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So we had an interesting discussion at Berry College tonight, featuring our own Jim Ceaser, on why Tocqueville talks up the Puritans and slights the Declaration of Independence. Ivan the K already mentioned the observation of our French visitor R. L. Bruckburger , who reminded us that the Declaration itself is a sort of legislative compromise between Lockean/enlightenment and Puritan thought. That compromise, American Catholics such as John Courtney Murray have noticed, produced a kind of Thomism in which the God of Nature is also the providential and judgmental or personal and loving God of the Bible (and so not the “past tense,” Deistic God of Locke and Jefferson). Without that compromise, the Declaration would likely be either theocratic or repulsive to Christians.

The main innovation of the Puritans Tocqueville highlights is a kind of combination of Athenian and Christian thought that produced a participatory polis in which everyone worked (because there were no slaves) and everyone was educated. The Puritans were the first to take the egalitarian dream of ancient utopianizing seriously as a real human goal in this world. And they didn’t think of education as mainly utilitarian or merely for commerce and technology.  The first purpose of universal education was that everyone be able to read the Bible, or not be seduced by hearsay evidence about the most fundamental human issues.  The Puritans thought of everyone as an active citizen — or more than merely a being who works, but they also thought of everyone as more than a citizen — or as someone with a personal, “soulful” destiny accountable to a personal God. So the Puritans were the carriers, in America, of a newly egalitarian version of an aristocratic truth neglected in democratic, materialistic times: Human individuality is based on a sort of greatness that depends on the real existence of a soul open to immortality.

The Puritans are not the whole of America or Americans at their best, but they are part of a synthesis or mixture of Calvinism and Lockeanism that produce something better than the human beings displayed for our admiration by either Calvin or Locke. Our Founders, as Murray (and Orestes Brownson) said, built better than they knew, because of the art of legislative compromise.

More on: Politics, Religion, Theory

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