Front Page Titles (by Subject) Barry Shain, Religious Conscience and Original Sin: An Exploration of America's Protestant Foundations - Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Barry Shain, Religious Conscience and Original Sin: An Exploration of America’s Protestant Foundations - David Womersely, Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century 
Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century, edited and with an Introduction by David Womersley (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Religious Conscience and Original Sin:
One of the central questions of continuing interest to students of the American Founding concerns the nature of the ideas and values that guided Americans into and out of their war of independence. Some, like Michael Zuckert, contend that it was primarily a “natural-rights philosophy” which was and “remains America’s deepest and so far most abiding commitment” and that this is what shaped Americans’ understanding of things political. Moreover, he holds that this understanding was carefully embraced and found its inspiration in the political writings of the late-seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke.1 Other scholars find that a particular slice of pagan thought, known as civic humanism or classical republicanism, inherited from Greece and Rome, shaped most Americans’ political and social views. And still others argue that the central organizing principles of American social and political life were derived, either immediately or indirectly, from varying and changing forms of Protestant Christianity.2
Largely in accord with the last group of authors, I argue in what follows that, at its revolutionary Founding, America was a nation of mostly British Protestants and Protestant communities whose culture was controlled by varying and contending Protestant categories of thought embedded in an inherited English legal culture. Although in the limited space at my disposal I am able to explore only a select number of features of American life and thought which support this position, I nonetheless hope to suggest ways by which Protestantism proved fundamental in shaping the ground upon which American political and social thought came to rest. Accordingly, I explore two key, if tension-ridden, facets of the Protestant inheritance that molded America’s cultural landscape for well over a century before the Founding and thereafter continued to powerfully influence it. First is the American elevation of the freedom of religious conscience to a hallowed and inalienable individual right. Its persistent influence on the American political and religious culture resulted from the transformation of one of eighteenth century’s most traditional and dominant meanings of liberty, spiritual or Christian liberty, into the form of a right. And second is the formative role played by Americans’ acceptance of the Reformed Protestant understanding of original sin and its ubiquitous deformation of each and every human being. Only through a proper recognition of original sin’s centrality do key features of American political thought, such as America’s localism and hostility towards long chains of hierarchy, become readily understandable.
Few historians of the period disagree that Revolutionary-era Americans were a British Protestant people who wished to be guided not by reason alone, but rather by revelation and/or inner illumination.3 For example, Henry May, the preeminent student of the Enlightenment in America, believes that this religious description accurately captures “most people who lived in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”4 Nor were they Christians in name only, for “the majority of inhabitants continued to go to church . . . [and] the preaching colonists heard most of the time—remained consistently otherworldly.”5 Critical legal theorist Mark Tushnet further observes “it was not ‘religion in general’ that the framers saw as the basis of secular order. Rather, it was Christianity and, more specifically, Protestant Christianity.”6 And for eighteenth-century Americans, as it had been for Christians for almost two millennia, it was not a perfected society, as counseled by European adherents of the Enlightenment, which was necessary for individual and political well-being, but the intercession of Christ and the Holy Spirit, for only They could free man from sin—above all his disfiguring selfishness, lusts and passions.7
Such aspirations, contrary to the claims of those who would relegate Christianity to the backwaters of American life, are readily discoverable in American legal codes and social practices. For example, only one of the thirteen states, Virginia, failed to require a religious test for those wishing to hold public office. All other states required that state officeholders, including federal senatorial electors, be Protestant (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, and Vermont), Trinitarian Christian (Delaware), accepting of the truthfulness of Scripture (Pennsylvania and Vermont), Christian (Maryland), or non-Catholic (New York). Moreover, Delaware’s constitution demanded of officeholders that they “profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost.” And, at the time of the Revolution, “only three colonies allowed Catholics to vote. They were banned from holding public office in all New England colonies save Rhode Island. New Hampshire law called for the imprisonment of all persons who refused to repudiate the pope, the mass, and transubstantiation. New York held the death penalty over priests who entered the colony; Virginia boasted that it would only arrest them. Georgia did not permit Catholics to reside within its boundaries; the Carolinas merely barred them from office.”8
During the war, it behooves us to take note of what James Hutson calls the “deeply religious men in positions of national legislative leadership.” For example, Hutson, in his admirable Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, argues that the secretary of the Congress, Charles Thompson, “retired from public life to translate the Scriptures from Greek to English” and that the famous pamphleteer, John Dickinson, “also retired from public life to devote himself to religious scholarship.” Much the same was true of three of the Congress’s presidents: Elias Boudinot, Henry Laurens, and John Jay.9 Under their leadership, thirteen times Congress unapologetically, via proclamations for days of fasting and humiliation, sought on behalf of the young nation the intervention of Jesus Christ and, at other times, that of the Holy Ghost. Indeed, the Continental Congress on March 14, 1781, had even appointed James Madison to serve on a committee of three “to prepare a recommendation to the states for setting apart a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer” which was delivered on March 20, 1781, for May 2. Like Jefferson in Virginia in the 1770s and 1780s,10 Madison too was involved in the close working together of church and state in late-eighteenth-century America. Not surprisingly then, this same Congress consistently acted in support of Christianity in its daily prayers, its appointment of military chaplaincies, its collective attendance at worship services as a body, its ordering that an American Bible either be imported or published, and its persistent efforts to bring American Indians to Christ.11 All this was to be done while America’s first central government was frantically trying to organize new state governments, negotiate various treaties, and manage a war against the world’s greatest power.
Yet, in still other ways the early national and state governments displayed an ample willingness to patronize Protestantism in eighteenth-century America. Thus, “officials donated land and personalty for the building of churches, religious schools, and charities. They collected taxes and tithes to support ministers and missionaries. They exempted church property from taxation. They incorporated religious bodies. They outlawed blasphemy and sacrilege, [and] unnecessary labor on the Sabbath and on religious holidays.”12 Well into the nineteenth century, states and localities were comfortable in “endorsing religious symbols and ceremonies,” crosses were common on statehouse grounds, holy days were official holidays, chaplains continued to be “appointed to state legislatures, military groups, and state prisons,” thanksgiving prayers were offered by governors, subsidies were given to Christian missionaries, the costs of Bibles were underwritten, tax exemptions were provided to Christian schools, “public schools and state universities had mandatory courses in the Bible and religion and compulsory attendance in daily chapel and Sunday worship services . . . [and] polygamy, prostitution, pornography, and other sexual offenses . . . were prohibited. Blasphemy and sacrilege were still prosecuted . . . and other activities that depended on fate or magic were forbidden.”13 According to Justice Story, a most highly respected jurist, Harvard professor of law, and Supreme Court justice, “It is impossible for those who believe in the truth of Christianity as a divine revelation to doubt that it is the especial duty of government to foster and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects.”14 Protestant Christianity was simply an accepted and protected part of American life and law.
Yet, in spite of Christianity’s ubiquitous presence in law and culture, not all Protestants, let alone Christians, adhered to the same views regarding the proper relationship between church and state. Indeed, many pious Christians are doctrinally opposed to too intimate a relationship between them. It must be remembered, therefore, that secular liberals are not unique in defending a sharp separation of the functions of church and state. Augustinian Catholics, Christian humanists of all varieties, and various Protestant pietists and members of the “Free” churches, most without the intervention of any form of secular philosophy, have done so as well. Accordingly, it is a mistake to assume that a politics of church-state separation is by necessity a reflection of Lockean liberalism or any other secular philosophy.15 It is just as likely, and in America more likely, that such positions are a reflection of pietistic or humanistic Christianity. Most Americans, therefore, who endorsed a politics of church-state separation in the late eighteenth century, are likely to have done so with authentically Christian not secular concerns in mind. Yet, holding to a reductionistic and dualistic logic (i.e., if not Calvin, then necessarily Locke), Zuckert defends
a Lockean conquest, or at least assimilation, of Puritan political thought. . . . Before Locke, the Puritans said one sort of thing about politics; after Locke, they said quite different sorts of things, which turns out to be the same things Locke said, in more or less the language of Locke. . . . Doesn’t this sort of thing, especially when conjoined with the observation that the Puritan forebears were committed to no doctrine of religious toleration at all, impel a strong conclusion of Lockean influence?16
But couldn’t the changes, even if correctly reported, have resulted from other forces in addition to, in lieu of, or that share a common ancestor with Locke, ones that were carried within Anglo-American Protestantism itself?17 Zuckert, in his reductionistic, either/or intellectual universe, fails to consider this or any other possibility.18
Admittedly, though, by the end of the eighteenth century, American Protestantism had changed in important ways. As James Hutson observes, “Evangelicalism emerged from the Awakening as the force of the future in American religion; those groups on the wrong side of it were driven to the sidelines.”19 Membership in Protestant congregations was steadily growing, not declining, in the late eighteenth century,20 and we have every reason to believe that this change in theology resulted from internal dynamics within Protestantism rather than from a hypothesized alien secular conquest. Although by the century’s end, Reformed theology no longer provided “the moral and religious background of fully 75 per cent of the people who declared their independence in 1776.”21 Protestantism in its many guises continued to thrive. Indeed, in recognizing that Socinians, Arians, Arminians, and various other Protestant pietists and humanists gave vent to legitimate expressions of the Christian mind, the universe of Protestant-inspired thought and practices is greatly broadened and made more fully co-extensive with American-Revolutionary-era culture.
Americans, then, were predominantly Protestants, though certainly not all of one piece. And for all Protestants, the most important form of liberty was not the instrumentally critical liberty of communal self-government or that of liberal natural rights but instead the liberty through which Christ could make them free, that is, spiritual liberty. Like other prevalent eighteenth-century understandings of liberty, it defended an objective set of ethical standards that rested more on duties than on rights. In the words of George Haskins, “This was not liberty in the modern sense, a freedom to pursue individual wishes or inclinations; it was a freedom from any external restraint ‘to [do] that only which is good, just and honest.’ Christ had been sacrificed and resurrected to set men free, but the liberty so given was a freedom to walk in the faith of the gospel and to serve God through righteousness.”22 It was a “positive” form of liberty which carried within its meaning the only ends for which it could be legitimately exercised. More concretely, H. Richard Niebuhr notes that spiritual liberty is “the freedom from the rule of Satan, sin, and death; from the compulsions of obedience to superpersonal forces of evil; from domination by self-interest and the passions . . . freedom for faith and hope and goodness, rather than a negative liberty from external control.”23 According to Niebuhr’s insightful account, spiritual liberty was markedly unlike the liberal “negative” sense of liberty correctly associated with a natural-rights philosophy.
In America this traditional Protestant sense of liberty was understood to eschew all claims of worldly liberation at the individual level while consistently and enthusiastically promoting and conflating a mixture of spiritual and political liberty at the corporate level. The result was that, among most Americans, spiritual liberty was used to defend the freedom of the community while simultaneously limiting that of the individual. In the illuminating words of Robert Wiebe, “The basic rights of a group—religious liberty, moral autonomy, academic freedom—became the crime of any individual who demanded a personal version of them.”24 And it was this Protestant localist understanding of corporate rights which was preeminent in eighteenth-century America rather than the individualistic vision of rights today associated with Locke (whatever he may have argued himself).25 Yet, the equally Protestant right of religious conscience would provide an intellectual and moral foundation from which to challenge this.
FREEDOM OF RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE
There was one freedom in America that was natural and uniquely individual and, by the middle of the eighteenth century, beyond challenge—the freedom of religious conscience. But it is useful to remember that at the beginning of the Revolutionary years, religious conscience was unique in being the only freedom that almost all Americans agreed was an unalienable individual right that could not be legitimately surrendered to or confiscated by society upon entering it. Curiously, however, even this hallowed right did little to limit the local community’s exercise of its corporate religious responsibilities. And such responsibilities required that the local community insist on attendance at the preaching of God’s word, that respect be paid to the Sabbath and God’s revealed dictates and commandments (even forbidding inappropriate travel and leisure activities), that the rights of political participation be limited, and that one be taxed, church member or not, to retain a teacher of the community’s (often established) Protestant faith. In many areas of life, communities were accordingly willing to encroach on matters of personal choice well beyond matters of conscience such as forbidding theater attendance, balls, masques, dice playing, cock fighting, and horse racing.26 It was clearly an absolute or perfect (and ultimately revolutionary) right, but obviously initially not as extensive as is often believed today.
The Protestant freedom of religious conscience was thus clearly separate from the panoply of personal rights that its defenders, in the main, unintentionally helped create via their war efforts. Intentional or not, the most revolutionary fallout of the war was indeed the universalization, secularization, and extension of unalienable individual rights. Here, Zuckert and others, even if wrong in their historical reconstruction of the reasons and influences which produced this particular outcome, are right in closely associating the rise of the language of natural rights and the American Revolution.27 In fact, Ernst Troeltsch, when asked “Whence comes the idea of the rights of the individual?” answered that “It is derived from the Constitutions of the North American States . . . from their Puritan religious principles . . . It was only in virtue of being thus put on a religious basis that these demands became absolute, and consequently admitted of and required a theoretical legal exposition. It was thus that they first passed into Constitutional Law.”28 But such extensive rights were neither intended by the majority of elite political actors (to say nothing of the people) nor initially derived from a well-entrenched, secular foundation as Zuckert claims. The long-term, destabilizing consequences of rights claims being widely promulgated during and after the war for independence, however, are another matter and are difficult to dispute.
Like in much of Western Christendom,29 in colonial America the freedom of religious conscience was not viewed positively during the seventeenth and the early decades of the eighteenth century. And according to one of the most celebrated students of that period, Perry Miller, “The Puritans were not rugged individualists . . . [and] they abhorred freedom of conscience.”30 It was only toward the end of the seventeenth century that elite colonial spokesmen began reluctantly to embrace this understanding of liberty. But in 1673, Urian Oakes, the president of Harvard, without great enthusiasm for either, argued for an extremely narrow understanding of the freedom of conscience and even less for the merits of toleration when he held that freedom gives
men liberty to destroy themselves. Such is the liberty of Conscience, even a liberty of Perdition, that some men so unconscionably clamor for. But remember, that as long as you have liberty to walk in the Faith and Order of the Gospel, and may lead quiet and peaceable lives in all Godliness and Honesty, you have as much Liberty of Conscience as Paul desired under any Government.31
The extensive defense of a loosely defined liberty would not be easily drawn from America’s Protestant inheritance, but from the defense of freedom of conscience, it would come.
Importantly, then, this transformation in New England to a greater acceptance of the freedom of religious conscience resulted initially from the colonies’ loss of political autonomy that attended the Andros administration of the Dominion of New England (1686),32 rather than from internal liberal intellectual or social forces pushing colonial religious and secular leadership toward a more tolerant stance. As Craven has written, only after this period did leaders of the colony “embrace the doctrine of toleration as a defensive weapon” and become increasingly sympathetic to freedom of religious conscience and “religious liberty—not the liberty they had understood, which was the liberty to do God’s will and to require that all others in their midst conform, but the liberty John Locke suggested was the natural right of men.”33 However, I would note that this resolution was one which Americans embraced only reluctantly, and that it is not clear whether any eighteenth-century Americans understood Locke as having advocated, in his defense of the natural freedom of religious conscience, irreligiosity and/or unlimited religious freedom. Rather, in light of Locke’s express strictures against atheism, Catholics’ religious allegiance to a foreign prince, and his stipulation in his plan of government for Carolina that anyone who was not an active member of a religious body stood “outside of the protection of the law,” it is more likely that he was believed to be legitimately concerned with protecting the freedom of conscience for largely heterodox Protestant groups like America’s Presbyterians rather than secular or irreligious ends.34
This first and most important of the fully unalienable personal rights, that of religious conscience, enjoyed its unimpeachable standing in America only because Protestant Americans attached such enormous importance to the soteriological goal it putatively served. In 1901, Georg Jellinek observed that in eighteenth-century America
there arose the conviction that there exists a right not conferred upon the citizen but inherent in man, that acts of conscience and expressions of religious conviction stand inviolable over against the state as the exercise of a higher right. This right so long suppressed is no “inheritance,” is nothing handed down from their fathers, as the rights and liberties of Magna Charta and of the other English enactments,—not the state but the Gospel proclaimed it.35
And clearly, the right of religious conscience did not countenance any freedom devoid of a defining Christian higher end any more than any other respected understanding of liberty, even secular ones, did at the time.36 But the defense of religious conscience that emerged in the eighteenth-century West, regardless of its deeply religious foundations, did introduce a new appreciation of the inviolable nature of the personal space surrounding an individual.
In 1744 the socially and politically prominent minister, Connecticut Supreme Court justice, legislator, and former president of Yale, Elisha Williams, cut to the essence of the American and Protestant understanding of the religious purposes served by the freedom of conscience.37 One of the earliest serious students of Locke in America, Williams followed Locke’s striking logic set forth in the Second Treatise and A Letter Concerning Toleration, but used it to defend state financial support of religion (a point overlooked by many) and attack a Connecticut statute punishing established preachers with the loss of their income for preaching as an uninvited itinerant in another’s congregation.38 He wrote that nothing of equivalent value, not even life itself, could be offered in place of freedom of religious conscience, and that
the Rights of Conscience are sacred and equal in all, and strictly speaking unalienable. This Right of judging every one for himself in Matters of Religion results from the Nature of Man. . . . A Man may alienate some Branches of his property and give up his Right in them to others; but he cannot transfer the Rights of Conscience, unless he could . . . substitute some other to be judged for him at the Tribunal of God.39
The same theme was also defended in the press. An anonymous author writing in 1748 in the Pennsylvania Journal held that “private judgement was ‘one of those sacred and original rights of human nature which the Gospel had revived and re-established.’ . . . Thus the rights of conscience were sacred and equal in all men.”40 Yet, clearly, this high valuation of the right of conscience was not for these authors a reflection of a secular spirit, but of the development of an inherent feature of Protestantism.
Accordingly, even those who were not pious continued to defend this right on openly Christian grounds. It was, after all, the Christian content that made this new individual right inalienable and protected it from serious challenge. Thus, the humanist and future Loyalist, William Smith, Jr., in the Occasional Reverberator argued for the immeasurable worth of this freedom, which could not be exchanged for any other social value. From a Christian humanist foundation, he noted
various Restraints arise upon this natural Liberty, when Men enter into civil Associations; which, nevertheless, must be by the voluntary Consent of the Party Submitting. But moral Liberty, or a Liberty of Conscience, is of another Nature and cannot be transferred. It claims an entire Exemption from all human Jurisdiction: because its Ends, Offices, and Interests, are superior to all the Ends of Civil Association; and subjecting it to the Power of Man, is inconsistent with the very Being of Religion.41
By invoking soteriological ends, religious conscience found itself uniquely privileged.
By the beginning of the imperial crisis, freedom of religious conscience had become such a mainstream belief that Edward Dorr in the Connecticut Election Sermon of 1765 could argue in its defense while ignoring any potential concerns regarding this right’s elastic potential. An anonymous pamphleteer that year listed it as one of the most important mainstays of happiness, and like spiritual liberty in general, American ministers tied the freedom of religious conscience to their respective colonies’ claims for political liberty.42 The conservative elite’s exuberance for this newly energized right ended only when its utility for defending the war for independence was no longer needed and its difficult-to-limit character began to become apparent.43
During the war, however, such concerns were rarely raised outside of New York and Pennsylvania, and following Locke even more closely than had Elisha Williams thirty-five years earlier, Samuel Stillman, the first (and up through the Revolution, the only) Baptist to be invited to deliver a Massachusetts election sermon, would argue that “some of the natural rights of mankind are unalienable, and subject to no control but that of the Deity. Such are the sacred rights of conscience.” He then went on to rehearse again for his auditors the revolutionary logic inherent in Protestantism’s insistence on salvation being achieved through faith alone by citing at length from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration that
“the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate any more than to other men . . . because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation, as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other. . . . All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.”44
Here, once more, we witness in late-eighteenth-century American thought the potentially individualist elements in Americans’ absolute defense of the freedom of religious conscience.
The most numerous and vociferous claims defending the freedom of conscience, however, are not found in New England election sermons but rather in the instructions of the towns and villages of Massachusetts to their delegates to the state constitutional convention of 1780. In these, one not surprisingly discovers that in almost all cases the right of conscience was the only one defended as unalienable. When it was not the only one, it was invariably still held as the most important. The town of Pittsfield in its instructions to its representatives holds first that “Every man has an unalienable right to enjoy his own opinion in matters of religion and to worship God in that manner that is agreeable to his own sentiments.” Similarly, the town of Stoughton instructed its delegates to endeavor that “a Bill of Rights be in the first place compiled, wherein the inherent and unalienable Rights of Conscience and all those aleinable [sic] rights ar [sic] not necessary to be given up in to the hands of government together with the equivalent individuals ought undoubtedly to Recive [sic] from Government for their relinquishing a part of their natural and alienable rights for the necessary Support of the Same.”45
And after having one constitution rejected two years earlier (1778), the members of the 1780 Massachusetts convention were attentive to the wishes of their constituents. They explained in an opening address to them that “We have, with as much Precision as we were capable of, provided for the free exercise of the Rights of Conscience: We are very sensible that our Constituents hold those Rights infinitely more valuable than all others.”46 But many of their constituents rejected the third article (concerning religious taxation) of the introductory Declaration of Rights because, as pietistic Protestants, they held that it infringed on their unimpeachable right of religious conscience and their desire to separate the still closely linked goals of church and state in Congregationalist Massachusetts. The residents of the town of Westford, for example, offered an alternative to the third article, one by which their “religious Freedom and the Unalienable Rights of Conscience may be better secured and established.” Their motivation, we should remember, was not in any manner secular, but fully Protestant, even if not true to the Christian commonwealth tradition of their Massachusetts Bay forebears.47 Too often and too easily, non-specialists conflate liberal opponents of religious establishment with pious Protestants who fought for similar public policy ends but from strikingly different foundations. And, thereby, inattentive authors are apt to draw unwarranted conclusions regarding an imagined secularization in Revolutionary America.48
During the years surrounding America’s war for independence, then, freedom of religious conscience had become a well-accepted understanding of liberty, frequently still viewed as the only truly unalienable individual right (as well, there were corporate ones that were viewed as unalienable) in comparison to many of the political rights that governments or communities could “ask” citizens to surrender on appropriate occasions.49 Accordingly, with the sole exception of the right to religious conscience,50 over two-thirds of the states made no mention of natural individual rights in their constitutions.51 Delaware’s Declaration of Rights, for example, begins by holding that “All government of right originates from the people, is founded by compact only, and [is] instituted solely for the good of the whole.” Only the right of conscience is then described as a possession of “all men.” The Maryland Declaration follows that of Delaware and begins with the exact same communal rather than individualistic rights language, but in its description of the right of conscience, it is more restrictive still. Only those “professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.” Not only atheists are excluded from enjoying this most basic right, but all non-Christians as well.
North Carolina’s constitution too begins with a declaration of popular sovereignty and then claims “that the people of this State ought to have the sole and exclusive right of regulating the internal government and police thereof.” And as one might expect, the only individual right which is described as natural and unalienable is that of conscience (sect. 19). All other rights, taken as they are from the English common law, are couched as recommendations and described in the language of “ought” and are wholly subject to the vagaries of popular will. Finally, New Hampshire’s late constitution of 1784, borrowing its language from earlier ones, reminds its citizens that when “men enter into a state of society, they surrender up some of their natural rights to that society, in order to insure the protection of others.” However, “Among the natural rights, some are in their very nature unalienable, because no equivalent can be given or received for them. Of this kind are the rights of conscience.”52 Clearly then the right of religious conscience enjoyed an unparalleled status in the minds of eighteenth-century Americans in being the only individual right which could not be surrendered or transferred as one moved from a state of “nature” to one of civil society. All other individual rights were viewed as fungible and subject to corporate oversight and restrictions.
In the decades immediately following the close of the war for independence, Americans disagreed whether freedom of conscience also demanded comprehensive religious freedom (rather than simple toleration).53 This more inclusive freedom, in turn, was subject to a host of different interpretations. On one side were elite Christian humanists, deists, and their popular pietistic supporters who seemingly wished religious freedom to be understood as broadly as possible. In a classic statement of their position, Jefferson made earlier arguments more emphatic when he wrote to a group of Connecticut Baptists that he, too, believed that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for this faith.” He then went on to suggest, however, in ways never fully accepted by American pietistic Protestants and by most other Americans that the First Amendment to the national Constitution had effectively built “a wall of separation between Church and State,” that is, between the national government and religious organizations at the state and local level.54
Great differences in interpretation thus existed among those most committed to religious freedom.55 The pietistic Baptists of Virginia, who on several occasions helped elect Jefferson and Madison, certainly did not similarly conceive of religious freedom56 particularly at the state level57 as a wall of separation. Instead, they understood that the “struggle for religious freedom meant that all churches were now able to compete on a completely equal basis. They were eager to do so, but in particular against the forces of deism and irreligion” that they found most threatening.58 From their perspective it would have been more appropriate to describe the “wall” as a one-way permeable membrane (i.e., no state interference in religion would be countenanced due to its corrupting effect on religion), but religious interference in the public actions of the state was sought and frequently achieved during the next two centuries.
At greater distance, however, stood the religious conservatives who defended an older understanding of Christian communalism and who spoke and wrote as if the support given to the freedom of conscience and religious freedom during the Revolution had gone too far and was beginning to serve the forces of infidelity. Delivering the Massachusetts election sermon of 1784, Moses Hemmenway enunciated a central theme of the 1780s when he warned that
we should take heed that Liberty of thinking for ourselves, or the right of private judgment become not an occasion of infidelity, or skepticism. . . . Liberty of conscience must not be abused into a pretence for neglecting religious worship, prophaning God’s sabbath and ordinances, or refusing to do our part for the support of government and the means of religious instruction.59
Five years later in Connecticut, Cyprian Strong emphatically asserted that “it is impossible, therefore, that civil government should take a neutral position, respecting religion or a kingdom of holiness. It must aid and countenance it, or it will discourage and bring it into contempt.”60 These pillars of rural New England Protestantism, following the war, were trying to re-create accepted limits to contain freedom of religion practice and that of conscience and, thus, to prevent any further separation of the moral ends jointly fostered by church and state.61
What they could only surmise was that the unalienable individual right of religious conscience, expansively extended to broader rights claims by Americans in their support of the prosecution of the war for independence, had created the foundation upon which a new class of rights would be constructed.62 This class of rights could not be contained easily as it slowly and erratically developed over the next century into a suit of “trump cards” in the rhetoric of American political life. Unexpectedly, Americans had made possible a class of rights that were highly elastic and could at any time be counterpoised to the corporate claims of the sovereign state,63 in particular the collective will of a nation of Protestants and Protestant communities, as was America until well into the nineteenth century. Yet, according to Jellinek, “This sovereign individualism in the religious sphere led to practical consequences of extraordinary importance. From its principles there finally resulted the demand for, and the recognition of, full and unrestricted liberty of conscience, and then the asserting of this liberty to be a right not granted by any earthly power and therefore by no earthly power to be restrained.”64 Although this intellectual revolution is still to be mapped out in exact detail, it is clear that it occurred largely without forethought and almost imperceptibly during the years following America’s war for independence.65
During the war, rather desperate statesmen and theorists had unceremoniously stripped the historically based, socially defined, and Parliamentary-deferring traditional English rights and liberties of their English characteristics,66 because of the inconvenient historical ties of these rights in Whiggish political theory to Parliamentary sovereignty.67 It is essential, however, if one is to understand correctly this transformation to recognize the lack of intentionality here. Only in this way can the development of modern individual natural rights in America (and elsewhere) be freed from a tendentious interpretation that cavalierly casts an inaccurate shadow of design and purpose over the historical development of these rights. For as Rodgers has written regarding this important development during the Revolution, “There was, then, very little from which to predict that the Americans would end up talking seriously, heatedly, of rights passed down unimpaired from something so fantastic as a state of nature. The patriot writers groped for their words throughout the 1760s and 1770s under the shift and stress of circumstances, inventing lines of argument and backing away from them.”68 And, it is an awareness of the nature of this fascinating development that is markedly absent in accounts like that of Zuckert and other “natural-rights” apologists who focus only on the theoretical fallout from the war while failing to attend to Americans’ early intentions and the historical developments that followed.
And the best evidence of the American stance and their tentative and uncertain embrace of the language of natural rights is the debate reported by John Adams concerning the decision in the First Continental Congress to break precedent with the earlier Stamp Act Congress of 1765 which had rested its claimed rights entirely on “the rights of Englishmen” and the rights of “natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.”69 As Adams records in his Diary and Autobiography, there was no issue that so divided the Congress as to whether, in searching for grounds upon which to defend their break with England, they “should recur to the law of nature, as well as to the British Constitution, and our American charters and grants.” He writes, “Mr. Galloway and Mr. Duane were for excluding the law of nature,” but that he “was very strenuous for retaining and insisting on it.” And why did Adams take this position? Because, as he explains, it was “a resource to which we might be driven by Parliament much sooner than we were aware.”70 According to Adams, then, a “natural rights philosophy” was not a model that led them into their conflict with Great Britain but was a polemical tool to which, lacking recourse to any others, they would surely “be driven.”
When one explores Adams’s notes of this debate, along with others, again one finds that much of the discussion revolved around which line of argument would prove most efficacious: appeals to nature or, as Mr. Duane (of New York) claimed, to “the laws and constitution of the country from whence we sprung, and charters, without recurring to the law of nature; because this will be a feeble support.”71 In the end though, the Congress in America’s first national Bill of Rights, its “Declaration and Resolves” of October 14, 1774, inserted one brief appeal to the “immutable laws of nature” within nearly a dozen to “the principles of the English constitution . . . the several charters or compacts . . . the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England . . . the foundations of English liberty . . . [and their claim that Americans were entitled] to the common law of England.”72 It is most difficult, then, fairly to describe such language as emanating from a conscience and purposeful design to create a “natural rights Republic.”
The traditional rights of Englishmen that Americans had vaunted for decades were under the pressures of a constitutional crisis and later of a war for independence, replanted in the fertile soil of Christian, ultimately scholastic in origin,73 natural law. There they blossomed handsomely and provided legitimacy and cover for the creation of modern universal individual natural rights.74 Americans no longer sought their rights solely in the Magna Charta for they no longer were an English people, and henceforth they exploited their standing as dissenting Protestants and were “a people [who] derive their Liberty from God, the Author of their Being.”75 The relatively young felt most comfortable wielding the weapon of Christian “natural rights” unmodified by any reference to their English historical grounding in common law. One such patriot was the thirty-year-old radical, John Adams, who in 1765 wrote that Americans have
Rights, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government—Rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws—Rights derived from the great Legislator of the universe . . . [which we are told] “is an offensive expression”; “that the king, his ministry, and parliament, will not endure to hear Americans talk of their rights.”76
American authors during the Revolution further embellished the soul-centered logic that had been used so successfully to defend the individual’s claims for freedom of religious conscience, now recast into the language of traditional Catholic natural law, and added to this potent mix their traditional rights as Englishmen. Jellinek is a sure guide, and he writes that
the inherited rights and liberties, as well as the privileges of organization, which had been granted the colonists by the English kings or had been sanctioned by the colonial lords, do not indeed change in word, but they become rights which spring not from man but from God and Nature. To these ancient rights new ones were added. With the conviction that there existed a right of conscience independent of the State was found the starting-point for the determination of the inalienable rights of the individual.77
And this transformation of the logical grounds of American personal and corporate rights from an amorphous-mixed English historical basis to a natural-rights foundation, Christian in its joining of Catholic natural-law elements and Protestant concerns with personal inwardness and communal localism, occurred remarkably rapidly during the Revolutionary years.78
It occurred with such speed that the English historical origins of most claimed right were forgotten, so much so that by the end of the century, moderates like James Wilson actually looked back on the “historicism” of Blackstone’s understanding of the origin and basis of English rights with contempt. Wilson found it incredible that Blackstone could have been so “primitive” in his thought that he would have agreed with Burke, whom Wilson held in still lower regard.79 Wilson notes that Blackstone argued for
“the right of personal security, of personal liberty, and of private property”—not as natural rights, which I confess, I should have expected, but—as the “civil liberties” of Englishmen . . . [thus] civil privileges, [are] provided by society, in lieu of the natural liberties given up by individuals. Considered in this view, there is no material difference between the doctrine of Sir William Blackstone, and that delivered by Mr. Burke.
The almost amnesiac yet unusually well-educated Scot drew out perfectly the logical inferences of the traditionalist social ethics of Blackstone, a historically grounded approach to political rights that in America had gone unquestioned before the beginning of the imperial crisis in the early 1760s.
Adhered to as it was by Blackstone whose Commentaries was the second-most-cited written work in America during the late eighteenth century,80 Wilson drives home his point. Accordingly, he continues by arguing that
if this view [Blackstone’s and Burke’s] be a just view of things, then the consequence, undeniable and unavoidable, is, that under civil government, the right of individuals to their private property, to their personal liberty, to their health, to their reputation, and to their life, flows from a human establishment, and can be traced to no higher source. The connexion between man and his natural rights is intercepted by the institution of civil society . . . [thus under civil society, man] is nothing but what the society frames: he can claim nothing but what the society provides.81
In opposition to this theory of traditional, socially bound rights that he found indefensible, especially when mixed with unlimited popular oversight, Wilson offered his understanding of unalienable presocial individual rights, granted by the God of nature and now extended beyond religious conscience to political and moral claims, as a superior alternative.82 Fearing the power of the majority, Wilson paradoxically sought to protect the prerogatives of wealth, through boldly embracing the language of national rights.
Not all men, however, were equally forgetful, creative, or willing to countenance the changes Wilson proposed. Many remembered that the original political ends pursued by the Revolutionary generation had been similar to those ridiculed by Wilson.83 For example, Rev. William Emerson, delivering Boston’s “Fourth of July Oration” in 1802, held that late-eighteenth-century Americans had decidedly fought “not to create new rights, but to preserve inviolate such as they had ever possessed, rights of the same sort by which George III then sat, and still sits, on the throne of England, the rights of prescription.”84 Similarly, looking back from 1809 at the Revolutionary period, Edmund Randolph recalls that when some objected in the Virginia Convention of 1776 to the natural rights language of the proposed Virginia Bill of Rights, “perhaps with too great an indifference to futurity,” others responded “that with arms in our hands, asserting the general rights of man, we ought not to be too nice and too much restricted in the delineation of them” and, more particularly, the “slaves not being constituent members of our society could never pretend to any benefit from such a maxim.” Clearly, then, the language chosen in 1776 Virginia had more to do with the polemical work it could do and less with the exacting demands of a refined political theory. And, however these rights were understood, from the perspective of America’s first attorney general, the claimed rights should not be understood as universal ones but rather as belonging only “to constituent members of our society.”85 Emerson, thus, was right; Americans had valued their rights but primarily as inheritances embodied in their colonial charters and the common law of England, not as universal abstract rights belonging to all men (to say nothing of women).
The eloquent and intoxicating rhetoric of individual natural rights, born of mixed Christian parents (Protestant ecclesiology and legalism and Catholic natural law) in Revolutionary America, initially enjoyed the briefest of lives.86 Nevertheless, these Christian-derived and legitimated presocial rights of the individual did not disappear. Instead, in both Europe and America they remained available to legitimate the opposition claims of dissident minorities and individuals to various state institutions and national practices in the name of a blossoming set of unalienable individual rights. For as noted by Schmitt:
That the freedom of religion represents the first of all the fundamental rights, without regard to any historical details of development in a systematic sense is unconditionally correct . . . the individual as such carries an absolute value and remains with this value in his private sphere. His private freedom is therefore something principally unlimited while the state is only a means and therefore relative, and it follows that each realm of state authority is limited and controllable by private concerns.87
Yet, it was only after an interlude of some 150 years, late in the twentieth century, that this language became hegemonic and Americans were fully affected by the enormous revolution in thought that their Revolutionary forebears had inadvertently given birth to in the late eighteenth century.88 And whatever its lasting effects may prove to be, the origins of individual natural rights in the Christian-inspired values of Revolutionary-era Americans must be recognized. This Christian inheritance, along with many others pulling Americans in not always a singular direction, is truly one of the formative elements that has fundamentally shaped the character of the American people and their political institutions.
But the enduring influence of the hallowed status attached to the individual right of conscience is not the only lasting Protestant presence that continues to shape American culture and politics. For in any attempt to understand late-eighteenth-century American thought and its continuing influence, one must take note not only of the freedom of religious conscience and those natural rights which followed in its train but of the American conception of the controlling power over society and men of the Christian understanding of original sin. For as Princeton’s humanistic Witherspoon held, “Nothing can be more absolutely necessary to true religion than a clear and full conviction of the sinfulness of our nature and state.”89 And politically this demanded that governments help the individual in mastering his otherwise uncontrollable passions, lusts, and in particular his selfishness. In opposition, thus, to varying streams of Christian humanism, certain strands of Catholic scholasticism and the adherents of the Enlightenment who would follow them, most Americans adhered to an understanding of man in need of corporate oversight and rebirth in Christ if he was to flourish.
This teaching, an Augustinian Orthodox Christian perspective, particularly a Reformed Protestant one, holds that man’s apostate condition makes it impossible for him to live a life of ordered freedom, one that he would have been able to enjoy eternally if not for his Fall from Grace as described in Genesis. It was exactly this strong sense of limits derived initially from the Christian concept of original sin that largely determined, even if not quite as openly as it had in seventeenth-century America,90 the understanding of things both religious and political in the eighteenth century. And according to Morgan, even during the era surrounding the Revolution “The intellectual center of the colonies was New England, and the intellectual leaders of New England were the clergy, who preached and wrote indefatigably of human depravity and divine perfection . . . and the purpose of government was to restrain the sinfulness of man, to prevent and punish offenses against God.”91 Thus, it is from these two different Protestant-derived elements, the absolutely hallowed freedom of religious conscience and the inescapable deformation of original sin, that so much of the American Founding political culture follows, though in their interface, not without serious tensions.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the case for the centrality of original sin is nearly as strong in American political culture as in its religious history. For example, the anachronistic (by comparison to advanced Enlightenment standards) attachment of eighteenth-century Americans to Christian communalism and intrusive involvement in the life of the individual only becomes understandable when one recognizes that the most local group must “walk” with a fellow sinner and help him or her to lead a more godly life.92 Similarly, American antipathy toward political and ecclesiastic hierarchy, so characteristic of Reformed Protestant thought, becomes comprehensible when it is realized that no sinful man, no matter how socially elevated, could be trusted with corrupting power. In 1753, Livingston captured this particularly American distrust of hierarchy and fear of empowering necessarily sinful individuals when he wrote that “It is unreasonable to suppose, that Government which is designed chiefly to correct the Exorbitancies of human Nature, should entirely consist in the uncontroulable Dictates, of a Man of equal Imperfections with the Rest of the Community, who being invested with the Authority of the Whole, has an unlimited Power to commit whatever Exorbitancies he shall think fit.”93
Also made comprehensible through recognition of eighteenth-century Americans’ continued adherence to the Protestant dogma of original sin was the extreme dedication of Americans to political and economic personal independence or autonomy. For them, no man could be trusted with undue influence over one’s most precious possession, one’s spiritual life, which only an independent man had the wherewithal to guard. For eighteenth-century Americans, man’s ability to enjoy unfettered freedom, no matter how attractive it might seem, was prevented by his passionate, egotistical, and unruly nature. Thus, as a result of the Fall, man was destined to live always under the restraints of government. For as the unusually progressive and enlightened James Madison had written, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”94 Even the still more progressive Jefferson believed that “The human character . . . requires in general constant and immediate control, to prevent its being biased from right by the seduction of self-love.”95 In fact, Howe has recently argued in a persuasive fashion that for Publius and men of his generation “The idea of inevitable evil in human nature did not surprise [them as they] . . . were well acquainted with the Christian doctrine of original sin and its secularized versions in eighteenth-century faculty psychology.”96 Or in the words of Andrew Eliot, “The necessity of government arises wholly from the disadvantages, which, in the present imperfect state of human nature [Fallen], would be the natural consequence of unlimited freedom.”97
The most important political implication of their Calvinist-inspired belief in the sinful nature of all men, however, might have been the imperial crisis itself. By passing the Declaratory Act on March 18, 1766, and demanding from Americans “unlimited submission” in “all cases whatsoever,” the British Parliament had created a situation that most Americans as Reformed Protestants were obligated to resist.98 For, as Calvin’s teacher Butzer had written in his Lectures on the Book of Judges, “Wherever absolute power is given to a prince, there the glory and the dominion of God is injured. The absolute power, which is God’s alone, would be given to a man liable to sin.”99 By demanding unlimited submission, Parliament, an external body of sinful men, had effectively “set itself alongside God’s Word as a competing sovereign.”100 The Americans’ response as a Reformed Protestant people, theologically and historically committed to submitting only to local self-control and through this medium to God and His word “and only God’s word—in all aspects of life and faith,” should have been predictable.101 Parliament had framed the debate in such a way that most Americans immediately understood it in quasi-millennial terms as a struggle between eternal life and perpetual damnation.102 Accordingly, American pastors could effectively use the themes of spiritual liberty, freedom of religious conscience, and human sinfulness for wartime mobilization.
More generally, the concept of original sin, rather than a dedication to human perfectibility, makes Americans’ beliefs about liberty, political and religious, comprehensible. Without understanding its dominating presence, poorly prepared contemporary readers are likely to misinterpret the often libertarian-sounding praises made by late eighteenth-century pamphleteers and ministers concerning the beauties of natural freedom. Or they may forget that the regard paid to “natural liberty” in late-eighteenth-century America could not function as a powerful social solvent because it was effectively mooted by their simultaneous continued belief in man’s inherent sinfulness and Fall from Grace.
When we examine, then, American-Revolutionary-era pamphlets and sermons that explicate their social, religious, and political thought, we frequently confront the importance of the concept of original sin that can be seen holding together the tension-filled and inherently fragile balance between the antinomian Christian demands for absolute freedom of conscience and the equally authentic demands for social stability and a Christian cultus consistent with the doctrine of original sin. For example, in the 1776 Massachusetts election sermon, even a rationalist Unitarian like Samuel West, far from being an Orthodox Calvinist,103 did not equivocate in arguing “The highest state of liberty subjects us to the law of nature and the government of God. The most perfect freedom consists in obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law.” But he then limits the boundaries of “liberty” reminding his auditors of their sinful condition and that
The law of nature is a perfect standard and a measure of action for beings that persevere in a state of moral rectitude; but the case is far different with us, who are in a fallen and degenerate estate. We have a law in our members which is continually warring against the law of the mind, by which we often become enslaved to the basest lusts, and brought into bondage to the vilest passions. The strong propensities of our animal nature often overcome the sober dictates of reason and conscience, and betray us into actions injurious to the public. . . . This makes it absolutely necessary that societies should form themselves into politic bodies, that they may enact laws for the public safety.104
For late-eighteenth-century Americans, even Christian humanists like West, descriptions of the joy of natural unfettered freedom were depictions of a paradise lost which could be recovered only through death and the loss of their worldly self in Christ.105 Man was born free but, as a result of his inherently sinful nature, must live in self-imposed societal chains.
Peter Powers, in Vermont’s second election sermon in 1778, similarly might be seen as arguing for a regime of individualism and natural rights. In reality, a close reading discloses that he too was arguing for a quite different position. He begins by abstractly describing man’s natural freedom, that is, his rights and liberty before the Fall. Here he holds that “All men, indeed, are by nature equal: and all have, most certainly, an equal right to freedom and liberty by the great law of nature. No man or number of men, has or can have a right to infringe the natural rights, liberties or privileges of others.” Later, he returns to the theme of liberty and reins in his briefly liberated auditors by reminding them that
It is a very plain case that many people of the present day, have very absurd notions of Liberty, as if it consisted in a right for every one to believe, do, or act as he pleases in all things civil and religious. This is a Libertine principle. No man has any right, before God, to believe or practice contrary to scripture. And Liberty consists in a freedom to do that which is right. The great law of nature, the moral law, is the rule of right action. Man’s fall has taken away his freedom of right action; for whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.106
As these two examples help illustrate, for eighteenth-century Americans, even among the most progressive of Christian humanists, it was sin, not their necessarily imperfect society, which stood between them and true freedom.
In an instructive fashion, Nathaniel Whitaker delineated that as a result of the Fall, man’s political possibilities were also necessarily severely limited. He began his sermon as was the custom by discussing natural liberty and by citing Locke, which was also quite usual. He went on to argue then, in a fashion not emphasized by Locke but common for American authors, that the state of nature is in fact of little interest to man “since the corruption of nature by sin, the lusts and passions of men so blind their minds, and harden their hearts, that this perfect law of love is little considered . . . [and the] state of nature . . . is a state of war, rapine and murder.”107 Sin, original sin, was the implacable foe of man, and it alone prevented him from enjoying the absolute freedom consistent with their idealized state of nature.
Whitaker continued by boldly indicating who should decide how much natural liberty is to be surrendered for the public good in civil society. He writes that
perfect civil Liberty differs from natural, only in this, that in a natural state our actions, persons and possessions, are under the direction, judgment and controul of none but ourselves; but in a civil state, under the directions of others . . . In the first case, private judgment; in the second, the public judgment of the sense of the law of nature is to be the rule of conduct.
He protected himself against the charge of supporting tyranny by continuing “When any laws are enacted, which cross the law of nature, there civil Liberty is invaded, and God and man justly offended.”108 Even under this condition, the basic stricture of who is to decide (i.e., the community still continued to obtain), man and God simply were left potentially offended.
In Revolutionary America, not only fully Orthodox New England Congregationalists but almost all who have left records of their beliefs concurred. The freedom to live a life directed by lusts and passions, a selfish life of sin, a broad grouping of Protestant adherents and a handful of relatively secular rationalists almost universally condemned.109 And concerning the elite leadership, Morgan has written that “The men who steered Americans through the Revolution . . . started from a conviction of human depravity,”110 as is found in the thinking of New England Federalists like Jeremiah Atwater, the first president of Middlebury College, and David Daggett, United States senator and chief justice of Connecticut’s Supreme Court. According to Atwater, “Liberty, if considered as a blessing, must be taken in a qualified sense” in which “unbounded liberty” was nothing “other than the liberty of sinning, the liberty of indulging lawless passions.”111
Many of the New England supporters of the new Federal Constitution in 1787 and 1788 also believed not only that man was sinful but that “The civil power has a right . . . to prohibit and punish gross immoralities and impieties. . . . For this reason, I heartily approve of our laws against drunkenness, profane swearing, blasphemy, and professed atheism.”112 And as Curry has shown, this understanding was not a minority Federalist belief, but one held by “the vast majority of Americans” who agreed that the “government should enforce the sabbath and respect for the scriptures, limit office to Christians or Protestants, and generally support the Christian Protestant mores that entwined both state and society.”113 Thus, we should not be surprised to discover that even under Jefferson’s administration, religious services continued to be regularly held on Sunday in the Capitol, in various executive offices, and in the Supreme Court, and that Jefferson himself attended such services and provided “financial support during his presidency for at least nine local churches.”114
Similarly, John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, long-serving member of Congress, and a man of the moderate Scottish Enlightenment who was deeply influenced by the moral-sense teachings of Francis Hutcheson, demonstrated a firm rejection of a late Enlightenment optimism in human goodness. “The Enlightenment image of a virtuous society seemed extremely cloudy. ‘Others may, if they please, treat the corruption of our nature as a chimera: for my part,’ said John Witherspoon . . . ‘I see it everywhere, and I feel it every day.’ ”115 Such relatively modest assertions concerning human depravity are best appreciated when compared both on the one hand to bolder claims made concerning man’s absolute depravity by America’s ubiquitous eighteenth-century Orthodox Calvinist denominations—Congregational, Presbyterian, and some Baptist—and on the other to the rare American radical Enlightenment figures like Elihu Palmer and Ethan Allen,116 and their more plentiful European brethren who argued in defense of human perfectibility.117
The American humanistic elite, both republican and Christian, to say nothing of the more pious Protestant and in some ways more conservative average American, rejected the most optimistic elements of the Enlightenment and instead adhered to some version of the Protestant (and earlier Catholic) axiom of original sin. Even according to the celebrated liberal apologist Louis Hartz, “Americans refused to join in the great Enlightenment enterprise of shattering the Christian concept of sin, [and] replacing it with an unlimited humanism.”118 At the end of the century when indeed the advocates of the French Revolution widely championed ideas of human perfectibility, the moderate pillars of American provincial society continued to distance themselves from any rejection of the concept of original sin. And, according to a leading student of the Enlightenment, Norman Hampson, the rejection of the concept of the Fall was the central tenet of the liberal and anti-Christian Enlightenment.119 Thus, already in 1798 Israel Woodward compared the world views of the French and the American elite, so different in their relationship to Christianity, and found that
The liberties of the American and French nations, are grounded upon totally different and opposite principles. In their matters of civil government, they adopt this general maxim, that mankind are virtuous enough to need no restraint; which idea is most justly reprobated by the more enlightened inhabitants of the United States, who denominate such liberty, licentiousness.120
This rejection of secular optimism in human perfectibility in favor of Christian pessimism was and would long continue American orthodoxy.
Even those nonpious leaders we expect to have held the most enlightened views of man, such as the “founding fathers,”121 or particularly the “four ex-presidents still alive in 1826,” continued to believe “That evil in human nature and in world affairs was indelible, and that the hardships of life spring from ‘basic nature,’ not from custom or ‘second nature.’ ”122 Recent students of the late eighteenth century have even argued that two of the most secular of American authors, Tom Paine and Ben Franklin, adhered religiously to the concept of original sin.123 Paine’s theism, according to this analysis, becomes particularly evident when his thought is compared to even relatively conservative French Revolutionary thinkers. De Prospo notes that
What nobody seems willing to consider is the possibility that Paine is no kind of modern humanist whatsoever . . . [and that] the basis of Paine’s position on representative government and kingship is the onto-theological status of man . . . [that is] the Creation of an imperfect, natural creature by a perfect, supernatural Creator. . . . The only other application of the doctrine of imputation in eighteenth-century American letters that compares with Paine’s thoroughness and sophistication is that of Jonathan Edwards, who uses it in Original Sin.124
And even if such an account is not wholly convincing, it is in keeping with the overtly Protestant climate within which Paine wrote.
John Diggins also reminds us that even the most enlightened of eighteenth-century Americans, including even Boston’s ubiquitous Unitarian humanists and the tidewater South’s Anglican gentlemen, were on this question of innate humane depravement and subsequent personal and social limitation remarkably Protestant by comparison to European Enlightenment figures.125 He thus castigates his fellow historians for having “focused almost solely on political ideas” while slighting “religious convictions.” He impresses on his readers that “The conviction that man was cursed by the ‘Fall’ ” and that “the unspoken imagery of sin and evil” were the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and are found in “the pages of the Federalist and the Defense.”126 In particular, for John Adams, Diggins holds, “Man had lost his reason through the Fall, the Christian account of alienation that stood as a lesson to the pretensions of classical politics.” He reminds us that Adams had argued that “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked . . . [for] it must be remembered, that although reason ought always to govern individuals, it certainly never did since the Fall, and never will till the Millennium.”127 Regarding the Madisonian and putatively liberal First Amendment, Tushnet has similarly concluded that the “Normative understanding of the establishment clause cannot be translated directly into contemporary constitutional law without a substantial shift in our current intellectual universe, a shift that would somehow have to retrieve the assumption that this is a Protestant nation in a normatively attractive form.”128
This is not to say, however, that there were no differences between Christian humanists and Orthodox Calvinists regarding their views of man’s debased condition. As a predominantly Reformed people, most Americans held that the wages of original sin could not be eradicated through the efforts of individual will and appropriate moral education.129 And it was here, concerning the means, anthropocentric or theocentric, whereby man’s sinful nature might be combated, that the battle lines were drawn between Christian and secular humanists and Reformed Protestants (at least until the rise of Methodism). For in America, even a leading “specimen of the radical temperament” like Benjamin Rush, a scientist and an ardent republican, was simultaneously “a lifelong believer in original sin, divine grace, and the Christian millennium.”130 Even for those men who, at best, had a lukewarm attachment to the dogmas of Calvinism embodied in the Five Points of the Synod of Dort, the Westminister Confession, or the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church,131 original sin continued to be understood as a permanent human condition that demanded that society be framed in recognition of this deforming limit on human potential. Members of the radical Enlightenment who were “freethinkers,” thus, were scorned in eighteenth-century America.132
Particularly difficult for the modern reader to accept, given the misleading historiography of contemporary liberal apologists, is that even the leading lights of late-eighteenth-century America were simultaneously unwilling to countenance the self-development of the uniquely individualistic features of the self.133 Although arguing powerfully and in a modern fashion against uncontrollable political and religious hierarchy and authority as well as most forms of tradition, early modern American rationalists generally abhorred those aspects of the individual that were alienated from the “objectively right” ordering of the cosmos (that society and man were to reflect in any just and rational society). Their hostility toward emerging individualism, in particular, reflected this.134 Even American adherents of the moderate Enlightenment believed that society at the most fundamental level was a forum in which the individual was to develop his quasi-divine rational perfection, in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Christianity—at the very least of Thomistic Catholicism.135 But, from this now equally antiquated perspective, the individual was only free from social constraints so that he could voluntarily accept his absolute obligation to act as he must, that is, in an objectively rational fashion.136 For the moral agent, knowledge of what was rationally prescribed was determinative, creating an ought and inalienable right that could only be abrogated by the abnegation of one’s unique moral standing as a free rational human being. To ignore this rational self-direction was evidence that one was either not truly free or not acting rationally.137
From the perspective of eighteenth-century American Reformed Protestants however, the human-centered norms embraced by elite rationalists for overcoming the sinful self were woefully inadequate. Like their forebears in the Reformation, their American descendants staked out an unequivocal position in opposition to such relative optimism concerning man’s unaided ability to follow his reason and to will moral behavior. For example, the Southern Evangelical minister from Virginia, David Thomas, held that
Sin and Satan, and the world, and the flesh have an absolute dominion over them. . . . Nor has any man power to deliver himself out of this woeful condition. . . . The dead as soon might leave their tombs, or dry bones, awake and live, as natural men by any virtue in them, repent and turn to God. . . . For without faith it is impossible to please him. And that faith . . . is to be obtained but by the operation of the Holy-Ghost.138
This understanding of sinful man and his crying need for undeserved grace was thundered from pulpits and meetings in the South, as well as the North.
Ministers like Thomas as well as Hugh Alison of South Carolina reminded their listeners that they were freed by “the operation of the blessed spirit! Their bondage is at an end, and their obedience is a perfect freedom.”139 Before the provincial Congress of Georgia, John Zubly warned the legislators in an often-reprinted sermon that “No external enemy can so completely tyrannize over a conquered enemy as sin does over all those who yield themselves its servants . . . till the grace of GOD brings salvation, when he would do good, evil is present with him: in short, instead of being under a law of liberty, he is under the law of sin and death.”140 In sermon after sermon, one confronts an understanding of man that, following Calvin’s demanding theology, leaves no room for any confidence in man’s natural ability to control his selfish passions and lusts. From this perspective, natural man could gain a vague and imperfect view of the good but, without the aid of Christ and justification through faith, natural man was wholly incapable of fully knowing or willing the good. The heroic view of the free will, unencumbered by original sin, popular among elite Unitarian circles in the nineteenth century, had not yet gained open adherents in the eighteenth-century South.
And in the North, Baptist and Presbyterian ministers and even some of the more “enlightened” Anglicans141 repeated the same message of man’s unaided inability to fend off the wages of original sin. According to Hatch, even radical political activists like the Baptist Isaac Backus held that the “Definition of true liberty was premised much more on human depravity than on rationality or inalienable rights, and reflected John Winthrop’s sermon on Christian Liberty and Jonathan Edwards’s definition of true virtue.”142 Further exemplifying this outlook, Dartmouth’s president reminded his auditors “In Christ’s kingdom—there is no such thing as a natural right in this spiritual kingdom. None has right so much as to be, or do, or enjoy the least thing in this kingdom, but by grant from Christ.”143
Even as progressive a minister as the Unitarian Simeon Howard maintained man’s woeful inadequacy through individual effort to overcome his inherent sinfulness. In 1780 he asked his audience “to reflect with shame upon the selfishness and corruption of our species, who, with all their rational and moral powers, cannot otherwise be kept from injuring and destroying one another.”144 According to Stout, even with humanistic ministers like Howard this was the norm because “a purely natural theology was unacceptable even to the most liberal and open-minded New England ministers. . . . It was a truism of New England pulpit teaching that the natural man—no matter how wise and enlightened—was incapable of reconciling himself to God. This reconciliation could be accomplished only through the intervention of the Holy Spirit.”145 Combating sin demanded the action of the Holy Spirit and that of brethren joined together in community and congregation.146
Most Revolutionary-era Americans thus accepted that one of the responsibilities of local political, social, and religious communities was aiding the individual sinner in his or her quest for freedom in Christ.147 Therefore, in the late eighteenth century, it still continued to be held that
Most men instinctively chose the Puritan vision of the state of nature—after the fall. They believed that hard work and harsh laws were needed to curb man’s innately sinful nature, so they sought to bind themselves into a society as a defense against the terrors of sinfulness within . . . [and] to fetter their unruly natures in a web of reciprocal obligations, an entangling network of laws. . . . In the ideal, everyone watched over everyone else and did not hesitate to intervene if another got off the track.148
Nevertheless, during this period there existed a small number of influential elite Christian humanists and a smaller group of secular rationalists who were moving toward the tenets of classical liberalism. This demanded, of course, that they reject that one of the still important functions of public bodies was their efforts to help reform the individual. Accordingly they did not assign the same priority to spiritual and moral concerns as did their more Orthodox Protestant peers. But, in considering this caveat to the previous discussion, two considerations must be borne in mind.
First, the soon-to-be liberal elite was still during the Revolutionary years as publicly committed to religion and the dogma of original sin as any of the pastors or publicists cited above.149 Although many of these men, particularly some of those described as the “Founders,” understood Christian religiosity in a wholly instrumental fashion, this does not vitiate the power of their commitment to “religion.” “Men like Jefferson and Madison,” according to Pangle who frequently ridicules defenders of America’s Protestant character, “did honor religion” but “not for its theological richness or theoretical insight, but for its moral value.”150 Other students of the period, like “Miller, Levy, and Curry” have demonstrated that the Founders understood religion to be “an essential precondition of social order and a crucial prop for the novel sort of government they were creating.” Elite forces supported establishment in many of the new states, assuming it to be necessary. Nonetheless, they did so more often in terms of bourgeois morality than godly ends.151 But this realization does not imply that the vast majority of Americans, who most certainly were not privy to the private thoughts of the elite, would have understood that the “religion” that the “Founders” so vociferously supported was, in fact, strikingly different from that preached by their Protestant pastors and regularly asserted by themselves.152
The majority could not have known, as subsequent scholars would, that some of the most influential of the Founders, slowly moving toward Unitarian Christianity, were not believers in such Orthodox dogmas of Reformed Protestantism as original sin and the necessity of justification by faith in Christ. Indeed, they were careful about keeping their personal views private and were not hesitant to advise others to do the same. For example, the English philosopher and Unitarian Richard Price, in responding to such a request from the American patriot Benjamin Rush, refused and added “You observe that in writing to the citizens of America it would be necessary that I should be silent about the disputed doctrines of Christianity, and particularly the Trinity. I am afraid that were I to write again, I should find this a hard restraint. . . . I hope your countrymen will learn not only to bear but to encourage such discussions.”153 Clearly, in the view of Price, most Americans did not welcome heterodox views on the Trinity and, according to Rush, one should avoid making such offensive pronouncements. To most Americans, then, the elite’s embrace of “religion” must have seemed to be more of the same: a Protestant recognition of original sin and damnation that could only be overcome through faith in Christ, self-examination, and God’s freely given and wholly undeserved grace which with His blessing led to spiritual liberty, godly living, and finally, sanctification and eternal life in Christ.
Thus, late-eighteenth-century Americans learned from almost every public source, Christian humanist, secular rationalist, Reformed Protestant, and pietistic separatist (theologically Calvinist) that a life of liberty rather than license demanded that passions, lusts, and selfishness be tightly controlled through communal living.154 From many of the same figures, they were led to believe that their inherent sinful natures could only be overcome by surrendering themselves to Christ and seeking spiritual liberty and rebirth in Him. Recent scholarship has given us little reason to believe that the vast majority of common Americans were not listening to these appeals.155
It would only be with the birth of the new world of the 1780s, which was to witness a decline in confidence among elites in their willingness to accept Scriptural claims, that there would be in America a willingness of the elite to embrace the dictates of liberalism and correspondingly to abandon the effort to bend recalcitrant sinful human nature to accord with the dictates of the guiding force of Reformed Protestantism. The predominantly Protestant faith in a divinely ordered cosmos which had for 150 years legitimated and guided Americans through their break with Britain was in fact during the next century to die slowly at the elite level and still more slowly, if at all, at the popular level.
And if one goes outside the confines of Reformed Protestantism in search of additional Protestant standards, as dissenting pietistic and separatist Protestants have done from the first moment of European settlement in North America and resurgent Anglican humanism did during much of the eighteenth century, one quickly discovers that Protestantism and its ancillary teachings encompass a terrain with impressively far-reaching borders. Indeed, in almost every public debate in American history that occurred before the end of the nineteenth century, each side could and did legitimately claim that it was invoking the truest and purest form of Protestantism.156 It seems safe to suggest, then, that Christianity in America, which until the end of the eighteenth century meant Reformed Protestant, is a political and cultural resource that is central to a correct understanding of American historical political thought and institutions but one that was capable of supporting an impressively wide array of political alternatives. It is wrong to confuse Christianity even in its most humanistic or pietistic modes with secular liberalism that at best shares with it certain political and social goals. The heart of America’s Revolutionary-era’s political culture and aspirations was Reformed Protestantism and thus America was born neither secular nor liberal.
Today, Protestant design and conceptions continue to shape many of our inherited political and cultural institutions; if you will, they are active cultural artifacts. Americans, clearly the most religious of any modern industrial people, continue to live within a world subtly formed by the shadows of our Protestant foundations. Most importantly, we continue to live in the shadow of the hallowed freedom of religious conscience and the delimiting consequences of belief in the Christian dogma of original sin. The former, knowing no natural limits, has proven to be a superb solvent of all societal boundaries, while the latter has often served societal aims that stand in opposition to such individualistic and antinomian propensities. Albeit tension-ridden, our political and cultural inheritances are eminently Protestant rather than secular in origin.
[1. ]Michael P. Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), 95, and see 175.
[2. ]For their survey of these varying literatures, see Joseph P. Viteritti and Gerald J. Russello, “Community and American Federalism: Images Romantic and Real,” in Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law 4 (Spring 1997): 691–96.
[3. ]Ironically, given the broad agreement concerning the Protestant character of Americans, this fact is often set aside and otherwise overlooked by students of the period. See Stanley N. Katz, “The Legal and Religious Context of Natural Rights Theory: A Comment,” in Party and Political Opposition in Revolutionary America, ed. Patricia U. Bonomi (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1980), 36–37, who observes that “curiously, however, neither the 1920’s nor the 1960’s interpretations took religious ideas seriously as a component of American opposition ideology . . . in what was, after all, still an intensely religious society”; Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002); James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998); and Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment: An Evaluation of its Assumptions, Attitudes and Values (1968; reprint ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 131, who writes of the eighteenth century that “it is something of an historical impertinence to consider the century as the age of Enlightenment since religion exercised a far greater hold over most sections of every society than it does today.”
[4. ]Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), xiv, and see 45–46, where he continues that “for most inhabitants of the American colonies in the eighteenth century, Calvinism was . . . in the position of laissez-faire in mid-nineteenth-century England or democracy in twentieth-century America.”
[5. ]Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 6.
[6. ]Mark Tushnet, “The Origins of the Establishment Clause,” in Georgetown Law Journal 75 (April 1987): 1515.
[7. ]See Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 2:69, who follows Augustine’s Confession where it is argued that “Whenever God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone inables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good”; and Augustine, “On Grace and Free Will,” 1:771, and “On the Predestination of Saints,” 1:779–85, in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948).
[8. ]Derek H. Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774–1789: Contributions to Original Intent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 153.
[9. ]Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 49.
[10. ]See Daniel L. Dreisbach, “Another Look at Jefferson’s Wall of Separation: A Jurisdictional Interpretation of the ‘Wall’ Metaphor,” Witherspoon Fellowship Lectures, Family Research Council, August 2000, 5.
[11. ]See, for example, Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals Of The Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904–), November 11, 1775, 3:351.
[12. ]John Witte, Jr., Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment: Essential Rights and Liberties (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 53.
[13. ]Ibid., 97–98.
[14. ]Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, ed. Thomas Cooley (1833; 4th ed., Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1873), 2:603, and see 2:602–9 where Story writes that “The right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested,” for “the great doctrines of religion . . . never can be a matter of indifference in any well-ordered community.” Indeed, “the real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude rivalry among Christian sects.” See also James McClellan, Joseph Story and the American Constitution: A Study in Political and Legal Thought (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 118–59.
[15. ]This is a central assumption of Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, 121, and 146–47.
[16. ]Ibid., 172, and see 175.
[17. ]See Frederick C. Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), and J. C. D. Clark, The Language of Liberty, 1660–1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) for their insightful explorations of the development of rationalistic approaches within Anglicanism.
[18. ]See Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, 40, in particular but more generally throughout.
[19. ]Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 35.
[20. ]See Hutson, ibid., who writes that “The assumption that church membership steadily declined in the last three decades of the century is totally inaccurate” (21). Furthermore, he supports estimates that “Between 1700 and 1740, between 74.7 and 80 percent of the population attended with some frequency” (24) and “that in 1776 between 71 and 77 percent of Americans may have filled the pews on Sunday” (32).
[21. ]Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 124; and see George Lee Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts: A Study in Tradition and Design (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1960), 223–24; Patricia Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 3; and David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 1:423, who reports that of approximately 3,000 congregations in 1775, only 500 or 18 percent were Anglican (Episcopal) and the vast remainder were Reformed congregations.
[22. ]Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts, 17.
[23. ]H. R. Niebuhr, “The Protestant Movement and Democracy in the United States,” in The Shaping of American Religion, ed. J. W. Smith and A. L. Jamison (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 31, 33, and 36.
[24. ]Robert H. Wiebe, The Segmented Society: An Introduction to the Meaning of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 44. He continues, “If the hypothetical individual—sinful man, citizen of the republic, economic man—was a commonplace in American discourse, that terminology was used in the service of conformity, not individual freedom.”
[25. ]See Barry Alan Shain, Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994; 3d reprint with corrections, 1996).
[26. ]See Ann Fairfax Withington, Toward a More Perfect Union: Virtue and the Formation of American Republics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 184, who describes the Continental Congress’s embrace of such prohibitions.
[27. ]See Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, 146–47.
[28. ]Ernst Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World (1912; reprint ed., trans. W. Montgomery, Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1958), 119–20; and see Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (1911; reprint ed., New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1959), 72, who writes that individual rights “achieved world significance through the Constitution of the United States and the French Revolution.” Curiously, early twentieth-century German scholars showed great interest in exploring this late eighteenth-century American-inspired transformation. However, also see Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1960), 338, who writes that “The great transformation was effected whereby ‘individual interest’ was substituted for individual conscience . . . It was invested with many of the same sanctities and immunities, for, like conscience, it symbolized what was most valued by the individual and what was to be defended against the group or society.”
[29. ]See Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress, 66–67, who reminds us that in classic Protestant thought “the modern problem of the relation of Church and State simply did not as yet exist” as it saw in each “two distinct functions in a body which is indivisibly one and the same, the Corpus Christianum. The applicability of religious standards to the whole body, the exclusion or, at least, the disenfranchisement of unbelievers and heretics, the principle of intolerance and infallibility, are for it also self-evident necessities.”
[30. ]Perry Miller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening” in Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 160–61.
[31. ]Urian Oakes, New England Pleaded With, And Pressed to Consider the Things which Concern her PEACE at least in this her Day (Cambridge, Mass., 1673), 53, and he continued, “I look upon an unbounded Toleration as the first born of all Abominations . . . it belongs to the Magistrate to judge what is tolerable in his Dominions in this respect. And the Eye of the Civil Magistrate is to be to the securing of the way of God that is duly established” (54–55).
[32. ]See Christine Leigh Heyrman, Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690–1750 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 118. In the South as well, it was England that constantly pressured the provincial governments to show greater tolerance toward religious dissenters, most particularly toward Catholics in Maryland. See Rhys Isaac,The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 151–52, who recounts how the British Board of Trade had advised the Virginian government that “A free Exercise of Religion is so valuable a branch of true liberty, and so essential to the enrichening and improving of a Trading Nation, it should ever be held sacred in His Majesty’s Colonies”; and Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1953), 78, who notes that the Board had “disallowed two Maryland anti-Catholic laws as tending ‘to depopulate that profitable colony.’ ”
[33. ]Wesley Frank Craven, The Legend of the Founding Fathers (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1956), 25.
[34. ]See Francis Canavan, Freedom of Expression: Purpose as Limit (Durham: Carolina Academic Press and the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 1984), 54, who cites Leonard Levy to this effect, and John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 31–32, 245–46.
[35. ]Georg Jellinek, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens: A Contribution to Modern Constitutional History, trans. Max Farrand (1901; reprint ed., Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, Inc., 1979), 74.
[36. ]For example, see Civil Liberty Asserted and the Rights of the Subject Defended Against the Anarchical Principles of the Reverend Dr. Price (London: J. Wilkie, 1776), 44–45.
[37. ]See Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 97, who writes that this “pamphlet was the only eighteenth-century pamphlet—until the eve of the American Revolution—that addressed itself specifically to the question of liberty of conscience.”
[38. ]See Glenn Weaver, “Elisha Williams: The Versatile Puritan,” in The Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin 53 (Summer–Fall 1988): 119–233.
[39. ]Elisha Williams, Essential Rights and Liberty of Protestants . . . Being a Letter from a Gentleman in the Massachusetts-Bay to his Friends in Connecticut (Boston: Kneeland & Green, 1744) 8; see Alan Heimert and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967), 324; and John Locke, “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” in Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc., 1979), 173, who earlier had written that “No man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace.” Quite possibly, if Americans were Lockean, it is here in their following his lead in legitimating individual rights by exploiting Protestant categories of thought.
[40. ]Lawrence H. Leder, Liberty and Authority: Early American Political Ideology, 1689–1763 (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968), 68–69. He is here citing from the “Right of Private Judgment,” Pennsylvania Journal, January 5, 1748.
[41. ]Smith, Occasional Reverberator, October 5, 1753 (the last of four issues) in Leder, Liberty and Authority, 73–74. Note both his acceptance of the telos shared with Christianity and his unusual avoidance of the actual language of Christian devotion. Taking a more Christian though still very “progressive” and unusually ecumenical view for 1761 was Ezra Stiles, A Discourse on the Christian Union (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1761), 28, who argues that “the right of conscience and private judgment is unalienable; and it is truly the interest of all mankind to unite themselves into one body, for the liberty, free exercise, and unmolested enjoyment of this right.”
[42. ]Edward Dorr, The Duty of Civil Rulers: A Connecticut Election Sermon (Hartford: Thomas Green, ), 13; see Liberty, Property, and No Stamps (New York: n.p., 1765) which argues that “The British Constitution is of all others confessedly calculated to procure whatever constituted Happiness, namely Liberty of Conscience, the peaceful Possession of Property and a Method of obtaining Justice with Security.”
[43. ]See Daniel T. Rodgers, Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics Since Independence (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 66, who notes that “the notion of a reserve of extralegal rights had been a tool for the occasion, a crowbar to throw in the tracks of the empire. . . . But in formalizing rights, the consolidators of the 1780s had done their best to close down the style of argument most fertile of further rights production. Men were to be induced to think, once more, soberly and legally. The state of nature, only recently discovered, was already being abandoned.”
[44. ]Samuel Stillman, Massachusetts Election Sermon (Boston: T. J. Fleet, 1779), 11, 23; and see Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922; reprint ed., New York: Random House, 1958), 79, who in 1922, well understood, though too simplistically, that one could describe the evolution of American political thought by arguing that “The lineage is direct: Jefferson copied Locke and Locke copied Hooker.” And, if he were to push back two or three steps more, he might well have discovered that it terminates in the incipient humanism present in the thinking of Aquinas.
[45. ]Reported by Oscar Handlin and Mary Handlin, eds., The Popular Sources of Political Authority: Documents on the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 410–11, 423.
[46. ]Ibid., 436, and see Articles I–II of the proposed constitution, and the highly controversial third article, 442–43.
[47. ]Ibid., 683, but see 32 where Handlin writes that “General professions of belief in religious liberty therefore were not incompatible with demands for guarantees of a Protestant Christian state.”
[48. ]See Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 19, who writes that too many scholars have errantly claimed that “by the time of the American Revolution, an indifferent population is seen as acquiescing in the program of leaders, nominally Christian, but committed to the agenda of the Enlightenment, who proceeded to send religion to the sidelines of American life.” In reality though, “Religion in the eighteenth century was actually in the ‘ascension rather than the declension,’ ” or even “in a state of ‘feverish growth.’ ”
[49. ]See the Federal Farmer, “Letter VI,” in Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution, selected by Murray Dry from The Complete Anti-Federalist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 70, who writes that “Of rights, some are natural and unalienable, of which even the people cannot deprive individuals: Some are constitutional or fundamental; these cannot be altered or abolished by the ordinary laws; but the people, by express acts, may alter or abolish them—These, such as the trial by jury, the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus, etc. . . . and some are common or mere legal rights, that is, such as individuals claim under laws which the ordinary legislature may alter or abolish at pleasure.”
[50. ]Five of the original thirteen state constitutions had no declaration of rights: Connecticut (1776), Georgia (1777), New York (1777), Rhode Island (1663), and South Carolina (1778). Four others, Delaware (1776), New Hampshire (1784), North Carolina (1776), and Maryland (1776), had declaration of rights but failed to make any mention of individual natural rights.
[51. ]This is not true of the Declaration of Rights of Virginia (1776), Pennsylvania (1776), Vermont (1777), or Massachusetts (1780). That of Virginia famously begins that “All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity.” Often overlooked, though, is that this formulation is a traditional usage of natural-rights language in that it stipulates the just relationship between generations (one of three conditions under which natural law or rights rather than civil law was controlling) and not between an individual and the society at large. Only in regard to the right of religious conscience (sect. 16) is the relationship constrained between the individual and his or her society. Similarly, it is often ignored that the Pennsylvania “Declaration” privileges in all instances, except in regard to conscience (and even then atheists are excluded), the community’s needs over those of the individual.
[52. ]In Benjamin Perley Poore, comp., The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1878), 2:1280–81. New Hampshire then continues without any sense of tension in Article VI to sustain its taxation “for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.”
[53. ]See Philip A. Hamburger, “A Constitutional Right of Religious Exemption: An Historical Perspective,” in George Washington Law Review 60 (April 1992): 915–48.
[54. ]“Letter to Nehemiah Dodge and Others” in Thomas Jefferson, The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), 303. In spite of Jefferson’s claim, it must not be forgotten as Edmund S. Morgan, “Popular Fiction,” in The New Republic, June 29, 1987, 25–36, reminds us “these prohibitions applied only to the federal government. In 1791 most of the states required a belief in Christianity (five of them in Protestant Christianity) for anyone holding public office . . . [and] the last state to give up religious tests was New Hampshire in 1876.” In fact, according to Curry, First Freedoms, 158, the last state to do so was Maryland that “retained a religious test for office until the middle of the twentieth century.” See also Daniel L. Dreisbach, “Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists Revisited,” in William and Mary Quarterly 56 (October 1999): 805–16; and Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 82–85.
[55. ]See LeRoy Moore, “Religious Liberty: Roger Williams and the Revolutionary Era,” in Church History 34 (March 1965): 67, who argues that the two major groups, the deists and the evangelicals, sought the same end but, for the former “the issue” and “the field of battle” rest on anthropocentric premises, whereas for the latter, on theocentric ones.
[56. ]See James Madison, “James Madison’s Autobiography,” ed. Douglass Adair, William and Mary Quarterly 2 (April 1945): 191–209, who writes of the Baptists that “Notwithstanding the enthusiasm which contributed to render them obnoxious to sober opinion . . . he [Madison] spared no exertion to save them from imprisonment. . . . This interposition tho’ a mere duty prescribed by his conscience, obtained for him a lasting place in the favour of that particular sect” (198–99).
[57. ]See “Letter to B. Rush 12 June 1812” in John Adams and Benjamin Rush, The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805–1813, ed. John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1980), 224, where Adams most interestingly writes that his loss of office resulted from his having recommended a fast at the national level. “The secret whisper ran through all the sects, ‘Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.’ . . . Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.”
[58. ]Thomas E. Buckley, “Evangelicals Triumphant: The Baptists’ Assault on the Virginia Glebes, 1786–1801,” in William and Mary Quarterly 45 (January 1988): 68. Commenting on the Northern Evangelicals, Gregory H. Nobles, Divisions Throughout the Whole: Politics and Society in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, 1740–1775 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 84, 87, reminds us that it was their greater religious strictness and purity rather than the opposite that frequently led them to break with established churches.
[59. ]Moses Hemmenway, Massachusetts Election Sermon (Boston: Benjamin Edes and Sons, 1784), 33–34. For similar themes which displayed the continuing deference shown to the liberty of conscience, see Howard, “A Sermon Preached . . .” in John Wingate Thornton, ed., The Pulpit of the American Revolution: Or, The Political Sermons of the Period of 1776 (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1860), 373, who writes that the rulers should use their authority to encourage religion, but only “so far as is consistent with the sacred and inalienable rights of conscience”; and Stephen Johnson, Integrity and Piety the Best Principles of a Good Administration of Government (New London, Conn.: Timothy Green, 1770), 24–35.
[60. ]Cyprian Strong, Connecticut Election Day Sermon (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1799), 16–17; and see John Mitchell Mason, The Voice of Warning, to Christians, on the Ensuing Election of a President (New York: G. F. Hopkins, 1800), 18–19, who ties the cause of infidelity to Jefferson and asks if “no injury” will result from his election and the consequent undoing of “all the chords which bind you to the God of heaven.”
[61. ]Consider the earlier remarks of Samuel Hall, The Legislature’s Right, Charge and Duty in Respect of Religion (New London: Timothy Green, 1746), 20, in the election sermon of 1746. Opposing those who argued for less religious coercion in the public realm, he held that “What is begun in Force, may end in Choice: What is begun in Fear, may end in Love . . . besides it’s no small Advantage to the common Cause of Vertue, that men can be brought to be visibly or externally Good and Vertuous.”
[62. ]See Miller, New England Mind: From Colony to Province, 171, who argues that this had been a gradual process in which “Protestantism was imperceptibly carried over into the new order . . . by translating Christian liberty into those liberties guaranteed by statute.”
[63. ]See Rodgers, Contested Truths, 13, who notes that “Natural Rights was the central radical political slogan of the Revolution. . . . The cry of ‘rights’ has always been double-edged. . . . It was one of the unexpected results of the search for a Revolutionary argument that the subversive edge of the word ‘rights’ should have been honed so sharply—or joined to so volatile an adjective . . . it was never again fully extinguishable from political argument: a phrase whose very abstractness left it permanently open to new meanings, new grievances, new users”; and again, 223.
[64. ]Jellinek, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, 60.
[65. ]Such consequences, however, were not entirely unrecognized because the middle-colony moderate and Loyalist critics of the Revolution were well aware of the dangers of what they took to be an unnecessarily risky position. For example, see Howard, “A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax” in Merrill Jensen, ed., Tracts of the American Revolution: 1763–1776 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 68–69, who asked “Can we claim the common law as an inheritance, and at the same time be at liberty to adopt one part of it, and reject the other? Indeed we cannot”; Galloway, “A Candid Examination of the Mutual Claims of Great Britain and the Colonies” in ibid., 360; and Rodgers, Contested Truths, 56, who reminds us that “not all the champions of colonial resistance were willing to follow this string of conflations all the way down the line. Among those who valued stability, state of nature talk chafed a sensitive nerve. . . . For many of them the state of nature was a synonym for fearsome anarchy.”
[66. ]I am staking out a middle ground between two schools of thought, both persuasively argued. On the one hand, Becker, Declaration of Independence, 21, argues that the colonists, out of necessity, had shifted their case from a British-constitutional to a natural-law defense. On the other hand John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 5, has written “All rights asserted in the Declaration were English rights, recognized and protected by British constitutional doctrine. Moreover, it is not true that the American argument shifted during the revolutionary debate. Colonial whigs asserted their rights as ‘Englishmen’ and only as Englishmen.”
[67. ]See, for example, Some Fugitive Thoughts on a Letter Signed Freeman (South Carolina: n.p., 1774), 15, that argues that all the British legal precedents being offered in their defense by American patriot authors were in fact, milestones toward “the supreme authority of Parliament, not only over all the British Dominions, but also over the Crown . . . [and] the Subjection of the Colonies to Parliament cannot be more strongly featured”; and Janice Potter, The Liberty We Seek: Loyalist Ideology in Colonial New York and Massachusetts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 143, who argues that “Parliamentary supremacy was the issue more than any other which divided them [Loyalists] irreconcilably from the Patriots and led to civil war.”
[68. ]Rodgers, Contested Truths, 52.
[69. ]See the “Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress,” October 19, 1765, in Richard L. Perry, ed., Sources of Our Liberties: Documentary Origins of Individual Liberties in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, rev. ed. (Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein & Co., 1991), 270–71.
[70. ]“Extract from Autobiography” in John Adams, Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, 1850–56), 2:374.
[71. ]Adams, Diary for September 8, 1774, ibid., 371.
[72. ]“Declarations and Resolves” in Perry, Sources of Our Liberties, 286–89.
[73. ]See Beiser, Sovereignty of Reason; Barry Alan Shain, Man, God and Society: An Interpretive History of Individualism (London: University of London, 2000); Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law, 1150–1625 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997); and, in agreement, Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, 157.
[74. ]See Leo Moulin, “On the Evolution of the Meaning of the Word ‘Individualism,’ ” in International Social Science Bulletin 7 (1955): 184–85, who writes, “The foundations of Anglo-Saxon individualism are essentially of a religious, ethical and moral character, whereas continental individualism is primarily legal and political in France, and philosophical in Germany.” Cf., Schmitt (below, n. 87) who argues that the religious origins of individual rights is necessarily a universal phenomenon. Also see Donald S. Lutz, “Studying the Early State Constitutions: A Re-Evaluation of American Political Theory,” manuscript copy in my possession, 6, who writes that “The evolution of American constitutions was thus essentially a secularization of covenants into compacts.”
[75. ][John Dickinson], “The Centinel. No. VII” in Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser, May 5, 1768. Cited by Richard J. Hooker, “John Dickinson on Church and State,” in American Literature 16 (May 1944): 89.
[76. ]“Dissertation on the Cannon and Feudal Law” in John Adams, The Political Writings of John Adams: Representative Selections, ed. George A. Peek, Jr. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954), 5, 17. He wrote this work while a member of a radical club of young lawyers. Later in his life, sobered by his experiences in France, he described this work as a “lamentable bagatelle.”
[77. ]Jellinek, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, 80. Jellinek’s remarks gave birth to a small intellectual industry in Germany that continued to debate these issues for another thirty years. This scholarship deserves to be treated at length. For references, see Roland Bainton, “The Appeal to Reason and the American Constitution,” in The Constitution Reconsidered, ed. Conyers Read (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), 126–27, who lists many of the pertinent works in a two-page footnote.
[78. ]American spokesmen frequently joined proscriptive English rights and natural or unalienable rights with a seamless continuity. See Considerations upon the Rights of the Colonists to the Privileges of British Subjects (New York: John Holt, 1766), 12, 17, in which the author writes that “No man will deny that the provincial Americans have an inherent, unalienable Right to all the Privileges of British Subjects”; and William Henry Drayton, A Letter from Freeman of South Carolina (Charles-Town: Peter Timothy, 1774), 30, 37, who writes that “in the same degree with the People of England, are the Americans . . . who enjoyed the benefits of the Common Law of England, and ascertained their ancient and unalienable Rights and Liberties . . . And therefore are the Americans, equally with the people of England, entitled to those liberties of Englishmen. And from such a title, does America derive her freedom.”
[79. ]See Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1987), 29, who proves himself to be similarly one-sided in his description of the normally accepted grounds upon which English rights were said to rest (he ignored the natural or universal character of them). Burke held, to the contrary and much closer to the American norm, that “It has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.”
[80. ]See Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” in American Political Science Review 78 (March 1984): 189–97.
[81. ]James Wilson, The Works of James Wilson, ed. Robert Green McCloskey, reprint of 1804 ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 588–89.
[82. ]James Wilson, The Works of James Wilson, ed. James DeWitt Andrews (Chicago: Callaghan and Company, 1896), 105, 125.
[83. ]See Louis Hartz, “American Political Thought and the American Revolution,” in American Political Science Review 46 (June 1952): 329, who writes, “Most liberals of the eighteenth century, from Bentham to Quesnay, were bitter opponents of history, posing a sharp antithesis between nature and tradition. And it is an equally familiar fact that their adversaries, including Burke and Blackstone, sought to break down this antithesis by identifying natural law with the slow evolution of the past. The militant Americans, confronted with these two positions, actually took the second. . . . Blackstone . . . was the rock on which they relied”; and John M. Murrin, “The Great Inversion, or Court Versus Country: A Comparison of the Revolutionary Settlements in England (1688–1721) and America (1776–1816),” in Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 391, who writes that “In fact, most of the colonists’ leading spokesmen in 1765–1766 . . . skillfully employed legal-constitutional arguments rather than Country rhetoric.”
[84. ]William Emerson, “Fourth of July Oration, 1802,” Old South Leaflets (Boston: Directors of the Old South Work, n.d.), 6:189.
[85. ]Edmund Randolph, “Edmund Randolph’s Essay on the Revolutionary History of Virginia, 1774–1782,” in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 44 (1936): 45.
[86. ]See Becker, Declaration of Independence, 233–34, who writes that after the French Revolution “in very few of the innumerable constitutions of the nineteenth century, in few if any of the constitutions now in force [including the French], do we find the natural rights doctrine of the eighteenth century reaffirmed.”
[87. ]Schmitt, Verfassungslehre (Munchen, 1928), 158–59, my translation. And see Bainton, “Appeal to Reason,” 127, from which the German original citation was taken, who describes the above as “the best commentary on the whole controversy” concerning the origin of individual universal natural rights. Also see Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab, reprint ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 36, where Schmitt argues that “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts . . . [and that] only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries.”
[88. ]See Rodgers, Contested Truths, 220, who writes that “Nothing in the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century past matched this avalanche of multiplying rights claims [in the late 1960s] . . . In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the language of rights has proved to be the most volatile, flexible language of protest we have”; and Dorothy Fosdick, What Is Liberty?: A Study in Political Theory (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1939), who details the relatively weak position enjoyed by the natural-rights perspective on liberty in the 1880-to-1930 period.
[89. ]John Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men (Philadelphia: R. Aitken, 1776), 7–8.
[90. ]See Miller, “Religion and Society in the Early Literature of Virginia” in Errand into the Wilderness, 129, 132, who writes that in both Virginia and Massachusetts “Political doctrine was founded on the premise of original sin” and that the authoritarian character of their governments was “the logical consequence of a theology of depravity and enslavement of the will.”
[91. ]Edmund S. Morgan, “The American Revolution Considered as an Intellectual Movement,” in Essays on the American Revolution, ed. David L. Jacobson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970), 29.
[92. ]See Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 125, who writes that “The primary purpose of government” for the Standing Order of New England, “was to restrain the corruptions of human nature”; and Michael Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 116–17.
[93. ]William Livingston, et al., The Independent Reflector or Weekly Essays on Sundry Important Subjects More Particularly Adapted to the Province of New York, ed. Milton M. Klein (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 329. Also see Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 59–60, who writes that in eighteenth-century America “What turned power into a malignant force, was not its nature so much as the nature of man—his susceptibility to corruption and his lust for self-aggrandizement. On this there was absolute agreement. . . . But it was not simply a question of what the weak and ignorant will do. The problem was more systematic than that; it concerned ‘mankind in general.’ ”
[94. ]Publius, “Essay #51,” Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States, ed. Edward Mead Earle (New York: Modern Library Edition, 1937), 337.
[95. ]“Letter of 24 April 1816,” in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984), 1386.
[96. ]Daniel Walker Howe, “The Political Psychology of The Federalist,” in William and Mary Quarterly 44 (July 1987): 502, and see his Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 108.
[97. ]Andrew Eliot, Massachusetts Election Sermon (Boston: Green and Russell, 1765), 8–9.
[98. ]See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 255–56, who has written of the “sinfulness of the belief in authority, which is only permissible in the form of an impersonal authority, the Scriptures, as well as of an excessive devotion to even the most holy and virtuous of men, since that might interfere with obedience to God. . . . It is also part of the historical background of that lack of respect of the American which is, as the case may be, so irritating or so refreshing”; and Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms, 248–49.
[99. ]Cited by Hans Baron, “Calvinist Republicanism and Its Historical Roots,” in Church History 8 (1939): 37.
[100. ]Here, I am largely following Stout, The New England Soul, 7.
[101. ]Ibid., 259.
[102. ]See Keith Thomas, “Politics Recaptured,” review of The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, by Quentin Skinner, in New York Review of Books, May 17, 1979, 28, who writes “Lutherans and Calvinists alike continued to represent resistance to unsatisfactory rulers as a religious duty rather than a political right.”
[103. ]Here, and elsewhere, in his reductionistic dualism, Zuckert and like-minded political theorists consistently confuse heterodox Unitarian ministers with Orthodox Trinitarian ones and hold that the former were highly regarded by the majority of Orthodox ministers. Compare, then, the evaluation and use of New England ministers made by Zuckert, in every instance (with the exception of Elisha Williams), to the canonical evaluations provided by William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit . . . of Distinguished American Clergymen of Various Denominations (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1859), vols. 1 and 8. Included among those whom Zuckert tendentiously treats as Orthodox but whom Sprague shows to be Unitarian, are West and others like Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew. And another minister, Abraham Williams, who Zuckert describes as “memorable chiefly because of his ‘illustrativeness’ ” (173), is described as “the Grand Hertick Williams,” in Clifford K. Shipton, ed., Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1960), 11:498.
[104. ]West, “On the Right to Rebel Against Governors” in Charles S. Hyneman, and Donald S. Lutz, eds., American Political Writing during the Founding Era, 1760–1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983), 415.
[105. ]See George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 74, who writes that for Presbyterians and other Calvinist sects “Perfection would never be attained in this life. . . . The Christian’s life was a warfare, with many setbacks that taught humility and dependence on God’s grace.”
[106. ]Peter Powers, Jesus Christ the True King and Head of the Government (Vermont Election Sermon) (Newbury-Port, Mass.: John Mycall, 1778), 10, 40.
[107. ]Nathaniel Whitaker, An Antidote Against Toryism (Newburyport, Mass.: John Mycall, 1777), 10–11.
[108. ]Ibid., 11–12.
[109. ]See Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 115–16, who notes that “Everywhere the clergy saw ‘Sins and Iniquities.’ . . . And the sins were the same vices feared by a political scientist—infidelity, intemperance, profaneness, and particularly ‘pride and luxury in dress’ ”; and Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 90–91, who writes that “Inherent in the Commonwealth ideology which shaped the American Whig mind was a view of human nature as susceptible to corruption, basically self-interested and dominated by passion rather than reason.”
[110. ]Morgan, “American Revolution Considered as an Intellectual Movement,” 36, and see Hatch, Sacred Cause of Liberty, 92–93, who writes that their “suspicion of human nature found deep roots both in the seventeenth-century [Puritanism they inherited] . . . and in the opposition heritage, which like Cato’s Letters, suggested that men are controlled by their passions . . . [which] ‘are always terrible when they are not controlled.’ ”
[111. ]Atwater, “Vermont Election Day Sermon” in Hyneman and Lutz, American Political Writing, 1172; and see David Daggett, “Sunbeams May Be Extracted from Cucumbers, But the Process Is Tedious: An Oration Pronounced on the Fourth of July, 1799,” in American Forum: Speeches on Historic Issues, 1788–1900, ed. E. J. Wrage and B. Baskerville (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 41–42.
[112. ]Oliver Ellsworth, writing under the pseudonym of “A Landholder” in Paul L. Ford, ed., Essays on the Constitution of the United States: Published During Its Discussion by the People, 1787–1788 (1892; reprint ed., New York: Burt Franklin, 1970), 171; and see Josiah Whitney, The Essential Requisites to Form the Good Rulers Character (Connecticut Election Sermon) (Hartford: Elisha Babcock, 1788), 11.
[113. ]Curry, First Freedoms, 190.
[114. ]Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 93–96. Hutson further claims that Jefferson was the most theologically involved of America’s presidents.
[115. ]Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 114–15.
[116. ]To gauge better the moderate character of these stances, consider Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America (New York: New American Library, 1977), 65–66, the author’s description of the centrality of “the doctrine of original sin and of innate depravity” to the thought of eighteenth-century American Evangelical Christians and that for them “Human nature was corrupt, not in part but totally. Sinful men, said Jonathan Edwards, ‘are totally corrupt, in every part, in all their faculties. . . . There is nothing but sin, no good at all.’ ”
[117. ]See May, Enlightenment in America, 231, who discusses the few radical deists in America, like the blind preacher Elihu Palmer who adhered to the belief that man was perfectible and that “This great truth, the new deists tirelessly explained, had been hidden from mankind by the sinister alliance of priests and kings, whose chief reliance had always been the absurd doctrine of original sin.”
[118. ]Hartz, “American Political Thought and the American Revolution,” 324.
[119. ]See Hampson, Enlightenment, 102–3; and see Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932), 102–3, who writes that “The essential articles of the religion of the Enlightenment may be stated thus: (1) man is not natively depraved . . . (3) man is capable, guided solely by the light of reason and experience, of perfecting the good life on earth.”
[120. ]Israel B. Woodward, American Liberty and Independence: A Discourse (Litchfield, Conn.: T. Collier, 1798), 8.
[121. ]See Hamilton, “Essay #15,” The Federalist, 92, who writes that the moral assumptions underlying the Articles of Confederation “betrayed an ignorance of the true springs by which human conduct is actuated, and belied the original inducements to the establishment of civil power. Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.”
[122. ]Ralph Ketcham, Presidents Above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789–1829 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 144. See Ralph Ketcham, “James Madison and the Nature of Man,” in Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (January 1958): 66; and Paul Merrill Spurlin, The French Enlightenment in America: Essays on the Times of the Founding Fathers (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), 126–27, for American reaction to claims of human perfectibility. In particular, Spurlin writes that “The philosophical notion of indefinite perfectibility bothered the religious-minded Adams no end,” while Jefferson took a more intermediate position.
[123. ]See William Pencak, “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Cotton Mather, and a Puritan God,” in Pennsylvania History 53 (January 1986): 13, who notes that Franklin “begins with a description of how the world is ruled by the minions of Satan . . . [and that] such a negative view of human nature, is found throughout the Autobiography.”
[124. ]R. C. De Prospo, “Paine and Sieyes,” in Thought 65 (June 1990): 195–97.
[125. ]See also Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics 1689–1775 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), xi, who writes that “No understanding of the eighteenth century is possible if we unconsciously omit, or consciously jam out, the religious themes just because our own milieu is secular . . . in England’s American colonies the most enduring and absorbing public question from 1689 to 1777 was religion.”
[126. ]John P. Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 7, 67, 83; see Robert E. Shalhope, “Republicanism and Early American Historiography,” in William and Mary Quarterly 39 (April 1982): 350–51, who also notes that “The republican temperament that emerged during the Revolution drew on basic evangelical values.”
[127. ]Diggins, ibid., 84–85, 94. He is citing Adams, Defence, 3:289, 479. Cf., Thomas Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 21, who disagrees with Diggins’s understanding of the “Founders.” Pangle, like Zuckert, finds that “As for the claim that ‘sin’ is a major motif, or a key to the thought of The Federalist Papers, Diggins himself all but admits that he has been able to find no evidence for this outlandish characterization.”
[128. ]Mark Tushnet, “Should Historians Accept the Supreme Court’s Invitation?” in Organization of American Historians Newsletter 15 (November 1987): 13. Of course, this is largely a problem for elite sectors of American society. Most nonelite Americans are still Christian and in most cases still Protestant if not Evangelical.
[129. ]See May, Enlightenment in America, xv, xviii, who cautions his readers that “A great many people believed throughout the period that the religion of the Bible, understood best by simple people, was the safest foundation for all essential truths . . . the Enlightenment developed among the middle and upper classes of European cities, spread mainly among similar groups in America, and failed to reach the agrarian majority. On the whole, various forms of Protestant Christianity served the emotional needs of most Americans better.” And on the lack of support, even among the elite in America for the new subjectivist understanding of reason, see 250–51.
[130. ]Ibid., 211.
[131. ]The five central holdings of the Synod of Dort were the total depravity of man, unconditional predestination and reprobation, limitation of Redemption to the elect, the irresistibility of divine grace, and its perseverance in those saved.
[132. ]See Herbert W. Schneider, A History of American Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946), 67–72, 83–85, for his discussion of the short list of the few and ill-reputed “freethinkers” writing and living in late-eighteenth-century America.
[133. ]See Shain, The Myth of American Individualism.
[134. ]See Fosdick, What Is Liberty? A Study in Political Theory, 46, who writes that for Kant, “Liberty is to be one’s reasonable self. . . . It is acting in conformity with one’s good will which is at once the inevitable and universal expressions of the rationality of the individual”; and Howe, “Political Psychology of The Federalist,” 488–500.
[135. ]See Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress, 35–36, who notes that “Modern individualism” is based “on the idea, which is essentially Christian,” that “the destination of man [is] to acquire perfected personality through the ascent to God.”
[136. ]See Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 147, who writes that “If the universe is governed by reason, then there will be no need for coercion; a correctly planned life for all will coincide with full freedom—the freedom of rational self-direction—for all. This will be so if, and only if, the plan is the true plan.”
[137. ]See Berlin, ibid., 141–42, who writes of this understanding that “The only true method of attaining freedom, we are told, is by the use of critical reason, the understanding of what is necessary and what is contingent. . . . What you know, that of which you understand the necessity—the rational necessity—you cannot, while remaining rational, want to do otherwise.”
[138. ]David Thomas, The Virginian Baptist: A View and Defence of the Christian Religion as it is Professed by the Baptists of Virginia (Baltimore: Enoch Story, 1774), 9–10.
[139. ]Hugh Alison, Spiritual Liberty: A Sermon (Charleston: Hugh Alison, 1769), 14–16, who began, holding that “All men, being by nature the children of wrath and disobedience, lie exposed to the penalty of a broken law. . . . But believers in Christ are already freed from the condemning sentence of the law, and delivered from the guilt of sin.”
[140. ]John Joachim Zubly, The Law of Liberty . . . Preached at the Opening of the Provincial Congress of Georgia (Philadelphia: J. Almon, 1775), 27, who continues, “but whenever he feels the happy influence of the grace of the gospel, then this ‘law of liberty makes him free from the law of sin and death.’ Rom viii. 2.”
[141. ]See the Lyme, Connecticut, pastor, Stephen Johnson, Some Important Observations, Occasioned by . . . the Public Fast (Newport, R.I.: Samuel Hall, 1766), 52, who reminds his listeners in Newport that “Sin kindles a fire in the divine anger, which (without repentance and pardon in the blood of Christ) will burn to the lowest hell.”
[142. ]Nathan O. Hatch, “In Pursuit of Religious Freedom: Church, State, and People in the New Republic,” in The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits, ed. Jack P. Greene (New York: New York University Press, 1987), 393.
[143. ]Eleazar Wheelock, Liberty of Conscience; or, No King But Christ, in his Church (Hartford: Eben. Watson, 1776), 16.
[144. ]Howard, “A Sermon Preached . . . May 31, 1780” in Thornton, Pulpit of the American Revolution, 382–83, who goes forward to argue that “This is a very humiliating consideration; and, so far as we know, there is no other order of creatures throughout the boundless universe who, if left to their natural liberty, would be so mischievous to one another as man.”
[145. ]Stout, New England Soul, 135–36.
[146. ]See David H. Flaherty, “Law and the Enforcement of Morals in Early America,” in Perspectives in American History 5 (1971): 211, who writes that “The enforcement of the moral law became one of the primary obligations of colonial governments. . . . The civil authorities in every colony made a regular effort to establish and uphold high standards of conduct.”
[147. ]See Curry, First Freedoms, 103, who writes that “The idea that government should promote a Christian society persisted” because “most Americans tended to assume that the common elements of Protestantism equated with natural religion.”
[148. ]Richard Lingeman, Small Town America: A Narrative History 1620–The Present (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980), 61.
[149. ]The early modern rationalists shared in common with their more religious brethren a belief in objective moral truth and rational ethical standards. They no more countenanced arbitrary, in effect, sinful behavior than the more religious members of the elite. See Gordon S. Wood, “Introduction,” in The Rising Glory of America, 1760–1820 (New York: George Braziller, 1971), 17, who writes that “Although nature had been important to Revolutionary Americans, it was not the wilderness or landscape they had sought to celebrate, but the natural order of a Newtonian universe.”
[150. ]Pangle, Spirit of Modern Republicanism, 81.
[151. ]See May, Enlightenment in America, 257, who writes that “All the New England High Federalists [in the main Unitarians] believed morality essential . . . and religion essential to morality”; James H. Hutson,“ ‘The Great Doctrine of Retribution’: The Founders’ Views on the Social Utility of Religion,” paper presented to the John Courtney Murray Seminar, American Enterprise Institute, June 6, 2000; Daniel L. Dreisbach and Jeffry H. Morrison, “George Washington and American Public Religion,” paper delivered at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, August 31–September 3, 2000, Washington, D.C.; and Shain, Myth of American Individualism.
[152. ]See May, ibid., 274, who writes that “It is almost impossible to find any Republican, from Jefferson down who defended or admitted the deist views of the Republican candidate”; and Mason, Voice of Warning, to Christians on the Ensuing Election of a President, 8–9, who, in great frustration, attempts to offset the propaganda efforts of the republicans so that the electorate would believe, what we now know to be true, that Jefferson would not have been considered an Orthodox Christian. He draws attention to how well kept this secret was at the time. See also Benjamin Hale, Liberty and Law: A Lecture (Geneva, N.Y.: Ira Merrell, 1838), 23, who writing in 1837 could boldly claim, without embarrassment, how different the irreligiosity of men believed to be infidels like Paine was from the “true founders of our national independence [who] were religious men.”
[153. ]Price, “Letter to Rush, 30 September 1786” in Bernard Peach, ed., Richard Price and the Ethical Foundation of the American Revolution: Selections from His Pamphlets, with Appendices (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1979), 337.
[154. ]See Perry Miller, “The Moral and Psychological Roots of American Resistance,” in The Reinterpretation of the American Revolution, 1763–1789, ed. by Jack P. Greene (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 259, who writes that “For Americans, the exercise of liberty becomes simply the one true obedience to God. This is not license, but resistance to sin.”
[155. ]See for example Gordon S. Wood, “Ideology and the Origins of Liberal America,” in William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 44, no. 3 (July 1987): 637, who writes, “when we talk about the great importance of Christianity at the time of the Revolution, we are talking for the most part about ordinary people. Religion was the way such people usually made meaningful the world around them.”
[156. ]See John G. West, Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996).