The Small r “republican” Tradition Offers Something to Religious Left Originalists

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.

  1. that of taking the American Founding seriously, not trying to “deconstruct” it []

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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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19 thoughts on “The Small r “republican” Tradition Offers Something to Religious Left Originalists

  1. The author and I corresponded before publication on this point, but I think it’s worth sharing here: this is the first I’ve heard of the claim that the Hebrews had a republic. I can’t find any support for this proposition in my Biblical readings. (Admittedly, it’s been a little while.) But apparently there are “scholars” out there who advance this idea with a straight face. The idea of some kind of republican or democratic government in the Bronze Age seems pretty durned Greek to me and it sure seems like the Israelites did a whole lot of culturally defining themselves as not-Greek.

    Which just goes to show you that a lot of religious scholarship out there is reaching really screwy results. To the extent that we find it useful to get into the mindset of these religious thinkers, and into the mindset of the politicians who were influenced by them, it’s really important not to outsource your critical thinking to someone else.

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    • It depends what you mean by a republic. The Bible certainly contains more than a few anti-monarchal passages like Samuel’s warning about Kings. Deuteronomy and Judges also suggest that the Israelites saw alternatives to monarchy as possible. Jewish tradition sees the Torah has something as a constitution for Ancient Israel and even the King is bound by it with other officers acted as checks and balances to royal authority. During the 18th century, constitutional monarchy was seen as republican by some thinkers. By these standards, Ancient Israel was a republic of sorts even though there was no elected officials because it had a body of laws that applied to everybody and a non-monarchal structure was possible.

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      • Wikipedia mentions:
        “The Israelite confederation of the era before the United Monarchy has also been considered a type of republic.”

        I suppose there was some sense of divisions of sovereignty among the twelve tribes?

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    • I agree that the Ancient Hebrews did not, in point of fact, have a “republic.” And I’m not even sure if serious scholars like Dr. Nelson believe they did. Rather, he’s reporting on what figures from an era past believed.

      There were in fact Whig opposition types and then American Patriotic Preachers who argued the Ancient Hebrews had a “republic.”

      Today, the only people who believe such a thing with a straight face are figures like Glenn Beck and David Barton. Though, like Mormonism, this is arguably a “heresy” when one considers the tradition of orthodox Christianity in a global sense. Christian orthodoxy doesn’t revolve around America.

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      • I do think, though, it depends on how you answer Lee’s question above: what do we mean by “republic”? (And disclosure: I’m not familiar with most of the works you’re talking about and ancient history is a weak point for me. I know next to diddly squat about ancient Israel, too.)

        Possible attributes of a “republic” (some, but not all, mutually exclusive):

        1. Anti-monarchism, but not necessarily anti-dynastism or anti-statism.

        2. Direct representative: rulers are meant to represent the interests of a constituency, either in the modern “democratic” sense where people are cogs in a lottery system that “chooses” their rulers, or in the less modern sense where certain groups–e.g., plebeians and patricians–choose/have chosen for them certain rulers or representatives.

        3. Virtually representative: the rulers, no matter how they are chosen, represent the interests of all.

        4. The state is deemed an interest and end in itself: It is the locus of true thing of public concern, a “public thing”–i.e., a “res publica” or a “common weal.”

        5. A variant of #4, a conception of law as something that exists independently or autonomous of the arbitrary will of any one person, the key word being “arbitrary.”

        6. Its full members are “citizens” and not “subjects,” where citizenship carries a mixture of burdens and responsibilities and privileges. Note that there can be subjects, too, and the proportion of “full members” (citizens) might be a minority of the population.

        7. “Rights” are favored over “privileges.” This contradicts #6, but not completely, as the “rights” could be deemed to rest with one’s status as a citizen and not necessarily as a “human” or as a “resident.”

        8. Religion can be an integral part of the polity, something separated from the polity, or something that exists as a counterpoint or parallel to the official polity. (I imagine this “attribute” is the equivalent of saying, “religion exists and somehow a Republic deals with or doesn’t deal with that fact,” or in other words, it doesn’t say anything new. My point is that the role of religion in public life doesn’t necessarily distinguish a republic, as I understand the term, from non-republics.)

        As I said, some of these contradict each other. And there are probably other attributes you can think of.

        But my main argument is that a republic need not be “democratic” or “egalitarian” in the senses that we understand those terms today. They can violate our notions of fairness and a just society. A republic isn’t good just for being a republic.

        [ETA: I admit I’m hedging my bets a bit by calling the above items “attributes” and not “definitions” of a “republic.”]

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  2. A question, more a quibble:
    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)
    Wouldn’t proto-Marxist demand, not an equality of holdings, but an abolition of the concept of individual ownership entirely?

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    • That sounds like it’s pretty far along in the projected future path, Comrade. The state, under the temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, will direct the allocation of goods and services, but there will not be sufficient governmental apparatus to own it all and certainly we will not have broken the minds of the petit bourgeois from the habit of private ownership. Later, as the apparatus grows and gains proficiency and acceptance, the state can more efficiently and effectively allocate ever-increasing amounts of economic utility, culminating in the attainment of communism. But these things proceed by dialectical stages and our British comrades are referring to an earlier phase of the People taking command of their own wealth from the bourgeois.

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    • Good question. I wrote a longish post at American Creation anticipating this which I might pare down into a sequel here. Below is the answer:

      Next, let’s explore what “economic egalitarianism” means. In previous posts, I used the terms “proto-Marxist” and “proto-Rawlsian” attempting to describe such. Presently, hyperbole dominates contemporary political discourse. For free market purists, there is a tendency to categorize someone to one’s economic left as a “socialist.” For instance, Ludwig von Mises purportedly termed among others Milton Friedman (the eyewitness to this account) and Frederic Hayek “socialists” because they were willing to put up with slightly more statism than he was.

      Likewise, if “Marxism” is understood necessarily to include the abolition of private property, the European Hebraic republicans cannot properly be termed “proto-Marxist.” Others, however, have a “looser” understanding for “Marxism.” But I named Rawls in my attempt to understand this era’s “economic egalitarianism” as an alternative.

      Nelson briefly mentions Rawls but doesn’t explore deeper because, though an “economic egalitarian,” Rawls’ ideal of justice accepts, in principle, the possible existence of a degree of economic inequality the European Hebraic republicans would not. As Nelson notes:

      Even John Rawls, however strongly he might reject the perspective of his more libertarian critics, nonetheless insists that inequality per se is not inconsistent with the principles of justice. On his view, as long as the position of the least well-off social group is improved under a particular economic arrangement, it does not matter that the arrangement in question might improve the situation of the most fortunate to a greater degree. The only relevant question is whether some rival scheme might be envisioned that would make the least advantaged even better off; if so, the latter would be preferred even if it would result in greater inequality.

      Below I focus on what I see as Nelson’s clearest attempt to describe the economic vision of his Hebraic republicans:

      European political theory had been dominated by the unequal contest between two views of property: one which saw the protection of private property as the central obligation of the state, and another which saw the abolition of private property as the ultimate salvation of mankind. Cunaeus’s innocuous semantic move in 1617 had opened up a “third way”—one which remains central to modern political thought and practice. Republican political theory would now embrace neither the protection nor the abolition of private property, but rather its redistribution. The coercive power of the state would be used to impose limits on private wealth, and to generate a roughly egalitarian diffusion of property throughout the commonwealth.

      …. So this isn’t “pure” Marxism which would seek to abolish private property. Neither is it laissez faire capitalism which sees state protection of private property as central. The “third way” is a term and policy Tony Blair and Bill Clinton established and supported, the kind of capitalism that dominates geopolitics post 11/09/89. The kind of capitalism that “Ended History” according to Francis Fukuyama.

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  3. This is interesting Jon, in what I read about republics the usage typically pivots around sovereignty of ruling power. The older usage has it still somewhat bound to kings, regimes, emperors, but as it travels forward in history the meaning changes to decentralizing authority to each member of the society. Every individual owns their own piece of sovereignty, no bigger or smaller than the next person.

    Maybe in the transition of meaning at one point in time Hebrews did share some what dispersed ‘stake’ in their own sovereignty. If their rule of law was applied equally at some point, maybe it could be a case.

    This gets pretty messy as there is a lengthy span of time with four varying contexts to consider/untangle:

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      • Paradise Lost is all about hierarchy. Jehovah is described as a king and Jesus is described as a prince. They are both clearly the rightful and correct rulers of Heaven. Satan is a usurper and a tyrant in the Greek sense. I don’t buy the 19th century argument that Satan is the hero.
        In his essays supporting Cromwell and others such as Doctrine of Divorce, Milton espouses a republican, non-hierarchical, anti-monarchical view.
        I’ve come to the conclusion that Milton is an idealistic monarchist but a realistic republican. Jehovah is a legitimate monarch while Charles is illegitimate.
        Of course, this view assumes that Milton is a consistent thinker.

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        • That’s a fair analysis, and a closer one than I can bring (I haven’t read PL for 24 years).

          I agree that Satan is not the hero of Paradise Lost, although I’m sympathetic to the notion that Milton is trying to make Satan appear to be a hero as kind of a “trick” on the reader. We–or at least I–remember from Satan’s speeches in PL that they evoked in me a kind of (erm) “sympathy for the devil.” However, that could be just my late 20th century sensibilities (about “freedom” and someone facing insurmountable odds) reading something into a 17th-century poem.

          By the way, have you read Herman Hesse’s Demian? I’m aware of an interpretation of that novel that seems to suggest the “hero” (Demian) is actual a demon/devil. That doesn’t seem like the standard interpretation, but I find it compelling in a similar way that I find the Satan-as-false-hero-in-PL compelling.

          At any rate, thanks for answering my question.

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          • The only Hesse I’ve read is Steppenwolf and it was 20 years ago. The heroic Satan is Byronic. I studied a fair bit of English history in late medieval and modern era up to the 19th century in college and there is no indication that 17th century readers would detect any sense of the heroic in Satan in PL.
            Hesse is writing late enough that it is entirely plausible that a satanic anti-hero could be written or understood as a hero. CS Lewis has a great preface to PL explaining this change in world view from the 17th to late 19th century.

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  4. When, earlier, you had said you were going to write a post about Whigs, I had thought you meant the American Whigs of the 1830s and 1840s. (That’s not a complaint, just a throwaway comment.)

    But as always, I find this very interesting. Thanks for writing it.

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