Noll on Zuckert and “Christian America”

[I originally wrote this in 2008.]

Historian Mark Noll and political scientist Michael Zuckert (both of Notre Dame) are two of the most notable right of center scholars who debunk the “Christian America” idea with a learned, balanced and nuanced approach. In this paper, Noll discusses Zuckert’s scholarship and the Christian America idea. Warning: It’s written at a very high scholarly level. The paper doesn’t attempt to contradict Zuckert’s ideas, but rather offers some alternative ideas.

Zuckert argues Locke’s influence transformed both politics and the Christian religion itself during the 18th Century. “Rational Christianity” (what Gregg Frazer terms “theistic rationalism”) is what Christianity turned into after first Locke and then Jefferson, Adams et al. transformed it into something more politically useful for the age of republicanism or classical liberalism. Whether what the Founders understood as “rational Christianity” is properly termed “Christianity” at all is debatable. To America’s key Founders, such “Christianity” often embraced theological heresies.

Noll notes that “republicanism” often presented itself with “Christianity” as though the two went together (hence the kernel of truth to the “Christian America” claim). However, Noll notes the genesis of republican ideas were outside of traditional Christian teachings. Hence a great “importing” of a-biblical, non-traditional teachings into Christianity during the 18th Century.

I am particularly interested in the connection between Founding era liberal or republican ideas, and theological heresy. As Noll notes, there is a connection. This, for me, is the preeminent passage in Noll’s paper:

In a careful analysis of the religion of James Harrington, whose Oceana of 1656 was the era’s fullest statement of republican principle, Mark Goldie has spelled out the conditions under which republican and Puritan views could move beyond simple cooperation against a common foe. The key, according to Goldie, was the softening of Puritan theological orthodoxy: when Puritans remained committed to traditional Christian ideas of human depravity, the sovereignty of divine grace, and the need for a revelation from God, they also remained antagonistic to republican ideas. But, in Goldie’s phrase, “wherever puritan thought leaned towards acceptance of the possibility of universal salvation and hence of universal priesthood, or to the Socinian idea that Christ was God-in-humanity, then Puritanism became as intensely secular and naturalistic as it was Biblical and Apocalyptic.” Most observers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would have agreed. It was only when Christian orthodoxy gave way that republicanism could flourish.

A long line of distinguished modern historians–including Caroline Robbins on the English commonwealthmen, J. G. A. Pocock on Machiavelli, Paul Rahe on the republican traditions more generally, J. C. D. Clark on eighteenth-century English society, and J. B. Schneewind on the rise of moral philosophy–has documented the persistent link during the centuries before 1750 between political republicanism and such heterodox religious views as Socinianism, Arianism, Unitarianism, and atheism. Of special note was the tie between republican views of human nature that transferred responsibility for the health of society from God to humanity and unorthodox views (whether Socinian or Arian) concerning the person of Christ. For the latter, Jesus was a good man and valuable for his example of personal morality, but he was not the son of God whose saving work opened the only door to human salvation.

An expressly religious suspicion of republican ideas continued widely in the new world. The American Samuel Johnson was outraged when Trenchard and Gordon’s Independent Whig was reprinted in New York City at mid-century. To Johnson as a traditional Anglican, the Real Whig arguments were “pernicious” outbursts from “famous infidel authors.” He was not alone in these opinions. Other New Yorkers accused the sponsors of the Independent Reflector, where Trenchard and Gordon were reprinted, of being atheists and noted that its publisher, James Parker, had been indicted for “blasphemous libel” against Christianity only shortly before reprinting these English Real Whig opinions.

The long history of antagonism between republicanism and traditional Christianity therefore poses a major interpretive problem for students of American history, since, in the carefully chosen words of philosopher Charles Taylor, “for all the well-documented tensions between Christianity and the republican tradition, the United States starts its career by linking the two closely together.”

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8 Responses to Noll on Zuckert and “Christian America”

  1. nadezhda says:

    Many thanks for republishing this post. The Noll paper is terrific – achieves that difficult feat of being judicious and nuanced but not mushy – and an excellent round-up of the historiography of the past few decades.

  2. tom van dyke says:

    If Zuckert is wrong, then so is Noll.

    Perhaps Zuckert is wrong.

  3. nadezhda says:

    If Zuckert is wrong, then so is Noll.

    No, Noll is explicitly offering an “alternative” to Zuckert which doesn’t contradict Zuckert but accommodates Zuckert’s thinking about the Lockean elements of 18th C American political culture. Take away Zuckert (or replace Zuckert with West, the author of the paper you link to), and you haven’t changed Noll’s story of a multivocal multivalent evolving culture.

    Furthermore, West is merely disputing Zucker’s reading of what Locke said. Not how Lockean “themes” were incorporated into the rich stew of traditions that eventually accommodated what had been highly antagonistic politico-theological world-views.

    In that sense, it really doesn’t matter who’s right about how we might reconstruct a coherent understanding of Locke’s use of foundational principles of natural law/natural rights from the tantalizing bits strewn across Locke’s various works. For Noll, it’s how people used and transformed for their specific situation and objectives the ideas they encountered in multiple traditions, including Locke. The entire point of Noll’s paper is that people picked up specific ideas from various traditions and produced a mash-up that took on a life of its own and succeeded precisely because it could accommodate an extensive range of thinkers and political actors who didn’t share foundational principles but who did share a set of concerns about perceived threats to the colonies and “what is to be done”.

    So someone like Paine, who was hostile to much of Christianity, could nonetheless powerfully deploy the scriptural idiom familiar to his audience to advocate ideas (diagnosis of what was wrong and prescription of how to fix it) that could be shared across politico-religious traditions.

    I find it fascinating how important the 1740s are in Noll’s story. Something similar happens in Britain during the same period. The “patriot” mixed-stew, with its Real Whig and civic republicanism roots, is embraced by a growing cross-section of previously antagonistic groups as the Tories begin to come in from the cold in the face of war with France (and its anti-Catholic, anti-absolutist undercurrents) and the final defeat in ’45 of any realistic Jacobite option to the Hanoverian regime.

  4. tom van dyke says:

    Very nice reply. What “multiple traditions, including Locke”? Reformed theology resistance theory? What Algernon Sidney calls “the school divines?”

  5. nadezhda says:

    I advise you to read Noll’s paper. It’s simply brilliant as both a synthesis of historical subdisciplines (intellectual, political, cultural, social, religious, literary, military, diplomatic, etc.) and historiography — the footnotes alone are worth the price of admission.

    But I’ll take a crack at responding the way (I think) Noll would to your question.

    First off, a matter of terminology. When I use the term “tradition”, I’m not referencing discrete “doctrines” or defined bundles of doctrines, but rather what we might call a “belief-set” (to avoid the baggage that comes with the loaded term “ideology”) which presents a fairly internally-coherent world view, oriented towards specific values or objectives, which is used by “members” of that “tradition” to explain the world as they experience it, from the quotidian to the traumatic. So “reformed theology resistance theory” is what we might term a “doctrine” which was available within one or more particular “traditions”.

    Now to Noll. His particular focus is not on the “liberal” vs “republican” traditions debate, which he like most prominent scholars of the era finds grossly simplistic. Rather Noll believes the big challenge for historians is to explain the emergence of what he calls “Christian Republicanism” in America — the blending of Puritan orientations toward providence, covenant, salvation and virtue with “country” values and approaches to political action that informed much of English civic republicanism. As he points out, it’s at least superficially a puzzle because civic repubicanism had, historically, been anathematized by the Puritans as godless, libertine, etc. (And, btw, Noll in one line points to a similar “strange bedfellows” process in Britain as the “country” idiom shared by Real (anti-Junto) Whigs and out-of-power Tories from the 1690s was used decades later by Montesquieu (and of course Bolingbroke’s Craftsman before him) to accommodate monarchy with the republican principles of Independent-opposition Whigs. So in both cases, we’re seeing virulently opposed traditions from the 17thC finding themselves part of what becomes the basis for an emerging consensus by mid-18thC.)

    Noll suggests that “liberal” elements were, post-English Civil Wars onward, available to multiple traditions in America; but until rather late in the 18th C, “liberal” elements such as contract and individual rights were only made explicitly central tenents by some theorists within some traditions. As he notes, there’s broad agreement among historians that in the US much of classical republicanism developed into a hybrid (but probably more stable) “liberal republicanism”, though there’s considerable debate about the timing and the process or forces that encouraged that hybrid. The important points are (1) “liberal” (democratic, individualist) ideas were always floating around and permeating, often inexplicitly, colonial assumptions; (2) republican virtue never disappeared but was absorbed by other traditions and became a core of the post-Revolutionary “synthesis”; and (3) different religious belief-sets had significant influence on political debate and were in turn influenced by political ideas, choices and actions. Noll explains:

    After the first years of the [Revolutionary] War… an overwhelming preponderance of carefully-sifted historical evidence points to the fact that American ideology was shifting toward ways of thought that accommodated commercial expansion, economic and political rights, and the fulfillment of the individual self. That is, classical republican views gradually yielded more place to Lockean principle and the practices of democratic individualism. When and how rapidly that shift took place does remain a historically contested question. A few historians date the transition as early as the 1760s, a few during the Revolutionary War itself, more in the years immediately following that conflict, and still more in the early years of the nineteenth century. John Murrin’s discussion of the historiographical situation summarizes clearly the points of historiographical consensus, as well as the lingering disagreements: Virtually all students “have insisted . . . that there was a transition, a before and after. We do not believe that America was born modern [i.e., liberal]. . . . We probably do agree that the shift to modernity was virtually complete by the 1820s, but no doubt we can still quarrel about how it happened, among whom, and why.” Yet this shift was one of emphasis. Lockean accounts of natural rights were present all along; the classical republican account of disinterested public virtue never passed away.

    In terms of how, who and why, Noll, as a scholar of Evangelicalism, highlights the rise of Evangelicals in the 1780s onwards as a key to institutionalizing and stabilizing what we might term the “liberal republican synthesis” for the early Republic.

    One interesting question, as we follow the thread of a particular doctrine over time, is why a doctrine becomes especially salient or loses its centrality or, in new circumstances, is applied in ways that subtly change its meaning or significance. That’s part of what Noll is examining as he suggests an evolution (and relaxation) in the meanings of “providence” and “covenant” and “salvation” and “virtue” in the Puritan tradition in response to changes in the experience of the colonists and the political choices they faced — especially the wars against the French and the Great Awakening’s challenge to the Puritan hegemony in New England.

    The other interesting phenomenon Noll highlights is that the Puritan tradition became open to finding corollaries for its core doctrines in other politico-religious traditions, including civic republicanism, even though civic republicanism had often been antagonistic towards theologically-dominated traditions. And vice versa. So an orthodox preacher could use the language of sin, grace and virtue to discuss the politics of republican corruption and virtu. Or a deist republican patriot could use the idiom of providential salvation of a chosen people to discuss rescue of the colonies from the threat of popish (French catholic) absolutism.

    As for your question “which multiple traditions”, Noll stresses the fact that we are imposing our own analytical categories on a rich, fluid stew of ideas, actions and discourses that overly simplify and necessarily distort the experience of those whose lives and thought we are attempting to understand. They didn’t think or act in the boxes we create for them. That being said, Noll lists attempts at categorization that several scholars have found useful for descriptive and analytical purposes, including bringing religion back into the mix.

    Recognizing that neither an air-tight republicanism nor an equally hegemonic liberalism dominated public intellectual life has led at least some historians to reevaluate the place of religion. Richard B. Morris nicely captured this broader ideological purview by noting that “the Founding Fathers were a product of covenant theology, common-law teaching, of a belief in the supremacy of the parliament over the king, mixed with radical commonwealth thought, plus a heavy dose of Enlightenment thinking, leavened with Hume and Scottish Enlightenment thought, and some unique constitutional ideas of their own.” Coming directly from the debate over republican versus liberal paradigms, Isaac Kramnick has contended that a bi-polar depiction of early American ideology is simply too simple. Rather, at least four “distinguishable idioms” existed: the republicanism and liberalism familiar from a thousand discussions, but also what Kramnick calls “work-ethic Protestantism” and “state-centered theories of power and sovereignty.” John Murrin has gone even further in contending that at least six “discernible value systems” were being put to use by those who formed the American nation: besides civic humanism and liberalism, Murrin cites “Calvinist orthodoxy,” “Anglican moralism,” “Tom Paine radicalism,” and “Scottish moral sense . . . philosophy.” Other historians have added still other intellectual streams, like natural law reasoning and political economy. The important point here is that these more comprehensive accounts of American ideology understand religious thought as fully active in the ideological clearing house that was the early United States. Rather than assuming that religious belief functioned merely as private opinion, or as passively held intellectual convictions reacting to supposedly more basic commitments strewn along the republican-liberal axis, historians now have new arenas for research.

    Finally, by shifting his attention to the 1740s-50s, Noll suggests that it wasn’t the conflict with Britain that gave rise to “Christian Republicanism” and the attendant justifications for rebellion. Rather, the decades prior to the conflict with Britain had produced a synthetic set of beliefs and explanations for the world the colonists experienced which were shared by multiple (and often initially mutually hostile) traditions with what came to be overlapping concepts and idioms. Because this shared belief-set was already available when the conflicts with the home country arose, it only had to be mobilized to explain the growing number of frictions with Britain and offer a basis for action.

    It’s within this context that we see the reinvigoration of theories or doctrines which had previously been used by different traditions to justify rebellion against tyrrany in the 17th C, but which had been suppressed by most Whigs after “providence” had twice “proved” the “righteousness” of the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian Succession. As Jonathan Clark describes so well in his “English Society,” the dilemma for the English Whigs was how to justify the 17thC rebellions (or at least the Glorious Revolution) while “proving” that no subsequent rebellion against the House of Hanover could ever be justified. Their strategy was to assert that only the Court-Whig-controlled Church and Crown could safeguard the achievements of the Revolution (while abandoning most of the Revolution principles, which were appropriated by their “country” and civic republican opponents). Once the threat of dynastic change disappeared as a meaningful threat in ’45, and the external threat of (popish) absolutism reappeared in the wars with the French, the “patriot” opposition could claim it, rather than the Whig oligarchy, was the better protector of national interests and of the Church-Crown alliance. Clark would argue that, accordingly, the fraught problem of “resistance theory” was now off the agenda in Britain, but began to re-emerge, now linked with a patriot-country-republican synthesis, with the rise of “rational Dissent” which challenged the Church-Crown alliance in the latter part of the century.

    The various “resistance theories” from the 17thC were, however, always available. And they were ready to be reactivated in America, where I take Noll to be arguing that the emerging “Christian Republican” synthesis had been made possible by the relaxation of key doctrines which had also served as impediments to justifying rebellion against tyranny. Therefore, when the conflicts with Britain arose hard on the heels of salvation from the papist French absolutists, the colonists were already primed to reach for doctines and theories that had the benefit of some historical legitimacy in previous successful “fights against tyrrany”.

    Hope that’s responsive to your question.

  6. tom van dyke says:

    Thx so much for your time, nazedha. We’ve been dealing with a lot of this over at American Creation. I hope you’ll become a visitor.

    We recently ran a preview of Mark David Hall’s upcoming paper that argues perhaps Noll missed a lot in the Calvinist origins of many of the dynamics you cite here: sovereignty of the people, not anything resembling “divine right of kings—the problem of Romans 13 [the Biblical injunction to obey the government].

    The Americans had no real problem under Romans 13 or the history of the English/Scottish revolutions—they simply did not recognize Parliament as their lawfully governing body. Their charters were with the king, and if the king were a tyrant, there was no Biblical [or legal] reason to obey him.

    But this reasoning already resided in Scots Calvinist thought—Rutherford, Christopher Goodman, George Buchanan. Also the Huguenot tract Vindiciae contra Tyrannos as well as clergyman John Poynet, of whose work John Adams wrote, “printed in 1556, and contains all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke…”

    There is much more, including the seeds of resistance theory in Theodore Beza, Jean Calvin’s immediate successor.

    Then there is the question of natural law, which appears to be more an afterthought above. This traces through the Catholic Thomists, particularly Suarez [who heavily influenced Hugo Grotius] and Bellarmine. It was against Suarez and Bellarmine that Sir Robert Filmer wrote his defence of “divine right,” Patriarcha. Locke’s First Treatise was in response to Patriarcha, as was Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, in which he writes:

    To this end [Filmer] absurdly imputes to the School divines that which was taken up by them as a common notion, written in the heart of every man, denied by none, but such as were degenerated into beasts, from whence they might prove such points as of themselves were less evident…Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all men saw, nor lay more approved foundations, than, that man is naturally free; that he cannot justly be deprived of that liberty without cause, and that he doth not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself.

    and further

    And as the one tends to the good of mankind in restraining the lusts of wicked kings; the other exposes them without remedy to the fury of the most savage of all beasts. I am not ashamed in this to concur with Buchanan, Calvin, or Bellarmine, and without envy leave to Filmer and his associates the glory of maintaining the contrary.

    Anyway, the larger point being that Sidney comes rather late to the party. Thoughts often credited to “various traditions” are already rolling in religious [i.e., Christian] thought as early as the 1500s—“resistance theory” in Calvinism, Thomistic natural law never really disappearing but picked up by “scholastic Calvinists,” theologian-philosopher Richard Hooker, sometimes called the “father of Anglicanism,” even the “co-founder of Lutheranism,” Philipp Melanchthon.

    Not that there isn’t room for niggling. Even “Christian Thought” took a long look at ancient Greece and especially Rome and Roman law. And I think it’s unhelpful to try to trace the Calvinist aspects of the Founding directly through the Puritans, as many do. If one looks back even further, the picture comes into a different focus than the prevailing narrative.

    And so one of West’s points contra Zuckert is key, as Locke—especially as understood by the Founders—is really onto nothing new:

    My suggestion, then, is that Lockean natural law has a “utilitarian” foundation. The laws of nature are rules of convenience that are useful to human happiness. In this respect, Locke is still in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Hobbes, and most other major philosophers preceding Kant. Locke shares what Kant called the “eudaimonism” of that tradition, which Kant rejected, followed by Hegel and Marx. (“Eudaimonism” is “happinessism”—the view that the ultimate ground of morality and political right is human well-being.) That is, in this fundamental respect, Locke is closer to the classics, who also grounded natural right in a “utilitarian” way.

  7. nadezhda says:

    Thanks for the invite to Am Creation. I lurk regularly and was under the impression you’d decided to fold up shop over there. I’ll have to go look for the Hall paper.

    I’d be rather surprised, however, if Noll overlooked traditional Calvinist elements out of ignorance. I think for Noll it’s rather a matter of trying to understand which bits of a tradition get emphasized when and why, and how the articulation of doctrine evolves with a shifting world-view that responds to experience and specific challenges in different environments. For example, it’s a truism, which applies to more than Calvinists, that where you stand depends on where you sit — the same tradition which elaborates a justification for rebellion can become pretty imaginative about legitimating the status quo, and delegitimating opposition, once it’s in power. The Scots do serve as prime examples, but it’s a history I’m certain Noll knows very well.

    I’m not suggesting (nor did Noll) that any of this stuff sprung full-blown in the 17thC. The scholars he cites in his extended historiography are primarily dealing with “early modern” thinkers and their antecedents. The historians may quarrel about how best to isolate or classify important threads of ideas, and to what extent epistemologies are linked to moral philosophies or to cosmologies, etc. and whose thought influenced whom, but intellectual pedigrees are core to their business. So I expect that “Locke is drawing on the ancients” would come as no surprise to either Noll or Zucker. Nor would they probably be startled to hear a claim that there was absolutely nothing new in Locke’s thought.

    My point was merely that West is talking on a different level of analysis and about a different type of historical process when he points to Locke’s shared utilitarianism with the ancients. What Noll is talking about re Zucker’s thesis, rather, is when, how and why a group picks up on an idea — whether by recuperating a part of their tradition, or unconsciously adjusting the meaning or application of a current idea, or finding something they see as “new” that illuminates or shifts or even reconfirms their way of thinking about things. And then how that idea has implications for the choices made, the actions taken or not taken.

    Ideas matter, but so does the material world and historical contingencies — it’s the interplay that Noll is trying to understand. And Noll is saying the obvious, but which gets lost in both academic specialization and polemic, that we have to include religious traditions in the mix — as part of the ideas and the actors and their environment — and not think we can isolate “political theory” or “political actors”. Yes, we have to try to tease apart various pieces so we can examine them, but always remain alert to the whole messy process of which each is a part.

    In Locke’s case, we’re interested in which groups (not just the canon of authors of “reception theory”) found interesting things to use in Locke’s writings, when, and just as important, which parts of his writings. Initially, his epistemology and writings on education were far more influential than his political theory. One could argue that was because he was working on the ancient ground of the sceptics, which was at the moment a critical issue-area for the heterodox thinkers who generally aligned with “classical republicanism” and weren’t terribly interested at the moment in either democracy or individualism (they’d had enough of that with the fanatiks in the past century, thank you very much). Locke’s epistemology received considerable attention because he had interesting ways of describing and applying those ancient ideas to how individuals learned about and understood the new Newtonian world. So in an area of thought that was receiving intense focus across Europe in the 1680s thru 1720s, he offered lots of good stuff to chew on, accept, modify, build on, etc. It is a matter for eternal debate how much of the good stuff was actually “new” as opposed to a different angle or style for looking at or talking about ancient ideas, or a new situation in which to apply older ideas, or how much Locke reflected ideas of any “early modern” predecessor he may or may not have read.

    With respect to Locke’s political thought, I don’t think it matters for Noll’s discussion whether Locke’s thought was “new” or merely ancient ideas in a garb that resonated with readers. What matters is who found his ideas useful, why, and what they did with them. By the time his political thought started getting lots of attention, the world and its problems had changed substantially since he wrote the Two Treatises, which I understand was written like Sidney’s Discourses as a response to Filmer in the so-called “Exclusion Crisis” rather than, as earlier believed, a decade later as a justification of the Glorious Revolution. So again, a Platonic “right reading” of Locke isn’t important for Noll’s research agenda other than to understand Locke himself and the environment in which he wrote. What’s important for Noll’s discussion is how Locke was read, at different times, by different groups, for different purposes.

    As I understand what Zucker has sketched is a story of when and how Locke’s ideas were picked up and applied (and yes, undoubtedly modified) by people who thought they and those ideas were revolutionary and tapping into eternal verities. If what West wants to argue is that the Straussians are wrong, that “woe is me, we’ve lost the ancient truths and are afflicted with horrible self-destructing modernity” is an erroneous reading of Locke, then fine. I’m not sure why else Locke’s novelty or lack thereof would make any difference. Though I confess the battles between the Straussians and anti-Straussians on the right leave me somewhere between baffled, bored and irritated (how a proper reading of Aristotle, Aquinas and Locke demand the dismantling of the welfare state is, I believe, as open to dispute as Zucker’s reading of Locke.) And if West wants to argue that Locke is closer to the classics than that nasty old man Kant, he’s probably right. But unless Zucker’s thesis of how Locke was understood in America depends on Locke being a closet Kantian in 1690, so what?

    If, on the other hand, West is arguing that what Zucker gets wrong is how Locke’s writings were understood and applied — that the notion of self-ownership is either Zucker’s invention (that is, that neither Locke nor his later American adopters used a notion that fits Zucker’s usage of self-ownership) or that the concept, though used, was an insignificant ornamentation — and further, why Zucker’s error leads to misunderstanding the political culture of the Revolution and the early Republic, then that’s clearly a different matter. Or if West wants to argue that Zucker’s thesis is that those who applied Locke’s ideas did so with a proto-Kantian gloss, and Zucker’s wrong, they weren’t proto-Kantians but were neo-Thomists, again that would be a relevant response to Noll. But I didn’t find any of that discussed in West’s essay.

    Anyhow, the way I read Noll’s paper is that he’s sketched out a framework that both draws on a great deal of excellent scholarship of the past few decades and suggests an important research agenda. He’s posed a critical question that historians have yet to fully address — how to explain how we get, by the Revolution, to a political culture (which Noll labels “Christian Republicanism”) that seems to draw on and be shared by what have been historically bitterly antagonistic traditions. And then how to explain how that culture further evolves to something that looks like a stable “synthesis-plus” that has a look of “modernity” (hate that term) which “Christian Republicanism” itself seems to have lacked (or at least it wasn’t a prominent feature) and which now also has an important new dimension, Evangelicalism. And Noll draws our attention to what he thinks is the first major contingent “turn” toward the development of that political culture — the turmoils of the 1740s and 50s, not the later conflicts with Britain.

    But he’d be the first to admit that there’s not much flesh yet on the skeleton he’s sketched. So when you point out “I think it’s unhelpful to try to trace the Calvinist aspects of the Founding directly through the Puritans”, I’d expect Noll to respond “Great! Let’s add it to the research program.” When and why did those Calvinist aspects of the Founding move from part of the Calvinist heritage to reemerge as vital, front-and-center ideas. And how did those ideas get picked up by, or overlap with similar ideas of, other traditions to contribute to the Founding culture? Does that story reinforce or contradict Noll’s thesis that (at a still-to-be-identified time and for still-to-be-identified reasons), the colonial Puritans began to relax their core concepts, leaven their “medieval” world-view with a more “humanistic” or “this-world” outlook?

    As for Algernon Sidney, not only, as you note, does he as a thinker come rather late to the party, he as an author of published works only gets to the party almost two decades after his death, when his role as Whig martyr has a huge impact on which parts of his writings are actually widely read, how they’re understood and how they’re claimed or otherwise exploited by different antagonistic groups over the 18thC.

    Coincidentally, I’m right in the midst of the “Algernon Sidney” section of Blair Worden’s amazingly fine “Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity”, which tracks, over the centuries, the varying uses by folks-with-an-agenda of the legendary reputations (martyrs v criminals, heroes v monsters) and the published writings of Edmund Ludlow (the regicide Puritan), Algernon Sidney and Cromwell. And how each man’s “story” and writings spoke so differently to people in different eras.

    The first part, which Worden focuses on Ludlow, could be a monograph directly within Noll’s research agenda. Worden takes us on a documentary detective hunt for clues as to why and how Ludlow’s autobiographical manuscripts were edited into Memoirs that turned the Old Testament fire-and-brimstone Puritan into a polite, post-Revolutionary Whig. It should come as no surprise that John Toland was involved in Ludlow’s miraculous transformation. Nor that Ludlow’s Memoirs were part of an avalanche of Civil War-era writings published after the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) — including Toland’s Life of Milton — in a coordinated campaign by heterodox “country” or republican Whigs and commonwealthsmen against the apostates of Revolution principles, the Junto and their Court allies.

    As Worden shows, it wasn’t simply that Ludlow’s old-time Puritan values weren’t useful to the deistic or heterodox Whig radicals of 1700 so they had to be sanitized and given a more humanist and less other-worldly turn. The “mentality” of the Civil War Puritan had, over four decades, become positively alien to the mentality of 1700, even for most of those who remained Nonconformists. If Ludlow’s writings had been published as written, they would have generated howls of laughter or horror from the Whig readership who would otherwise be at least open to a “country” crypto-republican critique of William III’s reign. Worden gives us some thoughts as to the historical processes which so transformed people’s mental worlds.

    So in England we find the heterodox “classical republicans” using a “polite” version of Puritan history to legitimate a “country” political philosophy. This fits with Noll’s thesis and bookends rather nicely with the example he uses from about the same period in America, of Cotton Mather already adopting some elements of the “country” vocabulary.

    Great stuff! And now back to Algernon Sidney.

  8. tom van dyke says:

    As for Algernon Sidney, I argue he is negotiating papism/Catholicism/Thomistic thought to an anti-Catholic audience. Quote is above, that the “school divines” school = Thomism, Scholasticism, the “Schoolmen” [in context] ; “divines” the common term for clergymen.

    Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all men saw, nor lay more approved foundations, than, that man is naturally free; that he cannot justly be deprived of that liberty without cause, and that he doth not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself.

    This is a bit of my own research.

    I read the original sources, do original research; the dueling-scholar game has no appeal for me. Neither have I seen the Suarez-Bellarmine vs. Filmer leading to Locke and Sidney nexus written anywhere, although I’m sure it has been. Especially per Sidney.

    I saw Noll using Zuckert for support: I’ve read Locke for myself. Ran across Zuckert in my Locke travels and it smelled fishy to me. Ran across Thomas G. West upon further review; I agreed with West’s reading of Locke. I quoted West out of laziness, and that I’m no accredited scholar and a nobody like me has no choice to play dueling scholars. This whole discussion has been dueling scholars.

    And Mark David Hall only put his paper on Jonathan and my groupblog American Creation because we had been talking about all those Calvinist sources for the past years. That’s how Dr. hall found us in the first place. But we found it all on our own.

    I’ve started digging through Mark Noll’s paper linked from the original post. He’s the new “discovery,” that previous theory left out religion and Noll seems to be the only one who has a clue.

    Noll is certainly right in his research, and unthreatening to the prevailing historical orthodoxy. Religion gets its pat on the head.

    But I disagree that the American mind of the Founding era was content with a mere pat on the head, as it is in the 21st century. Religion was more than “a factor.” men wanted to be good with God and with “right reason,” the natural law. They wanted to do the right thing.

    I’m not taking on Mark Noll here, as I’m relatively unfamiliar with his work, and do not get my history from historians anyway. Zuckert I know, and Zucker’s contentions are nothing I’d build a thesis upon.

    Much of worth in what you wrote above, nadezhda. But first things first. I do hope we get to know each other, here, there or elsewhere.

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