On the Origins of Liberalism

The following is my side of a discussion from the comments section of a post by Corey Robin, The Definitive Take on Donald Trump. Considering the topic of the post, it’s odd that it became a historical and philosophical analysis of liberalism.

My comments are in response to Jason Bowden. He sees John Locke as more central to American liberalism. I don’t deny his importance, but I see it as having more diverse origins.

* * *

“The menu above is liberalism — limited government, individual rights, states rights, balance of powers, paper-worshipping Constitutionalism, privatization, deregulation, market-knows-best, blah blah blah. That’s the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, etc. It isn’t the counter-revolutionary tradition of Hobbes, Hume, Maistre, Burke, etc.”

I consider those type of people to be more in the reactionary category. That is particularly true of Locke, but even Jefferson and Godwin were never consistent and moderated their views over time. Also, as far as I know, none of these thinkers came from poverty or even the working class. The same applies to Burke with a father who was a government official and, I might add, began as a strong progressive before his reactionary side was elicited by the French Revolution.

Consider the details of Locke’s political views, as compared to an earlier thinker like Roger Williams:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/roger-williams-and-american-democracy/

“Basically, Williams was articulating Lockean political philosophy when John Locke was still in diapers. Even Locke never defended Lockean rights as strongly as did Williams. Locke didn’t think Catholics and atheists deserved equal freedom. Locke was involved in writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony which included slavery, something Williams wouldn’t have ever done under any circumstances and no matter the personal benefits. In writing about land rights, Locke defended the rights of colonists to take Native American Land whereas Williams defended against the theft of land from Native Americans.”

That demonstrates this difference between ‘liberal’ and reactionary. There was no liberalism as such when Williams lived, but by his example he helped set the stage for what would become liberalism. Locke came from an entirely different tradition, that which influenced the Deep South.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/deep-south-american-hypocrisy-liberal-traditions/

The difference between liberal and reactionary to some degree aligned with the difference between democrat and republican during the revolutionary era, and to some degree it matched up with Anti-Federalist and Federalist. Josiah Tucker, a critic of Locke, wrote:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The more reactionary Enlightenment thinkers and American founders were wary of democracy. Liberals like Thomas Paine, on the other hand, advocated for democracy openly. Paine saw the failure of the French Revolution as their not having created a democratic constitution when they had the chance. Also in the category of liberals, as opposed to reactionaries, I’d place people like Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/natures-god-and-american-radicalism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/a-truly-free-people/

Paine, in particular, is the archetype of modern American liberalism and progressivism. Besides supporting democracy in general, he was for rights for (poor men, women, blacks, Native Americans, non-Protestants, etc), along with being for progressive taxation and strong welfare state. Paine represents what we mean by liberalism today. But even a classical liberal like Adam Smith pointed to how inequality endangered a free society and so he argued for progressive taxation and public education.

Someone like Jefferson was more of a fence-sitter. It is hard to categorize him. But he obviously never fully committed himself to the progressive liberalism of his friend, Paine. And as he aged he became considerably more conservative. The same happened with Godwin. It must be understood that both Jefferson and Godwin came from the elite and they never betrayed their class. It was class position that distinguished strong progressive liberals and everyone else. Paine, Allen, Young, and Clark were never fully accepted into the more respectable social circles.

“Sometimes I wonder if many Sanders supporters are closet reactionaries and don’t know it yet.”

I support Sanders’ campaign. I do so because I see it as a way of promoting needed debate. It is also good to challenge Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency. But in the end I might vote Green. I’m undecided. I just like how Sanders has been able to shake things up so far.

“The left is defined as groups on the ascent. People benefitting from the established order — CEOs, immigrants, government employees, and the managerial class.”

I can’t say, though, that I feel like I’m part of a group on the ascent. I am a government employee, but my position is about as low as you can get. I have no college degree and I don’t make much money, as I’m only part time. I don’t particularly feel like I’m receiving any immense benefit from the established order, at least no more than the average American.

“A lot of suburban and rural whites have a lot to lose by the way things are going. In one possible political realignment in the future, they could be on the same side — the right.”

I see that as a separate issue. Many other realignments may form in the future, such as between various non-black minorities and whites, especially in terms of the growing Hispanic population. How that all settles out would be speculation.

* * *

What interests me about Williams is that he held to a view similar to Lockean land rights. This was before Locke was even born. I don’t if the idea was just in the air or where it might have originated. I’m not sure why Locke gets credit for it. It is sad that this philosophical and legal justification came to be used to take Native American land away, when for Williams it was meant to protect Native American rights.

He was an interesting guy, way before his times. I liked how he went to convert the Native Americans and came away converted to their having a superior society than their neighboring white settlers. He seemingly gave up on organized religion. He also took religious freedom much further than Locke ever did.

“I’m glad you brought up Roger Williams, because I definitely view progressivism, with its moral self-certainly, as a kind of secular Puritanism.”

That is at least partly true. I might broaden it a bit.

I see progressivism as largely a product of dissenter religions—not just Puritans, but also Quakers, Anabaptists, Pietists, Huguenots, etc. These were people who were tired of religious persecution and religious wars. I’d include Samuel de Champlain in this category, similar to someone like Roger Williams.

I’m most familiar with the Quakers. Having read about John Dickinson, I was fascinated by their separate tradition of living and evolving constitutionalism as a pact of a people with God, not a piece of paper. That is not unlike how many liberals and progressives still like to interpret the US Constitution, minus the God part.

“But Locke, while not a progressive, nor a democrat, brings the conceptual heft.”

I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m not sure how to categorize Locke. He did formalize many ideas and made them useful for the purposes of new laws and constitutions.

I have come to the view that Spinoza was important as well. Someone like Jefferson probably was familiar with Spinoza, but I don’t know how influential his ideas were in the English-speaking world. There were large non-English populations in the American colonies (some colonies were even a majority non-English, such as Pennsylvania). Besides dissenter religions, I couldn’t say what else non-English Europeans brought with them.

“It is a complete “Captain Picard” theory of man, strutting about the galaxy, pleading with everyone to put their irrational biases aside and just be reasonable.”

That might be what differentiated Locke from the likes of Williams and Penn. Religious dissenters weren’t so obsessed reason in this manner. I suspect that Paine inherited some of this earlier tradition. Paine’s deism wasn’t just about being rational but about knowing God directly, a very Quaker attitude. Paine, besides having a Quaker father, spent two influential periods of his life in a dissenter Puritan town and in Quaker Pennsylvania. Paine’s common sense could relate to his Quaker style of plain speech, it’s about a directness of knowing and communicating. It’s seems different than how you describe Locke.

“Out of Locke, one gets the instrumental nature of the state, disinterested power, the presumption of liberty when making trade-offs, popular sovereignty, and even government intervention for the public good, providing it meets a threshold of justification.”

In the non-Lockean traditions of dissenter religions and Spinozism, I sense another kind of attitude. It’s not clear to me all that distinguishes them.

Williams definitely had a live-and-let-live attitude, a proto-liberal can’t we all just get along. He didn’t want war, an oppressive government, or anyone telling anyone else how to live. Instead of banning, imprisoning, or torturing Quakers like the Puritans, he invited them to public debate—for the time, a radical advocacy of free speech. He expressed so many modern liberal and progressive values before almost anyone else in the colonies.

Along these lines, Penn later created the first tolerant multicultural colony in America. Franklin, who was a child when Penn died, complained about the German majority that refused to assimilate. This multiculturalism led to strong democratic culture.

“Liberals today write books like “Moral Politics” and writers like Dworkin think the Constitution should be interpreted in a moral spirit.”

That moralistic attitude would definitely be a result of dissenter religions. It also would relate to the Constitution being a living document.

“This is why a liberal like Spencer claimed that in reactionary thought, government resides in the “very soul of its system.” Spencer dreamed of a non-coercive world — morality is supposedly prior to government — while conservatism is about borders, culture, hierarchies, identity, etc.”

That is interesting. I’m not familiar with Spencer.

“Even in the United States, the biggest fans of free trade, limited government, and deregulation were southern slavers. The cultural inertia remains. It isn’t an accident that Clinton and Gore, both pimping for NAFTA, are from the south.”

That fits into Locke’s influence. He wrote or co-wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony. This Southern classical liberalism is, of course, what today we call conservatism—an ideologically mixed bag. But it also shaped Clinton’s New Democrats, which partly returned the Democratic Party to its Southern roots. The early Democratic Party was weakest in New England.

“Liberalism has always been a top-down movement, usually spearheaded by university professors.”

There has also always been a working class liberalism, often a mix of progressivism, populism, and moral reformism. It’s harder to identify this tradition because the people who have held it weren’t and aren’t those with much power and voice.

The revolutionary era began as a bottom-up movement, a class-based restleness about not only distant British rule but also local ruling elite. It was the process of Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas spreading across the dirty masses. Paine was so influential for the very reason he could be understood by the most uneducated person. The upper class so-called founders only joined the revolution once it became clear it wasn’t going away.

“If anything, liberalism is aristocratic and Puritan in temperament, an attempt to improve the perceived immorality of rowdy, sinful, shameless, vulgar people.”

There were those like the Quakers and Baptists as well. People of this other strain of liberalism hated haughty Puritanism and aristocracy. I wouldn’t discount this aspect, as this bottom-up liberal tradition has been a powerful force in American society and politics.

* * *

I’ve recently been reading about Abraham Lincoln. I was specifically curious to learn more about his having been influenced by Thomas Paine.

Lincoln was born at the end of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. It was only months away from Paine’s death. Much later, Jefferson and Adams died when Lincoln was 17 years old. Lincoln read many of the writings of the founders and others from the revolutionary era, including a number of radical thinkers. He was very much a child of the Enlightenment, even embracing a rational irreligiosity with a deistic bent. His mind was preoccupied with the founding generation.

I find interesting the contrast between Lincoln and Paine. Lincoln became a mainstream professional politician, something that Paine never would have done. Paine, even with his desire to moderate extremes, was a radical through and through. Lincoln ultimately mistrusted radicalism and had no desire for a second revolution. The government, in his mind, represented the public good. Paine, on the other hand, had a more palpable sense of he people as something distinct from particular governments.

Another difference seems to be related to their respective religious upbringings. They both held progressive views, but their motivations came from different sources.

Lincoln admitted to being a fatalist and that this came from his Baptist childhood with its Calvinist predetermination. This fed into his melancholy and sense of doom, oddly combined with a whiggish view of history (i.e., moral arc). The divine, portrayed in the light of Enlightenment deism, was an almost brutal force of nature that forced moral progress, decimating humans in its wake. Lincoln believed that individuals were helpless pawns, facing a dual fate of inborn character and cosmic forces. The Civil War was the perfect stage for Lincoln’s fatalistic drama of transformation through death and suffering.

Paine had so much more to be melancholy about. He saw one of his childhood friends, convicted of a petty crime, hanged from the scaffolding that could be seen from his home. His first wife and child died. His second marriage led to divorce. He spent many years struggling financially, sometimes unemployed and homeless. He almost died from sickness on his way to the American colonies. Yet, unlike Lincoln, Paine seemed to have an optimistic bent to his nature. He was a dreamer, opposite of Lincoln’s cold pragmatism. I suspect this at least partly has to do with how much Paine was influenced by dissenter religions, most especially the positive vision of Quakerism where God is seen as a friend to humanity.

The two represent different strains of Anglo-American progressivism, neither of which is particularly Lockean in mindset. In today’s politics, I’m not sure there is much room for either Lincoln or Paine. Their worldviews are almost alien to the contemporary mind. Politics has become so mechanistic and government so bureaucratic. There isn’t any room left for the vast visions of old school varieties of progressivism. Maybe that is why Trump is so appealing. He brings drama back into politics, no matter how superficial and petty that drama is.

* * *

I follow much of what you say. You describe the gist of the dominant strains of American liberalism and progressivism. But I keep thinking about origins. You wrote that,

“Locke invented liberalism: reasonable citizens updating public policy through reasonableness without resorting to terrorism.”

Did Locke really invent liberalism? To be specific, did he invent what you describe above as liberalism? To Locke, who was a citizen, specifically a reasonable citizen?

He had no problem writing or helping to write the constitution for a colony whose economy was dependent on slavery—in fact, a colony where the majority of the population was enslaved. He also didn’t support religious freedom for all, but only for certain religious groups and definitely not for heretics and atheists.

By reasonable citizens, would he have simply meant white male adults who were propertied and adherents of particular acceptable religions? Or did he think peasants, indentured servants, slaves, and indigenous people should be considered part of the reasonable citizenry? The reasonable citizens among the ruling elite and upper classes in the British Empire, including in the colonies, didn’t mind resorting to terrorism. Lockean land rights were even used as justification for taking away the land of various indigenous people. All of colonialism was built on violence, terrorism even, and Locke didn’t seem too bothered by that.

Was Locke genuinely praising reasonableness any more than previous thinkers? Didn’t those with wealth and power always think of themselves as reasonable? I’m sure the highly educated elite in the Roman Empire also thought of themselves as reasonable citizens maintaining order reasonably in their reasonable republic. The rhetoric of a reasonable citizenry goes back to the ancient world, e.g., classical Greece.

What was entirely new that Locke was bringing to the table? As I pointed out, even Lockean land rights as a theory preceded Locke, such as with Roger Williams. Others had also previously argued for social contract theory and against divine sanction, such as Thomas Hobbes. Many of these kinds of ideas had been discussed for generations, centuries, or even millennia—consider Giordano Bruno’s views on science and religion or consider how some trace liberalism back to Epicurus. What made Lockean thought unique? Was it how these ideas were systematized?

Also, what do you think about Benedict Spinoza? Some think Locke was influenced by him. Spinoza began writing long before Locke did. And Locke spent time in Spinoza’s Netherlands, during a time when Spinoza’s work was well known among the type of people Locke associated with. Locke did most of his writing in Netherlands and following that period. Some of Spinoza’s ideas would have likely resonated with and influenced Locke, specifically Spinoza’s advocacy of free speech, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, republicanism, etc.

There is always the argument as well that Spinoza and Locke represent separate strains of the Enlightenment, one radical and the other reactionary or moderate. Do you agree with this argument? Or do you prefer the view of there being a single Enlightenment and hence a single Enlightenment basis of mainstream liberalism? Do you think Spinoza had much of any influence in early America, either directly or indirectly? If so, can a Spinozistic element be detected in American political thought?

A number of people argue for an influence, e.g., “Nature’s God.” For example, Spinoza’s collected works were in
Thomas Jefferson’s library. Thomas Paine likely was familiar with Spinoza’s ideas, either by reading him or through those around him who had read Spinoza. One can sense Spinozism in deism and maybe in Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Age spirituality, and New Thought Christianity. Spinoza’s panentheism has aspects of unitarianism and universalism, both of which have been influential over American history—and so maybe it was incorporated into the Unitarian-Universalist tradition. I could see even Quakerism, or more mainstream Christianity being influenced.

Plus, there is someone like Algernon Sidney. I don’t know much about him. He doesn’t get as much attention from popular works, at least here in the US. From what I can gather, his views were partly in line with Spinoza. Some other related early Enlightenment thinkers are Conyers Middleton and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.

Your comment got me thinking about all of this. I decided to do a web search. Here are a few things that came up (some that I’m familiar with and others new to me):

Radical Enlightenment
by Jonathan Israel

Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism
by Lewis Samuel Feuer

Nature’s God
by Matthew Stewart

New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty
Evan Haefeli

The Island at the Center of the World
by Russell Shorto

http://jeffersonandspinoza.blogspot.com/

http://www.thomaspaine.us/pdf/paine_spinoza_bisheff.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Reason#Paine.27s_intellectual_debts

https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2008/11/19/spinoza-virtue-and-american-ideology/

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2014/07/04/questioning-america-christian-roots/XVNKjkViIzncq9Rr9T7DMM/story.html

https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/25993801-nature-s-god-the-heretical-origins-of-the-american-republic

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-jc-matthew-stewart-20140629-story.html

http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=philosophy_hontheses

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/09/14/americas_jewish_founding_father/

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/spinozas-vision-of-freedom-and-ours/

http://www.readperiodicals.com/201009/2131675381.html

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Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Liberty has been on my mind, because of a book I’m reading, Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. I’m in the middle of the book at present. I wrote some preliminary thoughts in response. One thing is clear at this point. He has an atypical view of “liberty” (Kindle Locations 433-436):

There is something incredibly profound about this insight that liberty implies limitation and not just protection or privilege. This restrictive side of liberty is often overlooked, because the word “liberty” itself tends to be associated with the word “freedom.” Yet “liberty,” as is now evident, implies something more complex. It refers to both freedom and restriction, or, to put it another way, liberty refers to the freedoms that are made possible by living together under restrictions.

This is the second book by him that I’ve read. The earlier book is Liberty In America’s Founding Moment. I haven’t finished that book either, but I’ve been going back to it from time to time. In that book, he had his academic hat on. He was originally a religious studies professor, which gives him a grounding in dealing with historical texts and contexts.

His newer book feels more personal, although the notes in the back of the book show how thorough is his thought process. He says that Beyond Liberty Alone is a book he worked on for a long time. It is part of his own development as an individual, specifically in his career. The story of how he left academia is telling (Howard’s End by Jonathan Mahler):

A few days before Howard Eilberg-Schwartz was scheduled to launch the Jewish studies program at San Franisco State University, he was persuaded by the school’s director of human resources to attend an all-day seminar for select faculty members, students, and local Jewish leaders. It was to be Eilberg-Schwartz’s introduction to the school’s Jewish community, and, understandably, he was nervous. As part of the program, participants were asked to respond to a series of provocative questions by moving to a designated area of the room. When the question “How central is Israel to Judaism?” was posed, he self-consciously took a spot among the smallish group that answered “Not terribly.” And when attendees were asked if they thought the statement “Zionism is racism” was anti-semitic, Eilberg-Schwartz — who sees the movement to create a Jewish state within the broad context of European colonialism — shuffled over toward the corner designated “No.” This time he stood virtually alone.

“I remember people coming up to me afterwards and saying how disappointed they were that I had been named head of Jewish studies,” Eilberg-Schwartz realls now, more than two years later. “That’s when I knew i wasn’t in sync with the local Jewish community. From that moment on, I was branded.”

Indeed, that fateful morning in the summer of 1994 would set the stage for a year of conflict between Eilberg-Schwartz and the local Jewish community, one that would culminate in his preipitious departure from the university — and academia altogether — in the fall of 1995.

This offers some insight why liberty is a personal issue to him. He obviously is an advocate of liberty of conscience and liberty of free speech. He was willing to stand up for what he considered right, despite the very real costs.

I’ve interacted with Schwartz some this past year, including a recent discussion on his Facebook page. I was following his blog for quite a while and would comment there. I had forgotten that he was an author and that I owned one of his books, as I own more books than my memory can keep track of. He reminded me that I had written a comment to an Amazon review of his first book on liberty, a comment that I didn’t remember, as I leave more comments than my memory can keep track of. (There are many issues with my memory.)

It is an enjoyable experience to read a book while also interacting with the author. I did that while reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, as he has an interesting blog as well. Corey Robin is one of the many authors that complement Schwartz’s writings. It is Robin who can help explain why the political right has its limited view of liberty, whereas Schwartz in his new book dissects that limited view and offers an alternative.

The alternative view presented by Schwartz has to do with a balance of values, a balance of rights and responsibilities. He is making an argument grounded both in common sense and in the nuanced understanding of the founding generation of American thinkers and leaders. He demonstrates how shallow and downright dysfunctional is the view of liberty on the right side of the spectrum, what he calls the liberty-first position. That right-wing view has come to prominence in recent decades, but it fails on many accounts, including its lack of principled application. More importantly, in their ideological dogmatism, liberty-first advocates ignore basic facts of human nature and human society.

In reading Beyond Liberty Alone, I became curious about what the author might have to say about the commons. As I had the Kindle version, I did a search for the term and found some references to it. He only directly speaks of the commons in one paragraph and a note to that paragraph. Here is the relevant part of the paragraph (Kindle Locations 4190-4193):

The way to address this problem is to seriously treat the ocean, water, air, and wildlife as property in common, in the sense that we are all tenants in common. Tenants in common does not mean it is a free -for-all, which is the supposition of the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” 45 There can be ownership in common and regulations about the use of the commons.

And here is the note (Kindle Locations 5579-5585):

45 . I take this to be one of the original points of Garrett James Hardin in his original essay on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and one point I agree with. In my reading of Hardin’s original essay, his point is that the commons becomes a tragedy only if it is not regulated and that regulation is needed to protect it. One example he gives is the national parks, which are owned in common (public property) but must be regulated to protect them. His point is that without regulation, things cannot be owned in common successfully. It is beyond the present context to discuss the extensive subsequent scholarship and popular discussion of whether the commons always ends in tragedy or not, and I do not agree with some of Hardin’s subsequent moral conclusions, such as his moral conclusions about preventing immigration in his metaphor of “Living on a Lifeboat.”

Even though his direct mention of the “commons” is limited to this, he writes extensively about that which is held in common and that which offers common usage and benefit. The word “common” comes up a lot in the text. Much of this talk is about social capital, although he doesn’t use that term at all. He does talk about externalities quite a bit, which is about the cost to the commons or the costs held in common, although in reality it is usually the poor and minorities who bear the brunt of those costs.

Schwartz makes a strong argument for the commons, not just as natural resources, but as the entire inheritance of the human species. He makes it clear how much society invests in every individual and how this implies a responsibility of the individual toward society. It is overwhelming all that we take for granted. Everyone of us is the product of immense resources and opportunities given to us. We earned and deserved none of it, except as our shared inheritance in having been born.

In thinking of the commons, my mind always wanders to Thomas Paine. He came of age during the time when the land enclosure movement was having a major impact in England. It was the ending of the last vestiges of feudalism and in its wake it left a mass population of landless peasants. A peasant without the commons to live on is a very desperate person. The population of the unemployed and homeless grew as the commons were privatized or, from the perspective of the commoners, stolen.

This impoverished population flooded into London. Food riots followed. So did the early organizing of labor unions, which happened around the time Paine was in London. The lower classes became concentrated in numbers never before seen and London was where all the action was. The poor weren’t just desperate, for they were also feeling optimistic about new opportunities. Even though they were banned from the universities, the poor took what spare money they had and hired lecturers to teach them about various subjects. Paine joined in this new movement of education and it would set him on his path. He got a taste for the power of learning, the potential in reading and writing.

Paine knew about the commons and what the loss of the commons meant for most people. You can hear the echoes of the commons in some of his later writings. In “Agrarian Justice”, Paine gives a good definition of the commons:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

He further on emphasizes the significance of public land being made private:

I have already established the principle, namely, that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race; that in that state, every person would have been born to property; and that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civilized life, has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.

The argument Paine makes is for a land tax that would have funded an early version of Social Security. The privatizing of land was a direct causal factor for impoverishing those forced into a landless condition. The public should be compensated for what was taken from the public:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

This is the basic framework also being used by Schwartz to make his own argument. The difference is that Schwartz has a wider focus on what is held in common, but in essence he is carrying forward Paine’s vision of America. However, he doesn’t mention Paine at all in his most recent book and only makes brief mentions of Paine in his other book on liberty. In neither book does he mention “Agrarian Justice”. So, it seems that Schwartz came to this view independent of Paine’s writings.

When thinking of Paine, I then also think of John Dickinson. Both were raised with Quaker influence, although neither became Quakers. Still, they each maintained close ties to Quakers, specifically in Pennsylvania. Dickinson had ties to the Quaker elite and Paine had ties to the radical Free Quakers. They shared a commitment to Quaker-influenced abolitionism (Dickinson having gone so far as to free the slaves he inherited). Most interestingly, these two great thinkers were also the greatest and most inspiring of the revolutionary pamphleteers. Their Quaker-tinged visions helped shape two separate traditions of political philosophy, Federalism and Anti-Federalism, Dickinson and Paine respectively. These were two major voices in the early debates about liberty and rights.

Schwartz does have a fair amount to say about Dickinson. The main purpose that Dickinson serves is as a foil to Thomas Jefferson. Throughout Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Dickinson is brought up mostly in reference to Jefferson, as they had two competing views of rights (Kindle Locations 3954-3967):

To summarize, we have seen that within a year of Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Dickinson offer their congressional colleagues two different versions of American rights. Neither of these versions of rights is what would be called a classical natural rights theory, like that adopted by the First Continental Congress and put forward by thinkers like James Wilson. Jefferson is still avoiding natural rights language and putting emphasis on the emigration of the ancestors as a justification for American rights. When he does allude to a broader conception of rights, which is buried in the body of his essay, he alludes to the “sacred deposit” provided by God and makes no allusion to reason or rights of nature. Dickinson’s language moves much closer to the natural rights tradition, though he evokes the religious and theological subtradition that places emphasis on God’s role in founding liberty. But Dickinson also appeals to common sense and reverence for the creator as justifications and foundation for liberty. It is arguable that Congress preferred Dickinson’s version not simply because it toned down the view of the colonies as “independent” entities, but also because it provided a broader justification of rights than did Jefferson’s, one closer to the Bill of Rights for which they had already fought so hard to achieve consensus in September 1774.

In any case, the point here is that while others were appealing to a classic version of a natural rights philosophy, Jefferson himself had not abandoned his argument based on emigration. Once again, Jefferson’s view was essentially rejected. Instead, the Congress endorsed a quasi-religious statement of rights, influenced by the natural rights thinking to be sure, but not quite Lockean in the way that some American writers including the First Congress would have articulated it.

It should be noted that Jefferson and Paine were close friends and political allies. They influenced each other’s thinking on many issues. To speak of the ideas of one is to speak of the ideas of the other. So, even though Schwartz speaks so little of Paine, he indirectly invokes Paine every time he mentions Jefferson. For example, the emigration view of rights fits into arguments Paine made. As he wrote in “Common Sense,” it was simply “absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” especially when “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, [Pennsylvania], are of English descent.”

As such, the contrasts and conflicts between Dickinson and Jefferson were also those between Dickinson and Paine. More specifically, this is also about the Quaker elite that governed Pennsylvania and those who sought to challenge that power. But this was also about the Quakers larger history and the traditions that developed from that.

Schwartz, in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, dedicates an entire section of several pages to Dickinson’s views, “John Dickinson and the Avoidance of Natural Rights Arguments”. I want to tackle this section because there is a context missing that would add greatly to the analysis.

That missing context is of the Quakers. In neither book does he mention the Quakers. He also makes no mention of the Middle Colonies, at least not in those terms. The Middle Colonies had a different place and played a different role in the colonial scheme of the British territory in America, different that is from New England and the South, as I previously explained (The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty):

The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been.

This is the world that Dickinson was born into. It was also the place that Paine. like Franklin before him, would adopt as his home. To understand Pennsylvania is to understand Dickinson and to understand why he came into conflict with the likes of Paine (and Franklin). The Quakers always found themselves in a precarious position, both back in England and in the colonies. Having experienced persecution and oppression as religious dissenters, they came to highly prize security and moderation, which they saw as the foundation of any genuine freedom.

I point to the word ‘freedom’ in contradistinction to ‘liberty’, the latter being the focus of Schwartz’s writings. This is important, as I noted in another post of mine (The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation):

There were many contested understandings for all these terms. Liberty, in particular, always was a vague term with its origins in Roman slave society. As I’ve mentioned before, Jefferson’s Virginia was shaped by the Cavalier heritage of Roman values. The Declaration and the Constitution refer to liberty and freedom, often seemingly interchangeably, sometimes using freedom as the opposite of enslaved which is the Roman conception of liberty. Quite uniquely, the Articles use freedom as a touchstone while never mentioning liberty even once. That demonstrates a major difference, the Declaration having been written by a slave-owning, liberty-loving aristocrat from Cavalier Virginia and the Articles having been written by a Quaker-raised Pennsylvanian who freed the slaves he inherited.

As far as I know, Schwartz does not explore the origins of these terms. He discusses Dickinson without pointing out that word ‘liberty’ was not included in the Articles, the original constitution. That seems like a key detail to my mind. It signifies the importance of Quakerism to Dickinson. It was freedom, not liberty, that was the core value to be defended. The argument Schwartz makes, in Beyond Liberty Alone, by broadening liberty to include responsibility is actually more resonant with the Quaker worldview of freedom. It is interesting that he comes to this understanding, despite his primary focus on Jefferson.

In the specific section on Dickinson, Schwartz writes (Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 2352-2355),

Is it everywhere assumed or is Dickinson hedging his bets and avoiding the question of government’s origin and the validity of the social contract? That seems possible especially given Dickinson’s appeal to the ideas of philosopher David Hume in the above citation. Hume was a critic of Lockean natural rights theory and argued that Locke’s natural rights arguments were as much a political ideology as the divine right theory that justified kingship.

This is where knowing Dickinson’s Quaker background would have offered insight. Dickinson didn’t need Hume’s writings to be critical of natural rights. Quaker tradition itself was based on a mistrust of natural rights, and so this probably is the more fundamental influence. Hume’s ideas simply corresponded with the worldview Dickinson was raised in. Also, Hume’s criticisms of natural rights allowed for a non-religious formulation of that aspect of the Quaker tradition. Quakers had no use of Lockean social contracts and so that wasn’t an issue for Dickinson. Quaker constitutionalism was based on the belief in a personal relationship to God, a divine spark that existed within (see a fuller discussion in my post The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation, in which I note that the historian Joseph Ellis also seems unaware of the Quaker position). A constitution was, as Quaker-influenced Paine described, “a compact between God and man” (from a footnote to Observations on the Declaration of Rights).

Let me continue with some more of Schwartz commentary from the section on Dickinson (Kindle Locations 2369-2384):

The only time that Dickinson offers a justification of colonial rights is when he quotes the resolves of the Stamp Act Congress, which he had earlier drafted but which avoided the use of natural rights. Quoting the third resolve of the Stamp Act Congress, and referring to these resolves as the “American Bill of Rights,” this is as close as Dickinson gets to offering a philosophical basis of liberty.

III. “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that No Tax‡ be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”13

We have no way of knowing in these letters how Dickinson grounded “the essential freedom of a people” and “undoubted right of Englishmen.” Only on one occasion (Letter Seven) does Dickinson quote Locke: “If they have any right to tax us—then, whether our own money shall continue in our own pockets or not, depends no longer on us, but on them. ‘There is nothing which’ we ‘can call our own; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke—what property have’ we ‘in that, which another may, by right, take, when he pleases, to himself?’”14 This quote from Locke is apropos. Locke here is talking about the duty of people to support government with taxes. Locke makes clear in this passage that paying taxes must be with their consent, as defined by the vote of the majority. While Dickinson brings Locke’s authority to bear in supporting the idea that there should be “no taxation without consent,” he does not invoke Locke’s notions of social contract or natural rights.

At least at one point Dickinson seems to assume a very different source of colonial rights than his colleagues. Specifically, he assumes that the rights of the colonies were granted by Great Britain in exchange for the benefits that the colonies brought the mother country. Strikingly, Dickinson includes the right of property as a privilege conferred by Great Britain on the colonies, rather than an inherent right.

Schwartz struggles here to pinpoint exactly where Dickinson is coming from. He is able to discern bits and pieces from Dickinson’s words, but the motivating vision behind those words eludes him. Further on, Schwartz does show he realizes the importance of the religious angle, even though not specifically in the context of Quakerism (Kindle Locations 2390-2394):

It is striking that the colonial right to property is here described not as a natural right, but as a “recompense” or payback from Great Britain to America for the benefits that accrued to the mother country. The colonies’ rights were the result of a trade or contract. No one arguing strictly from natural rights directly would ground the American right of property this way. Moreover, the religious overtones in Dickinson’s essays, though not frequent, are obvious here when he invokes scripture rather than Locke or reason to prove his point.

He then clarifies the importance of religion (Kindle Locations 2399-2405):

Quoting the New Testament, Dickinson appeals to freedom as a grant from God. The absence of natural rights language or at least a fully articulated rights theory in Dickinson would seem consistent with his ongoing commitment that the colonies remain part of Great Britain. Dickinson rejects any talk of the colonies as “independent states” which are part of a larger federated empire. “But if once we are separated from our mother country, what new form of government shall we adopt, or where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce, we must bleed at every vein.”18 Dickinson, as is well known, would later refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence, believing in July 1776 that there was still some hope for reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain.

Schwartz is touching upon so much here, but he can’t quite bring it together. The Quakerism piece is missing. All of this makes sense, though, when that Quaker piece is put into place. To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant of a collective people as a community. It is not a piece of paper or the words on them. To be separated from their mother country was quite the challenge to that worldview. The community needed to be redefined and the covenant needed to take new form.

Jane E. Calvert, in Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson, details what this means for Dickinson and how this differs from Jefferson (Kindle Locations 9708-9742):

For Dickinson, a polity must be and, in the case of America, was constituted otherwise than merely on paper. And his understanding of how man entered political society was largely the same as the way most Americans understood it, but with subtle differences in process and emphases. While most political thinkers of the day agreed that joining society, forming a union, was “primarily a matter of reason,”13 Dickinson believed that to unite was to obey a divine command, a “sacred law.”14 Like Locke, he held that society was first occasioned “by the command of our Creator.”15 God, said Dickinson, “designed men for society, because otherwise they cannot be happy.”16 But more than that, God “demands that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not our own,” which meant joining one another on specific terms and with a particular mode of engagement.17 Moreover, reason was not man’s primary impetus for joining; the “common sense of mankind,” Dickinson explained, merely “agrees.”18 This original constitution ordained by God was prior to and independent of any written documents codifying that union. “[T]hose corner stones of liberty,” he wrote, “were not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other records, and have not been made and cannot be preserved by them.”19 Rather, ten years before Jefferson wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” Dickinson asserted that “Rights are created in us by the decrees of Providence.”20

On the surface, Jefferson and Dickinson seem to agree, but as we have seen from our earlier discussion, Quaker thinkers did not usually speak of natural rights. While many thinkers of all persuasions, including Penn and Dickinson on occasion, conflated the languages of rights and referred interchangeably to natural or God-given rights, for Quakers, who more often spoke in terms of providence, there was ultimately a difference. If the divine and the natural were the same (an idea many Quakers rejected outright), they were much more closely related in Quaker thought than in Jefferson’s, with nature not overshadowing divinity. Dickinson clearly did not subscribe to the deist theology of other Founders. He explained that “[w]e claim [rights] from a higher source, from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth…They are born within us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.”21 Because they came from God rather than nature, man, or his history of established institutions, “rights must be preserved by soundness of sense and honesty of heart. Compared with these, what are a bill of rights, or any characters drawn upon parchment, those frail rememberances?”22 If this seems to us an overly fine distinction, that Dickinson made it was in keeping with Quaker thinking about rights. Such subtleties caused contemporary and historical criticism that his work consisted of “fine-spun theories and hair-splitting distinctions”23 and that he had the “Vice of Refining too much.”24 But if his thought has been misunderstood, it is because his critics did not care to understand these distinctions or the complex theories and arrangement to which they gave rise. It is mainly this difference between the natural or human and the divine that distinguished the Quaker theory of government and their process of legal discernment from others.

From my perspective, this additional insight strengthens the case Schwartz is making.

The Quakers, more than any other early Americans, embodied the balance between rights and responsibilities, between freedom and obligation. Schwartz wants to place the emphasis on the social reality. Quaker constitutionalism could have given him an alternative view to throw light on what it means to have rights in a community. Also, to return to Paine, the pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” could have given Schwartz a stronger foundation in American tradition for a progressive understanding of the commons.

When put together, all of these pieces form a greater vision of what America has been and could be. Schwartz’s writings are part of a larger conversation. No single voice can capture every aspect and nuance. What matters is the broadening of debate. It is an exciting time to add one’s voice to the chorus, even if at times it sounds more like cacophany, something the founders could sympathize with.

The historical context is important for a deeper understanding. Even so, any given fact and detail isn’t what matters most. Studying such things should serve the purpose of helping to see what was hidden, to remember what has been forgotten, to revive the senses that became numb. The disappearance of the commons is a profound loss. It isn’t just the loss of public land and their resources. As Schwartz makes clear, it is a loss of shared identity and meaning, loss of a unifying set of values. We are made small as our vision of rights narrows. We are made weaker.

When we lose the knowledge of what we lost, we lose the knowledge that something is lost. That is not a good place for a people to find themselves. It is to be lost without a map. Fortunately, those who came before us left markers for the path we are on and the paths we might take.

Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed

Conservatives prefer to see the American Revolution and Founding as part of a Lockean lineage. This would be true for some of the Founders, but not true for all. One Founder conservatives take as an example of a Lockean founder is Thomas Jefferson.

Many scholars have assumed a connection of Jefferson’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and Locke’s “life, liberty and estate”:

“Locke argued in his Two Treatises of Government that political society existed for the sake of protecting “property”, which he defined as a person’s “life, liberty, and estate”. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, he wrote that the magistrate’s power was limited to preserving a person’s “civil interest”, which he described as “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things”. He declared in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.”

Even if that were the case:

“According to those scholars who saw the root of Jefferson’s thought in Locke’s doctrine, Jefferson replaced “estate” with “the pursuit of happiness”, although this does not mean that Jefferson meant the “pursuit of happiness” to refer primarily or exclusively to property. Under such an assumption, the Declaration of Independence would declare that government existed primarily for the reasons Locke gave, and some have extended that line of thinking to support a conception of limited government.”

Besides, Jefferson wasn’t alone in his views:

“Benjamin Franklin was in agreement with Thomas Jefferson in downplaying protection of “property” as a goal of government. It is noted that Franklin found property to be a “creature of society” and thus, he believed that it should be taxed as a way to finance civil society.”

Furthermore, other scholars have offered and alternative interpretation:

“Garry Wills has argued that Jefferson did not take the phrase from Locke and that it was indeed meant to be a standard by which governments should be judged. Wills suggests Adam Ferguson as a good guide to what Jefferson had in mind:

“If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.”
—Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society

“The 17th-century cleric and philosopher Richard Cumberland wrote that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness”. Locke never associated natural rights with happiness, but his philosophical opponent Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz made such an association in the introduction to his Codex Iuris Gentium. William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated describes the “truest definition” of “natural religion” as being “The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth”. An English translation of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law prepared in 1763 extolled the “noble pursuit” of “true and solid happiness” in the opening chapter discussing natural rights. Historian Jack Rakove posits Burlamaqui as the inspiration for Jefferson’s phrase.”

A more nuanced view is offered by Howard Schwartz in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment (Kindle Locations 485-506):

“I offer a different approach to the question of the Declaration’s position on rights, arguing that a key aspect of the Declaration’s meaning and function has been missed. Instead of asking whether the Declaration is Lockean or what literary documents are the source of its ideas, I will suggest that the Declaration’s position on natural rights and independence is much more equivocal than has been typically realized. The question about the source of Jefferson’s ideas is less relevant and interesting than the question of what position on rights was getting articulated. The answer to that question is more ambiguous than typically thought. And the equivocation is one part of the Declaration’s meaning and function. Indeed, one central purpose of the Declaration was to unite the colonies behind the decision to declare independence. As such, the Declaration had to evade and sidestep any disagreements about rights that might still have lingered. In this sense, the Declaration had to speak as if “debate had ended,” to use the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense, when in fact on the matter of American rights, the debate had not completely ended and there remained some significant disagreements about the foundations of and nature of natural and American rights. Jefferson himself did not agree with the view endorsed by the First Continental Congress in 1774, though that constituted the official view endorsed by the Congress on behalf of the colonies. When Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration, he had to find words to unite those who otherwise had diverging views. On this interpretation of the situation, Jefferson’s brilliance was not only in his powerful rhetorical performance, but in finding an articulation of rights that would seemingly be amenable to as many parties as possible, including himself. In this sense, “all its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day,” to use Jefferson’s own words, is a more profound and ironic interpretation than anyone has fully appreciated.21 If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence captures the American Mind, then it does so in all the complexity and disagreement that characterized the “American Mind” at the time. There was arguably no single American Mind on the question of rights.22 And the Declaration was harmonizing a tradition that did in fact have divergent views and loose ends. This statement on rights would have to speak not just to those who endorsed the position of the First Congress, but also those who did not, including its author. This interpretation of the Declaration thus takes a position that both affirms and criticizes all of the various the positions in the debate. The Declaration does endorse natural rights language and a Lockean-like view but at the same time it exhibits some of ambivalence about natural rights and the way natural rights are linked up to American rights. It thus affirms that Locke’s ideas were in the air but also argues that these ideas were contested and doubted. The American foundation of rights was not a settled matter.”

As for Jefferson’s personal view, a fundamental right related to happiness had to do with consent. A government earned consent by ensuring the happiness of citizens. When that happiness abated, so did the requirement of consent. This puts “pursuit of Happiness” in a whole other context.