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Engines of Liberty: American Experiment in Self-Government

Engines of Liberty: American Experiment in Self-Government

Brague’s Challenge. In an American Spectator blog post, “Sin No More,” dated May 1, 2008, Rémi Brague stated a thesis worth exploring: “What cultures that were influenced by the Jewish and Christian religions made of the ideal of liberty that I have been finding in both Testaments is a task for historians. Impartial historians will observe how miserably the ideal and its realization often jarred with one another. On the other hand, they will have to acknowledge that free institutions hardly ever developed in places that were not influenced by Jewish and Christian ideas. Outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has been rare for thinkers to suppose that God endowed us with a nature of our own, that freedom is part of that nature, and that it is through the exercise of freedom, and the errors that inevitably stem from it, that we fulfill God’s plan… And when Lord Acton tells us that ‘liberty is not a means to a higher political end; it is the highest political end’, he is echoing voices that can be heard in all the sacred books of our tradition, from the Torah to the epistles of St. Paul”. What follows is a lightly edited excerpt from this writer’s Crossed Swords: Entanglements Between Church and State in America (1984), chapter 5, “The American Commonwealth”. It illustrates the practical ways the ideal and its realization have been imaginatively developed even as they “jarred” with each other. 


It is not uncommon for historians to view America as an experimental laboratory in political theory and practice in which the American character is represented as a triumph of common sense over ideology. The title of one influential book, Inventing America, and the subtitle of another, How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment, together reflect a long fascination with the “Yankee ingenuity” and “can do” spirit of a nation of tinkerers.

History books usually neglect to acknowledge the religious dimension of this experiment. Yet far from being inconsequential, religion—and particularly the concept of vocation—is the wellspring of this spirit of practicality that gave substance to the desire for a greater degree of self-government with religious and political liberty. The so-called Protestant work-ethic to which Max Weber attributed the material progress of Northern Europeans is simply one expression of the Apostle Paul’s injunction to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

Although “pure Religious Liberty… may be confidently reckoned as of distinctly American origin”, as Sanford Cobb claimed, its importance is usually dismissed because the historical circumstances and preconditions that made it possible are poorly understood. After all, civil and religious liberty did not spring, like Athena, in full armor from the head of Zeus. Unlike Eli Whitney, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Alva Edison, the inventors and shapers of such familiar ideas are practically unknown. Yet who would claim that these liberties are less important than the invention of interchangeable parts, the telephone, or the light bulb? Are they simply the result of historical accident? Or is there perhaps some rhyme or reason to their appearance at certain times and places?

Earlier Americans, including our most influential historians, generally regarded the settlement and development of the country less as a testimony to frontier inventiveness than as an indication of God’s providential blessings. Indeed, they believed that America, both the land and the people, had been designed for a specific purpose and destiny. Franklin Littell offered the following synopsis of this motif: 

“For many of our forefathers, at least, the planting of America represented a major break from past history and a radical advance into a new age. God had hidden America until such a time as the Reformation could guarantee that the religion planted on these shores would be pure and evangelical. Certain writers linked three great events by which God’s Providence prepared the coming of the New Age: (1) the invention of printing, whereby the Bible was made available to all; (2) the Reformation, whereby cult and confession were purified; (3) the discovery of America. Even such relatively sober men as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards linked the discovery of America with the coming triumph of the eternal gospel.” 

The once commonly held conviction, that God providentially directs the historical paths of men and nations, is a missing note in contemporary scholarship. So thoroughly secularized have our academic and popular histories become that any mention of Providence sounds quaint, insincere, or irrelevant. Evocations of a distinctly Biblical viewpoint on public occasions are rare today even compared with the 1940s when Judge Learned Hand said the following in his famous “Spirit of Liberty” speech: 

“What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which waives their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near 2000 years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.” 

To be sure, the civil religiosity of 1944 may not have matched the public devotion that had stirred Americans only a century earlier. But neither was it the aggressive skepticism already evident in universities once dedicated to the training of ministers.

Ideas have consequences. Even the most brutal power is founded on belief, as the poet Paul Valéry noted, whether that belief excludes the possibility of a first premise—a final cause—or whether it starts with creation and providence. And it is this latter kind of faith—the theistic proposition—that a serious scholar must understand and even appreciate in order to make sense of a way of life that gave birth to American political institutions. The consequence of misreading historical evidence may be a gross misunderstanding of the phenomenon in question and a practical denial of its importance. A generation of neglect is all that it takes to destroy a custom, an institution, or an entire culture.

Early in his career Samuel Eliot Morison confessed his own change of sympathy toward the Puritans and the beliefs that energized them: 

“These ideals, real and imaginary, of early Massachusetts, were attacked by historians of Massachusetts long before ‘debunking’ became an accepted biographical mode; for it is always easier to condemn an alien way of life than to understand it. My attitude toward seventeenth-century puritanism has passed through scorn and boredom to a warm interest and respect. The ways of the puritans are not my ways, and their faith is not my faith; nevertheless they appear to me a courageous, humane, brave, and significant people.” 

When Morison wrote these words, Americans were still an essentially Puritan people, even though this confessional tradition had largely vanished from public life. Much of the responsibility for this disappearance must rest with the children and grandchildren of English and Scottish Calvinists—Puritans by inheritance if not by confession—who loosened the ties that bound politics to religion and established what some have touted as the first modern secular state. The sentimentalization of the past we detect in so many nineteenth century literary themes may well have masked a conscious disavowal of the Puritan tradition. The transvaluation of religious imagery in Transcendentalist literature and romantic nationalism may even represent a type of cultural patricide.

Consequently, today’s Americans are separated from the founding era by a far greater divide than the mere passage of time. If we wish to understand what institutional relationships are presupposed by the American constitutional tradition—between church and state, for example, or between religion and education—we must first understand their role in early American society and especially in what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. called the “life of the law.” 

The idea of covenanted self-government 

A careful examination of the record shows that, historically, American political and religious liberty can neither be divorced from each other nor be understood apart from the struggle between church and state that wracked early modern Europe.

The American constitutional tradition of liberty and self-government is rooted in the biblical concept of the covenant. Sixteenth century Reformers used biblical and historical models to carefully develop the idea of covenanted self-government into a pillar of the ecclesiastical and political order, thus giving rise to covenant (or federal) theology and the idea of political federalism.

During the following two centuries these ideas were implemented by Dutch Calvinists, French Huguenots, English Puritans, and several groups of English dissenters who took refuge in America. It is owing to the unique position and inventiveness of the American Pilgrims and Puritans that these ideas were put to the test and forged into a new kind of constitutionalism. 

New England as a political laboratory 

Religious dissent figures most prominently among the motives that led successive companies of colonists to emigrate from England to America. The Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Plantation in 1620 belonged to a congregation of Separatists who had pulled out of the Church of England around the turn of the century, withstood persecution at home, moved to Leyden where they suffered considerable hardships for twelve years, and then joined with a company of settlers bound for northern Virginia. Their ship, the Mayflower, reached Cape Cod in November of 1620, far north of any existing jurisdiction. Upon landing, the Pilgrims and other settlers, known as the Strangers, found themselves outside the prescribed territorial boundaries. So they covenanted among themselves to form a civil body politic. Opening with the words “In ye name of God, Amen”, the Mayflower Compact set a constitutional pattern that was to be frequently repeated up through the Constitution of 1787.

Nearly a decade after the Mayflower landed, a much larger group of settlers and their leaders—“nonseparating congregationalists” or presbyterians who were members of the Church of England—left England during the persecutions under Bishop William Laud. After sailing to the New World with the vision of establishing a community of “visible saints”, these Puritans established a colony at Massachusetts Bay. From there, numerous new congregations and colonies were to radiate throughout New England.

What the Pilgrims and the Puritans had in common was a conviction that family, church, and the civil polity must be governed covenantally according to biblical standards. Each individual and every relationship, in their view, must be governed according to God’s Word and all are answerable to God accordingly. Each individual and community is part of a web of relationships, a hierarchy of authority and responsibility, that should emulate the divine order revealed in Scripture. Far from being original with them, the idea of the covenant had been undergoing a revival since medieval times, especially during the conciliar movement and the Protestant Reformation. The centrality of the covenant relationship between God and man—a covenant involving both promises and duties— was given considerable attention by theologians and political reformers, notably Heinrich Bullinger, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, and Johannes Althusius. 

Covenanted church polities 

It is upon a foundation of cooperation between church and state that the Pilgrims and Puritans established the earliest successful independent English settlements in America. Despite their differences, both adhered to a covenant or federal theology that placed a strong emphasis upon the continuity of the Old and New Testaments, local self-governing congregations, and covenanted church membership. The American tradition of written constitutions is an outgrowth of the covenanted church polity and the emphasis on the rule of law. It depended for its success on a consensus of faith, indeed, a community of the faithful who could articulate their faith and apply it in every field of endeavor. Soon after they crossed the Atlantic, and in some cases before, English dissenters began by establishing church covenants.

Behind the principle of the covenant lay the idea that the people—freemen and strangers alike—must agree under oath to abide by the laws and submit to the authority of elected magistrates who were ordained of God. Thus, the colony or plantation was understood to be a community of faith and its success demanded a vigilant and educated electorate. At first, the magistrates claimed wide discretionary latitude, due in part to their obligation to rule with reference to biblical standards of justice, which often lacked specific penalties for infractions. But by 1635, Gov. John Winthrop and the General Court began taking steps toward a codification of law in order to answer criticism that they were being self-serving and also to head off possible outside interference. 

Constitutional building blocks 

New England politics and law drew on diverse sources from the beginning. It is important to note, first of all, that the colonists enjoyed a high degree of self-government—unlike their Spanish and French counterparts—because of what Edmund Burke later called Britain’s “salutary neglect”/ As a consequence of this unexpected freedom from outside interference, American law was not set in a single mold, but became highly experimental and drew upon various sources.

In New England, the Bible was commonly used as a major sourcebook for legal precedent, a practice that was followed wherever Reformation principles were allowed to take firm root. As early as 1550, Martin Bucer—a Reformer from Strasbourg who taught at Cambridge for a time—addressed his treatise on social ethics, De Regno Christi, to Edward VI in order to win acceptance for the establishment of a Christian commonwealth and the application of biblical law within its framework. Other Protestant centers, especially those in Switzerland, Holland, and Scotland, pursued similar programs with some degree of success.

Ministers of the gospel, such as John Cotton and Nathaniel Ward, served on the committees called to draft legislation for the Bay Colony. Cotton proposed a legal code in 1636 that came to be known as “Moses his judicialls”. Although it was not adopted, probably out of concern that it might be rejected back in England, Cotton’s draft did influence the subsequent course taken by legislators. Ward, who had studied the common law, later authored the biblically-based “Body of Liberties,” which was adopted in 1641. That same year, Cotton published his “Abstract of the Laws of New England”, which was filled with scriptural references, especially in the sections dealing with magistrates and crimes.

Demands for greater formalization of civil authority inspired an early codification movement that produced “The Lawes and Liberties of Massachusetts” early in 1648. This code became the basis for statutory law throughout most of the rest of the century. Its internal consistency is what impressed one later commentator, George Haskins: 

“Here was no mere compilation of English common-law rules or of established local custom, no haphazard syncretization of popular equity and biblical precepts, no mechanical piling of new legislation upon old; it was a fresh and considered effort to establish new provisions and revise former ones which were suitable to the conditions of a new civilization and which would also provide starting points for future development in the community... Comprehensive as the Code was intended to be, perfection did not, even to its framers, seem possible.” 

Haskins claimed the code reflected “the Puritan view that the path of the law was one of logic as well as experience” and its realism about the corruption of human nature set the tone of later constitutional developments.

The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline, adopted the same year by the synod of Massachusetts churches, complemented the Code of 1648 through its clear affirmation that the jurisdictions of church and state must be kept distinct. The Cambridge Platform made it “unlawful for Church-Officers to meddle with the Sword of the Magistrates” and unlawful for magistrates to “compel their subjects to become church members”.

The Puritans of Massachusetts also set a pattern of local self-government that was a natural extension of their congregational church polities, a pattern that was imitated throughout New England even by those who—like Roger Williams in Rhode Island— objected to the prominent religious role played by civil officers. One of these critics, the Rev. Thomas Hooker, helped found a new colony at Hartford, then assisted in the drafting and adoption of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639. According to John Fiske, who wrote in 1889: 

“It was the first written constitution known to history, that created a government, and it marked the beginnings of American democracy, of which Thomas Hooker deserves more than any other man to be called the father. The government of the United States to-day is in lineal descent more nearly related to that of Connecticut than to that of any of the other thirteen colonies. The most noteworthy feature of the Connecticut republic was that it was a federation of independent towns, and that all attributes of sovereignty not expressly granted to the General Court remained, as of original right, in the towns.” 

Connecticut began as a true federal union, perhaps the first in history, more than two decades before these new forms were confirmed and given official sanction from the British crown in the charter of 1662.

Thus, the three decades from 1620-1650 witnessed early practices and innovations—covenants, congregationalism, local self-government, oaths, representation, federalism, constitutionalism, codification, bills of rights, separation of church and state—that have come to be identified with the American constitutional tradition. Here it is appropriate to reexamine their origins and analyze their rationale in greater depth. 

Bible Commonwealths 

From the start, the Bible was the primary source of colonial ideas about law and liberty. The Pilgrims drew sustenance from the Geneva Bible with its marginal notes. King James I was so persuaded of its seditious influence that he permitted no notes in the new Authorized Version, which became the Bible of the Puritans.

In his study of colonial education, Lawrence Cremin stated that the Bible was “the single most important cultural influence in the lives of Anglo-Americans” throughout the first century of settlement. 

“Though the Bible had been richly valued for generations, it was not until the seventeenth century, following its translations into the common tongue, that it was widely read and studied. The message of Protestantism was that men could find in Scripture the means to salvation, the keys to good and evil, the rules by which to live, and the standards against which to measure the conduct of prince and pastor. And so men turned to the Bible with reverence and restless curiosity, finding there, not an abstruse exposition of high-flown principles, but an imaginative portrayal of the life of a historic people, contending in their families and communities with day-today problems of belief and conduct, freedom and authority, virtue and depravity.” 

Even beyond its use as an instrument of moral instruction, the Bible was particularly valued as a source of law and government. Its historical illustrations provided a practical foundation for government during the long period prior to independence when the colonies enjoyed relative peace and a high degree of self-government. Indeed, this was the case long before the influence of Enlightenment rationalism and the later Whig interpretation of history modified the earlier Puritan concept of the Biblical Commonwealth.

As Protestants, the New England colonists shared the Reformation belief that the basis of civil government is a covenant binding the ruler and the people. They put this belief into practice by inventing and developing the written constitution from out of customs that had been adopted by religious dissenters in the late 1500s.

Originally, the church covenant was a formal agreement made “by members of a congregational church to constitute themselves as a distinct religious community”. It rested on the consent of the members, who promised to walk in accordance with God’s holy ordinances while observing mutual love and forbearance. The covenant was sealed by an oath witnessed and secured by God. The same was true of kings and the people. The Rev. Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Presbyterian minister whose ideas about resistance to tyranny were part of a tradition that linked Locke and Mayhew back to Calvin and Knox, provides an example of this belief: 

“the covenant betwixt the king and the people is clearly differenced from the king’s covenant with the Lord, 2 Kings xi.17.... There was no necessity that this covenant should be made publicly before the people, if the king did not in the covenant tie and oblige himself to the people; nor needed to be made solemnly before the Lord in the house of God.” 

Thus the covenant is a three-way relationship between God, his rulers, and the people.

The Puritans and other settlers likewise believed that, when political authority is subject to the rule of God’s law, liberty is one of its fruits. The Apostle James described the Scripture as “the perfect law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25). The Apostle Paul counseled: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1).

The influential Westminster Confession provided a model for religious liberty—or liberty of conscience—in section two of the twentieth chapter: 

“God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.” 

Finally, the Calvinistic Puritans emphasized that various degrees of resistance to tyranny are permitted where life is endangered or impiety decreed. In his Institutes, John Calvin was led to write: “We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it”. The Huguenot tract Vindiciae contra tyrannos further developed Calvin’s suggestion of resisting tyranny through lesser magistrates, a practice known as interposition. In this, the Vindiciae anticipated the later American practice of using elected magistrates and official committees of correspondence to register colonial grievances as well as to discuss possible courses of action.

The concern for procedure generally shown during the later struggle for American independence illustrates Rutherford’s recommendation that the proper sequence of steps to follow is supplication before flight, and flight before active measures. Only where supplication fails and flight is out of the question is violent resistance lawful. In fact, Rutherford advanced the idea of resistance as an assertion of law when the law of the land has been violated by the ruler: 

“The covenant giveth to the believer a sort of action of law, and jus quoddam, to plead with God in respect of his fidelity to stand to that covenant that bindeth him by reason of his fidelity, Psa. xliii. 26; lxiii. 16; Dan. ix. 4,5; and far more a covenant giveth ground of a civil action and claim to a people and the free estates against a king, seduced by wicked counsel to make war against the land, whereas he did swear by the most high God, that he should be a father and protector of the church of God.” 

Here, in short, is the original basis for John Locke’s more secularized version of resistance as an “appeal to heaven” when the social contract is violated. In fact, both Locke and the American colonists were heirs of a Puritan tradition that worshiped God as the author of law. Various secular, rationalist influences to the contrary notwithstanding, the Christian religion provided a basis for a “government of law, not men.” 

Pulpit and press 

The conservative nature and limited objectives of the later War for Independence reflected the religious sentiments of Americans in a way that is difficult to appreciate apart from an understanding of the essentially biblical worldview of the colonists.

The pulpit and the independent press proved to be the most effective instruments for spreading republican political ideas during the decades preceding the Declaration of Independence. While the relative influence during this period of American Puritan traditions in comparison with Whig political ideology is still a debated point among historians, Mark Noll has acknowledged the seminal role played by Puritanism: 

“Yet without the fertile soil of the American religious tradition, without particularly Puritan preoccupations with original sin, the ongoing battle against Satan, and the “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free", Whig ideology would not have exerted such a powerful sway in leading the thought and guiding the actions of the Patriots. Similarities between the view of life in the world developed by American Christianity and Real Whig conceptions of political reality imported from England were responsible for the sense of cosmic importance and the fervent religiosity that permeated the Whig expressions of many Christians.” 

The influence worked both ways. It was perhaps natural that the churches helped spread Whig ideas because the liberalism of the Whig pamphleteers drew on Puritan and other dissenting sources from the Cromwell era.

The New England clergy, in particular, owed their high degree of political sophistication and influence to a long-established tradition of public preaching. Election sermons, artillery election sermons, days of fasting and prayer, and thanksgiving sermons served as customary vehicles for teaching—in the manner prescribed in the Mosaic law—the principles of individual and corporate self-government, including the duties of magistrates, citizens, and soldiers, as well as for commenting on important public concerns. Many of these sermons were published and widely circulated, joining the growing political literature circulated by the colonial press. According to John Wingate Thornton: 

“Protestantism exchanged the altar for the pulpit, the missal for the Bible; the ‘priest’ gave way to the ‘preacher’, and the gospel was ‘preached’. The ministers were now to instruct the people, to reason before them and with them, to appeal to them; and so, by their very position and relation, the people were constituted the judges. They were called upon to decide; they also reasoned; and in this way—as the conflicts in the church respected polity rather than doctrine—the Puritans, and especially the New Englanders, had, from the very beginning, been educated in the consideration of its elementary principles. In this we discover how it was, as Governor Hutchinson remarked, that ‘men took sides in New England upon mere speculative points in government, when there was nothing in practice which could give any grounds for forming parties’.” 

These and other traditions of what Francis Lieber later called “freedom of communion” shaped the tenor and character of the growing political debate in the 1760s and 1770s. In the face of what they regarded as illegal taxation, colonists joined in common cause to resist the threat it posed to their accustomed liberty and self-government, leading at last to a secession of the American states from British rule. 

The first new nations 

Following the very expensive French and Indian War (1754-1763), a series of awkward efforts by Parliament to tax the colonists without first securing their approval, led to coordinated resistance throughout the colonies. Matters finally came to a head in 1774 when Parliament passed the so-called Coercive or Intolerable Acts, imposing stern collective punishment on Boston and Massachusetts specifically and the other colonies generally. These laws gave impetus, first, to a national self-consciousness or sense of American identity that grew out of a common response to a common threat, then to organizing a continental government, and finally to a demand for political independence.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the colonial resistance protests is the scrupulous attention given to procedural proprieties. For more than a decade, patriot leaders objected to one tax after another by issuing manifestos, circulating petitions, organizing committees of correspondence, and sponsoring boycotts of British goods. Through all these activities a sense of kinship and common identity as fellow Americans emerged that at the same time effectively gave birth to a political union. Ministers were accused by the authorities of preaching rebellion in their churches. Presbyterians, in particular, were blamed for trouble in the middle and Southern colonies.

The British were aware of the tremendous influence the clergy wielded in the colonies, and saw with alarm that it was thrown on the side of rebellion. Indeed, they were accused of being at the bottom of it. In 1774, the Governor of Massachusetts refused the request of the Assembly to appoint a fast: “For”, said he, “the request was only to give an opportunity for sedition to flow from the pulpit”. The political influence of the pulpit was so strong as to lead another commentator, J. T. Headley, to conclude that “if the clergy of New England had from the outset taken the decided and determined stand against the cause of the colonies, which they did for it, the result would have been totally different”.

After the port at Boston was closed by the British, Massachusetts issued a call for what became the First Continental Congress. Dozens of resolutions conveying colonial grievances were sent ahead by counties throughout the land. In Virginia, the Fairfax County General Meeting of July 18, 1774 was chaired by George Washington. The delegates proposed to raise a subscription to assist the inhabitants of Boston and sardonically resolved ‘that this Colony and Dominion of Virginia cannot be considered as a conquered country, and, if it was, that the present inhabitants are the descendants, not of the conquered, but of the conquerors...’”. That same week, the Provincial Meeting of Deputies in Philadelphia attacked the concept of parliamentary sovereignty: 

“From what source can Great Britain derive a single reason to support her claim to such an enormous power? That it is consistent with the laws of nature, no reasonable man will pretend. That it contradicts the precepts of Christianity, is evident. For she strives to force upon us terms, which she would judge to be intolerably severe and cruel, if imposed on herself. ‘Virtual representation’ is too ridiculous to be regarded. The necessity of a supreme sovereign Legislature, internally superintending the whole Empire, is a notion equally unjust and ridiculous.” 

The Quebec Act compounded the injury by establishing the Catholic Church in the Western territories, including areas claimed by three of the colonies. This was taken as further proof of Parliament’s tyrannical intent and helped keep the issue of interference with religion at the center of the public debate.

With war approaching, the colonies had begun to speak a common political and religious language. The journals of the Continental Congress are filled with religious references intermingled with regular political business. The eruption of occasional controversies over prayer and the appointment of chaplains were duly recorded, contradicting the notion that the business of creating a new American polity had been secular in design and purpose.

On June 12, 1775, Congress issued a call for “a day of publick humiliation, fasting, and prayer” that was couched in the familiar language of covenant theology. Perry Miller observed that, 

“in effect, Congress added the other nine colonies (about whose status New Englanders had hitherto been dubious) to New England’s covenant. Still, for most of the population in these nine, no novelty was being imposed. The federal theology, in general terms, was an integral part of the Westminster Confession and so had long figured in the rhetoric of Presbyterians of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The covenant doctrine, including that of the society as well as of the individual, had been preached in the founding of Virginia, and still informed the phraseology of ordinary Anglican sermonizing. The Baptists, even into Georgia, were aware of the concept of the church covenant, for theirs were essentially ‘congregational’ polities; they could easily rise from that philosophy to the analogous one of the state. Therefore the people had little difficulty reacting to the Congressional appeal.” 

By then, war was a reality. Six months later, the “Political Bands” connecting the colonies with Britain were effectively dissolved when Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act, removing the colonists from the king’s protection and treating them as foreign enemies. 

Constitutions of liberty 

The covenantal principle that led to the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America” in 1776 culminated in the Constitution of 1787. The new federal union was given the authority to coordinate a political system of divided yet cooperative powers, not to dominate it. Its overall success has always depended upon the continued good health of the various social institutions, such as families and churches, which also exercise powers of a governmental nature.

Like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution is based on the premise that the primary purpose of civil government is essentially that of a guardian or steward rather than a vanguard of progressive change: that is, it is protective, prohibitory, and punitive. Since power is coercive by nature rather than persuasive, the founders believed that civil authority must be constitutionally restrained. James Madison declared that an accumulation of powers in the same hands “may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”.

One of the great challenges to constitutional liberty has come through a gradual shift of emphasis from prohibition to regulation, from a protective to a beneficent or philanthropic conception of civil power. What Alexis de Tocqueville subsequently wrote about the regulation of manufacturing associations might be applied with equal validity to the regulation of religious and other societal activity: 

“If once the sovereign had a general right of authorizing associations of all kinds upon certain conditions, he would not be long without claiming the right of superintending and managing them, in order to prevent them from departing from the rules laid down by himself. In this manner the state, after having reduced all who are desirous of forming associations into dependence, would proceed to reduce into the same condition all who belong to associations already formed; that is to say, almost all the men who are now in existence.” 

The success of this struggle for political liberty was soon followed by a growth of religious liberty and the collapse of denominational establishments. For a time, centralizing tendencies were held in check.

Differences over slavery, tariffs, and constitutional precepts culminated in a civil war that ended with the victorious side tipping the constitutional balance in favor of central control. The resulting tendency toward centralization, bureaucratization, and the subversion, even the fragmentation, of other governing and mediating institutions may be discerned in the subsequent history of all sectors of American life. The Provider State brooks no rivals and, if present trends hold, offers little solace to dissenters.

The American system of constitutional liberties and safeguards ultimately depends upon the consensus and self-restraint of its component parts. The challenge is whether it may yet develop the capacity to overcome the eclipse of its vision.



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