Monday, March 9, 2015

Protestant Scholasticism: The Missing Catholic Link to the American Founding

by Scott McDermott
Guest Blogger

Bound extras indenture
The Massachusetts Body of Liberties, 1641.

The Founding Fathers based the American republic on the concepts of natural law, natural rights, popular sovereignty, corporatism, the moral economy, and the right of resistance to tyranny.  All of these concepts derived from Catholic political thought of the Middle Ages.  But how did the Protestant Founders, anti-Catholic to a man, come by these ideas?  

In my book Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary, I suggested that Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, served as a vector of Catholic political concepts during the American founding.  But Carroll, however influential, was only one man.  And the thesis of Carroll's influence falls afoul of the objection that also thwarts the usual scholarly explanation, that Catholic political ideas came to America mediated and distorted through Enlightenment writings.  But if Enlightened thinkers transmitted these ideas, how did they become embedded in colonial political culture long before the Enlightenment reached these shores?  

My recent research suggests a most unlikely conduit for Catholic political teaching in the American colonies:  Puritans educated in the tradition of Protestant scholasticism.  Although Martin Luther famously rejected scholastic learning, important early Reformers like Theodore Beza and Philipp Melanchthon understood that Protestants would need scholastic tools in order to debate effectively against Catholic apologists.  Thus, Protestant universities and academies retained the seven liberal arts and the “three philosophies” -- metaphysics, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy -- as the bedrock of their undergraduate curricula.  While the theology course changed drastically, theology was a graduate program, and most ministers in the English-speaking world took up their posts possessing only a B.A. degree that rested on the traditional Aristotelian learning of the Middle Ages.  Their formation in political thought, taught under the rubric of moral philosophy, derived from two textbooks, Aristotle's Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, and such commentators on those works as Thomas Aquinas and "The Schoolmen," a tradition known as scholasticism.

The chief bastion of Protestant scholasticism in England was Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  Historian Samuel Eliot Morison has shown that thirty-five former students at Emmanuel migrated to New England between 1630 and 1640.  Of the “Emmanuel 35,” eight spent time living in the village of Ipswich, Massachusetts.  This group of men, who formed the nucleus of what I call the “Ipswich Connection,” included some of the colony's most important political leaders and constituted the main opposition to the policies of Governor John Winthrop.  Simon Bradstreet served as the colony's governor; so did his father-in-law Thomas Dudley.  Emmanuel men Richard Saltonstall and Daniel Denison also became part of Massachusetts' elite ruling class.  But the  linchpin of the Ipswich Connection was Nathaniel Ward, a minister, lawyer, and prolific author who took his B.A. in 1600 and his M.A. in 1603 from Emmanuel.
Nathaniel Ward was the principal author of Massachusetts Bay's first law code, the Body of Liberties of 1641, passed over Winthrop's strenuous objections.  Other members of the Ipswich Connection supported the code enthusiastically.  The Body of Liberties reveals at every turn the scholastic political formation of its Ipswich backers, beginning with its title, which derives from the scholastic doctrine of corporatism, the metaphor of society as a body combined with the belief that political communities have a real and autonomous existence.  Indeed, Ward divided his document into sections devoted to different corporate groups in society, namely freemen, women, children, servants, “Forreiners and Strangers,” the churches, and even domestic animals.

Natural law and natural rights appear in the very first Liberty, which protected life, liberty, and property:

No mans life shall be taken away, no mans honour or good name shall be stayned, no mans person shall be arested, restrayned, banished, dismembred, nor any wayes punished, no man shall be deprived of his wife or his children, no mans goods shall be taken away from him, nor any way indammaged...unlesse it be by vertue or equitie of some expresse law of the Country waranting the same...or in case of the defect of a law in any parteculer case by the word of god.

Numerous other liberties defined due process of law, while Liberties 45 and 46 restricted the use of torture and prohibited “inhumane Barbarous or cruel” punishment.

In keeping with Catholic principles of moral economy, the Liberties banned monopolies, provided for grazing rights on common lands, protected common fishing and fowling rights, and prohibited “any usurie amongst us contrarie to the law of god” (although an 8% penalty was permitted on overdue debts).  The Preamble upheld the principle of popular sovereignty by declaring that “We...ratify them [the Liberties] with our sollemne consent,” while Liberty 98 defined the procedure for ratification by the people.  The Body of Liberties aimed to produce a well-regulated body politic in which arbitrary government (of the sort the Ipswich men believed Winthrop was exercising) would become impossible, not only because the government had to respect the legitimate rights of different orders in society, but because it protected the freemen's privilege of political participation.  The Liberties do not explicitly invoke the right of resistance to tyranny, but the dogged opposition by the Ipswich Connection to Winthrop embodies it.  

For all these reasons, the 1641 Body of Liberties provides a touchstone for those who seek the point when Catholic Scholastic political concepts entered the American body politic. 

Scott McDermott has a Ph.D. in American History from Saint Louis University and is currently an Assistant Professor of History at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee.


jimmiraybob said...

As a guest poster will Dr. Mcdermott be participating in comments?

If so, my first question would be why Winthrop resisted the 1641 Body of Liberties? What was the controversy?

Scott McDermott said...

sure, I'd be happy to comment on that. Winthrop's theory of government was based on his background as a Justice of the Peace in England, operating according to English common law. Winthrop mistrusted written statute law and thought that maagistrates in the Bay Colony should make laws based on their "discretion," issuing judgments in particular cases that would set precedents. The Ipswich group, however, saw this type of discretion as arbitrary and tyrannical, and thus pushed for the Body of Liberties as a written law code designed to explicitly protect the colonists' rights and liberties from high-handed magistrates. In other words, they wanted a governnment of laws and not of men.

Daniel said...

This helps connect some dots. Historians addressing the early colleges in the colonies sometimes refer to Puritan Scholasticism. This never made sense to me, particularly since this scholasticism had the feel of Thomist thought.

Would these Protestants Scholastics have explicitly acknowledged their debt to Aquinas? Were they aware of it?

Scott McDermott said...

Daniel, thanks for asking -- they were definitely aware of it because they frequently quote Aquinas and other Catholic scholastics like Suarez. However, they did not publicly trumpet the fact that they were quoting Catholic writers. If they felt it was necessary to mention an author like Aquinas, they would often add a disclaimer along the lines of "As even a Papist like Aquinas knows,..." It was not acceptable among Calvinists openly to acknowledge this debt, nevertheless, the debt existed and was quite obvious in their writings.

Daniel said...

Thank you. That helps fit some of these pieces together.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If they felt it was necessary to mention an author like Aquinas, they would often add a disclaimer along the lines of "As even a Papist like Aquinas knows,..."

Exactly. The ritual anti-Catholic dance was performed here by Algernon Sidney, whom many Founders put on par with Locke:

Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all men saw, nor lay more approved foundations, than, that man is naturally free; that he cannot justly be deprived of that liberty without cause, and that he doth not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself. But if he doth unjustly impute the invention of this to School divines, he in some measure repairs his fault in saying,

This hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity: The divines of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people everywhere tenderly embrace it. That is to say, all Christian divines, whether reformed or unreformed, do approve it, and the people everywhere magnify it, as the height of human felicity. But Filmer and such as are like to him, being neither reformed nor unreformed Christians, nor of the people, can have no title to Christianity; and, in as much as they set themselves against that which is the height of human felicity, they declare themselves enemies to all that are concern'd in it, that is, to all mankind.

The full passage lends even more support. Just as Aquinas, et al., swept up "pagan" Greco-Roman classicism, the "Catholic" scholastics were subsumed for Christianity as a whole by the Reformation.

Indeed, it would be unChristian to deny these truths!

jimmiraybob said...

How is incorporation of Mosaic law consistent with Thomist/Scholastic natural law political/legal theory? Is it necessary?

Scott McDermott said...

A very perceptive question! There was indeed a difference of emphasis between Catholic and Protestant scholastics on this point. Protestant scholastics insisted that the main locus of natural law in the Scriptures was in fact the Ten Commandments. And, in general, the Calvinists had Judaizing tendencies when it came to politics. However, it should be pointed out that this train of thought was not absent from Catholic scholasticism either. One of the books in the Emmanuel College library was called Opus Morale in Praecepti Decalogi [The Moral Work in the Precepts of the Decalogue] by Tomas Sanchez, SJ. And of course medieval Catholic political practice often modeled itself on the Old Testament -- for instance, in the anointing of kings after the example of David. It was the Bible, after all.

The Body of Liberties does reflect the Puritans' Judaizing tendency in certain provisions, for instance the death penalty for adultery. However, the section on capital crimes is the only one for which Scripture references are supplied. Actually, the Body of Liberties was much more dependent on scholastic "right reason" than another proposed code, that of John Cotton, which included Scriptural references for most of its provisions and was rejected. The Preamble of the Body of Liberties appealed not only to "Christianitie" but also to "humanitie" and "Civilitie," and Liberty 52 stipulates that children, the disabled, and newcomers should receive such legal protections as both "religion and reason" required.

Even at its most Judaic, Puritan political culture never forgot its scholastic roots. One key chapter of the Old Testament for Nathaniel Ward was Exodus 18, in which Moses' father-in-law Jethro advises him to create rulers of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands. This plan was implemented in the Indian "praying towns" -- missions conducted by John Eliot -- and the result was very much in keeping with the scholastic notion of popular sovereignty; in fact, the praying towns had a broader franchise than the rest of Massachusetts.

Daniel said...

I'm fairly ignorant of the American strain of natural law, but for Aquinas, or for the 17th century Scots who were developing natural law rooted theories, they recognized that observation and reason left some gaps in knowledge. There were things that could only be known through revelation.

In the case of the Scots, they were primarily addressing the revelation of the Christian Gospel. But it seems to me that an opening for revelation could then be used for any purpose deemed necessary.

Daniel said...

TVD: "The full passage lends even more support. Just as Aquinas, et al., swept up "pagan" Greco-Roman classicism, the "Catholic" scholastics were subsumed for Christianity as a whole by the Reformation."

Just as Aquinas caused a subtle shift in Catholic theology, it seems that the natural law approach undermines (or at least weakens) the doctrine of Total Depravity. If we are capable of rightly determining moral principles through natural methods, then our depravity is not total. Yet, Presbyterians such as Reid were positing a rightly-ordered common moral sense and Congregationalists such as Edwards were using reason to derive and explain theological principles. This is not Calvin's Calvinism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Just as Aquinas caused a subtle shift in Catholic theology, it seems that the natural law approach undermines (or at least weakens) the doctrine of Total Depravity. If we are capable of rightly determining moral principles through natural methods, then our depravity is not total. Yet, Presbyterians such as Reid were positing a rightly-ordered common moral sense and Congregationalists such as Edwards were using reason to derive and explain theological principles. This is not Calvin's Calvinism.

As I like to needle my Reformed friends, Whose Calvinism is it, anyway? Not Calvin's.

Theodore Beza was quite "scholastic," and he was Calvin's "successor."

So too, Phillipp Melanchthon was Luther's colleague and "successor"--in fact some call him "co-Founder" of Lutheranism. Scholastic as hell.

[Why Scott aptly mentioned both men in the essay, I reckon.]

jimmiraybob said...

Scott, Thanks for your interaction. If you have the time, there are three more questions that I have: 1) What would there understanding of "right reason" have been, 2) was there a difference between Catholics and Protestants as to how the viewed "right reason," and 3) Were any in the colonies (either 17th or 18th century) writing directly about natural law theory?

PS: It's a beautiful day in St. Louis and I will probably make a run on Ted Drewes (I wouldn't be a Mound Citian if I didn't throw this out). Do you get involved with SLU's Medieval program/conference?

jimmiraybob said...

And, of course, "there" should have been "their."

Scott McDermott said...

I'm happy to address that. I think the 17th century Calvinists would simply have seen right reason as the "inner light" of nature, that is, natural law. Catholics would have seen natural law in the context of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, while Protestants saw it in terms of Scripture and the earlier scholastic tradition. I hope this doesn't sound like a glib response to your third question, but I would say that all important American colonial writers on political topics would have addressed the issue of natural law in some way or another. It was simply a commonplace of discourse in the Anglo-American world. Even Jonathan Edwards brings in natural law in the form of the "ancient theology" passed down from Adam to Noah to the rest of us. Of course different thinkers would have presented it with different emphases. Thus a common lawyer like Edward Coke in England sought natural law in the "ancient English constitution," while thinkers like Harrington or Locke believed that property owners were the bearers of natural law (though Locke's definition of property is much more expansive than people give him credit for, encompassing one's reputation, intellectual gifts, and vocation in life). By the time of David Hume natural law is eroding so that Hume can see it as human custom or opinion devoid of reference to the divine. But he was an outlier. Nearly all Anglo-Americans continued to believe that the natural law came from a personal divine lawgiver even after this idea had been largely abandoned by the French enlightenment. It was this common language that enabled the founding fathers to talk to each other.

JMS said...

Since this article coincides with Tom’s latest post against the Enlightenment, ironically it commits the same sins, by using words like “precursor” and “touchstone” as if it is THE single source for all of the proto-liberty, democracy and constitutionalism that developed in the future.

This thesis of this article seems like a real stretch to me. Dr. McDermott is selectively “cherry-picking” the “autonomous” and “liberties” references from the 1641 MA Body of Liberties to support his thesis, while ignoring inconvenient sections that legalized slavery (#91) for the first time in any British North American colony (ahead of any southern colonies).

Written by Nathaniel Ward, it specifically linked slavery to Biblical authority, and established for slaves the set of rules "which the law of God, established in Israel concerning such people, doth morally require."

But more relevant to AC, it also legalized religious intolerance. As summarized by John Cotton (Roger Williams’ nemesis), “authority in magistrates, liberty in people, purity in the church." But by “liberty” Ward stated that, “I take Liberty of Conscience to be nothing but a freedom from sin and error,” while Cotton also meant “liberty from error” (i.e., sinning against one’s conscience) – nothing remotely “proto-democratic” let alone the basis for American constitutionalism (although covenant theology provided part of that foundation as outlined better by Donald Lutz).

Ward and Cotton railed against religious toleration. The timing of the Body of Liberties is telling – why 1641? Dr. McDermott seems to ignore the historical context of the Body of Liberties. It was a fearful and repressive reaction against the heterodoxy of first Roger Williams, and then Anne Hutchinson and her followers (including Mary Dyer, who would later become a proselytizing Quaker and hung on Boston Common in 1660 – not for being a Quaker as many websites mistakenly claim, but for "rebellion, sedition and presumptuous obtruding upon us notwithstanding being sentenced to banishment on pain of death, as underminers of the government") in the late 1630s.

Hutchinson (as a woman no less – challenging her male betters in private and in public! – whom John Winthrop would spitefully call the “American Jezebel”) challenged the authority of the MA clergy’s emphasis on the covenant of works vs the orthodox Calvinist covenant of grace, deemphasized the importance of the clergy in interpreting religious doctrine and advocated a more "personal" religion (which was mislabeled by her opponents as “antinomianism” – or “no [moral] law”). As a result, the Hutchinsonites were expelled from MA in 1637, but found religious toleration in Dutch New Netherland (Williams, banished from MA in 1635-36, had not quite established RI yet as a religious dissenter refuge, or as his opponents would call it, the “latrine” of New England).

So, political power in MA was limited to fellow “visible saints” (i.e., adult males who their conversion experiences verified as genuine by other “saints”) that effectively created a theocracy, i.e., a government run by a religious oligarchy enforcing Old Testament religious laws such as:

(Deut. 13. 6, 10. Deut. 17. 2, 6. Ex. 22.20)
If any man after legall conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death.

(Ex. 22. 18. Lev. 20. 27. Dut. 18. 10.)
If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death.

(Lev. 24. 15,16.)
If any person shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne or Holie Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death.

Nathaniel Ward’s assertions to the contrary, these laws were NOT derived from English Common law or the Magna Carta, and are no part of American constitutionalism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous JMS said...
Since this article coincides with Tom’s latest post against the Enlightenment

The question is which Enlightenment? Put it back in your pants, professor.