Friday, June 27, 2014

Ezra Stiles: "I am a Jacobin"

As he, according to this source, declared in 1793. This is, as I understand, the zeitgeist of late 18th Century revolutionary-republican American political theology. What it has to do with "Christianity" is debatable.


Bill Fortenberry said...

Stiles' view of the French Revolution is interesting. I'm not sure exactly which faction he favored. The quote about him claiming to be a Jacobin was from the recollection of David Daggett fifty years after the fact and should not be relied on as conclusive evidence, and in either case, Daggett was recalling a comment from 1793 which was prior to the Jacobin reign of terror.

I haven't been able to locate a copy of the 1794 letter to Jacob Richardson, but this diary entry may indicate that Stiles aligned himself more with the Confederates than with the Jacobins:

Brissot & Condorset wrote against these, stigmatizing them Republicans, & calling themselves Confederates. Quaere. Was Violence & Guillotine necessary to settle this or compromise the difference. Robertspierre was of diff. principles -- espousing the repub. but bloody against the Confed. Now the Convent. in gen. not for bloody measures. But Robertsp. commanded the Revolutionary Tribunal erected by Congress, & command. in the Parisian Jacobin Assemb. getting them to accuse or announce to the revolutionary Court such of the Conven. as were Confeds. The Convent. did not want to go these Lengths & abhorred the Violences, assumed Resolution & suppressed the Jacobines.

Bill Fortenberry said...

By the way, in reading through some of Stiles' comments regarding the French revolution, I came across a few paragraphs in which he endorsed an agrarian balance of property just like that proposed by James Harrington. Stiles' comments provide further evidence that this balance was not a socialistic equal distribution of property but rather an endorsement of private property rights in repudiation of the feudal system which had previously been implemented across Europe.

It will prove next to impossible for a standing army to establish conquest over an elective republic; or to overlay the liberties of a people among whom property is equally diffused. -- Even in a monarchy this cannot be effected unless a great portion of the feudal system remains in its constitution. Indeed whatever be the policy, whether monarchical or republican, of a nation possessed of diffusive freehold property, it can never be lastingly subjugated either by a foreign or domestic army. The diffusion of property among so great a part of the people of France, by secularizing the church lands to the amount of one quarter of the whole territory of France, and the allodial distribution of it among the peasants or occupants, will engage so large a body to defend their possessions, as will effectually secure their liberties and republican independency. This policy will effectually and permanently furnish a spontaneous host of bold, courageous , and unconquerable defenders. Property has been so diffused among the commons of England that it has not been in danger from armies for several ages. The commons will fight pro agris as well as pro aris & focis. The relict of a tenure of property somewhat similar to the feudal system, tenancies at will or for terms, retained a foundation of danger: but already has such an aggregate of property shifted into the hand s of substantial yeomanry as will prove an effectual barrier against the conquest by armies interior or exterior...

The original reasons of the beautiful feudal system now cease in Europe. It was excellently adapted to hold the dominion of a conquered country; but now that the conquerors and conquered are become mixt and incorporated together, throughout Europe, the reason of the policy ceases; and it would work no mischief of injustice to the holders of fiefs, or danger to the public if the fiefs were dissolved, and sales were permitted which would soon alienate and diffuse the property, and render it allodial ... See the effect of this allodial tenure of land in America. We have been witnesses that in thirty hours from the moment of shedding the first blood at Lexington, thirty thousand substantial freeholders were spontaneously in arms, and in full march from all parts of New-England. Let the experiment be tried all over the world, and the effect will be the same. Freehold property has too much footing in England ... to permit ultimate dangers from armies.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I just found another statement from Stiles about the Jacobins which should be given consideration. It seems from this comment that he thought they had become excessive in their use of violence, but he had an unrealistic hope that they would eventually produce a good government. Of course, history proved him wrong in this point, and I wonder how he would have changed his view if he had lived to see the end of the revolution.

So again monarchs contemplate Jacobin Societies with horror and dread, and this with great reason. -- The need not be so viewed by republics. The Jacobin Societies have proved the salvation of France. They have been the bulwark of liberty. Their excesses are to be coerced by government; but their suppression and extinctions is unnexessary and impossible. "The popular societies are the columns of the revolution. -- The shall not be shaken," said president Cambeceres. Violent and unjust in many things they may be, and so sometimes are congresses, assemblies, parliaments, not therefore to be dissolved, for they may be generally right ... In the nature of things they will become self-correctors of their own irregularities and excelles; and harmonization of the public sentiment must result from their diffusive deliberations. Nay, the strength of a general and uniform support to the administration of a good policy must arise. Their discussions, circulation of intelligence, and communication of light must eventually form, digest and unify the national judgement ... A policy which shall have sustained their ventilation and discussion, will be firm. The end being answered, and the care of the public consigned into the hands of constitutional government, these societies will spontaneously disappear; nor rise again unless called forth on great occasions worthy of their attention.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Stiles' comments provide further evidence that this balance was not a socialistic equal distribution of property but rather an endorsement of private property rights in repudiation of the feudal system which had previously been implemented across Europe."

This observation is incomplete to the point of being a misrepresentation. Yes, PART of the reason for agrarian balance was to get rid of feudalism. But it ALSO, in principle stood for proposition of limiting the amount of wealth any particular person could own and redistributing the surplus. It's like proto-Rawlsianism. John Rawls was not a believer in Marx's perfect equality according to need. He accepted inequality of wealth because of the utilitarian gains such inequality often yields. He just believed, like Harrington, government had a right to limit the amount of wealth and redistribute the surplus as part of a "just distribution."

Jonathan Rowe said...

BTW, I don't believe everything Eric Nelson of Harvard endorses. His politics seem moderate Democratic (like that of the New Republic which features his work). And sometimes folks "see" in their research that what they want. And of course, scholars arguing a thesis overstate their case. That's what they are paid to do.

A lot of what Nelson argues supports your ideas of the Hebrew republicanism sort.

I am convinced and agree with Dr. Nelson that the agrarian balance laws ala Harrington and the other English Commonwealth thinkers are proto-Rawlsian concepts and what the modern regulated democratic capitalist states (ala the industrialized first world mainly Western nations) do with their progressive income taxes and safety nets is follow these wealth redistributionist ideas that biblical sources arguably teach.

These ideas prevail today. It doesn't mean they prevailed during the Founding era even though they were "out there." Madison on the other hand (as far as I understand him) supported something more like Laissez-faire.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If you consider Barry Alan Shain's "Myth of American Individualism," even if you don't buy the whole thesis, from the Puritans onward there were many who wanted to form their own self-governed communities and live unmolested by the government.

Think the Amish. Same deal. We'll pay our duty to the state, but in return, please butt out of our community.

This is why religion was left to the states. The First Amendment reads only that [the US] CONGRESS shall make no law respecting religion.

States could be as religious or nonreligious as they chose.

As for "agrarian balance laws," y'all need to do some serious research into the British land laws. "Primogeniture" meant only the firstborn son could inherit the land. [The lesser-born sons were shit out of luck. No wonder the younger brothers went and colonized the world!]

Even to this day, English land laws are funky.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes one of the first things America's Founders did was abolish the notorious "fee tail" form of property.