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-by Daniel Walker Howe

America's Communitarian Roots

The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Thought

-By Barry Shain

Princeton University Press

416 pp.; $39.50, hardcover, $17.95, paper

Natural Rights and the New Republicanism

-By Michael Zuckert

Princeton University Press

397 pp.; $39.50

The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism

-By J. David Greenstone

Princeton University Press

352 pp.; $45, hardcover, $13.95, paper

For a long time it seemed indisputable that America was a nation whose constitution and politics were based on the belief that government exists in order to protect the rights of individuals. In recent years, however, a number of historians have undertaken to challenge this conventional wisdom. They have argued that the founders of the American Republic were less interested in the rights of individuals than we had supposed and more concerned with the welfare of the community. Their conclusions, although varying, run something like this. Early Americans were by no means unanimously and simply dedicated to an individualistic philosophy of natural rights. Instead, they were in touch with a multiplicity of political ideas, including some that were strongly communitarian in nature.

As a result of these scholarly labors, we now realize that the set of political theories with which America began was diverse and complicated. Alongside the philosophy of natural rights for which John Locke and Thomas Jefferson are famous, historians of the new school have put a variety of other political philosophies, including the corporate ideal of balanced government inherited from the ancient world, medieval peasant or artisan notions of a "moral economy," the communal ideals of Protestant sectarians, Renaissance humanist ideals of patriotic virtue, and the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. At the same time, however, other historians have been stoutly defending the primary importance of Lockean liberalism in defining the American political tradition.

But why should we care about these issues? Why have so many intelligent people researched them with such diligence, pondered them so deeply, and now argue about them with such vehemence? Actually, what is at stake here is no merely arcane or antiquarian matter, but the intellectual legitimacy of present-day American institutions and life. To become aware of history is to be made aware of alternatives to the present. To learn about other political philosophies is to realize that the one under which we live is not the only possible one.

This realization is all the more vivid if it can be shown that alternative philosophies are not alien, but were actually believed, followed, and implemented in America. Those who would like to see the existing American system of private property and individual rights replaced with a different system, something more redistributive, perhaps more socialistic, and more humane (in the eyes of its advocates), feel they have a stake in drawing attention to alternative value systems that once commanded significant support in this country. History can be used as a political weapon and a moral example.

Barry Shain, in his new book The Myth of American Individualism, makes no bones about his political purposes. He writes, he explains, to address contemporary needs, to identify a political philosophy both "democratic and communal," one that "meets the needs of America's more progressive citizens."

Himself a political scientist, Shain undertakes to collect and summarize the work of a generation of historians of early America in such a form that their conclusions can be absorbed and used by his fellow students of American politics. Shain plays the role of an academic mediator, a Marco Polo who has visited another scholarly world and returns to tell what he has found and what it implies for his own world.

As a title, The Myth of American Individualism is not only deliberately provocative, it may be misleading. Shain does not claim that American individualism doesn't really exist; indeed, he worries that there is too much individualism in America today. What he argues is that the individualism of present-day America is supported by the myth that no other political philosophy but that of individual natural rights has ever prevailed in America, and this myth he sets out to shatter.

American society was not originally individualistic, he argues, but only became so after the Revolution. And the shared value system that Shain claims antedated the natural-rights philosophy of Lockean liberalism in America is Protestant Christianity. The form of Christianity that most interests him is Reformed (that is, Calvinist) in theology and sectarian in organization; it was transplanted to the Atlantic coast of North America by various groups, most of them religious dissenters from European state churches. These included English Puritans and Quakers, French Huguenots, Scottish and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and German pietists.

What concerns Shain about these people is not what they themselves valued most highly--their personal spiritual relationship with the risen Christ. What he likes is the fact that their way of life constituted a form of democratic communalism. They bore collective witness to their faith in defiance of temporal authorities and despite frequent hardship. They were people who restrained their emotional and hedonistic impulses--a trait that Shain also approves. They maintained "watch and ward" over each other to preserve their community discipline, guarding each other against the opportunity to sin, and rendering mutual aid and comfort.

Shain has rendered a valuable service in calling attention to the power of Protestant Christianity in early American political culture. In many ways his emphasis on the importance of the small community--the church and the town alike, although he doesn't distinguish them--is well placed. To understand the power of these local communities and their ministerial spokesmen helps us understand many things: for example, how the American Revolution mobilized so much popular enthusiasm in New England, as well as why it commanded less widespread active support in parts of the country where local community ties were more attenuated. In a more general sense, Shain's book also helps us appreciate the constructive role of self-discipline in early American personality development and social life.

For all its virtues, however, Shain's work suffers from his polemical purpose, which narrows his vision. He writes about individualism and communitarianism as if they were mutually exclusive. Actually, he knows better: he points out that the early Americans he studies "did not demand that one discriminate in a zero-sum fashion between the true good of the individual and that of the public." Yet, even if they did not treat individualism and communitarianism as alternatives, he conceives his thesis as if it were so. If Protestantism was important, he argues, individualism must not have been. Shain virtually equates Protestant Christianity with communalism, because that is the only aspect of it with which he concerns himself. What he recommends to us in the end is not Christianity itself, only its support for community values.

But Christianity, even within the Reformed tradition alone, is too broad a tradition to be restricted to the polemical purposes of Barry Shain. In reality, Reformed Christianity nurtured not only communalism but also individualism in early America.

Reformed Protestants rejected those aspects of the Catholic faith that had justified priestly prerogatives: the sacrament of penance and absolution; the authority of the pope and his cardinals; the right of the church to interpret and supplement Scripture. In getting rid of this overlay of clericalism, Protestantism empowered the common layperson to assume control over his or her destiny in the next world--and, by eventual implication, in this world as well. The name for this personal authority in Protestant theology was "the priesthood of all believers." One of its important facets was the right of private judgment in the interpretation of Scripture. The radically democratic vision of Reformed Christianity embraced individualistic aspects as well as community responsibility.

Rather than seeing Protestant religion as a collectivist obstacle to American individualism, it would be more accurate to see Protestantism as helping pave the way for it. The principal philosophy of individualism in America has been Lockean liberalism, as Shain acknowledges; he prefers to speak of "individualism" rather than "liberalism" simply because the latter term has come to mean so many different things.

In fact, many colonial and revolutionary Americans had no difficulty at all being both good Protestants and Lockean liberals. Indeed, John Locke himself typified the relationship between the two: He was the son of an officer who served in the parliamentary army during the English Puritan revolution; he allied himself politically with the Protestant religious dissenters and was himself a member of the Low Church (i.e., Protestant) wing of the Church of England.

Michael Zuckert's Natural Rights and the New Republicanism is an examination of the origins of the philosophy of liberalism, that is, individualism. Zuckert belongs to the group of scholars who feel that the search for collectivism in early American political thought has gone far enough, and now it is time to take another look at the liberalism of Locke. So Zuckert began his work, intending to write a book about the intellectual basis for the founding of the American republic. As he traced the origins of his topic, however, what he ended up writing was a book on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English intellectual history.

Zuckert analyzes the rationale for resistance to royal authority in early-modern England, because that was the tradition in which the American revolutionaries were trained. (One might add that so long as the Americans were engaged in dialogue with British adversaries, they had to employ language that the other side in the debate would understand and had to appeal to principles the other side might acknowledge.) Within the Anglo-American tradition of opposition to the divine right of kings, Zuckert identifies three components: Protestantism, Whiggery, and Lockean liberalism.

The political implications of Protestantism proved critically important in the Puritan Revolution of the 1640s. By subordinating the king's will to God's will as revealed in Scripture, Protestantism provided a lever for resisting royal authority. By contrast, Whig arguments were secular, drawn from legal principles embodied in English constitutionalism and the great Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius; they figured prominently in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Finally, Zuckert turns to his third version of opposition to royal prerogative--the third generation, so to speak--Lockean liberalism. Based on belief in natural rights, this was the principal rationale for the American Revolution in the 1770s.

For each of these philosophical positions, Zuckert provides a sophisticated and lucid analysis related to the context of the times. He even does the same for the defenders of the divine right of kings.

Zuckert calls the Lockean philosophy invoked by the Americans the "new" republicanism in order to distinguish it from earlier forms of "classical" republicanism endorsed by ancient, Renaissance, and seventeenth-century theorists. Like Shain, Zuckert believes that the role of classical republicanism in Anglo-American political thought has been much exaggerated by some recent historians.

One should recognize that Zuckert's term "new" is relative, however; Locke's ideas were already more than three-quarters of a century old by the time of the American Revolution. American scholars have a tendency to adopt Locke as one of their own and write about him as if he were an American who lived in the 1770s. Zuckert, to his credit, acknowledges that what was really new in the American Revolution was not the discovery of Locke's principles of natural rights but the first attempt to implement them on a large scale.

After having carefully distinguished Locke's philosophy from that of classical republicanism, Zuckert acknowledges that the two got mixed up again in the brilliant polemics of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, whose devastating critiques of corruption at court were published (with prudent anonymity) as Cato's Letters in the 1720s. Within a structure of argument that was essentially Lockean, based on natural rights and government by consent, "Cato" also made use of certain favorite debating points of the classical republicans, such as the moral dangers of unrestrained avarice. Cato's synthesis became the ideological and rhetorical basis for the American Revolution half a century later. In the end, the "new republicanism" of the Americans included both Lockean and classical elements, although the Lockean side was dominant.

As Cato's synthesis suggests, Barry Shain's concentration upon the polarities of individual and community creates a false sense of opposition. In the last analysis, what is crucial for maintaining civility in a free society is not the subordination of the individual to the community but that individuality should be expressed in a responsible and disciplined manner.

The old-fashioned distinction between liberty and license was not such a bad way of expressing this truth. Early Americans recognized this; they believed in liberalism but not in hedonism. When Thomas Jefferson declared that "the pursuit of happiness" was a natural right, he didn't mean a life of self-indulgence but a life of self-fulfillment, through the education and profitable employment of one's natural faculties.

Early Americans subscribed to a model of the human personality in which two faculties of the mind were acknowledged as rational: conscience (often called the "moral sense") and prudence (self-interest). All acknowledged that in a properly balanced character, these would be the number one and number two motives, respectively; they would control the actions of the individual, and to them the various 'passions' (emotions and appetites) of human nature would be subordinated. Unfortunately, as people realized, the strength of the faculties of the will varied inversely with their rank in the sequence of rightful precedence. Although conscience was rightfully supreme, it was notoriously the weakest of motives; the unreliable passions were the strongest, with prudence somewhere in between. The task of law, aided by religion, custom, and public opinion, was to strengthen the conscience within each individual. The virtuous individual was one who, employing such helps as society provided, developed a balanced character, that is, one in which each faculty was properly developed in relation to the others and in which one's talents were developed to the fullest. The virtuous person accordingly engaged in both self-discipline and self-improvement--or, as they might alternatively be termed, self-control and self-development. This ideal of character development, prevalent not only in early America but on both sides of the Atlantic, was readily harmonized with both Reformed Christianity and Lockean liberalism, as well as with classical republicanism. It was an admirable ideal that related the well-being of the individual to that of society.

Much of what Shain and Zuckert write about early American thought demonstrates the prevalence of this model of the human faculties and their proper development. "Americans believed that the passions of the self must be constrained within a social framework," Shain rightly declares. But the constraints on passion that early Americans recognized were not only social but also personal. The supremacy of reason over passion was even more important than the supremacy of society over self. Zuckert points out that in the liberal philosophy of Locke and "Cato," individuals are treated as "able to give shape and form to their lives, able to suspend their desires and act on reason." The subordination of the bad self to the good self, of passion and impulse to reason and conscience, was a major theme of political, social, and literary discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was this intrapersonal subordination, not that of the individual to the community, that the writers most often praised and demanded.

This model of the individual faculties and their proper relationship to each other influenced the teachings of Anglo-American political philosophy. Cato's Letters made the point as well as any number of Americans: "The world is governed by men, and men by their passions." While the purpose of all government is to restrain the passions of the subjects, the purpose of constitutional government is to restrain the passions of the rulers as well. The greatest exposition of the philosophy of the American Constitution, The Federalist Papers of 1787, explains the functioning of the proposed institutions of government in terms of maintaining the supremacy of reason over passion, of wisdom and virtue over licentiousness.

The recognition of the role of government in relation to the faculties of the individual brings us to the last of the three books under review: David Greenstone's The Lincoln Persuasion. The late David Greenstone was, at the time of his premature death, writing a major re-evaluation of the American political tradition. This book is the unfinished product that he left behind.

Defying the recent interest in non-Lockean philosophies, Greenstone chose to return to a study of Lockean liberalism as the principal fount of American political thinking and institutions. Zuckert's book--along with others by such scholars as Thomas Pangle, Joyce Appleby, and J. R. Pole, who have also reaffirmed the enduring importance of Lockean liberal thought in America--may be taken as legitimating Greenstone's decision. What Greenstone discovered, however, was that liberalism itself branched into two versions in America, which he called "humanist liberalism" and "reform liberalism."

The two versions of liberal individualism derived from two different attitudes toward the process of self-discipline or self-development. Some American liberals have emphasized the right to self-development and have accordingly stressed the importance of eliminating external constraints that inhibit individuals from pursuing their own preferences. These Greenstone calls "humanist liberals." Their goal he calls "negative liberty." But other American liberals have emphasized the duty to self-development, and have accordingly stressed not simply the absence of constraints but the presence of positive help and incentives to individuals to develop their potential. These Greenstone calls "reform liberals," and their goal he calls "positive liberty." Among the "reform liberals" have been those who worked to redeem people who needed help in shaping their own characters, such as alcoholics, criminals, and the insane, though "reform liberalism" is also concerned to help perfectly normal people realize their potential.

Greenstone then offers a set of essays treating various American political leaders who personify and illustrate his argument. As humanist liberals he offers Thomas Jefferson, Stephan A. Douglas, and Martin Van Buren; as reform liberals he offers John Quincy Adams, Frederick Douglass, and Lydia Maria Child. (Unfortunately, not all of the illustrative essays actually got written before the author's death.) The book takes its title from its climactic section, in which Greenstone shows how Abraham Lincoln remade American liberalism by synthesizing the two liberal ideals. As the emancipator of slaves, Lincoln removed the most oppressive of all constraints on individual self-realization, a "humanist liberal" goal. Yet he also went beyond such a merely negative interpretation of liberty; he believed that people had a duty to pursue self-improvement, and he supported such "reform liberal" causes as public education and temperance in the interest of providing positive help in this undertaking. Lincoln's devotion to promoting American economic development (by transportation projects and a protective tariff) can be seen as his way of fostering a diversified society in which people would have wider scope for the development of their various talents than agriculture alone could offer. Even in its truncated form, Greenstone's book constitutes a profound exploration of the meaning of the American political tradition and its relation to the formation of individual character.

Despite their differences, there is, perhaps, a message here for us in these three books. Such a lesson might run something like this: By comparison with the earlier America we have been reading about, American society today is dangerously hedonistic and preoccupied with a kind of irresponsible individualism. American society needs to find some way to reassert the moral values on which the country was founded, to proclaim and defend them in family, church, and school, so as to inscribe them in individual personalities. People need to undertake self-discipline, to accept responsibility not only for their actions but also for their character, and to undertake to reshape their character as necessary, subordinating "passion" (what we would call short-term emotional gratification) to conscience and rationality.

Whether we continue to subscribe to a national philosophy of individual natural rights, as Zuckert evidently believes we should, or trade it in for a new and undefined form of communitarianism, as Shain hopes we will do, seems a matter of less immediate urgency. (My own view would favor neither of the above, but that would be another story.) Whatever philosophy we embrace as a people should be one that makes adequate provision for the nurture and development of the moral self, for the full realization of the potential of each individual, as Greenstone reminds us that Abraham Lincoln taught.

Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE, magazine

November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 22


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