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Intellectual origins of American radicalism

Staughton Lynd's book

Staughton Lynd's Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (1968) is a fantastic exploration of the ideological offshoots and effects of the Enlightenment in the United States, which all students of intellectual history should read. I took some notes on it here. But I'll also post them below:

The book begins with thoughtful philosophical analyses that set the Declaration of Independence in its Enlightenment context. It was a somewhat Lockean document, but not entirely. “In the mid-eighteenth century (as in the mid-twentieth) a sophisticated social science viewed with amused contempt any argument which failed to recognize that what is held good in one culture may be considered bad by another: that ethics are determined by environment. The ‘best minds’ of the Enlightenment came to believe that the state of nature, the social contract, and the rights of man—in short, the apparatus of John Locke’s political philosophy—were human inventions. To grasp the significance of the Declaration as a source of revolutionary ideas one must first grasp equally firmly that from the standpoint of the ethical relativism of a Montesquieu, Voltaire, or Hume it seemed a piece of provincial propaganda, charming perhaps, but founded on fiction and unworthy of serious intellectual attention. It is not untrue to say that the language of the Declaration is the language of Locke; but to say no more than that ignores the fact that by the third quarter of the eighteenth century the natural rights philosophy had been seriously called into question, and required to be restated in a way that incorporated the insights of its critics. The distinctive qualities of the Declaration are the product of that struggle.”

Locke’s old ideas were remodeled by Revolutionary radicals. “Locke, who blamed poverty on the poor, sought to protect all forms of property including chattel slavery, and took it for granted that government must be the business of educated gentlemen, would have been horrified to find his doctrine turned [by, e.g., Thomas Paine] toward the advocacy of common sense, government by common men, finally even common property.” How did that transformation take place? The preparatory steps occurred mainly in England, “among a group of radical Englishmen associated with non-Anglican (Nonconformist or Dissenting) Protestant denominations such as the Quakers, to whom Paine’s father belonged. These men transferred to secular political discourse that reliance on the individual conscience of uneducated men for which they had contended in religion. Above all they broke with the Lockean thesis that man is the passive product of circumstance, and affirmed what they liked to call ‘the dignity of human nature.’” People like James Burgh, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley (whom Chomsky’s fond of), John Wilkes, Granville Sharp, and Thomas Paine. After 1774, the Dissenters’ pamphlets and other works—Common Sense was one of them—“appeared everywhere in the colonies.”

The background is that “roughly halfway through the eighteenth century, there took place a pervasive intellectual crisis based on the perception that Locke’s environmental psychology contradicted his political philosophy.” That point actually seems plausible. How can there be a law of nature “writ in the hearts of mankind” making it self-evident that all people are equally possessed of inalienable natural rights—as Locke said in his Second Treatise of Government—if, according to Locke’s psychology, people don’t have innate or intuitively perceived moral or intellectual ideas? One of these propositions had to give way. It turned out to be the first one. “Stimulated by Locke’s environmental psychology as by the economic determinism of James Harrington, English political philosophy in the eighteenth century turned away from natural rights toward a social science characterized by ethical relativism and pragmatic accommodation to existing reality.” Hume’s political conservatism is a good example. Sophisticated economic determinism and relativism pushed aside, to some extent, the whole realm of the ethical. In fact, even Locke’s system was essentially based on property rather than conscience. So the Dissenting neo-Lockeans of the eighteenth century were obliged to reintroduce the ethical dimension. “They insisted on the reality of the good and on man’s ability to recognize it, defended the intuitions of the heart against the paralyzing analyses of the head.”

What this meant in practice was that they reached back beyond Locke to the religious republicans of the 1640s and 1650s, such as Gerrard Winstanley and Richard Overton. “The ascendancy of Dissenting radicalism represented a return to an essentially religious outlook,” as opposed to the secular outlook of Locke, Harrington, and their popularizers. Locke’s empiricist psychology was rejected. Discussing Richard Price, Lynd says, “confident intuition of a universal moral order made by nature’s God was the preamble to the political faith of the Dissenter, as of the subsequent Declaration of Independence.” It was a sort of rationalist intuitionism, so to speak, that inspired the Dissenters, which explains why they were fond of the earlier British Platonists. What was original to the Dissenters—or so Lynd says—was that they secularized the older defense of religious freedom of conscience, turning it into the Rights of Man. “Conscience, relegated by Locke to the periphery of a society based on property, became the critic of all social orders.” It was the inner light that God had given men for guidance. –In some ways we’re back to the Reformation, the turn from external authority (here, property) to inner faith (here, intuition of self-evident moral truths).

Lynd argues that in France, Rousseau played an analogous role to the Dissenters. I’d say he certainly did much to usher in a more libertarian sensibility. But in general, of course, the whole zeitgeist of Western Europe and America at this time was turning toward libertarianism, anti-authoritarianism. Various ideological rationales were found for this, depending on the particular cultural and intellectual heritage.

“As the American Revolution drew near, the Dissenters’ faith in the capacity of the poor for knowledge grew together with their insistence that the poor should vote.” As John Cartwright said in 1776, “common sense” was what enabled the “laboring mechanic and the peasant” to understand natural law and natural rights. To quote Lynd, “a belief in intuitively self-evident moral truth became associated with a belief in equality. All men came to be considered capable of perfection because every man was born predisposed to a correct intuitive knowledge of the essential truths. The words with which Rousseau began his Émile—‘All is well when it leaves the hands of the Creator of things’—were echoed during the American Revolution by Price, who affirmed that equality was a right with which men came ‘from the hands of their Maker,’ as by Paine, who said that the revolutionary constitution of Pennsylvania considered men ‘as they came from their maker’s hands.’” And so we get the Declaration’s declaration that, self-evidently, men are created equal.

And then comes the statement that they’re endowed with certain inalienable rights that governments are created to secure. “What was striking about this formulation was its failure to mention rights given up in the process.” That was the point, after all, of traditional formulations of the social contract: certain rights that individuals enjoy in the state of nature are given up so that governments can securely protect other, presumably more important rights. Effectively, then, the Declaration abandons the notion of the social contract. To explain how this result comes about, Lynd discusses Priestley’s libertarian ideas on education, which were formulated in opposition to the moralistic authoritarianism that an Anglican minister named John Brown had articulated in the 1750s. “The essential difference between Brown and Priestley is that the tradition which passes from Priestley through Paine and Godwin to Garrison and Thoreau insists that men can and must free themselves, rather than be freed [or be indoctrinated with ‘virtue’] by the external manipulation of educators and planners.” Priestley then translates (in 1768) his ideas on education into political philosophy, concluding that government powers must be severely circumscribed for the sake of people’s “civil liberties” (or their enjoyment of their natural rights). (On the other hand, he also was inclined toward utilitarianism: “the good and happiness of the…majority of the members of any state, is the great standard by which every thing relating to that state must finally be determined.” Only through experiments can it be determined how far the power of the legislature should extend in order to promote the good of the whole. –Sensibly, Priestley believes that both liberalism and utilitarianism (to use anachronistic terms) are necessary.)

Richard Price went even further than Priestley, arguing that people in society don’t surrender any of their natural rights at all (whereas Priestley had still thought they had to gave up some of their “natural liberty”). It seems that these natural rights/liberties are primarily those “of thinking, speaking, forming and giving opinions,” to quote Paine. (Things that have some relation to freedom of conscience, not surprisingly, in light of the religious background of many of these guys.) After his presidency, Jefferson was still saying that “the [common] idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right.” The only purpose of government was to enforce our natural rights and duties (as he put it), “and to take none of them from us.”

Early and later abolitionism drew on all this. “The idea of a natural law self-evident to the common man; the idea that liberty was man’s inalienable right to self-determination [as opposed to his right to dispose of his property as he chose]: these were the axioms to which abolitionism added only corollaries. Down to Civil War and Reconstruction, abolitionists quoted the same natural law theoreticians cited by the Dissenters in contending, as the Dissenters had, ‘that an immoral law cannot be valid.’ Indeed the religious fervor of abolitionism was closer in spirit to Dissenting radicalism than was the cool deistic religiosity of the Founding Fathers…” That so much of this Enlightenment libertarianism and emphasis on human dignity was justified by appeal to the Bible is a bit ironic—but not very surprising, in light of Marx’s insight that new phenomena in history typically feel the need (so to speak) to justify themselves by invoking supposed older traditions. Only after the new ideas and practices have become widely accepted is the ancient justification discarded or forgotten.

Like some other European intellectuals, in the second half of the eighteenth century the Dissenters gradually became more radical on questions of property and wealth. One common argument was that since God had given the earth to mankind in common, individuals did not have a right to unlimited accumulation of land or wealth. Another was specifically about inheritance: the inheritance of private property should be just as subject to social regulation as the inheritance of political power. Jefferson was particularly fond of this argument. He didn’t think that property was a natural right at all; it was only a social convention. Of course all this radicalism had definite limits, and these guys were nothing like socialists or communists. Still, they did “demythologize” private property, which may have helped lay the ideological groundwork for socialism and communism (which were already being proposed in the French Revolution).

–To be honest, I don’t think these writers, or any writers, are as important as we might think. But in the aggregate of their dozens or hundreds, and in the context of social trends for which they serve as spokesmen, they can indeed have some influence.

“Both in England and America, eighteenth-century questioning of private property in the name of natural rights evolved continuously into early nineteenth-century questioning from the standpoint of a labor theory of value. Without exception the ‘American forerunners of Marx’ still spoke the language of natural rights.” Cornelius Blatchly, for example, listed among man’s inalienable rights “his perfect right to the full fruits of his own honest ingenuity and labor,” and maintained that “no man by entering into civil government should be abridged of any equitable right to nature.” With these writers, Jeffersonian language was used to argue for more-than-Jeffersonian ends (such as the abolition of slavery), as a few decades earlier Lockean language had been used to argue for more-than-Lockean ends. Later, the Radical Republicans pressed for confiscation and division of plantations, thus denying that property is sacred. Even more radical was Henry David Thoreau, who in a sense shared the early Marx’s conception of alienated labor. “Men have become the tools of their tools,” Thoreau wrote. “The laboring man has no time to be anything but a machine.” Obviously both Thoreau and Marx were heavily influenced by writers like Wilhelm von Humboldt and other such liberals and romantics. In some respects the traditions to which Marx and Thoreau belonged overlapped. Similar tendencies of the Enlightenment, except that Marx also drew on Hegel, French socialism, and British political economy, while Thoreau, like all the Transcendentalists, was strongly influenced by (non-mainstream, Enlightenment-inflected) Protestant religion.

It really is striking to what extent religion, or at least doctrines with the tincture of religion, provided the ideological justification for dissent in these years, from the American revolution to anti-poverty activism to (especially) abolitionism. The Enlightenment was far from exclusively secular.

The Quakers are an example. “Just as the insistence of Dissenters on freedom of conscience proved the key to the thought-world of late eighteenth-century radicalism, so Quakerism [with its emphasis on an ‘inner light,’ which was ‘that of God in every man’] most clearly exhibited the constellation of attitudes at the heart of radical abolitionism. Emerson and Bancroft ascribed to George Fox their belief in the common man’s capacity to perceive the truth by unaided intuition. Garrison, charged by the churches with irreligion, discovered in Quakerism a religious tradition with which he could identify.” Even Lincoln had a strong affinity for Quaker sensibility, which by the 1840s or earlier had been assimilated into mainstream American culture. For instance, a group of Friends in Ohio developed in the early 1820s “a synthesis of the Biblical and natural rights arguments” that held slavery not only wrong but unrepublican. William Penn’s biographer and posthumous propagandist Thomas Clarkson also did a lot to bring Quaker beliefs into the mainstream. “By the 1830s what might be called philo-Quakerism pervaded the intellectual community of the North, especially in New England.” (Of course Quakers were only one of many influences on abolitionism.)

Abolitionists—and Transcendentalists—turned away from Locke, with his empiricist psychology and insufficient emphasis on man’s will and conscience, embracing more rationalist writers like Price. Theodore Parker remarked that he found much more help in the writings of Kant than in those of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Reid, and the French materialists. “The Quaker concept of the inner light,” Lynd writes, “facilitated the rejection of Locke by offering a homegrown equivalent to the doctrines of Price, Kant, and Coleridge.” This aspect of “Romanticism” can perhaps be called just as much an extension of the Enlightenment (insofar as the latter was rationalistic) as a reaction against it (insofar as it was empiricist or sensationalist).

What was anti-Enlightenment was the worldview of people who, following Jonathan Edwards, thought that man by nature was totally depraved. And there were others who, “with Machiavelli, believed that in making a new government all men should be considered knaves. Persons holding [these sorts of] opinions were unlikely to believe that human beings should set their own consciences against law and government: were unlikely, in other words, to develop a theory of civil disobedience.” That was left to people like Thoreau and such forerunners as Granville Sharp and William Godwin.

Godwin, basically an early anarchist, was an important link between eighteenth-century Anglo-American radicalism and the civil disobedience of the radical abolitionists. “The basis of Godwin’s system consisted of beliefs ‘common to many branches of Dissenting thought.’ For him as for other radical Dissenters, liberty of conscience ‘secularized and transferred to the civil sphere’ was the theoretical point of departure. His questions were also the questions of Priestley and Price: ‘How may the peculiar and independent operation of each individual in the social state most effectually be preserved? How may the security each man ought to possess, as to his life, and the employment of his faculties according to the dictates of his own understanding, be most certainly defended from invasion?’” He rejected the distinction between free thought and socially regulated action:

It is commonly said, “that positive institutions ought to leave me free in matters of conscience, but may properly interfere with my conduct in civil concerns.” But…what sort of moralist must he be, whose conscience is silent as to what passes in his intercourse with other men?

To quote Lynd, he concluded that “established authority has no more right to regulate an individual’s actions than to regulate his behavior.” Obedience is a question of expediency: decide whether to follow a law by considering the consequences likely to follow from possible courses of action. Ultimately he favored a society without government, in which, with respect to punishment of “criminals,” “local juries would decide each case on its own merits without reference to general laws and without reliance on coercive sanctions.” Government had no legitimate functions, since war was illegitimate and punishment (the other main function of government) usually did more harm than good.

Most abolitionists weren’t quite so radical, but they defended civil disobedience. Some of them advised against paying taxes, others against voting or holding public office—forms of nonviolent resistance. But when the Civil War came, or even before it did, most changed their mind and embraced violent means in the service of a holy end.

The chapter on how these dissenters, both the early ones and the later ones, rejected nationalism and declared “my country is the world” isn’t very interesting, so let’s skip to the last chapter. It begins: “These chapters have described an American intellectual tradition which began with a concept of freedom shared with Rousseau, and culminated in a critique of alienated labor and nationalism shared with Marx. Like Rousseau and Marx, exponents of this American tradition believed that existing society oppressed its members by alienating human powers which nature intended men to reclaim. Like their European counterparts also, twice in the century 1760–1860 they concluded that deliberate lawbreaking and violent resistance to constituted authority were required to put an end to oppression. From all these points of view the ideas we have been considering are properly termed revolutionary.”

Yes, the liberalism/libertarianism of the Enlightenment inspired radicals from Germany, or indeed Russia, to the Americas. And eventually all over the world. In different places and among different classes it took somewhat different forms, had different emphases—sometimes religious and idealistic, sometimes secular and materialistic—but everywhere the tradition shared a resistance to oppression and “alienation,” in Marx’s language. (Of course, these libertarian impulses were far from original to the Enlightenment.)

All these rebels also tended to value decentralization. “American radicals in the century preceding the Civil War adhered to an essentially unchanging vision of a decentralized good society… ‘Society in every state is a blessing,’ Paine wrote in the first paragraph of Common Sense, ‘but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.’ That government is best, Thoreau concurred at the outset of Civil Disobedience, which governs not at all. Like Marx, American revolutionaries sought a society in which the state would wither away.” This seems similar to laissez-faire liberalism, but there’s at least one key difference: these radicals valued community—a decentralized network of self-governing communities. A “cooperative commonwealth,” such as continued to attract workers (the Knights of Labor, etc.) in the late nineteenth century. Which is also to say that, unlike more mainstream liberals of the time, they were not enamored of the market. Their ideal was democracy, not the market.

The book ends on a refreshingly materialistic note:

The intellectual origins of the American radical tradition were rooted in men’s effort to make a way of life at once free and communal. What held together these dissenters from the capitalist consensus was more than ideology: it was also the daily practice of libertarian and fraternal attitudes in institutions of their own making. The clubs, the unorthodox congregations, the fledgling trade-unions were the tangible means, in theological language the ‘works,’ by which revolutionaries kept alive their faith that men could live together in a radically different way. In times of crisis resistance turned into revolution; the underground congregation burst forth as a model for the Kingdom of God on earth, and an organ of secular ‘dual power’ [as Trotsky interpreted the soviets]…

During the Revolution, for instance, popular government sprang up in many of the colonies.

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