Sunday, April 24, 2011

Understanding the Founding

From the perspective of who won the battles. Regarding America's fight for independence, not everyone at that time favored it. John Adams, to appeal to his expert authority, claimed originally 1/3 of America were "Whigs" (meaning those who favored independence), 1/3 were "Tory" (meaning loyalists to the crown) and 1/3 were on the fence. Eventually propagandistic forces won over enough of the 1/3 on the fence to the Whigs. And, in turn, we argue over what convinced the 1/3 on the fence. I think the pulpit played a big role, even in the face of Romans 13. So what kind of "theistic" principles gave victory to the Whigs? A Presbyterian dissenter line of thought, more in line with traditional orthodox Christianity? Or the Enlightenment theistic rationalism (that is the "liberal Christians" of their day who disbelieved in both the Trinity and eternal damnation) of men like Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy?

The Whigs won both the ideological and literal battle. Next was the battle over the Constitution. A Declaration of Independence affirming Whig could be either an Anti-Federalist (that is one who was AGAINST the ratification of the US Constitution on the grounds that it gave too much power to the Federal government) or a Federalist (that is one who favored the ratification of the US Constitution). Hamilton, Madison, Jay (authors of the Federalist Papers) and of course Washington (first President under the new US Constitution) were the quintessential Federalists with Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry losing that battle just as the Tories lost the earlier battle on whether to revolt or remain loyal.

So with the Whigs and later the Federalists winning the battles, eventually, to the chagrin of President Washington, political parties broke out with Hamilton, J. Adams leading the Federalist Party and Jefferson and Madison leading the Democratic-Republicans.

It's hard to say which of either party won "the battle" -- if either really did; we've had partisan politics ever since. And whether today's Left v. Right battles match up with Federalists v. Democratic-Republicans. It's tempting to say Jefferson and Madison were more on the Left, Hamilton-J. Adams, on the Right. However, the Federalists back then favored a stronger, centralized government, the Democratic-Republicans, more the party of states' rights, limited federal government. This in spite of the fact that James Madison originally wanted the Federal government to have more power to enforce individual rights against the states.

We should also, instead of writing them off as losers, keep in mind the way the Tory and Anti-Federalist dissenting American citizens influenced Whig and later Federalist politics. For instance, without Anti-Federalist critiques, we would never have gotten a Bill of Rights.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Or the Enlightenment theistic rationalism (that is the "liberal Christians" of their day who disbelieved in both the Trinity and eternal damnation) of men like Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy?

"Enlightenment" [a philosophical movement], or an inevitable outgrowth of Protestantism [a theological movement], as Philipp Melanchthon noted in the 1500s, before there was an "Enlightenment?"

If theological, how did the questions of the divinity of Jesus or of salvation/damnation affect the politics of the Founding era one way or the other?

Samuel Adams, a devout Calvinist, and his cousin John Adams, arguably an "Enlightenment" type, were peas in a pod when it came to their politics.

J. L. Bell said...

The oft-quoted passage from John Adams about a third of Americans being opposed to the Revolution and a third neutral was actually about attitudes toward the French Revolution, as I discussed here.

Support for the American resistance and revolution was significantly higher than a third, and support for royal policies significantly lower. That’s basically how one side won despite disadvantages in wealth and military resources.

Many authors use the “thirds” quotation to imply that the Whigs/Patriots won only because of their propaganda, convincing the majority of the population to adopt a cause or values they didn’t believe in. They certainly used that weapon, as did the friends of royal government, but many more Americans supported the Whig/Patriot program from the start.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Mr. Bell,

Many thanks for that correction.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think I am going to do a post on memes as it relates to this issue. You may be right; but you are going to have to convince enough people to run with your meme (Philipp Melanchthon's authority) that being wishy washy on the Trinity and eternal damnation is a logical outgrowth of "Protestantism." This may sell to a Roman Catholic audience. But what about Protestants themselves (and others)?

Sam and John Adams' shared political theology traces back to John Locke who, for the most part started the Enlightenment political-theological tradition of America's Founders and himself was wishy washy on the Trinity.

(I'd be interested to see Locke's writings on the future state of punishment and whether he was a universalist as well.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Bell, thx very much for that clarification. Another bit of "common knowledge" bites the dust, eh?


Jon, See p. 386-389, which refs Locke's letters and journals as well.

He skirted the issue: he was interested in the philosophical, not theological aspects of the question.

Indeed, so did the Jesuit Francisco Suarez and the Calvinist Hugo Grotius, that "natural law" has force even without God, let alone an afterlife.

In the link above, Locke seems to allude to a sort of Pascal's Wager, that the bare possibility of a future state of rewards and punishments might be enough to persuade someone to stay on the straight and narrow.

Jason Pappas said...

Marshall’s book looks interesting. I’ll add it to the pile. My pile grows by 4 books for every one book that I finish reading. Now, if I can live to 150 years of age ...

In his introduction Marshall presents an interesting thesis that Locke’s always-to-be-written treatise on ethics was to proceed along the lines of Cicero. Of course, Locke remained a devout Christian but he is quite an interesting one.

Michael Zuckert, in his book “Natural Rights and the New Republicanism” argues that Locke abandoned essential Aristotelian political assumptions when moving from a “natural law” emphasis of Grotius (and, of course Suarez) to the “natural rights” focus that we’ve come to associate with the Lockean liberalism.

Zuckert is critical of the emphasis of Gordon Wood’s classical republicanism and completely critical of Pocock’s version of classical republicanism. Marshall was a graduate student of Pocock (according to the book) so it should be interesting to compare his approach to Zuckert.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I disagree strongly with using Zuckert's "Straussian" scholarly method in application to the Founding.

I see little evidence the Founders understood Locke that way, even if Zuckert gets to what Locke really meant under the layers of exotericism.

Alexander Hamilton in The Farmer Refuted, for example, puts Locke firmly in the natural law tradition along with Grotius.

Jason Pappas said...

Bailyn, in The Ideological Origins, also sees the pre-independence writers lumping Locke with the other great Whig writers and even some not-so-Whig writers.

Bailyn sees a promiscuous name-dropping of Whig writers. He cites the essays of James Otis, Josiah Quincy, Jr. and then has this to say about the “Farmer Refuted”: “and the young Alexander Hamilton, seeking to score points against his venerable antagonist, Samuel Seabury, recommended with arch condescension that his adversary get himself at the first opportunity to some of the writings of Pufendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlamaqui to discover the true principles of politics.” [p27]

Hamilton was an undergraduate at the time and he’ll evolve considerably during this twenties when theory meets actual revolutionary struggle. However, that’s why I think the “Farmer Refuted” is valuable. Hamilton isn’t just any undergraduate; he’s quite a prodigy who is showing us Whig thought circa 1774. If there isn’t a clear distinction between Grotius and Locke here, I tend to agree that the Founders didn’t talk about a radical turn.

Zuckert disagrees with Bailyn’s (Bailyn’s p27-29) verdict that the Founders where philosophical light-weights. However, if Zuckert is right that they are post-Lockean Whigs breaking with the 17th century Grotian Whig tradition, one would think he’d have to agree with Bailyn on the lack of philosophical depth since, as you note, they didn’t note the radical turn that Locke hath wrought.

Zuckert believes the Declaration’s preamble is the most important statement; it has the Lockean distinctions that show a depth of knowledge of the “New Republicanism.” Jefferson was perhaps the most well-read of the Founders with Adams and Franklin (both on the committee) equally erudite. Thus, the DoI should outweigh any other single document when it comes to Whig philosophy. Zuckert sees the DoI as understood only with reference to Locke. He argues that you can’t get to the DoI directly from any other 17th century Whig writer.

It’s an interesting argument. I re-read Locke’s 2nd Treatise before reading Zuckert’s book, so his Locke is a straightforward “interpretation.” I ignore his interesting but irrelevant comments on Locke’s unpublished ethical writings, which I haven’t read nor did the Founders. I’ll have to compare Marshall’s analysis.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Locke's "unpublished writings" is it, exactly, Jason.

I'm a bit of a "Straussian" meself, esp as regards to the method a) used to read the texts carefully ["close reading"], and look for an underlayer that's hinted at below the usual expected orthodoxies.

For instance, Locke defends himself against the Bishop of Worcester's grave accusations of non-Trinitarianism by saying there's nothing in his Essay on Human Understanding that denies the Trinity.

That of course, is not the same thing as Locke professing the Trinity.


This is the Straussian method, to read not only what's said, but what isn't said but is reasonably expected to have been said.

And that said, I was struck by the James Otis quote I often use, and mebbe you can help me with this. Otis seems to be the only one among the Founders who was onto this esoteric---under the covers---Locke.

Otis wrote in 1764:

"Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God."

The erudite Otis sees through Locke as mere "social compact," which he probably was. But the Declaration of Independence is not this vision of Locke, it's James Otis', of natural law, God-given rights, and then Jefferson's D of I thesis, that to protect those rights, governments are instituted among men.

Yes, there's a "social compact" dimension to the Constitution, but Straussians put Locke with Thomas Hobbes, not James Otis. Hamilton explicitly excoriates Rev. Seabury in The Farmer Refuted as a Hobbesian. But, Hamilton argues that "natural law" [and a God-centered one at that] is the basis of rights.

This puts the "real" Locke and his social compact a bit back from center stage, regardless of the rest of the similarities between the D of I and Locke's Second Treatise.

[*Why James Otis never made it to the Revolution and Founding. Heartbreaking:

In 1769, at the height of his popularity and influence, Otis was pulled from the public stage. He had infuriated a Boston custom-house official with a vicious newspaper attack; the official beat Otis on his head with a cane. For the remainder of his life, Otis was subject to long bouts of mental instability. He was unable to participate in public affairs and spent most of his time wandering through the streets of Boston, enduring the taunts of a populace that had quickly forgotten his contributions. Otis was struck and killed by lightning in May 1783.

Jason---or anyone---a bleg: I haven't found another Founding-era figure who got Zuckert's "true" Locke besides Otis. Any help here would be deeply appreciated. my working theory is that they either didn't get the "true" Locke, or they ignored it for their own purposes and lumped him in with the Anglican Thomist Rev. Richard Hooker, as the quite erudite and Maximum Founder James Wilson did.

Jason Pappas said...

I’m not sure in which sense you see Locke as advocating a “social compact.” It’s Zuckert’s view that Locke advocates “natural rights” that are secured by contractual government. The government is contractual not man’s rights. Zuckert’s Locke sees the government as an artifact--not found in nature; rights, however, are found in nature.

I'd have to look at Otis' views in detail and in context (circa 1764) as well as his influence later in time. I'm going away on vacation for a week. Talk to you all later!

Tom Van Dyke said...

The natural "rights" of the hermit, in the "state of nature." Diff thing. Have a nice trip.

Hermits don't need rights.

King of Ireland said...

Good discussion guys.