite.

Daniel said...

Makewind:
Your assertion that the Puritain approach was libertarian and that charity was voluntary cuts against my understanding. Not being able to quickly, lay my hands on any sources that are helpful or to remember specifics, maybe I should put it as a question that you may be able to help with. Wasn't there some coercion involved both in the trappings of egalitarianism (e.g. dress) and in contributions to charity. I hope I am not asking you to do my research for me; I am meaning to ask about what you know or remember.

Daniel said...

TVD--
Even in the context of the Straussian outlook, Lawson's charicaterization of Locke is charicature at best. I don't know how Locke can be read without consideration of the Whig notion of the nobility of the yeoman farmer. In the context of Lawson's article, "apolitical, selfish, rights-obsessed, and duty negligent Lockean individual" is not just an indictment of Locke, but of libertarianism. With the Puritans (in my understanding accurately) playing the part of the Social Democrats.

Mikewind Dale said...

Daniel, my general response regarding the Puritans is this:

Yes, they did engage in coercion, a lot of it even. But the thing to remember is their mindset: they were operating under the assumption that the Bible was the universally-assented-to constitution, given by God Himself. If there was any difference between a constitution written by and consented to by men, and one given by God, the difference was that the one by God was even more authoritative.

That is, the Puritans did have a very strong adherence to constitutionalism. After all, look at the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, Moses, His Judicials, and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties! But for the Puritans, the Bible was also a constitution! And back then, in a time of royal absolutism and a Catholic church that prohibited vernacular translation, a Bible proclaiming that the king had to carry a Torah scroll with him and that you had to teach it (the Torah) to your children, was considered a democratization.

So while the Puritans did hold by the Lutheran/Calvinist two kingdoms doctrine, in which the state's jurisdiction was limited to temporal things and the church's to spiritual things, nevertheless, certain things which we would consider spiritual and belonging to the church, they considered belonging to the state. For example, they considered Christian belief to be indispensable to moral behavior, so "belief" was considered a temporal thing.

In fact, even for people like Thomas Paine and James Wilson and James Otis, at the time of the American Revolution, it was accepted that civil laws were valid only insofar as they agreed with the Bible. The separation of church and state, according to James Madison, was based on Martin Luther. The idea was not that the government was to be secular, but that it was to be limited to what God said about civil law and proscribed from dealing with what God said about more obviously "religious" matters like prayer and worship and preaching. So it never occurred to anyone that the government was to have no relationship whatsoever with the Bible. So it's easy to see that the Puritans could have easily have drawn the line between church and state in the wrong place despite the best of intentions. The Puritans had the very same basic principles as the later Baptists, only they disagreed on exactly how to apply them.

In Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration," he says that in Biblical Israel, punishing idolaters was legitimate (even according to Locke's theory, elaborated there) because God had been the direct legislator, and idolatry was a form of treason against the monarch, and could be punished even according to Locke's principles of freedom of religious practice. Reading Winthrop's, "A Model of Christian Charity", it's not hard to imagine that Winthrop would have said that Locke's words about Biblical Israel applied just as well to Massachusetts.

When Roger Williams said that to enforce religious precepts in the civil courts, was to pull Jesus out of heaven and subject him to a human tribunal, and that it was popishness, John Cotton responded that this was not so because, he said, it was self-evident to all what the Bible said, and anyone who violated Puritan modes of worship was a deliberate sinner, fully cognizant that he was going against the Bible. And given that the Bible was a constitution, deliberate violation of it was no different than the violation of any other constitution.

I argue that once Protestant sects began to proliferate, those of Cotton's school realized they could not be so self-assured as Cotton had been. They could not apply the Biblical Israel model, because there was no longer one single form of worship which was so universally accepted as if it had just then been given directly by God Himself. Honest dissent by truly sincere and believing individuals forced the Puritans (or their descendants) to relent.

to be cont. below

Mikewind Dale said...

cont. from above



It's also worth noting that Williams himself was a Calvinist. Williams himself was a Puritan, and his disagreement with Cotton was a disagreement within the Puritan movement. It's unfair to say the Puritans were theocrats and Williams a portent of freedom, when Williams himself was a Puritan.

On top of all that, after Williams was banished, Cotton said, "The Jurisdiction (whence a man is banished) is but small, and the Countrey round about it, large and fruitful: where a man may make his choice of variety of more pleasant, and profitable seats, then he leaveth behinde him. In which respect, Banishment in this countrey, is not counted so much a confinement, as an enlargement." In other words, Cotton had no problem with dissidence, as long as it was somewhere else. This was akin to Biblical Israel (according to Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration", and also the Talmud, I might add), in which idolaters in the land of Israel were punished but those outside the land of Israel were left unmolested. The idea was that the Jews needed their own quiet corner of the world where Judaism could flourish without competition (and we see how poorly it fared even without competition). Coercion is an evil thing, and it was to be minimized. Judaism could not survive without its own quiet corner of the world, and so the necessary evil of punishing the Canaanites was necessary, but this was enough of a necessary evil already, and to punish those outside of the land of Israel would be positively diabolical. Likewise for Cotton, I believe.

My point in saying all this, is that Puritan theocracy was fundamentally constitutional and libertarian in its basic essence. We have to remember the environment and mindset. Constitutionalism was something new back then, scarcely a century old, and it had never been tried before. It is unfair to expect them to instantly rise to the level of those at the Constitutional Convention. The fact is that they authored the world's first written constitutions, and I would say that constitutionalism is the single most important and defining feature of libertarianism.

Mikewind Dale said...

Also, while I don't know how charity was done in Massachusetts, I do know that in Calvin's Geneva, charity belonged to the church, not the state.

Mikewind Dale said...

In general, I think it is very important to be able to historically contextualize. It is unfair to judge the past by contemporary standards.

An example: John Cotton's Moses, His Judicials specifies that the congress of Massachusetts should have the power to set the prices of goods.

Now, for us today, government price-fixing brings up the New Deal, not libertarianism!

But back then, that was simply the (erroneous) economic theory of the day. Except for the school of Salamanca, no one had yet created a theory of an invisible hand guiding free markets through the actions of voluntary individuals. That theory simply didn't exist. The concept that prices could be set by supply and demand, simply did't exist. Apparently, if some authoritative body didn't set prices, so they thought, then no one would ever be able to buy and sell anything.

Nevertheless, Cotton was as libertarian as he knew how to be. I mean, if government price-fixing was going to be performed, it was at least going to be performed by a body of men elected and empowered according to the terms of the constitution, and subject and liable to that constitution: a government of laws, not men.

And really, it's not coercion and tyranny for the government to fix prices, if everyone in the society agrees that this is the proper task of the government. If everyone in the society grants a certain power to the government, then it's not any different than any other unanimous act of delegation of power. The fixing of prices by the government, apparently, was simply taken for granted as a necessary power of the government, no different than the power to punish murder and theft.

Even at the time of the Revolutionary War, we see, with power currency, how many people otherwise jealous for their liberties, could nevertheless surrender themselves to paper currency. Except for a precious few people like Roger Sherman and John Witherspoon, who railed against paper currency from the beginning as violating freedom of contract, everyone else thought they were crazy.

So if economic theory lagged behind political theory, that doesn't detract from the libertarianism. Cotton was concerned with limiting the power of the government and binding it to a written constitution, only his economic theory was primitive.

Mikewind Dale said...

"we see, with power currency"

Err, PAPER currency

Mikewind Dale said...

(I would say the same thing about the Talmud's permission/requirement for the Jewish courts to set prices for commodities. The Talmud rabbis lived a long time before the school of Salamanca could show that their economic theory was grounded in error. The problem with the rabbis and Cotton was not that they were power-hungry or relished tyrants wielding authority over their hapless subjects, manipulating money for their own pleasure. It was just that the theory of capitalism, specifically the part describing not abstract and dogmatic political philosophy but rather describing actual society and reality and market-operation, didn't exist yet.)

Daniel said...

Mikewind,
I agree that we should be careful about judging other times and cultures by the standards of our own. My objection to the use of "libertarian" is not the the Puritans were immoral in their use of coercion in areas where we would prefer to avoid it, but that the label "libertarian" does not apply (and it likely anachronistic).

The Puritans wanted to build a holy community and used the force of law (among other means) to try to accomplish that. At times, this approach seemed to be supported by near unanimity and I view it as a noble experiment. But in matters of personal lifestyle, it was less 'libertarian' than English society, which the Puritans saw a decadent.

I agree that they made important progress toward Constitutional government. Although their early Universities did not teach the Enlightenment thinkers, when they did begin to study Locke, I would argue that he was widely accepted because their experience showed much of this theory to be true. (I would saw the same of Virginia.)

I an inclined to agree with your guess that charity was primarily through the church. However, church and state were not really separate and both attendance and contributions were made with some weight of the state behind them. (With certain groups exempted.)

BTW, I made have caused some confusion in using the term "coercion." I use it in the sense that nearly any use of government authority is coercive upon the individual, including taxation and traffic laws as well as required church attendance or sumptuary laws.

Daniel said...

As to the Baptists, George Fox and Roger Williams each published pamphlets accusing the other of intolerance in the area of religion (and with some justification). But they were inventing a freedom that had received little more than lip-service in the past.

The greatness of the New England colonies was not primarily in the details of what they accomplished, but in their idealism and experimentation.

Jason_Pappas said...

Mikewind, I’m still not convinced. If they couldn’t have the knowledge (as you point out) to establish a liberal order, one can’t give them credit for such an achievement. One can give them credit for an ordered and constitutional society. But it was a paternalistic order as you described. How could it have been otherwise at that time in history?

Now let me raise another issue. Are they an inspiration for liberty? Let me ask that another way. Did the Founding Fathers see them as a source of inspiration for the advancement of liberty? I think the answer to that is clearly yes. If I remember correctly, John Adams viewed the Puritans as rejecting canon and feudal law. I’d have to review his important early essay. Do you remember it?

Tom Van Dyke said...

EXC discussion, folks. AC at its best. Keep it coming.