Liberty Matters

Responding to Bejan and Hancock


As always, I am delighted by any opportunity to "converse" with Teresa Bejan about the early Anglo-American world. Bejan quotes from one of my favorite Bradford letters in her discussion of the exclusion of women, children, and servants from the polity, and she is right to remind us that we ought not read back into the 17th century our standards of what 'counts' as equality and consent-based politics. Obviously believing in what I would call the moral equality of human persons as beings created in the image of God does not involve a concomitant understanding of practical or what one might deem 'applied' equality. Reformed thinkers were (and in some branches of reformed theology, remain) able to think of women as equal to men in honor, dignity, or worth as image-bearers, but as essentially different from men in role (that is, in the ways in which their image-bearing works itself out in home and church life). For many of us living in the 21st century for whom equality almost by default means sameness, this insistence on sexual difference appears as anything but equal.
Bejan's stated purpose in drawing out this historical truth is "to remind us that early modern practice…sits uneasily beneath the grand ideals and abstractions imposed upon it by successive generations." Fair enough: I'd not only agree with this, I'd go so far as to say that then or now or in any time period, practice rarely lives up to the ideals. But I would dispute that the ideals themselves are an imposition on the past: the applications of ideals are historically and contextually dependent, but the ideals per se are not. Moral equality, in the sense I have sketched above (which is the sense I believe to have been more or less that of the pilgrims as Reformed Christians) is an ideal that does carry within itself certain logical consequences, whether or not they are always and immediately apparent. (As with most everything from Bejan's pen, I look forward to reading her history of "equality before egalitarianism" as I imagine it will shed further light on these differences in our approach to the period.)
Thus, while Bejan is correct on an important level to say that "nothing was fated or determined" in the development of British North America, I'm not sure it is quite correct to assume that the internal logic of ideas is entirely escapable over the long haul. Absolutely, things could have gone differently in the course of history. Perhaps, for example, the rigors of the sea voyage might have caused the Pilgrims and others to abandon their commitment to moral equality and the kind of rough toleration of those outside their religious circle that I believe makes their Compact worthy of commemoration, and they might never have written the document at all. Or the psychological toll of their first death-filled winter might have led Bradford and others to seize power and impose a regime of martial law (as happened, as we all know, at Jamestown between 1609-1612). But they did write the Compact and unlike their Virginia counterparts, they did not abandon its animating principles. And as long as they honored those, I would suggest that while there may have been multiple twists and turns that might have led to an earlier or later or more or less robust development of what we see in the Compact in seed form, those seeds were fated to bloom. Equality and toleration themselves are subject to interpretation, absolutely, and to the whims of human caprice, so there is still room in my understanding of logical consequence for variations in the metaphorical flower garden. However, insofar as the Pilgrims and their political descendants remained committed to the principles of the Compact, and to their theology of dissent, I would argue (as John Adams did) that these were bound to bear fruit in the more overtly liberal theories of individual rights and liberties that motivated many of the patriots during the American Revolution.
Lest Bejan chide me a second time for infusing a later understanding into the Pilgrims' use of the term commonwealth, let me hasten to point out that to say the early modern understanding of a commonwealth was compatible with monarchy does not negate the fact that said compatibility depends in a meaningful way upon an understanding that even the monarch is limited in his authority. The king's authority is limited both by his own obligation to God, and by his obligation to the good of the people. This is not quite self-government, but nor is it simply divine right monarchy. Pace Bejan, I'd question whether any of the English colonists (even the non-dissenting ones) who swore fealty to the king in their charters did so with the idea that they were foreswearing an allegiance to a higher law of self-preservation. The king may be king over a commonwealth, but he cannot ignore the common good and remain so. This is the point of John of Salisbury's Policraticus, and as I develop at greater length in an article co-written with Mark Hall, this way of thinking animates a tradition of Reformed resistance theory stretching from Vermigli, to Calvin to Ponet, Knox, Goodman and Buchanan all prior to 1600. Certainly it cannot be ahistorical for me to attribute a similar sense of limited monarchy to those who settled Plymouth in 1620 (and whose co-religionists would very shortly become regicides).
And this allows me to connect Bejan's essay to Ralph Hancock's equally thoughtful and provocative one. Hancock raises the intriguing question, "whether the Christian inspiration of modern secular notions of equality and liberty is good news." In his estimation, "the news is… mixed," and this is more than likely true, if we assume a notion of the secular that denies things like a fixed human nature. There certainly seems to be a strain of contemporary political thought that veers in this direction of radicalism. It is also more than likely true if we assume that the religious ideas that animated the American commitment to equality and liberty are essentially a dead letter.
This, I think, is the subtext at least, of Alexis De Tocqueville's supposed 'praise' of America's combination of religion and freedom. Although Tocqueville praised religion in America, his study continually points toward the conclusion that democracy is primarily an activity of faith, not a philosophy.[1]
As Hancock puts it, Tocqueville sees the American experiment as "something that is not automatic but that history and Providence somehow put together and that must be held together, in part by moral truths accepted without discussion." To the extent that this is so, the Tocquevillian position is simultaneously ahistorical and nostalgic for the past as the past. It thus leaves us without any way to apply whatever principles might be discerned by our study with any creativity or vitality in the present. The major danger of Tocquevillian nostalgia is that its treatment of foundations (religious or secular) has the potential to elevate history, rather than lived religion, as the arbiter of right. It veers then, towards the formulaic and traditionalist for the sake of tradition—and little wonder that it becomes difficult to sustain.
This is not the view the Pilgrims had: they were radical religious dissenters, willing to suffer imprisonment for the sake of a fresh reading of Scripture and the principles they derived therefrom. To view the accomplishments that sprang forth from those as somehow entirely "marvelous" (a la Tocqueville) is to deny that we ourselves might accomplish similar things. We would honor them best (and perhaps also overcome the tension between religion and freedom) were we instead to follow the example of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. In confronting the racial prejudice (personal and institutional) of America in the mid-twentieth century, King accused the majority of Americans of essentially this kind of nostalgia: Americans were "more devoted to 'order' than to justice" which is, I fear, where a too-Tocquevillian understanding of the Pilgrims leads us.[2]
Yet King encouraged his own movement not to despair: "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." We ought, in other words, be less concerned about strict adherence to the doctrines of the founders and instead think of their legacy as the first bend in what King described as the 'arc of the moral universe': although they might not have realized the full implications of their ideals, we can see ourselves legitimately as their descendants and as continuing the curve on its path.
[1.] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 47; 705.
[2.] King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in I Have A Dream, 91, 93, 98.