The Myth Of American Individualism:
The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. By Barry Alan Shain
Princeton University Press. 394 pages, $39.50
The American Republic, Barry Alan Shain argues, arose on Christian and communitarian, not secular and radical-individualist, foundations. With solid scholarship enhanced by good sense, he combats the prevalent tendency to read the eighteenth-century texts through twentieth-century eyes. Most Americans, he writes, “had little patience with those who might claim that the rights of individuals (except religious conscience) were inviolable and capable of trumping public needs.” Throughout this well-documented book, he makes out a powerful case, drawing skillfully upon the findings of social historians to buttress his account of the intellectual history.
“America’s Protestant, democratic, and communal localism,” Shain writes, “is its most enduring political tradition.” But he forcefully distinguishes this communal localism from the totalitarianism of our own century, crediting Christian doctrine with keeping the one from sliding into the other. In a particularly strong contribution, he demonstrates that Christian assumptions proved strong enough to limit drastically the extent to which even anti-Christian rationalists could advance individualistic doctrines. But here he underestimates the extent to which rationalists like Price and Jefferson opened the way to the very radical individualism they claimed to be rejecting.
Glancing into the nineteenth century, Shain notes that the great Joseph Story, in explicating the First Amendment clause on religion in his Commentaries on the Constitution , “reminded his readers of the intimate relationship that America had traditionally maintained between church and state.” Shain might well have added that Story elsewhere destroyed Jefferson’s preposterous attempt to deny that Christianity had shaped the development of the common law from the beginning. Story’s great reply to Jefferson deserves the widest circulation today, for it demonstrates, as little else does, the centrality of Christian doctrine to Anglo-American freedoms.
Shain cannot be contradicted for asserting that “Christian” in the Revolutionary era meant primarily “Reformed Protestant,” but he slips into some questionable generalizations. He does not offer his own understanding of Reformed Protestantism until page 124, and then he passes over it so lightly as to be less than helpful to readers who might need some guidance. And he attributes to Reformed theology some core Christian beliefs that were shared by Methodists and Roman Catholics, among others. When, for example, he quotes Samuel Davies on “God’s first transforming the heart of a sinner,” he might have been quoting John Wesley or the Pope, notwithstanding the important differences in explication.
Shain shows that the doctrines of original sin and human depravity grounded much of the political theory and practice of the day. But again, he treats the doctrines as Calvinist or Reformed, although his evidence shows that, within the limits here applicable, the Reformed theologians shared this ground with other Christians. Since he is right to stress the dominance of the Reformed churches, the criticism might seem a pedantic quibble. But what Shain misses is the extent to which the Reformed theologians were already beginning the retreat that steadily gained momentum during the nineteenth century, with the triumph of the Unitarians in Boston and at Harvard and the rise of the New Divinity and New Haven theologies, to say nothing of more overtly liberal theologies.
It is true that those in retreat from the doctrines of original sin and human depravity tried to hold fast to the communal vision, but it is no less true that their step-by-step retreat from Christian orthodoxy, whether bold or shamefaced, opened the floodgates to the radical individualism they meant to rein in by compromises that were too smart by half.
And here the slavery question bedevils Shain, whose self-restriction to the Revolutionary era permits him to treat slavery largely as an abstraction. Without falling prey to the whiggish tendency to read the end into the beginning, we ought to notice how the struggle between the communitarian and radical-individualistic visions developed historically. Increasingly, the slave-holding South stood for the former, and the free labor North for the latter. As Shain admits, Lincoln, not Madison, “would lead an army of millions and be the first to prevail against American local communalism.”
In general, the South held fast to religious orthodoxy, especially on the doctrines of original sin and human depravity, while the North slid toward theological liberalism. During the nineteenth century the proslavery divines celebrated the superiority of their social system as one that, being based on organic social relations, rejected the siren calls of marketplace ideology, whether in religion or in social and political theory. They cried out that the advance of bourgeois social relations in the North was promoting the radical individualism that northern conservatives were lamenting-that Christian values could not be sustained without organic social relations. Their solution-slavery in principle, not merely racial slavery-went down hard even among the most conservative northern Christians and properly goes down even harder today. But their critique of the marketplace and its values retains its force.
At that, Shain carries a good thing too far in his emphasis on the communalism of the Christian tradition. At his best, he strikes a proper balance, but too often he slides into one-sidedness. The doctrine of original sin would, after all, be incomprehensible without the doctrine of the immortality of the individual soul and, with it, the new sense of personal freedom and responsibility attendant upon the “good news” of Jesus.
Shain does not intend to promote the “atavistic, two-hundred-year-old, communal political practices and attitudes appropriate for a preindustrial, slave-tolerant society,” but he does insist that “for Revolutionary-era Americans, the common or public good enjoyed preeminence over the immediate interests of individuals.” Thus, eighteenth-century Americans “cannot be accurately characterized as predominantly individualistic, or, for that matter, classically republican.” Rather, they lived in “morally demanding agricultural communities shaped by reformed-Protestant social and moral norms.”
Shain seeks to distance himself from those who interpret the primacy of community and the public good as an attachment to localism per se. Sensibly, he regards as “unclear” the extent to which early communalism can be adapted to our times, and he unsparingly criticizes its dark and bigoted side. He properly notes that in certain instances, most notably the struggles against slavery and racial segregation, federal power proved necessary to eradicate the great social evils attendant upon the enforcement of local rights. But he is vague about the extent to which federal power and the consequent destruction of community autonomy ought to be supported.
If I am reading his subtext correctly, Shain has a political agenda, and a good one. Having come from the New Left and moved to discernibly more conservative ground, he, in effect, recalls the left to its original communitarian and anti-individualist principles, thereby suggesting the possibilities for new political and ideological alliances.
The strategy and scholarly performance are generally admirable, but he is sometimes a bit too clever in his effort to assimilate left-wing and right-wing criticism of the radical-individualist interpretation of early American history. The argument for the communal, or corporate, foundation of the American political tradition will be familiar to those who have read Willmoore Kendall, among others, and the emphasis on religious foundations recalls the excellent work of M. E. Bradford and Ellis Sandoz. Yet these conservatives get short shrift in comparison to the attention paid to the social-democratic Joyce Appleby, the value of whose work he grossly inflates. He praises her for originality and virtues others may not find in her books, and then he proceeds to expose, albeit courteously and graciously, the superficiality of her understanding of the Christian tradition. Still, Shain does score a political coup in gathering book-jacket blurbs from Appleby, Rogers M. Smith, Edward Countryman, and Forrest McDonald in what surely deserves to rank as a triumph of political ecumenism.
Notwithstanding my carping, Shain has written an impressive, well-argued, deeply researched book that enriches our understanding of early American history and arms us for current political struggles against the twin tendencies to cultural nihilism and political centralization. Shain writes that eighteenth-century Americans consid-ered human reason a part of the reason of a God-ordered universe: “To violate this principle in man is to transgress the universal law. One should believe in a morally ordered universe to be convinced by such appeals to inalienable rights. Skeptics, doubters, atheists, and postmodernists need not apply.” Indeed.
Eugene D. Genovese is author of The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (1994) and The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War (1995).