September 3, 2012


Conceived in Liberty : How William Livingston gave the American Revolution its rationale (myron Magnet, Summer 2012, City Journal)

[H]is greatest battle concerned the founding of King's College, later Columbia, which New York's Anglicans (including the De Lanceys) wanted to establish as a sectarian institution with a royal charter. Their plan opened an old wound: in a colony only 10 percent Anglican, only the city's two Dutch churches and the Anglican Trinity Church had royal-charter protection, and Trinity alone received all the money from a 1693 tax imposed to support Protestant ministers, not specifically Episcopal ones. Now the Anglicans wanted to set up their own college with money raised from lotteries that the Assembly had authorized for the general "Advancement of Learning," with a faculty to be paid from the colony-wide excise tax. "It is a standing Maxim of English Liberty, 'that no Man shall be taxed, but with his own Consent,' " Livingston wrote. The "Money hitherto collected is public Money," the Reflector observed of the college. "When the Community is taxed, it ought to be for the Defence, or Emolument of the Whole: Can it, therefore, be supposed, that all shall contribute for the Uses, the ignominious Uses of a few?"

Moreover, as he surveyed the colonial colleges, most looked like the Yale he remembered, places less of education than of indoctrination--literally, for they were training prospective clergymen in the doctrines of their sect. But much college teaching is bound to be indoctrination, forming as well as informing, with powerful consequences. "The Principles or Doctrines implanted in the Minds of Youth," Livingston wrote, "pass from the Memory and Understanding to the heart, and at length become a second Nature." In time, they "appear on the Bench, at the Bar, in the Pulpit, and in the Senate, and unavoidably affect our civil and religious Principles." Therefore, instead of indoctrinating students with sectarian dogma, why not infuse them with "public Spirit and Love of their Country," with "Honour and Probity," and with "Zeal for Liberty," which will "make them more extensively serviceable to the Common-Wealth?"

Since the college will be so critical for the future of all New Yorkers, why not have it publicly chartered, funded, and controlled by the people's elected representatives in the Assembly? Since its graduates will in due course "fill all the Offices of the Government," public oversight will allay fears that any one sect will gain control and teach "Doctrines destructive of the Privileges of human Nature." After all, "as we are split into so great a Variety of Opinions and Professions; had each Individual his Share in the Government of the Academy, the Jealousy of all Parties combating each other, would inevitably produce a perfect Freedom for each particular Party." And to ensure further that the college won't be "a Nursery of Animosity, Dissention and Disorder," it should admit students "of all Protestant Denominations, upon a perfect Parity as to Privileges." Madison paraphrased Livingston's idea that sect countering sect protects liberty in his great Federalist 10: while a "religious sect, may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the confederacy," he wrote, "the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger" that any one faction can tyrannize over the rest.

Of all possible sectarian colleges, an Anglican one would be the worst, Livingston passionately believed, since the Church of England's 39 Articles, which the Reflector gently satirized, curb freedom of thought. "Let not the Seat of Literature, the Abode of the Muses, and the Nurse of Science; be transformed into a Cloister of Bigots, an Habitation of Superstition, a Nursery of ghostly Tyranny," Livingston pleaded. And he was deadly serious in his fear of tyranny, for he thought that High-Church Anglicans resented the Glorious Revolution of 1688--with its strictly limited monarchy, its 1689 Bill of Rights, and its Act of Toleration of Protestant dissenters--and believed instead in the divine right of kings. Only six years before the Reflector began, the Stuart pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had tried to restore divine right before being routed on Culloden Moor, and he still had partisans among the Tories.

The college opened as an Episcopal institution in July 1754, with seven students meeting in the Trinity Church vestry. A 1756 deal split the lottery money between the college and a quarantine center for crewmen of infected ships--"between the two pest houses," William Smith, Sr., scoffed--and the college didn't shake off the stigma that the Reflector had placed on it until after the Revolution.

At its heart, the college debate was political, and it led Livingston to set forth his deepest political beliefs, the first public exposition of Lockean social-contract theory in the colonies, complete with Locke's insistence on the right to resist and depose a monarch. Journalistic and unsystematic, his half-dozen essays on the subject add up to a coherent argument that provided the Revolution's key justification. Untangled, it runs like this.

Before there was any government, nature made men free and equal and endowed them with rights. Yet people voluntarily "consented to resign that Freedom and Equality" and put themselves under "the Government and Controul of" a ruler, as "a Remedy for the Inconveniences that sprang from a State of Nature, in which . . . the Weak were a perpetual Prey to the Powerful." To "preserve to every Individual, the undisturbed Enjoyment of his Acquisitions, and the Security of his Person," men "entered into Society" and appointed magistrates or kings "to decide Controversies," investing them "with the total Power of all the Constituents, subject to the Rules and Regulations agreed upon by the original Compact, for the Good of the Community."

This was a choice of the lesser of two evils, for "Government, at best, is a Burden, tho' a necessary one. Had Man been wise from his Creation, he . . . might have enjoyed the gifts of a liberal Nature, unmolested, unrestrained. It is the Depravity of Mankind that has necessarily introduced Government; and so great is this Depravity, that without it, we could scarcely subsist," wrote Livingston, more strongly influenced by Thomas Hobbes's vision of the State of Nature as a war of all against all than even Locke was. To guard against man's inborn tendency to invade the "Person or Fortune" of his neighbor, he wrote, echoing Hobbes's understanding of psychology, we "have ceded a Part of our original Freedom, to secure to us the rest."

For Livingston, the point of this account of government's origin was that it clearly marked the limits of royal power. "Communities were formed not for the Advantage of one Man," he insisted, "but for the Good of the whole Body." Since subjects gave their king power only to defend them "in the peaceable Possession of their Rights, by punishing the Invader," only "what is injurious to the Society, or some particular Member of it, can be the proper Object of civil Punishment; because, nothing else falls within the Design of forming the Society."

Men aren't angels.

Posted by at September 3, 2012 6:28 AM

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