November 22, 2012
FROM THE ARCHIVES: LIBERTY, NOT FREEDOM:
Thanking the Puritans on Thanksgiving (With, of Course, the Help of Tocqueville) (Peter Lawler, 11/24/10, First Things)
There's little less fashionable today than praising the Puritans, especially for their egalitarian political idealism, their promotion of genuinely humane and liberating learning, and their capacity for enjoyment and human happiness. Praising the Puritans is especially difficult for us because even most of our Protestants have abandoned them. When a European calls us Puritanical we don't say, "yes, thanks a lot, you're right." Instead, we either deny it, saying we're way beyond those days. Or we admit it, saying that, "yes, we should be less capitalistic, less repressed, and more free thinking, just like you." But the truth is that the Puritans remain the chief source of the American difference-our ability to live freely and prosperously without unduly slighting the longings of our souls. It's the Puritans' idealism that made and even makes Americans civilized.
Tocqueville's Democracy in America almost begins by showing us how much our democracy owes the Puritans. [...]
[T]he Puritans established colonies without lords or masters --without, in fact, economic classes. They weren't out to get rich or even improve their economic condition; they were in no way driven by material necessity. They "belonged to the well-to-do-classes of the mother country" and would have been better off in the most obvious ways staying home. Their lives were structured by resources and by morality; they came to America as family men, bringing their wives and children. They were models of social virtue. They were also extremely educated men--on the cutting edge, in many ways, of European enlightenment. They were, Tocqueville observes, animated by "a purely intellectual need." They aimed "to make an idea triumph" in this world.
The Puritans were, in fact, singularly distinguished by the nobility of their idealistic, intellectual goal. They willingly imposed themselves to "the inevitable miseries of exile" to live and pray freely as they believed God intended. Those called "the pilgrims," Tocqueville observes, were that way because their "austere principles" caused them to be called Puritans. Their pure standards-their excessive claims for freedom from the alleged corruption of bodily need and pleasure-caused them to be insufferable to all the governments and societies now in existence. The Puritans always seem to others to be "enemies of pleasures" (DA,2,3,19).
Puritan principles could become real only in a new world carved out of the wilderness, where they are the founders of "a great people" of God. They had no choice, they thought, but to be "pious adventurers," combining the spirits of religion, morality, family, and education with something like the restlessness that drove other "small troop[s] of adventurers going to seek fortune beyond the seas." Unlike the Americans Tocqueville observed himself, their restlessness led them to their true home and didn't leave them isolated or disoriented.
The first Americans of the North chose exile in America not for prosperity or physical liberty, but to satisfy an intellectual need that has nothing to do with their bodies. The Virginians, by contrast, were extremely moved by singularly materialistic-really, criminal-pursuits. (Most colonies, Tocqueville notices, originate in the lawless greed characteristic of pirates.) But that's not to say the men of New England thought of themselves as too good or too pure for this world.
All those democratic political freedoms that we Americans often trace to the social contract theory of the philosopher Locke the Puritans adopted "without discussion and in fact." Being clearly derived from Biblical principle, they didn't depend on or exist merely in the speculative dialogue of the philosophers. Even the Americans Tocqueville saw for himself in his visit understood that accepting some religious dogma "without discussion" turns out to be an indispensable foundation of the effective exercise of political freedom.
Because the Puritan conception of political freedom wasn't based on the apolitical, selfish, rights-obsessed, and duty negligent Lockean individual, it both not only demanded virtuous civic participation but also connected political freedom with the creature's charitable duty to the unfortunate. It set a high or virtuous standard for political competence and incorruptibility, and it didn't seem to need to rely on institutions with teeth in them to restrain the spirit of faction and boundless ambition of leaders.
Peace, Love and Puritanism (DAVID D. HALL, 11/23/10, NY Times)
[I]n Hawthorne's day, some people realized that he had things wrong. Notably, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who visited the United States in 1831. Tocqueville may not have realized that the colonists had installed participatory governance in the towns they were founding by the dozens. Yet he did credit them for the political system he admired in 19th-century America.
After all, it was the Puritans who had introduced similar practices in colony governments -- mandating annual elections, insisting that legislatures could meet even if a governor refused to summon a new session and declaring that no law was valid unless the people or their representatives had consented to it. Well aware of how English kings abused their powers of office, the colonists wanted to keep their new leaders on a short leash.
Tocqueville did not cite the churches that the colonists had organized, but he should have. Like most of their fellow Puritans in England, the colonists turned away from all forms of hierarchy. Out went bishops, out went any centralized governance; in came Congregationalism, which gave lay church members the power to elect and dismiss ministers and decide other major matters of policy. As many observed at the time, the Congregational system did much to transfer authority from the clergy to the people.
Contrary to Hawthorne's assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul's assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others.
For this reason, no Puritan would have agreed with the ethic of "self-reliance" advanced by Hawthorne's contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead, people should agree on what was right, and make it happen.
Albert J. Nock
Burke touches [the] matter of patriotism with a searching phrase. 'For us to love our country,' he said, 'our country ought to be lovely.' I have sometimes thought that here may be the rock on which Western civilization will finally shatter itself. Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.
[originally posted: 11/24/10]Posted by oj at November 22, 2012 4:47 AM