Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn notes 5 key ideological sources of the American Founding: 1. “Biblical theology” (we could describe this as everything from “Judeo-Christian,” to “Christian,” to “Protestant Christian”); 2. Greco-Roman analogy; 3. British common law; 4. Whig opposition; and 5. Enlightenment philosophy.
I used to say that #5 — Enlightenment — was the most important and lens through which all others were viewed. But that’s not what Bailyn argues. Rather, he points to #4, Whiggery, as the lens. Or at least the result of the pot-stirring.
Now, this is just a construct of five. One could further divide or consolidate the categories to go above or below the that number. Moreover, certain key figures, for instance John Locke, could be claimed by more than one of the categories. And the different categories often times contradict one another.
However, a key feature of “Whig” thought was its harmonizing essence. I was recently reminded that “few American Whigs in the 1770s saw any conflict between what they read in Locke and Montesquieu and what they read in the Bible.” Indeed, as Thomas Jefferson noted to Richard Henry Lee, “All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.” He did this while sourcing Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Sidney along with “harmonizing sentiments of the day.” Yes, harmonizing was needed. The four named sources didn’t always agree with one another on all important matters of “public right.”
Most of the “cutting edge” thinkers in today’s academy, alas, are not interested in exploring the history of the American Founding for any reason other than to deconstruct it in favor of some post-modern theory. However, notable exceptions abound. One of the brightest scholars operating in the tradition of Bailyn, Gordon Wood, et al.1 is Harvard’s Eric Nelson. His book is entitled, “The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought.”
Now, it’s true that the book has more of a “European,” specifically British, as opposed to American, focus. However, the period investigated is the above categorized source #4 (Whig opposition), what Dr. Bailyn sees as key to America’s Founding political thought.
Small l (classical) “liberalism” (perhaps belonging properly in the above mentioned #5: “Enlightenment”) seems more “free marketed” oriented in its approach to economic matters. The “republican” sources, on the other hand, were more collectivistic and egalitarian on economic matters. While the “liberals” could be categorized as proto-Milton Friedmanites, the “republicans” were, if not proto Marxists, proto-John Rawlsians.
Below is quoted from the book’s Amazon page:
Nelson identifies three transformative claims introduced into European political theory by the Hebrew revival: the argument that republics are the only legitimate regimes; the idea that the state should coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property; and the belief that a godly republic would tolerate religious diversity.OK
That’s a bold thesis. Indeed, I put in bold the topic of discussion in this piece. The other two “claims” perhaps will be featured another day on this site.
“For the Land is Mine,” which explores the economic egalitarianism of the period, is the title to Chapter 2 of the book. I found it in a Word document from Brown University. There Dr. Nelson notes other scholars — Philip Pettit of Princeton and Michael Sandel of Harvard — who like him, stress the egalitarian nature of “republican” ideology (as contrasted with the individualistic nature of “liberalism”).
Those of us who study Leo Strauss often hear about the break between Aristotle (Ancient) and Locke (Modern), two of the four sources mentioned above that Jefferson, speaking for “all American Whigs,” sourced for America’s Declaration of Independence. Nelson focuses on the (arguable) break between Cicero and Algernon Sidney, the other two sources in Jefferson’s letter.
Cicero was one of the ancient Roman republicans. These republicans, according to Dr. Nelson, “had accorded enormous respect to private property rights, and had exhibited a particular horror of coercive attempts to redistribute wealth.”
Sidney, John Milton, James Harrington and others represented the “modern” (for that era) British republicans who turned to the ancient Hebrews for inspiration. One thing I argue is the Hebrews didn’t have a republic. They had some kind of idealized theocracy, where, if you believe the tale, God was directly in charge by virtue of direct interaction with man. They eventually got a King which God warned against. The concept of “republicanism” is entirely a creation of the ancient Greco-Roman tradition.
Yet Nelson’s figures CLAIMED that the Hebrews had a “republic.” (This claim would resonate with Thomas Paine and the American Founders). And in the process of “revising” or at least “re-understanding” the biblical record, they also broke with the ancient Roman position of Cicero which looks more like something the promoters of laissez faire economics would endorse (Milton Friedman, et al.).
Rather, the British republicans endorsed an equality of wealth holding that, as noted above, was if not proto-Marxist (which would demand equality of holdings) but proto-Rawlsian (which accepts in principle inequality of wealth, but sees a role for government in redistributing wealth to provide for a more “just distribution”).
Indeed, Marx didn’t invent radical economic egalitarianism. Neither did Jean Jacques Rousseau. Thomas More, whom Dr. Nelson specifically names, anticipated both of them (I won’t discuss possible ancient sources for the concept). On “Utopia” both wealth and poverty were abolished. Though it’s difficult to tell whether that book’s claims are meant to be taken seriously or as satire.
One big difference between Marx and Rawls on the one hand and the earlier economic levelers on the other is that the former attempted to make either atheistic or secular arguments for their theories, the latter rested their principles on religious claims.
Thus, those whose politics, at least on economic matters, are left of center — especially those of the “Religious Left” — might find something of interest and inspiration in the works of Dr. Nelson’s British republicans who greatly influenced America’s Founders.
- that of taking the American Founding seriously, not trying to “deconstruct” it