Benjamin Franklin and the American Philosophy

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, on January 1706. Little more than two years younger than Jonathan Edwards, that may have been the only point on which he was close to Edwards. The youngest son among his father’s 17 children, Franklin was quick enough mentally, that Josiah Franklin paid to have the boy put to the grammar school at eight years of age, with the view towards devoting young Benjamin to the service of the Church. That lasted for only a year.

In 1718, young Benjamin was apprentice to his older brother James, a printer. Printers occupy an unusual place in the intellectual history of early America. If the clergy were the aristocrats of the mind, printers were its men of all work; since printers lived by publishing newspapers, almanacs and books. They were not supported by a salary paid by compulsory taxes the way the clergy were, they had to sell their own products. And in order to make a profit from that, they had to be well-read themselves, so that they could pick up from European book sellers things likely to sell in America, or publish works which they were confident will sell in their own shops.

Printers were a unique class, they had one foot in the world of tradesmen who worked with their hands and the other foot in the literate world of transatlantic books and periodicals.

The insider’s view of the world of the printers inclined them to skepticism, even when they even may had some profits from selling religious books. Into this world, Benjamin Franklin fit like a hand to a glove.

While working for his brother, he perpetrated the first of his many literary hoaxes by submitting a series of letters to Cotton Mather in particular and Harvard College in general. James Franklin unwillingly published these letters, and then, when he discovered that it was his brother who had actually written them, fired young Benjamin, who left the town. On October 6th 1723, he arrived to Philadelphia.

Franklin set up his own printing shop, and by the 1730’s, he began issuing a highly popular newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He won very profitable printing contracts from the Pennsylvania assembly. He invested in a series of franchise print shops in Indianapolis, Savannah, Newcastle, New London and Boston. He issued a successful annual almanac, Poor Richard's Almanack. He even wangled the unofficial designation as George Whitefield’s printer of choice, thereby earning a fortune from the sales of Whitefield’s journals and other books.

Looking for a New Religion

At age 42, Benjamin Franklin was wealthy enough to commission the painting of his portrait and to turn the printing business to a partner, so that he could devote himself to the philosophical interests which had increasingly come to dominate his attention.

Benjamin Franklin always nursed something of the bitterness that often accompanies people who are aware of their intellectual talents, but who had been stopped by circumstances from cultivating them. The wealth he had earned in printing now gave him that chance. He was determined to show how much better he could manage on his own. He taught himself languages, he won appointments to political offices. He founded the club which became the American Philosophical Society, the library which became the Library Company, and the school which became the Academy of Philadelphia.

He tried to attend the city’s Presbyterian Church, as the closest thing to the Congregationalism in which he had been raised in Boston; but he had no time for the polemic arguments of the minister, Jedediah Andrews. What Franklin really wanted to hear was about moral principles, and so not hearing that from Jedediah Andrews, he stayed at home and devised his own version of rational Enlightened religion.

Benjamin the Scientist and Inventor

But what gained Franklin the international notice he really craved, were his experiments in electricity. Electricity was, so to speak, a mysterious force in the Enlightenment. Isaac Newton defined the motion of the universe as the action, not of qualities within substances or divine decrees, but of a force: gravity. It was a force that was impersonal, and which was capable of being computed mathematically. Electricity was a good candidate for a second such force, specially after Newton’s disciple, Francis Hauksbee, was able to generate electrical bursts by rubbing glass.

Unlike gravity, generating electricity by means of a friction machine was a lot more of fun. Franklin was captivated by electricity from the first time he saw one of these demonstrations in 1746. But his interests pointed beyond entertainment to real science. In 1747, Franklin sent a series of letters to the Royal Society in London, demonstrating that lighting was in fact a form of electricity. This was actually a pretty serious assertion, because lighting was regarded in this overwhelmingly agricultural society as a mysterious and capricious force at best, and even a sign of divine wrath.

Redefining lighting as electricity instantly downgraded it to the level of a natural force, and made it potentially as manipulable as gravity. Partly, this satisfied Franklin’s skeptical religious reflexes. It also gave him the satisfaction of having tumbled to a scientific insight almost as significant as Newton’s about gravity.

But the Royal Society ignored his letters and his pretensions to gentlemanly science. Franklin was forced to work around the Royal Society in order to get recognition, by publishing “Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin” in April 1751. The book eventually went through five editions, and translations into Italian, French and German. Nothing, said Joseph Priestley, was ever written upon the subject of electricity which was more generally read and admired in all parts of Europe than these letters.

Almost as an afterthought, in 1752, Franklin published an account of a further experiment with lightening and electricity, flying a kite with a key in a thunder storm, to demonstrate that lightening could be drawn naturally like any other form of electricity. There is no evidence that Franklin actually attempted this experiment himself, and with a good reason, because anyone who reflects for a moment such an experiment, would realize that this is a very direct way of getting oneself killed. In fact, the famous kite and key experiment may have merely been Franklin’s way of suggesting one of the various means by which the members of the Royal Society could all electrocute themselves.

Franklin and The American Philosophical Society

Franklin was not the only Philadelphian who founded the city’s love of science. He was not, in fact, even the most influential of them, largely because, after 1757, Franklin spent most of the next 20 years in England and Europe, acting as agent and representative for Pennsylvania and the other colonies in London. The real center of Philadelphia’s Enlightenment would be the American Philosophical Society, modeled on a private club Franklin had once organized, the Junto, and now revivified as a colonial scientific society. Twice a month, between October and May; and once a month during the summer, members of the American Philosophical Society, who totaled 251 by 1769, met in Philadelphia to hear scientific papers read, participate in discussions of scientific subjects, and to look over new books received for the Society’s library.

First among equals in the American Philosophical Society was Ebenezer Kinnersley, a one time Baptist minister who criticized the Awakening and its "preaching of terror" in favor of a religion of reason, and who became Franklin’s chief apprentice as a scientific and electrical experimenter. Francis Allison, take another case, was an anti-revivalist Presbyterian minister who “may stand against enthusiasm and wild disorders that are likely to destroy religion and even ruin our churches”.

Two prominent physicians also stood out from the membership of the APS, William Shippen and Benjamin Rush, both of whom were trained in the very epicenter of the Scottish Enlightenment, the University of Edimburg.

But the most talented of all Philadelphians was the shy mathematician and instrument maker, David Rittenhouse, who joined the APS in 1768; and who was theorist enough to solve the problem of determining from a few observations the orbit of a comet, and also mechanic enough to make with his own hands a telescope. There was a man after Benjamin Franklin’s own heart. When the APS joined, in the single greatest scientific experiment of the Enlightenment, the worldwide sighting of the sun’s transit of Venus in 1769, it was Rittenhouse who was commissioned to build the astronomical clock necessary to time the transit.

It has been easy to mistake Kinnersley and the others as mere extensions of Franklin’s interest, or to assume that like Rittenhouse, they were all dedicated to the enterprise of reducing the universe to mere clockwork. But in fact, there was a serious parting of the ways between Franklin and the rest of the Philadelphian Enlightenment. That parting of the ways occurred principally on the subject of religion.

Franklin’s Deism and the Religion of Philadelphia

Benjamin Franklin was, at best, a Deist. Deism was the Enlightenment’s shorthand way of describing someone who rejected traditional Christianity as irrational, but who retained belief in some sort of deity, who could be defined in reasonable terms and does not interfere with the operation of Isaac Newton’s laws. Franklin himself defined his own Deism in terms of five highly minimalistic principles.

  • That there is one god who made all things.
  • He governs the world by his providence.
  • He ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer and thanksgiving; but that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.
  • The soul is immortal.
  • God will reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.

The Philadelphian Enlightenment, however, had a much more expansive view of religion than Benjamin Franklin. For Kinnersley, the purpose of science was to dispel superstition, but also to open the path to an accurate appreciation of God’s glory.

Francis Allison taught that God actively directed the nature, powers, orders, changes and connections of all things, and will never allow the universe to spiral down into the vortex of what Allison called blind chance.

Like the Scottish Enlightenment, Philadelphia’s religion was balanced between nature and grace. Natural law was held and understood to explain a great deal, but it did not explain everything; just as by the same token, the Bible, as God’s revelation of his purposes, explained a great deal but not with absolute certainty. Divine revelation and religious intuition formed the first principles of human knowledge, but a second step into scientific experiment and investigation was needed to confirm and expand upon that grace.

The Philadelphian Enlightenment embraced a mix of faith and skepticism, of nature and grace. Once again, this offers us the image of Puritanism and the Enlightenment stirring the intellectual history of America.

The Decline of Philadelphia

Philadelphia might had a better chance of making Philadelphia’s Enlightenment into America’s philosophy, had it not been for the battering Philadelphia received during the Revolution. Occupied by the British in 1777, and then trampled over by radical Revolution mobs in the 1780’s, many of the institution and individuals on which Philadelphia’s Enlightenment had rested, either disappeared or reappeared diminished.

Benjamin Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1775, but only to be sent a year later to France to bring the French to Revolutionary’s Americas aid. He did not return for a decade, and he died in 1790.

Rittenhouse died in 1796, having been passed over by the APS for the delivery of Franklin’s eulogy. Benjamin Rush died in 1813, after furiously trying to persuade Philadelphians that the recurring yellow fever epidemics were best cured by purging and bleeding. Somehow they never made the connection with those clouds of mosquitoes.

The APS itself met only intermittently during revolutionary crisis, and they stopped meeting altogether after 1776 for the duration of the war. The Academy of Philadelphia was shut down by the revolutionaries, and the university operated by the Pennsylvania legislature was erected in its place not until 1790. Philadelphia, which had functioned as the political center of America as its revolutionary capital, and then as its capital under the new Constitution from 1790 to 1800, lost that title and lost that central political position in American affairs to the new Federal District of Columbia. By 1800, Philadelphia’s Enlightenment, if not exactly over, was certainly moribund. The task of making the spirit of Puritanism and the Enlightenment work together now fell to other hands.


The Arising of Philadelphia as the Intellectual Capital of America

Friday, March 20, 2009

If America had an intellectual capital before 1740, then it would had to have been Boston. The two major printers of books in the British colonies in the late 1600’s, Samuel Green and John Foster, were both headquartered in Boston or its neighboring towns. Boston led the way on the number of active book sellers, with as many as 15 by 1740. Having Harvard college as its near neighbor also guaranteed a certain critical intellectual mass to the Boston area. But Boston was also home to an equally critical artistic mass. As Boston’s merchants prospered, they celebrated their successes by commissioning portraits of themselves. By the mid 1700’s, Boston had developed, if not exactly a school of portraiture, then at least a self-conscious concentration of highly talented portrait artists: John Smybert, John Greenwood, Joseph Badger; and the finest painter colonial America would ever produce: John Singleton Copley.

Yet, all of these achievements somehow added up to less than the sum of the Bostonian parts. Copley was exasperated that his talents had to be changed to turning out likenesses of businessmen and merchants, and he yearned for the opportunity to turn his self-taught hand to classical history painting. Was it not for preserving the resemblance of particular persons, painting would not be known in this place, Copley complained. The people generally regarded it no more than any other useful trade like carpentry or shoemaker, nor as one of the most noble arts in the world, which is not a little mortifying to me.

When the political winds of the revolution began to blow in directions that Copley found congenial, he left for New York, and in 1774, for London, never to return to America.

The Quaker’s Pennsylvania

Whatever intellectual dominance Boston enjoyed before 1740, it came mainly by default rather than design. The prize, after 1740, of being an intellectual capital, increasingly belonged not to Boston but to Philadelphia. Founded in 1682 as the capital of William Penn’s Pennsylvania, Philadelphia enjoyed nothing like a promising beginning as an intellectual capital for America.

The Quakers, William Penn’s religious society of friends, as they preferred to call themselves, was the last and most radical of the radical sects spun by English Puritanism in the 17th century. Where the Puritans had questioned the authority of bishops, the Quakers questioned the authority of any clergy. Where the Puritans refused to accept anything but the text of scripture as their religious authority, the Quakers refused to accept even that, considering it too carnal and worldly. They looked to their own religious consciousness for the testimony of the light within. And where the Puritans understood that depravity was too deeply rooted in the human heart for any discipline to expect to succeed entirely, the Quakers fully expected that they could and should attain perfection for themselves and their neighbors.

These were not people with much use for theological, philosophical or classical learning. Penn’s goal for his colony and his city was a social uniformity that would made Boston look like Las Vegas. Untrustworthy of traditional cities, Penn laid out Philadelphia as a city with broad streets meeting at right angles, so that vice and misery might have no place to hide from the inspection of those perfected by the light within. He expected the countryside around Pennsylvania would be laid out for farmers and settlers in continuous townships, with Quaker meeting houses located serenely in the center, to give order and happiness to Quaker life. For, as Penn put it, the most convenient bringing up of youth.

A Varied Landscape

Well, there are no optimists more surely destined for disappointment than those who believe in human perfectibility. William Penn became a good lesson in that kind of disappointment. Penn’s fellow Quakers showed little disposition to join him in creating a Quaker paradise in Pennsylvania. They never numbered more than a fraction of the total population, and Penn could only sell land in Pennsylvania by offering it to a wide and dismaying variety of non-Quakers, even non-English. That rapidly turned Pennsylvania into a mixture of European nationalities, religions and languages. Specially religions.

Pennsylvania became the stopping point for Mennonites from Switzerland, Dunkers from the German principalities, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Scot-Irish Presbyterians, English Baptists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics. Some of these immigrants were fully as radical and fully as suspicious of any learning that seemed to dump on the impulse of the spirit as the Quakers. But the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the German Calvinists and the Anglicans, that together amounted to half of Pennsylvania’s population by the time of the revolution, came from traditions with long intellectual allegiances, and had a strong tendency for establishing schools to reinforce those allegiances.

When the pro-Whitefield Presbyterians split from the anti-revival Presbyterians during the Great Awakening, they had to find new ways of training pro-revival clergy. So, they ended up founding four separate theological academies, starting with the Log College. And instead of turning to finishing schools for renters, all of these academies quickly settled down to promoting learned languages, liberal arts, sciences and divinity. The Moravians, the Baptists, even the Quakers, all organized religious schools to nurture their offspring between 1720 and 1740. And anti-revival Church of England people were the leading hand behind the creation of the Academy of Philadelphia in 1751, which became the College of Philadelphia, and then the University of Pennsylvania.

By 1773, even the Lutherans in Pennsylvania had organized a German seminary. Certainly, one factor which made this proliferation of schools possible was Philadelphia’s rise to commercial power in the British colonies. From a population of 13000 in 1740, Philadelphia grew to 40000 in 1776. And its commerce down to Delaware Bay dominated the colonial coastal trade. Philadelphia’s wealth, combined with the need of its competing factions of self-justification and self-promotion, certainly provided a wide variety of forms for a good deal of self-justification and self-promotion, including 120 licenses to taverns, the American Philosophical Society, the College of Physicians and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

But Philadelphia’s richest intellectual assets laid in the remarkable cluster of Enlightenment thinkers who came to gather there between 1740 and 1790, to make Philadelphia not just America’s preeminent intellectual city, but the Enlightenment’s preeminent outpost in America. Among those thinkers, none enjoyed greatest standing, at home or abroad, than Benjamin Franklin.


The American Revolution

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More than merely signaling America’s political dissolution from the British empire, the Revolution pegged the republic Americans would create to the expectations and principles of the Enlightenment: to Locke, to the classical and liberal republicans, to Harrington and others. Thus Americans dissolved not only their political ties to Britain, but their intellectual ties to the long train of the traditional European past.

In this series of articles we are going to try to understand the intellectual background and the ideas behind the Revolution:

  • Common Sense and the American Mind: From the synthesis of Scottish common sense philosophy and moderate Calvinism would flower the first creative era of the American conversation about ideas between religion and the Enlightenment, between God and nature. A conversation that in many ways we still participate in.
  • The Beginnings of American Liberalism: By a process that few people in London understood, the rowdy lowlife who departed for the colonies a century before, had turned into competitors for economic dominance within the Empire. They had developed an anglicised elite who thought of themselves as the equals of their English cousins. And they created domestic legislatures exercising powers that were technically illegal, and elected by farmers who had an unpleasantly passion for independence. All the Americans lacked was a political philosophy to give it all coherence. In the 1760’s, the imperial government unwillingly provided them with it.
  • John Locke’s Political Theory and Its Influence on American Thinking: Locke is what we might call the prophet of Liberalism. I don’t mean liberal or liberalism in the party politics sense that we use it today. What I’m talking about is the classical Liberalism of the Enlightenment, which was concerned with abolishing the monarchy, making reason rather than tradition the guide of political life, and downplaying the role of inherited and non-rational factors like race, religion or language; and to look expectantly to the future for progress. It is in this sense that virtually all Americans, no matter what political party identification they might have, are classical Lockean liberals. This is because we identify ourselves as Americans by a loyalty to a series of what Abraham Lincoln called “propositions”. We identify ourselves by allegiance to these propositions, not by our identification with a certain ethnic group or religious denomination. We identify ourselves by certain propositions about liberty. We are, in that sense, all liberals; and America is the perfect example of a classic liberal regime.
  • A Close Look at the American Revolution: It only remained for Thomas Paine, in the revolution’s most sensational pamphlet, “Common Sense”, to conclude that a King had little more to do than to wage war and give away places, which in plain terms is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. However, old habits and sentimental attachments to the old country did not die quickly. It took ten years, from 1764 to 1774, for the mounting cycle of accusation and confrontation to turn into violent resistance on the part of the colonials in the infamous Boston tea party of December 1774. After that, though, the trajectory of violence turned sharply upwards.


The Age of Enlightenment

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Unlike wars, treatises, elections or epidemics; the Enlightenment is an intellectual event. That’s a warning sign that explanations, timelines and conflicts are going to be a lot more messy and confusing than when we are dealing with the usual stock and trade of history people: battles, kings, plagues, etc.

We can place at least its remote beginnings as early as 1543, when Nicholas Copernicus published his “Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies”. And the endings of the Enlightenment can be placed as late as 1850, with the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the French Revolution.

We could boil the Enlightenment down to two basic attitudes. The first would be the primacy of reason: the mind is not content with simply being told that something is true. It is not even content with admitting that someone else can be exactly be proved wrong. The mind has to be shown that something is true by standards of consistency and physical evidence which satisfy one’s own reason.

The second great aspect of the Enlightenment was its reverence for the testimony of nature. Because it was nature, newly measurable through scientific instruments as the telescope and the microscope, which afforded the raw materials upon which reason would operate. In nature, diligent experimenters would discover the real order of things, not the artificial one invented by Aristotle and the logic textbooks.

The Enlightenment made a lot of questions. But at the end of the day, its fundamental question was about epistemology, about how we know things.

In the midst of this Enlightenment there occurs a remarkably and utterly impressive reawakening of the most intense and “aggressive” forms of Evangelical Christianity.

In protestant Germany it appeared in the form of what became known as Pietism. In England it appeared in the Methodist revival of John Wesley. But in all of them, the most intense and passionate Christian piety was reawakened across Europe, in great number and force, which made the Enlightenment look shallow and inconsequential. Even though nothing could be more certain than the spiritual and intellectual gulf which separates these awakenings from the spirit of the Enlightenment, it is important to see that the Enlightenment and the Awakenings shared some important common ground.

There was, as it turned out, more than one way to have a revolution against Aristotle. In general, the awakenings shared with the Enlightenment the skepticism about the usefulness and virtue of the established churches in Europe, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. They also shared the impulse to find a more authentic and natural kind of experience. The Enlightenment wanted to abandon Christianity almost entirely and uncover a more basic and authentic religion of nature. The Awakeners did not want to abandon Christianity, but they sought to recover a more basic and authentic religion as well. Not the religion of nature, but the religion of the heart. The true piety of primitive basic Christianity.

These Awakeners would read the new science, but use it to prove the impotence and limitations of the human reason before a universal system so vast and incomprehensible. It is at this point in the history of the American mind that the name of Jonathan Edwards springs almost automatically to the lips.

One of the gifts of the Great Awakening to British North America was the founding of new colleges: Princeton, Rhode Island College, which became Brown University; Queen’s College, founded by Dutch sympathizers with the Awakening in New Jersey; and Dartmouth College, which began as a missionary school for Indians, but it was moved by its founder to New Hampshire. These were only the colleges most directly nurtured by the awakening. Two others: the College of Philadelphia and King’s College in New York City, which was renamed Columbia after the American Revolution; also in varying degrees bore the footprint of the Awakening.

In this series of articles we will talk about the Age of Enlightenment and its effects in America, including the Great Awakening:

  • What was the Enlightenment: The Enlightenment is often thought of as an 18th century event. That is only partly true. We can place at least its remote beginnings as early as 1543, when Nicholas Copernicus published his “Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies”. And the endings of the Enlightenment can be placed as late as 1850, with the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the French Revolution.
  • The Enlightenment in America: Throughout the colonies, there was a self-conscious effort to Anglicize colonial life through the deliberate imitation of metropolitan institutions, values and cultures. They wanted, in other words, to think of themselves primarily as Britons rather than the descendants of convicts and religious oddballs.
  • Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening: Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703. People who try to stay astride of conflicting intellectual movements, with one foot in one camp and one foot on another, or one foot in one answer and one foot in another; are usually destroyed by the conflict between the two. Edwards is that rare exception, who instead, turns conflicts into a creative intellectual fusion, in this case, of Enlightenment and piety.


American Puritanism

In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther raised the banner of theological rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church in what has become universally known as the Protestant Reformation. In Switzerland, a French protestant named John Calvin reconstituted the organization of the Church. The Church had always been a hierarchy, with the bishop of dioceses at the top and the Pope in Rome as the bishop of the bishops; the priests below and the lay people underneath. Calvin refashioned this hierarchy, with priests now renamed as elders or presbyters ruling the churches jointly with lay leaders. Calvin also refined and expanded Luther’s theological protests, so that a uniquely Calvinist protestant theology eventually emerged.

King Henry VIII of England brought his kingdom into the Protestant column in the 1530’s guided strictly by a political desire to get the Pope’s meddling fingers out of his realm. Henry lived and died with the notion that he could deny the sovereignty of the Pope in England while retaining traditional Catholic theology and the structure of bishops, priests and people; only with himself rather than the Pope at the top of the hierarchy. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, who became Queen of England in 1558, settled matters down in pretty much the shape her father had expected.

Elizabeth made life exceptionally nasty for anyone who clung to the old Catholic ways. Any kind of affection for Catholicism was treated by Elizabeth in England as treason. But life could be as nasty for those English protestants who felt that Elizabeth had left entirely too many of the old Catholic ways in place. They considered Calvin as the model and solution for English Christianity. Elizabeth regarded them as been fully as much apart as the Catholics. These were the people who became known first as Precicians, because they wanted to be too precise about Church reformation. Then eventually as Puritans.

In this articles we will try to understand Puritan thinking, how they came to America looking for freedom of religion, and how they had a lasting impact in the American mind.

  • The Essence of Puritan Thinking and the Exodus to the Americas: Leaving 17th century England was a little like trying to leave the old Soviet Union. Unless you had a very plausible reason, the attempt was interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction. They organized themselves as a commercial enterprise, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and they were all going to make their fortunes in America. Within ten years, the Massachusetts Bay Company welcomed several thousand Puritan refugees and set up a string of thriving towns stretching Westward from the principal settlement Boston.


A Close Look at the American Revolution

When in the 1660’s, the English Parliament began its first halting attempts at regulating the external commercial traffic of the colonies across the Atlantic, regulation of external commerce was not a new idea. Europeans governments had always kept a mistrustful grip on business. In societies where monarchs and land-owning noblemen were understood to have a heaven right to rule, merchants and entrepreneurs were regarded as a pretty suspicious, maybe even subversive lot. After all, the profit of merchants and entrepreneurs and businessmen were not based on land. They did not rise or fall according to the nobility or their forbears. In a world that praised stability, commerce and enterprise meant instability. So, kings regularly shackled it by handing out monopoly charters over large stretches of their economies.

But the Enlightenment put its faith in measurable realities. The most obvious measurable reality was that commerce could do the empire a whole lot more good if it was directed intelligently and with the due respect for the numbers rather than for some chicken-brained duke or earl. So, hand in hand with Isaac Newton’s effort to reduce motion in the universe to equations, Enlightenment’s imperial planners in London began fashioning regulatory legislation over the colonies and their transatlantic commerce, which would reap profits in taxes and duties for the empire. They were not particularly successful, at least at first. Regulation may generate revenue, but it also costs money to enforce. The Crown was pathologically reluctant to pay the kinds of troops and ships it needed for the proper enforcement of the regulation of transatlantic commerce.

The Cost of War and the New Taxation

Then began the great imperial wars with France, during seven years from 1755 to 1763. Britain emerged from those imperial wars as the victor over France and the world’s first super-power, but at a hideous cost in public borrowing to finance the wars. In casting its eyes around for potential sources of servicing its war-time debts, Parliament’s eyes fell on the American colonies. Regulation, up to this point, has after all only taxed the colonies’ external trade across the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing had been done about extending the hand of the taxman into the internal economies of the colonies to raise taxes, because taxation of the colonies’ domestic economies was something which was done by the colonial legislators. However, the Parliament was the legislature of the Empire, and the colonies were technically simply plantations. If Parliament had needed to raise funds to meet the costs it incurred defending those plantations, why not exercise Parliament’s lawful right to tax the internal colonial economies as well as their commerce over the high seas.

And so, in 1764 began that long and dreary procession of confrontations over tax bills; between the Parliament on one hand, which could not comprehend through its fury why the colonials thought they enjoyed some sort of immunity from taxation of their economies; and the colonies, who could not comprehend through their even greater fury why Parliament would think it could simply take the rights that their legislators had built up without any serious questioning over the course of more than a century.

To the party of the King in Parliament, the Tories, the answer to this conundrum was a simple, traditional and pre-Newtonian one: Americans were rebels by nature and needed to be subordinated to the will of their God-given master, the King. To the colonies, the answer was equally simple, a good deal of it was found in John Locke: societies emerge from the State of Nature, as individuals agree to sacrifice a part of their natural liberty in order to protect the remainder of their liberty and property, a process more than confirmed by the experience of their own settlements. They had never been plantations, for the very obvious reason that Britain had never treated them that way, or at least never bothered to offer the funding and support which would had made the claim that the colonies were only Parliamentary plantations believable.

So, the colonial legislators were in the mind of the colonists the one true creation of the people of the colonies for their own government. In the first great revolutionary tract, James Otis’ “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved” in 1764, Otis insisted that these supreme powers of legislation should be free and sacred in the hands where the community has once rightfully placed them. That meant the colonial legislators, and not Parliament.

All of this, as the Scottish common sense realist would have said, was open and self-evident to anyone with an unperverted moral sense. But the moral sense can, of course, become perverted if, as John Locke warned, sufficient corruption and degradation occur on the part of the government. Americans who read Whigs satire, or who had long-time beliefs that Anglican bishops were the emissaries of the Antichrist, or that who had to put up with snobs of blue-blood English officers and tax officials, not to mention those who knew the behavior of the average English soldier during his posting in the colonies during the French and Indian wars; did not require much convincing that the mother country was swiftly descending into the mother of whores, and that the whole controversy over taxation was a plot by what Mercy Otis Warren called the “intrigues of artful and ambitious men”.

The Beginnings of the Revolution

It only remained for Thomas Paine, in the revolution’s most sensational pamphlet, “Common Sense”, to conclude that a King had little more to do than to wage war and give away places, which in plain terms is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. However, old habits and sentimental attachments to the old country did not die quickly. It took ten years, from 1764 to 1774, for the mounting cycle of accusation and confrontation to turn into violent resistance on the part of the colonials in the infamous Boston tea party of December 1774. After that, though, the trajectory of violence turned sharply upwards.

In April, British troops stationed in Boston tried to seize arms and ammunition stored by the colonial militia at Lexington and Concord. They found themselves trapped in a full-scale firefight that became the first battle of the revolution against British authority. In July 1776, the representatives of 13 of the British North American colonies, called together as the Continental Congress, announced that their allegiance to Great Britain was at an end, and declared the formation of an independent league, known as the United States of America.

The American Revolution managed to carry along with it almost all the desperate streams of intellectual resistance that set the stage for it, whether or not those streams were like oil and water. Presbyterian preachers, who saw in the new imperial taxation schemes the entering path for an American-Anglican episcopate, turned out in such numbers for the continental army that the Chief Justice of Massachusetts referred to the dissenting clergy who took so active a part in the rebellion as Mr. Otis’ black regiment walking straight out of the days of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan hosts.

Out of the other stream, John Adams, the most talented theorist of what are called Revolution Principles, rejoiced to see in the Revolution the dawning of Enlightenment politics.

The Secular Principles of America

For the time being, the principles of nature and eternal reason, not Puritanism, would have the upper hand in the shaping of the new American order. When the Continental Congress finally casted its vote for independence, it delegated the writing of a legal declaration to preface the independence motion. The independence motion read “that these united colonies are and ought to be free and independent states”. Congress delegated the writing of that declaration to Thomas Jefferson, who in less than two days produced a draft declaration which is one of the most memorable political documents in the English language and a monument of Lockean simplicity and Scottish moral sense philosophy.

One reason why Thomas Jefferson was delegated to write that declaration was that in one sense he had already done so. In 1774, Jefferson had made his first public mark in defense of American rights with a summary view of the rights of British America, which listed in detail the offences of which the imperial government was guilty. To compose a declaration for the independence motion really required little more of Jefferson than the crafting of a series of statements of those offences which justified independence. In fact, a list of 21 such offences forms the bulk of Jefferson’s declaration. The really memorable part of the declaration grew out of Jefferson’s decision to write a preamble to the list. That lifted this otherwise pedestrian document into the realm of Enlightenment political philosophy.

In one long sentence, Jefferson captured the core of the Lockean and Scottish critique of tradition and hierarchy, and made it the nuclear core of the American Revolution.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident”, self evident at least to anyone, as the Scots insisted, possessing an uncorrupted moral sense.

“That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. These, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are what we find in the State of Nature, that is what people are born with naturally.

“That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”. In other words, in an environment of scarcity with lack of security, to preserve these rights, people create governments. Now, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. They don’t come from God and heaven, they don’t come from history and tradition, they don’t come from the nobility or whoever your parents might have been. They come from the consent of the governed.

“That whenever any form of government becomes disruptive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

These words of Jefferson are so familiar that we are no longer shocked by their frankly secular tone, or by the ease with which Jefferson folded so much of the territory of Enlightenment and Whig thinking into one single sentence. Nor are we shocked any longer at the sheer audacity with which the Declaration of Independence propelled American revolutionaries into the front rank of the Enlightenment’s experiment in rewriting the foundations of human society. More than merely signaling America’s political dissolution from the British empire, these words pegged the republic Americans would create to the expectations and principles of the Enlightenment: to Locke, to the classical and liberal republicans, to Harrington and others. Thus Americans dissolved not only their political ties to Britain, but their intellectual ties to the long train of the traditional European past.


Religious Radicalism as a Factor of the American Revolution

Forty years after the beginning of the American Revolution, the two most famous theorists of the Revolution, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, exchanged opinions on how the American colonies could have thrown off British rule so completely, and then on top of that, institute in their new government so complete a repudiation of the British example of government. Adams, gently reminded Jefferson that the change was not nearly so dramatic as he thought. The Revolution, said Adams, was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775 in the course of 15 years before a drop of blood was shed.

Adams was not only right but probably more right than he thought, in the sense that ideas which paved the rout to American independence had been there for much longer, even more than 15 years.

One source was John Locke. Thomas Jefferson, who preferred to see himself as an original thinker, did not like being told that the Declaration of Independence he was delegated to write in 1776 sounded like it was copied from Locke’s treatises on government. But even Jefferson admitted that Locke’s little book on government is perfect as far as it goes. Still, Locke was hardly the only figure on the horizon of American minds before 1776. The Enlightenment as a whole contributed a general resistance to the notion that traditional authorities, including kings and parliaments, had to be deferred to; while the Scottish common sense philosophy offered a particular source of alternative authority in the shared natural sense of truth and right which everyone was supposed to possess, whether they were princes or peasants.

Above all, in the most hard-headed sense, it was the penny-pinching attitude of the imperial government that led the colonies to put the necessity of self-government in the first place. The colonies were astounded at the prospect of parliament trying to change those rules, so to speak, in midstream.

In 1843, when one of the last survivors of the Revolution’s first fight at Lexington was interviewed about the reasons for taking up arms against the British, he was quizzed about whether he had been reading Harrington and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty. I’ve never heard of these men, answered Levi Preston. The questioner, Mellen Chamberlain, then asked: Well, then, what was the matter? Young man, Preston replied, what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to, they didn’t mean we should.

Religious Rebellion in New York

Let’s not underestimate another source of resistance, the religious radicalism that went into founding so many of the colonies, not only the Puritans of New England, but the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Baptists of Rhode Island had their roots in dissent from an established State Church. And even other immigrant religious groups, like Scot-Irish Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, Dutch Calvinists in New York, German Lutherans and Roman Catholics, all of them acted outside the circle of the protestant Church of England culture; and that could lead to political dissent the moment this sense of alienation and being on the margin attached itself to political grievances.

In 1746, the New York assembly decided to establish a college in New York city on a par with Yale, Harvard and the other colonial colleges. As a Crown colony, however, the assembly assumed that the New York college, like Oxford and Cambridge, would have to be a Church of England's college. In other words, its faculty would have to be communicants of the Church of England, the required worship and religious instruction would have to be Church of England’s, and most likely, its students would have at least to publicly conform to the Church of England. But New York had originally been founded by the Dutch, and when the English seized the city in 1664, part of the settlement that allowed for peaceful transition was in agreement not to force the Church of England down Calvinist throats. The result was that New York became a mixed multitude of Dutch reformed Churches, Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews, Baptists; while the actual Anglican communicants of the colony numbered no more than 20% of the population.

For non-Anglicans, the notion that public revenues were going to fund an Anglican college looked like picking their pockets to create a machine whose graduates would proselytize and undermine their Churches. And their dim view of things was not helped by the selection of the Connecticut apostate, Samuel Johnson, as the first president.

In the summer of 1753, shortly before the new King’s College was opened, a terrific pamphlet war broke out in New York, led by the wealthy Presbyterian William Livingston. This was significant for what was to follow. Livingston bases his religious suspicions of the King’s College project on an appeal to Locke’s notion of government. Rulers and magistrates, argued Livingston, occupy their places as men above the rest dependent upon the free exercise of the will of the later for the good of the whole. That obligated the magistrates to the pursuit of the welfare of the community, not to the exercise of favoritism toward one part of it. The transformation of King’s College from a publicly funded college into what Samuel Johnson unwisely called an Anglican seminary was precisely such a perversion. At that moment, Livingston argued, people may consider themselves as in the State of Nature, which authorized resistance and the formation of a new government.

In the end, Livingston campaign failed. King’s College opened its doors in the springs of 1754 with Samuel Johnson at its head. But Johnson was forced to back off on restricting the college only to Anglican communicants. And in 1763, the trustees forced Johnson into retirement and began a process of making King’s into a professional school for New York’s wealthy upper classes.

This is only what happened in places like New York, where the Presbyterianism of William Livingston was still comparatively mild stuff. Among those touched by the Great Awakening, the scorch of revival tended to re-arouse all the anti-authoritarian intellectual habits that a century of occupation and settling down had tended to obscure. Whitefield’s come back with the “Old Lights”, the disruption of Yale by David Brainerd, and Jonathan Edwards’ dismissal from Northampton in 1750 were only the best-known examples of the ease with which religion could rouse the spirit of Puritan contention.

The Religion of Virginia

The Great Awakening came later to Virginia than anywhere else in British North America, since Virginia was complacently Church of England’s and commercial in spirit. But Virginia soon acquired a radical tradition. Through the 1750’s and 1760’s, Scot-Irish Presbyterian migrants from Pennsylvania came to the Shenandoah Valley carrying with them much of Presbyterianism’s Calvinistic fervor. Poor Virginia whites flocked after Scot-Irish evangelical preachings. By 1772, as many as 10% of the whites had joined the most wildly individualistic and self-assertive of all of the Awakening’s churches, the Baptists.

This posed a challenge to the Anglican ascendancy in Virginia, not only because the Baptists increasingly resisted paying taxes to support the Church of England in Virginia, but also because the strict moralism of these evangelical Baptists called the hedonistic life styles of the great planters into question. A Virginian great planter shook his head in despair over this development. The indisposition to our people, he said, proves that we are verging fast towards Republicanism and Puritanism, this to me seems sufficient reason for the King sending a bishop among us, who I hope would in some measure contribute to track a spirit so adverse to our present happy form of government.

He could wish as much like, because there would be no bishop sent to Virginia. One reason being the old problem of the British empire’s reluctance to spend its own cash for anything in America. Instead, the American colonies were treated as an ecclesiastical extension of the Church of England’s dioceses of London. No Bishop of London ever took the trouble to visit America. Instead, the Bishop appointed a commissary to represent his interests there. The Bishop’s commissaries proved to be very skilled at staying out of trouble.

But the more compelling reason why there would be no Bishop was that the colonies, plainly, would not stand for it. Too many of them had left the established Church behind them in coming to America to welcome it catching up with them. Too many of them had acquired too much experience in running their own church affairs to want some Anglican running them. Even the most unpuritanical certainly did not want to be taxed for the benefit of an Anglican Bishop.

It took no great difficulty for any of this people to treat efforts by the imperial government to extend its secular powers over the colonies in precisely the same way. Even in laying the very foundations of the American republic, Puritanism and the Enlightenment, far from being at each other’s throats, were already stirring the American soup together.


John Locke’s Political Theory and Its Influence on American Thinking

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

We’ve met the multifacetic John Locke before as a philosopher. But he was not less controversial and not less talented as a political theorist. In his two Treatises on Government, Locke went straight to the bedrock of politics as he had in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in epistemology.

In the Treatises on Government, Locke asked for what we might call a thought experiment. In order to understand the nature of government, let’s imagine ourselves back at a point in human history before governments existed. Now, some people might have wanted to argue this was impossible, that humanity has a natural bent to social organization, and that social organization was there from the start. The people who made this argument in Locke’s day were usually arguing that God had created kings from the beginning with full divinely ordained powers to rule, and only the most ultra-monarchist in Locke’s England wanted to make that argument in 1688. Besides, the Bible, which was still the most influential book on all European society, saw government as a gradual and undirected growth. The European explorations of North America seemed to offer plenty of evidence of Indian societies without any elaborate system of government. So, this objection lost a good deal of force.

Back to Mr. Locke, we begin our thought experiment at a point when human beings are simply there in the landscape. This is what Locke called the State of Nature. In that state, just like in any deserted island or isolated colony, the first priority was survival. Locke’s State of Nature is a state dominated by scarcity, or at least scarcity of things that you might readily eat or wear. To survive, you must delve in the earth, you must pick the food from the trees or you must plant the trees in the first place. Now, two things happen as a result of all this. First of all, you survive. And then, by mixing your labor with the natural materials at hand to create food, cloth and shelter; you create property.

Now, the problem with property is that it is not you. It can be detached from you. And there are plenty of other people out there in the State of Nature who might be happy indeed to save themselves the efforts and solve the problem of scarcity by taking your property from you. And it is at this moment, Locke hypothesises, that the idea of government is born. The reason why men entered society, Locke wrote, is the preservation of their property.

In other words, they sacrifice the total freedom they had in the State of Nature, and by giving up a little of that freedom and joining others in a protective arrangement, they preserve the balance of that freedom and their property in safety. For instance, they agreed to chip in a part of their property, maybe in the form of taxes, for the hiring and the equipping of a security patrol. They agreed to create a board to administer security. Some may not want to give any of their hard-won property to this supervisory board, but they reason that is better to loose little for a good purpose and save the rest, than to loose it all to raiders or burglars.

From this primal beginning, Locke said, all known governments have developed. There are three things we should notice about this.

The Reason for Government

First of all, for Locke, the fundamental problems of life are scarcity and security. Governments’ principal reason for existing is to provide security for the solutions we provide for scarcity. It is in fact, the only reason government exists. Man in the State of Nature, says Locke, is the absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest and subject to nobody. But in the State of Nature, the enjoyment of those possessions, said Locke, is very uncertain and constantly exposed to the invasion of others. This leads us to the second point.

The Creation of Government

Government is an invention of the people. It is not handed down from heaven. Kings are not chosen by God and ready to rule over the rest of us. Nor it is anybody born with any inherent status, like Duke or Earl, in the State of Nature. In the State of Nature, everyone is born equally poor and equally empty-handed. And we invent kings and dukes to serve as protectors of people’s property.

The Limitations of Government

Third, if a government or a king, or duke or earl, are not doing the job they were invented to perform, the people who made them have the authority to find another useful way of protecting their property. For instance, said Locke, the moment you catch them governing without settled standing laws, that is a sure sign that change is needed. No matter how much they may rage and plead some form of divine right for what they do, no one has ever left the State of Nature and put themselves under the rule, were it not to preserve their lives, liberties and fortunes; and by stated rules of right and property, to secure their peace. Or, said Locke, when you see this supreme executor of the government going about to set up his own arbitrary will in the place of law; or when that executor corrupts the rest of the government by solicitations, threats, promises; at that moment, such an executor cannot any longer be trusted.

All Americans are Liberals

Locke is what we might call the prophet of Liberalism. I don’t mean liberal or liberalism in the party politics sense that we use it today. What I’m talking about is the classical Liberalism of the Enlightenment, which was concerned with abolishing the monarchy, making reason rather than tradition the guide of political life, and downplaying the role of inherited and non-rational factors like race, religion or language; and to look expectantly to the future for progress. Liberalism was, you might say, the political equivalent of the Enlightenment’s new epistemology. The later sought to undermine the authority of Aristotle and Theology. The former sought to undermine the authority of kings and tradition.

It is in this sense that virtually all Americans, no matter what political party identification they might have, are classical Lockean liberals. This is because we identify ourselves as Americans by a loyalty to a series of what Abraham Lincoln called “propositions”. We identify ourselves by allegiance to these propositions, not by our identification with a certain ethnic group or religious denomination. We identify ourselves by certain propositions about liberty. We are, in that sense, all liberals; and America is the perfect example of a classic liberal regime.

The Whig Republicans

Locke was only the most celebrated and the most English of the Whig liberals. He was joined on the Whig platform by other Enlightenment political writers: Voltaire, Montesquieu and others. And Locke was more than matched in popularity by the political satirists, which English Whiggism seemed to have a talent for attracting: Joseph Addison and his celebrated magazine “The Spectator”, and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in their sensational “The Independent Whig” and “Cato’s Letters”.

If anything, what Locke represented was actually Whiggism’s middle path. Locke insisted that the three-part model of English government after the Glorious Revolution was the best realization of a government that protected property through the rule of law. On the left flank of Whiggism, however, were people who, much more radical than Locke, were outright Republicans or Common Wealth men; like Harrington, who suspected that the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 had been a big mistake, and that the Glorious Revolution in 1688 had been a missed opportunity to get rid of the entire institution of monarchy.

Many of these Whig republicans drew their inspiration from the well-known universal reading in Greek and Roman history. From this reading and from their own aversion to the corruption of the Royal Courts, these Whig republicans imagined an earlier and better form of government than monarchy. A form of government that dispensed with kings and glorified the rule exercised not by nobility, but by noble and self-denying men over the “Roman Republic”. That was the model.

Trenchard and Gordon’s “Cato’s Letters” were given that title precisely to call to mind that most relentlessly self-righteous of all Roman republicans, Cato the Younger.

Like the Whigs in general, republicans thought of property as land labored by oneself. Property owners lived lives of virtuous simplicity and came to form governments of only the most minimal size, eliminating the possibility of corruption and oppression by invoking a civic public spirit that served the public good rather than private interests. The emphasis of the classical republicans was, therefore, on the achievement of the public good.

Other Whig republicans, however, thought this was taking ancient Rome a little too far and a little too seriously. I mean, admirable as civic virtue and dedication to the public good are, classical republicans were probably expecting too much from human nature if they thought that wicked kings and nobles were the only thing holding nations back from embracing republics.

The Liberal Republicans

Republics imposing or demanding virtue might become tyrannical as monarchies demanding taxes and obedience. So, the alternative embraced by liberal republicans, as opposed to the classical republicans, was to take government out of the virtue business entirely; and allow the free competition of people mixing labor and land to produce as much property as they could.

Liberal Republicanism sometimes requires an optimism almost as sweeping as the optimism of the classical republicans. It assumed that on a low average basis, the marriage of self-preservation and self-interest would produce the best results all around for everyone. At least, the liberal republicans had this on their favor, because they had no preconceived template for what their society should look like; unlike the classical republicans who had Greek and Roman models to tell them how a society should look like. Liberal republicans had no outcomes to force on anyone.

Where the classical republicans liked to think in terms of the public good, the liberal republicans preferred to think of private or individual rights.

Locke and the Whigs in America

To most English readers of Locke, Harrington and the others; Whiggism was a carefully calculated descent, rather than a program for action, if only because no one in England could seriously imagine the origins of English society really being what Locke described as the State of Nature.

In America, however, it was different. Locke’s State of Nature seemed to describe perfectly the conditions under which the North American colonies had been founded. The creation of government to protect property seemed to be exactly what called those colonial legislators into their clandestine existence. And minimal government intervention looked what exactly the colonies had experienced as normal state affairs, both from an uninterested far away imperial government and from the royal governors sent out to oversee them.

John Adams, musing over Locke, Harrington and Milton, in colonial Massachusetts in 1776, admitted that the condition of this country had frequently reminded him of their principles and reasons. And so, Locke and the other Whigs came to be read not as political Utopians, not as people just drawing out blueprints for ideal societies; instead, Locke and the Whigs were read as confirmations of what Americans had all along known as reality.

This also meant that as Americans accepted Locke’s theory of political revolution, they also accepted Locke’s warnings about the process of political degeneration. There is an element of anxiety running through Locke, since the step out of the State of Nature, necessary as it is, is also thought with the dangers that the governments people create will decay and corrupt, that they will set aside the rule of law, that they will grab more and more power, and leave less and less liberty available. And to the extent that Americans read Locke or the State of Nature as a reality, they began looking for confirmations that Locke’s warnings were realities as well.

In the 1760’s, they began to find all the confirmation they needed. The empire they had known as home, and the king they had known as monarch, were gone all disastrously astray.


The Beginnings of American Liberalism

The North American colonies established by the Spanish and the French in the 1500’s and 1600’s were State enterprises, which means that although many of them were offspring of the daring doing of “conquistadors” and missionaries, the conquests were property of the King, and the King made or unmade the governors who ruled them afterwards. The English and the Dutch were a different story, because in their cases, colonial enterprises were strictly franchised operations in which the State preferred to have as little involvement as possible. This did not turn out to be a very effective way of undertaking colonization. Whether from mismanagement in America, or from undercapitalization by investors and organizers in Europe; not one of the corporations that set up money-making operations in America were still in business a century later.

Only two parties came out the winners in this sorry process. One of them was the imperial government in London, which acquired title to vast stretches of the North American coastline, with settlements and settlers, without having to maintain troops in North America. That was up to the colonials.

The other set of winners were the actual colonials themselves. When the corporations they worked for collapsed, as they did in Virginia in 1622, this left the Virginia settlers pretty much to their own devices. Even before the complete removal of the Virginia company in 1624, representatives from every Virginia settlement were assembling as a House of Burgesses, to tie the hands of a royal governor and create a series of incentives for new immigrants to New England to refresh the population. London got an empire with pretty much no cost, and the Virginians got more freedom from control than any English subjects at home have ever enjoyed before.

A Different Kind of Government

The problem with this was that an assembly like the House of Burgesses was illegal, or at least it had not legal standing. There was only one recognized legislative assembly for the English. That was the Parliament in London. But from the colonists’ point of view, London was 3000 miles away. There was no one there in position to act well or wisely on Virginia’s affairs. And for London’s point of view, this arrangement cost London no money. In fact, it saved London the cost of paying attention to Virginia. So, the imperial government turned what later would appear to be a blind eye to American affairs.

This turning of the eye was easy to do because the House of Burgesses and the other colonial assemblies, which sprang after it, did not look much like any legislative assembly the English had ever seen. Parliament was a legislature, but it was far from being representative. Parliament was controlled by the nobility, the Church and the landed gentry. In its two houses, the House of Lords and the House of Commons; the bishops, the dukes and the earls dominated the first; and the wealthy elite dominated the second. This aristocracy in England was actually less heavy than its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, but it was heavy enough by contrast to America.

In England, 40% of the wealth of the kingdom was owned by the top 1% of the population. A wealth based largely on the fact that they owned 70% of the land. Most of the English population was composed of renters. They had neither voice nor stake in England’s political life. In America, however, the cheapness and the availability of land inverted those proportions almost exactly. Almost two thirds of the white population in the British colonies owned sixty percent of the land. The would-be gentry in America actually controlled only about 30%. This meant that colonial elites might enjoy a position and power which make them look and feel like gentry, but they were critically dependent on the good-will of the vast array of independent farmers all around them.

The Royal governors labored under the same constraints. On paper, the powers of the Royal governor in the colonies were substantial. They could appoint judges, they could control appointments to other offices, they had a power of veto. In fact, the number of appointments they could make was small. Their actions were restricted. Moments when those restrictions were not observed produced outbursts of crowd action. In 1736, unhappy Bostonians gathered at midnight and demolished the town marketplace as a protest against the construction of the marketplace as a means of regulating public food sales.

In 1763, a mob of Scot-Irish immigrants from Paxton, Lancaster County; filled with fury against the Indians and against the Quakers in the Pennsylvania assembly who refused to give money for their defense, took out their frustrations on a defenseless band of Indians, killing six of them. Fourteen more Indians were locked up for their own protection, pursued by the Paxton boys and murdered. 250 of the Paxton boys then marched on Philadelphia, and only when governor John Penn sent Benjamin Franklin and a persuasive delegation to meet them, did the Paxton boys turn and headed home.

American elites could imagine that they filled the place of the English gentry, but only if they did not stepped to heavily on popular toes. So, by a process that few people in London understood, the rowdy lowlife who departed for the colonies a century before, had turned into competitors for economic dominance within the Empire. They had developed an anglicised elite who thought of themselves as the equals of their English cousins. And they created domestic legislatures exercising powers that were technically illegal, and elected by farmers who had an unpleasantly passion for independence.

All the Americans lacked was a political philosophy to give it all coherence. In the 1760’s, the imperial government unwillingly provided them with it.

The Glorious Revolution and the Whigs

England was a monarchy, but it had never been a happy monarchy. The vice of the French, it was said, was letchery, but the vice of the English was treachery. The English overturned dynasties with the regularity that appalled the rest of Europe. The Plantagenet kings were overthrown by the Tudors, the Tudors led to the Stuarts, the Stuarts were overthrown not once but twice in 1642 and again in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution, after that, Parliament tied the hands of the kings and queens so securely, that when a new ruling house from Hanover, Germany, in 1714; government in England was already being described not in terms of a King and a Throne, but in a three-way system of checks and balances. King, lords and commons.

The people who were most apt to use this three-part way of describing English politics had been known, since the 1670’s, as Whigs. The term Whig came into use from Whiggamore, which was a way of describing people from the countryside. And indeed, the Whigs liked to think of themselves as the sturdy sons of the countryside, characterized by a simple protestantism and a concern with the promotion of the good of their communities. If Whiggery could be distilled to four political propositions, they would be that:

1. Liberty is natural. Because is natural, it cannot be the gift of a monarch.

2. Liberty can be destroyed, normally by a corrupted elite who strives to concentrate power in themselves and to corrupt others.

3. Liberty, therefore, requires allegiance with virtue for protection from corruption and power. Whether in the form of the natural virtues, like modesty, productive work or self-restraint; or religious ones, such as would be found in strict protestant moralism.

4. Because Whigs prefer virtue to power, they are often found outside the centers of powers. Hence, their identity with the countryside, rather than with the corrupted royal courts at the empire center.

Not surprisingly, Whiggery had long roots in Puritanism. And it had strong associations with parliament. And it was parliaments Whigs who had been the chief engineers of the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Some of the most radical of the Whigs argued for abolishing the monarchy entirely, and erecting a republic. Even the mainstream of Whig opinion wanted monarchy severely curtailed. And to rationalize this curtailment and to rationalize the Glorious Revolution, they turned to John Locke.


Common Sense and the American Mind

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Many of the tutors at Princeton were Edwardsians. Witherspoon, as the new president, promptly drew them out. It was not just revivalism that made Witherspoon suspicious of the Edwardsians, he had little truck either with Edwards’ appropriation of Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism, and to understand the importance of that, we have to understand what Scotland meant to the Enlightenment in Witherspoon’s day.

Until the 18th century, Scotland was regarded as a cultural backwater. But when the English finally shut off all access to the universities to non Church of England people, they inadvertently handed the minor Scottish universities, at Edinburgh, St. Andrews and Glasgow; an enormous gift. While Oxford and Cambridge, the official Church of England’s universities, sunk into contented conformity, the brightest minds of Britain’s non-conformists headed to the only universities open to them, the Scottish ones. With them, almost by default, came the Enlightenment, as Scottish universities blossomed after the 1720’s, with solutions to English philosophies’ unsolved problems.

The Problem with Locke and Berkeley’s Unsatisfactory Answer

One of these problems came directly from John Locke. Remember that Locke did not believe that we actually could know the object of our ideas directly. He believed that we know only our ideas of the objects, so that ideas represent objects to us, rather than having the object presented directly to our consciousness. But he was confident that we could rely on those ideas to tell our minds what is a true, or at least a probable story about the objects we were sensing. An assumption for which Bishop Berkeley pointed out that Locke had absolutely no worthwhile evidence.

Berkeley, as it turned out, was not the only one who saw problems with Locke’s representational realism. Francis Hutchinson, of the University of Glasgow, objected that Locke’s description of how we know was empoverished and “unrealistic”. First, because it made minds perfectly passive in the knowing process; and second, because Locke’s description failed to account for why minds have ideas about things which mere sensations cannot account for. For example, someone gazing at a painting actually senses only oil and chemists. Yet that same person perceives beauty, something far beyond what lies in colors and shapes. In the same way, a virtuous act is perceived by a mind not just as an act, but as something which is beautiful; and it moves the perceiver to a response of moral approval.

This implied, for Hutchinson, the existence of a power, of a capacity, which he called the moral sense; which moves everyone to recognize beauty and virtue for what they are, and which ensures that morality is not just a fluctuating experience which varies according to our sensations or situations. No matter how varied are individual situations or experiences, the moral sense, that we are all equipped with, enables us to sort through the mass of sensations we receive; and to perceive what is true, right and beautiful. Thomas Reid would be who gives this moral sense epistemology the enormous influence it would achieve in the 18th century.

Bishop Berkeley had helped cripple what he thought were the atheistic tendencies in Locke, by showing purely in Locke’s own terms, that we could not have assurance that our ideas correspond to anything in the outside world. This is what allowed Berkeley to step in and assert the need for God. And God guaranties such a connection between our ideas and what exists in the outer world by both giving minds their ideas and by upholding the external reality they represent.

But all this seemed to suggest to another Scotsman, David Hume, complete intellectual skepticism. Granted that Berkeley was right about our inability to know for sure whether our ideas correspond to anything in the external world, why should we then assume that God makes the connection for us? Why assume that there are any connections? We perceive this connections and even dignify them with names: cause and effect. But that is likely merely a prejudice or a mental habit. Berkeley could invoke God as he likes, Hume said, but even God must be just another mental habit.

Reid’s Appealing Response

In his Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Reid observed that there was a practical common consensus among everyone. That there is a reality which exists outside the mind and its ideas. Without trying to explain how this worked, or implying that one could know how it worked, the fact was there was a common sense which attested to the real existence of objects outside the mind. And it was so elemental, that denying it or questioning it was absurd.

This appeal to common sense not only threw Hume’s skepticism back into his face, but it permitted Reid to object to Locke’s representationalism and insist that not only does the external world exists, but we may know it directly, without mediating ideas blurring it. Objects are, therefore, presented immediately to our consciousness; and to deny their reality is tantamount idiocy, according to Reid.

One of the great attractions of Reid’s common sense philosophy was the neatness with which it intercepted with traditional scholastic appeals to natural law, and with what was becoming a new political science of natural rights, something which was also pioneered by Locke. Strictly speaking, this was a good distance removed from orthodox Calvinism. Calvinists of the stricter sort wondered where Reid planned to explain how sin entered into this picture of natural perceptions of virtue and reality, or what capacity sinners had to understand natural law, if it existed at all outside scripture. But it was not wholly beyond the grasp of moderate Calvinists, who preferred some form of accommodation with the Enlightenment. And within that circle of moderates, that John Witherspoon was located.

The common sense philosophy had a number of intellectual gifts to bestow. First of all, the common sense philosophy taught that minds not only perceive the world directly as it is, they also simultaneously render a judgement about the certainty of that world, which no honest mind can avoid making. Therefore, Witherspoon offered what we have to call an intellectualistic kind of human psychology, not a voluntaristic one like Edwards. Because minds are incapable of denying the judgements which common sense makes. Will simply does not enter into it.

Secondly, just as common sense dictates our perception of the reality of the external world, it also reveals certain fundamental moral principles within us. Everyone possesses a moral sense, which causes them to see and approve virtue and beauty. And it does so in so immediate fashion that these truths may even be said to be self-evident. Self-evident in that they do not require explanation, they do not require divine illumination; you see something which is beautiful and immediately you respond by recognizing it as beautiful. The reason for that cannot be limited strictly to the mind as it responds to material subjects or material objects, rather, when the mind responds to beauty, it can only be because there is operating, within the human consciousness itself, a factor which stimulates you to recognize the thing which is beautiful.


Reid worked backwards or inductively, from the fact that all minds intuitively understand the objective reality of the world; rather than as Locke and Edwards, analyzing the mind and then deciding whether it can know such reality. So, all truths about consciousness, the world or god must be built up using the same method, by strict induction from facts.

Of course, this Scottish common sense philosophy also had some serious dangers. But in the 1770’s, those dangers were more than compensated by the way that common sense thinking allowed moderate Calvinists, in fact, allowed almost any English protestant, to have a rational epistemology without needing to resort to the radical immaterialism of Edwards or the anti-intellectual enthusiasm of the Awakeners.

From this synthesis of Scottish common sense philosophy and moderate Calvinism, represented by John Witherspoon, would flower the first creative era of the American conversation about ideas between religion and the Enlightenment, between God and nature. A conversation that in many ways we still participate in.


The Colonial Colleges in America

One of the gifts of the Great Awakening to British North America was the founding of new colleges: Princeton, Rhode Island College, which became Brown University; Queen’s College, founded by Dutch sympathizers with the Awakening in New Jersey; and Dartmouth College, which began as a missionary school for Indians, but it was moved by its founder to New Hampshire. These were only the colleges most directly nurtured by the awakening. Two others: the College of Philadelphia and King’s College in New York City, which was renamed Columbia after the American Revolution; also in varying degrees bore the footprint of the Awakening.

The College of Philadelphia was organized as an academy in a meeting hall in Philadelphia originally built to accommodate that grand itinerant George Whitefield on his many preaching tours. The academy organizers quickly ensured that both the academy and the college that superseded it were kept safe from Whitefield’s evangelical enthusiasm. And King’s College, which opened its doors in 1754, was deliberately designed to draw enthusiasm for the Church of England, which was struggling for representatives in the colonies. Its first president, Samuel Johnson, had actually been one of the Yale apostates from Congregationalism back in 1722.

Whitefield and the Colleges

That the Awakeners were interested in founding colleges at all may seem unusual, given the cold shoulder that Harvard and then Yale turned to the Great Awakening. George Whitefield had visited Harvard during his first great preaching tour in New England in 1740, and he found Harvard “scarcely as big as one of our least colleges at Oxford”. After all, Harvard had only one president, four tutors and about one hundred students. But worst still, “it was not far superior to our universities in piety”. This is a judgement that Whitefield did not intend as a compliment. “At Harvard, bad books are becoming fashionable among the tutors and students”.

When Whitefield journals were published, Harvard’s old-like president, Edward Holyoke, was not amused, and in December 1744, Holyoke and the Harvard faculty went to publish “The Testimony of Harvard College Against George Whitefield”, accusing Whitefield of enthusiasm and delusive management of the money he had been raising for his orphanage, and just accusing him of a general spirit of anti-intellectualism.

None of this gave Whitefield much pause because the “new-lights”, like their pious counterparts in England, Germany and in Netherlands; had an entirely different notion of how human psychology worked. The Enlightenment’s glorification of reason and nature was all well and good, argued the pious, but only when we don’t forget the limits placed upon the operation of reason by the countervailing power of the other faculties, specially the will. The celebrated German pietist, August Hermann Francke, confesses that as a theology student in Lutheran Germany, he had originally understood Christianity only in “my reason and in my thought”, it wasn’t until he had experienced repentance that “all sadness and unrest of my heart was taken all at once and I was immediately overwhelmed by a stream of joy, and gave praise to whom had shown so great grace.”

This is not necessarily an anti-intellectual stance. It was, in fact, little more than an updating of scholastic-style voluntarism. And it was shared, without any dimming of intellectual energy, by Blaise Pascal, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. But it could easily sound anti-intellectual. Nor was Whitefield, as an Oxford graduate, an intellectual slouch; but when he warned Holyoke that “learning without piety will only render you more capable of promoting the kingdom of the devil”, Whitefield was leaving the Awakening open to abuse, as much as Harvard’s embrace of reason had left it vulnerable to the blandishments of religion.

The Awakening in Yale

The dimensions of that abuse showed up not at Harvard, but in Yale, in 1741. Thomas Clap had taken over as rector of Yale in April of 1740. He was determined to overhaul the students and the curriculum to move Yale from a good state to a perfect one. And mistaking Whitefield with a vehicle for accomplishing that, Clap unwisely invited Whitefield to preach to the students on 1740. Whitefield was even less impressed by Yale than he had been by Harvard. “It has one rector, three tutors and about one hundred students, and with no remarkable concern among them concerning religion”.

But in Yale’s case, things did not stay that way. Over the next three months, the spiritual life of Yale College was quickened. The students in general became serious, Jonathan Edwards recorded, much engaged in the concerns of their eternal welfare. But they also became tumultuous and rebellious against what Whitefield had darkly described as an unconverted ministry.

James Davenport, a Yale graduate of 1732 and then Whitefield wannabe, showed up in Connecticut claiming direct inspiration from God and sponsoring a bonfire of books, principally on divinity. While the books where in the flames, Davenport cried out “thus the souls of the authors of those books, those of them who are dead are rusting in the flames of hell; the fate of those surviving will be the same unless speedy repentance prevent it.”

Clap tried to appease the uproar by inviting Jonathan Edwards to deliver the commencement address. But by the beginning of the next school year in September of 1741, the trustees of Yale were forced to pass a resolution threatening that “any student at this college who directly or indirectly says that the rector, either the trustees or tutors are hypocrites or unconverted men, he shall for the first offence make a public confession in the hall; and for the second offence be expelled.

And to show just how much they meant it, when a junior student, David Brainerd, snorted that one of the tutors had no more grace than a chair, rector Clap expelled him. If Clap thought he was serving an example, he was wrong. Brainerd left Yale to become a missionary to the Indians. He left in Edwards’ hands his melodramatic diary, which Edwards later published as a memorial to Brainerd’s integrity and Yale’s stinginess of heart. Brainerd’s journal went on to become one of the great religious best-sellers of the next century.

The Founding of Princeton and the Arrival of Witherspoon

Given this kind of reception, no one could be surprised if the awakeners decided to take their interests elsewhere, and begin the string of colleges that I mentioned at the beginning. But again, the result turned out to be a very mixed bag. This is because colleges founded around a valorization of the will, rather than the intellect, had a hard time justifying their existence. Usually either they disappear when the will grows weary, or allow themselves to be transformed into holes of reason just like the others, simply to justify their existence.

The College of New Jersey, Princeton, became something of a marker of how difficult it was to sustain the will for revival within the tight structure of 18th century college education. Founded through the initiative of Whitefield’s Presbyterian admirers, Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr. the new college was generally perceived as a statement of protest by New Lights against Yale’s treatment of David Brainerd. If it had not been for the treatment received by Mr. Brainerd at Yale, Aaron Burr remarked, New Jersey College would never have been erected.

On the other hand, the college had trouble trying to keep going the same way that Brainerd did. The first of the presidents of the college of New Jersey, Jonathan Dickinson, was a Yale graduate class of 1706, who had been minister to a community of New England migrants in Elizabeth town, New Jersey. Within a year of founding the college, Dickinson was dead. So, leadership of the college was transferred to Aaron Burr, who’s principle credential for the job was that he happened to be Jonathan Edwards’ son-in-law. Burr moved the college in 1733 to land contributed to the college trustees by the town fathers of the village of Princeton. It delighted Esther Edwards Burr, the wife of Aaron Burr, to find a considerable awakening in the college. By February of 1757 it looked to her exactly like God’s descending into the temple in a cloud of glory. But Aaron Burr died of malaria that fall, and when the trustees brought Jonathan Edwards to Princeton as his son-in-law successor, Edwards died as well.

For the next decade, election as president of Princeton came increasingly to look like the kiss of death. Samuel Davies succeeded Edwards but collapsed and died on the strain of the work in February 1761. Davies was followed by Samuel Finley, who actually survived for five years in office before death removed him too in July of 1766. By this point, the fires of controversy over the Great Awakening had cooled considerably, and in 1758, the quarreling factions among the Presbyterians had worked a reconciliation, which they hoped to crown by recruiting as the next president of Princeton a Presbyterian, who, if not exactly the first choice of anyone, was at least the least objectionable choice in everyone’s mind: John Witherspoon. He was neither identified with the pro-awakening or anti-awakening factions, largely because he was a Scotsman and never been in America.

The arrival of John Witherspoon in Princeton in 1768 has always been regarded as something of a watershed in American intellectual life. And with good reason. For one thing, he actually lived long enough in Princeton, until 1794, to make a difference as the college’s president. Long enough, in fact, to serve in the continental congress as one of New Jersey’s representatives, and to sign the Declaration of Independence, the only clergyman to do so. For another thing, Witherspoon was successful in making moderation into an aggressive quality rather than just an exercise in appeasement. Witherspoon carried with him the old-worldish sense of the Church’s place within society and the theory of the sacramental educational religion. Not the separatism, not the voluntarism, and not the wild fire conversion enthusiasm of the Awakening.