The Relevance of the Enlightenment (#AHA19)

locke

John Locke

We are thrilled to have Megan Jones, a history teacher at The Pingry School in Martinsville, New Jersey, writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Here is her first dispatch.  –JF

I’ve been to a number of academic or educational conferences at this point, although not too many AHA conferences. The AHA was always something to be dreaded as a grad student, because attendance meant you were probably on the job market and had to contend with the “cattle call” of the job fair. I’m fortunate to be past that phase now, with a job as a history teacher at an independent secondary school. So now I feel more comfortable attending the AHA and truly taking advantage of the fact that one can hear about the state of a plethora of fields at this national conference. Also, as a high school teacher who currently only teaches surveys, I’m hoping that I can actually learn something about fields with which I have no/little knowledge. It’s with that spirit that I came to Chicago and chose the panels I did and will attend.

This afternoon, I attended a roundtable entitled “Continuing Relevance of the Enlightenment,” with Jennifer Pitts (Chicago), Holly Brewer (Maryland), Pamela Edwards (Yale), Jonathan Israel (Princeton), and James T. Kloppenberg (Harvard). Glad I did, because not only do I teach about the Enlightenment in some fashion in all of my American, European, or World history survey courses but I also have absolutely no knowledge about the historiography of the Enlightenment. The conversation that emerged from this roundtable was a good primer for me, who has not had the time to absorb the literature about the Enlightenment. One of the important through-lines that cropped up was the focus on religious beliefs and religious conflict as important context for the Enlightenment and for today.

Holly Brewer opened her remarks by stating that she is sympathetic to a number of criticisms that many currently have about the Enlightenment and its thinkers (namely about race and slavery), but that we should not “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” to use the same cliché she did. [Note: Jamelle Bouie wrote a very good piece about the “dark side” of the Enlightenment for Slate in June, which I recommended to my colleagues in the summer and which Jonathan Israel also mentioned today as a good example of such criticism.] Brewer encouraged “subtlety and not simplicity” when it comes to discussions about the Enlightenment, and that we need to recognize that the past is complex and imperfect (as is the present, obviously). She discussed her research on John Locke and his analysis of St. Paul’s letters, which garnered significant attention upon its publication. In Brewer’s talk, she pointed out that Locke’s analysis of St. Paul’s commentary on governmental authority in Romans 13 and slavery in Ephesians 6 illustrated many of the major debates of the Enlightenment period. She connected this focus on religious criticism in the Enlightenment to the modern day by mentioning that the White House hosts Bible study sessions, and that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 at one of these gatherings. Apparently, President Donald J. Trump sees himself in Isaiah 45, with its focus on God’s pledge to “subdue nations before him.” [this is my chosen quote, I don’t actually know what segment of Isaiah 45 Trump supposedly referenced]. Brewer’s comments implied that historians today need to focus more on the religious aspects of the Enlightenment critique of society, given the effect of religious conflict and religious belief on society today (both in the United States and at the global level). In her view, the role of religion in shaping the Enlightenment epoch has been forgotten, but that facet is in fact very relevant to this particular contemporary context.

I wish Prof. Brewer had a chance to talk more so I could hear her expand upon her comments regarding religious context, in part because I’d like to hear her discuss the place of other religious beliefs in today’s world versus that of the Enlightenment (in which writers critiqued Christianity, not other religions – that I know of). How does the struggle within Islam today affect our world differently than did the struggle within Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries? Where does Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism in general fit into this picture? Is the Enlightenment relevant to adherents of these faiths, if it is a product of a majority Christian culture? I think yes, obviously, because the Enlightenment focus on reason and empiricism can be applied to anything – although we must remember that the movement itself was a product of its time and place. A product of a largely Christian Europe torn apart. So, perhaps, a movement that was a product of a particular time and place cannot have direct relevance to another time and place with an vastly different constituency….maybe it is not the context that is really relevant, but in fact the habits of mind that the Enlightenment encouraged.

I’ll end with a comment that Prof. Israel made in response to an audience member’s question about periodization of the Enlightenment. He pointed out that it was first an era, and then a process. We are still engaged with the process of implementing the ideals of the Enlightenment, namely equality. I’m all for that. And now, I have a better understanding of the Enlightenment and what many of the heavyweights have to say about it.

Thanks, Megan!

John Locke and Slavery

Locke

Holly Brewer, the Burke Chair of American History at the University of Maryland, argues that Locke and Western liberalism had little to do with slavery.  Here is a taste of her essay at Aeon:

Neither slavery nor colonisation had their origins in Locke’s Two Treatises. His ideas about how people could claim rights to property did justify a certain kind of colonisation. He argued that, by making objects, by farming the land, one could derive ownership, goods and ground. However, his was a more egalitarian ideal of ownership than that offered by King James I’s right of discovery by Christian princes who could then grant dominion – the right of ownership and governance. Locke’s was founded on individual action, the Stuart kings’ on divine status.

Such attention to historical context matters. These complex debates over justice shaped the early modern world, and continue to shape ours. If we pretend that Locke and the Stuart kings were the same, and that their policy struggles did not matter, we ignore the impact of our own policies. If we dismiss Locke’s ideas as paradoxical, we forget that in these fires were forged not only slavery but also crucial principles of human rights. It is not only that the big questions were fiercely contended, but that small policies often had huge impacts. Reversing Charles II’s reward of land for buying slaves was a major move against inequality and injustice, and against the idea that kings could grant dominion over others. So too was his suggestion that all people be naturalised and have equal protections under the law.

The effort to compress such fierce disputes into a flat narrative of hypocrisy belies not only the past but the present. The effort to condemn liberalism (and Locke) as a theory of slavery and oppression, and to see within liberalism the origin of slavery, misrepresents the very essence of his theory, which was about human rights. It silences intense political debates over such rights that had dramatic practical repercussions. Slavery was justified by theories that all people were born to a divinely ordained status, ideas that were harmonious with racism, but not defined by that racism. Slavery’s origins were in absolutism, not liberalism.

Liberalism arose in reaction to slavery. It sought inclusion, and defined rights with broad promises, albeit ones that could be opened to exclusions. Indeed, one could argue that the breadth of such promises made racism (and other forms of prejudice) necessary in order to once again justify hereditary hierarchies. But for many others, it opened wide promises of inclusion. The theory itself was one that strained for relative equality under the law for all those who could give meaningful consent. The similarity of these disputes to ones we conduct today becomes more apparent with such context. For example: do rights inhere in all human beings or only in citizens? Abstract philosophical debates emerged from real dilemmas but also helped to shape policies that affected millions of people’s lives. They still do.

Read the rest here.

Yet Another Reason Why Evangelicals Should Be Wary of David Barton’s Pseudohistory

ba98f-david-barton

David Barton’s Wallbuilders radio show is now referring to Barton as “America’s premiere historian.”  On today’s show his co-host Rick Green played a speech Barton gave at his  Dallas Pro-Family Legislators Conference.  (It is unclear when this conference was held).  During the speech Barton attacked me again.  Here is what he said (highlights are mine):

When you look at the Declaration, every single right set forth in the Declaration had been preached from the American pulpit prior to 1763. It’s a fun thing to do.  Read the Declaration sometime and look at it as a list of sermon topics. See if you could come up with Bible verses for all those rights.  Because that’s what they did. We’ve got the old sermons from those days to show you how the Declaration was built out of the pulpit.

So, that’s prior to 1763. Then when you get the Declaration itself it was largely based on the writings and John Locke. Richard Henry Lee said that they copied the Declaration from Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.

I have long said that Two Treatises of Government, John Locke in that work cited or referenced the Bible on 1,500 occasions. Two Treatises is about an inch thick and about 400 pages long.

An article came out last year by an academic named John Fea who just mocked me and said, “How stupid is Barton? There are only 121 references in there.” And it’s on a Biblical worldview website. So, it’s out there.  

So what I’ve been doing the last several months is I’ve gone into John Locke’s Two Treatises and I have documented every time he quotes a Bible verse. The deal with John Locke is he didn’t always tell you he was quoting a Bible verse because everybody knew it back then.

If I said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” Most of us would say, “That’s John 3:16.” If I said that to the guy on the street they wouldn’t know what I was talking about.  They don’t know John 3:16. Well see, here’s a Biblical worldview guy who didn’t recognize Bible verses throughout John Locke’s piece.

So, I’ve already documented that 1,500- way over. It’s an embarrassment for a Biblical worldview academic to not recognize the Bible.  But that’s a difficulty we have now.

OK, where do I begin?  Here are a few points:

  1. My name is pronounced “Fee-ah.”  It rhymes with the female names “Mia” or “Tia.”
  2. David Barton puts the following sentence in quotes and attributes it to me: “How stupid is Barton? There are only 121 references in there.”  I challenge him to connect this quote with my name.  He will not be able to do it because I never said these words.
  3. David Barton claims that I have written an article arguing that there are only 121 references to the Bible in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.  I have never written such an article.  In fact, I am not on record anywhere–either at The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog, in a published book, or elsewhere–claiming that there are 121 references to the Bible in John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government. Frankly, I have never really been interested in this question and I am too busy to read Locke and count the number of Bible verses. (Maybe one day I will have the time). Yet Barton has criticized me at his conference, on his radio show, and on the transcript of the radio show on his Wallbuilders website.  The fact that Barton has not only mentioned this falsehood, but has put my words in quotation marks, is especially disturbing.  I spend a lot of time with my students teaching them the proper use of quotation marks.
  4. I am glad that Barton considers me a “Biblical worldview academic.”  At least he is not questioning my Christian faith.  I don’t really describe myself using the phrase “Biblical worldview academic,” but I will take it.  It is good to know that Barton still sees me as part of the fold. 🙂
  5. I am glad to see that Barton now believes that the “Declaration itself was largely based on the writings of John Locke.”  I always assumed he believed that the Declaration of Independence was based directly on the writings of the Bible.
  6.  I don’t know how many Bible verses are in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, but Barton obviously thinks it is important.  Why?  Because if Locke was indeed the primary influence on Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence (a premise, by the way, that could be debated), then it is absolutely essential for Barton to show that Locke’s biblicism was somehow transferred to the words of the Declaration. Barton’s entire ministry at Wallbuilders depends on it. Let’s remember that Barton is not a historian. He is a politician who practices what the historian Bernard Bailyn once called “indoctrination by historical example.”  He is not studying Locke to advance general knowledge or even to help us better understand Locke in his 17th-century context.  He is doing this because he is trying to convince his followers that the Declaration of Independence is a Christian document.  And if he can prove that the Declaration of Independence is a Christian document then he can tell his followers that the United States was founded a Christian nation.  And if he can prove that the United States was founded as a Christian nation he can convince his followers that we need to “return” to such a place. And if he can do that, he can more easily advance his political agenda as a GOP operative.

I am going to stop there.  I have critiqued Barton’s work many times (including the idea that the Declaration of Independence was “built out of the pulpit”).  You can read some of those critiques by clicking here.  I have also addressed the relationship between Christianity and the founding in my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

I should also add that all of my critiques of Barton’s work are based on actually things that he has said and written.  As a fellow “Biblical world view” guy I would ask him to give me the same courtesy.

The Founding Fathers and Muslims

Juan Cole, the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan, reminds us that the founding fathers had Islam in mind when they talked about religious freedom.

Here is a taste of his piece at HNN:

…Ben Franklin, the founding father of many important institutions in Philadelphia, a key diplomat and a framer of the US Constitution, wrote in his Autobiography concerning a non-denominational place of public preaching he helped found “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Here is the whole quote:
‘And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air, subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was no sooner propos’d, and persons appointed to receive contributions, but sufficient sums were soon receiv’d to procure the ground and erect the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy broad, about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could have been expected. Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service. ‘
Not only did Ben Franklin not want to ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he wanted to invite them!
Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1777 Draft of a Bill for Religious Freedom:
‘ that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right . . . ‘ 
As I observed on another occasion, it was Jefferson’s more bigoted opponents in the Virginia legislature who brought up the specter of Muslims and atheists being elected to it in the world Jefferson was trying to create. He was undeterred by such considerations, which should tell us something.
British social philosopher John Locke was extremely influential on the Founding Generation, and on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. John Locke had already advocated civil rights for non-Christians, including Muslims, in his Letter on Toleration:
‘ Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors [believers], all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing. ‘ 
Here is Jefferson again: “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”
– Thomas Jefferson, note in Destutt de Tracy, “Political Economy,” 1816.
Or: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82
Read the rest here.  I made a similar argument in this lecture.  (I come on at about the 20:00 minute mark).

Himmelfarb on the Civil Society

Gertrude Himmelfarb (echoing Charles Murray’s conclusion in Coming Apart) believes that we need a revival of civil society in America.  Such a new “civic Great Awakening” (Murray’s phrase), she argues, must draw upon the views of older defenders of civil society such as Locke, Tocqueville, and Burke who wrote about the links between civil society and political association.

Here is a taste:

Today, in our anxiety about the excesses of individualism and statism, we may find ourselves looking upon civil society not merely as a corrective to those excesses but as a be-all and end-all, a sanctuary in itself, a sufficient habitat for the human spirit. What our forefathers impress upon us is a more elevated as well as a more dynamic view of civil society, one that exists in a continuum with “political society”—that is, government—just as “civil associations” do with “political associations,” “private affections” with “public affections,” and, most memorably, the “little platoon” with “a love to our country and to mankind.” This is civil society properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), a civil society rooted in all that is most natural and admirable—family, community, religion—and that is also intimately related to those other natural and admirable aspects of life, country and humanity.

Benjamin Rush on Education

In my “Age of the American Revolution” course today I began teaching Benjamin Rush’s, “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.”  Two things always strike me about this text.

First, Rush believes that “the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION.”  Religion, he argues, is the only source of virtue.

Rush explicitly notes that the “religion of Jesus Christ” is the best form of religion and he believes it should be taught in schools.  But he would rather see “the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.”

As I read these lines I was struck by just how much Rush worshiped on the altar of republican virtue.  While a Christian republicanism was best, he was also willing to allow other religions to be taught in schools as long as they contributed to virtue.

Second, I was struck by Rush’s commitment to the civic humanist idea of sacrificing for the common good or the good of the nation.  For example:

Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.  Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.

Such republicanism rejected, to an extent, a commitment to world citizenship. Rush argued that one must “be taught to love his fellow creatures in every part of the world, but he must cherish with a more intense and peculiar affection the citizens of Pennsylvania and of the United States.”

And Rush goes on. Children should be taught to “amass wealth, but it must be only to increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.  They should be taught that this life “is not his own,” but it belongs to one’s country.

Some of this stuff, written by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, might be a cause of concern for today’s libertarians, tea partiers, or anyone else with a high view of Lockean rights.

What the Founders Didn’t Teach Us

Over at The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, Berry College political philosopher Peter Lawler reviews Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truth: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future.  It is a long review.  It is a great review.  While Spalding notes that the American founding was influenced by a combination of Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, and Christianity, Lawler argues that “Lockeanism, more than anything else, provided the principled foundation of our free institutions.”

Once Lawler establishes the predominance of Lockeanism, he is then able to point out how Locke’s ideas are too individualistic to sustain social institutions such as the family.  Lawler

…a shortcoming of Lockean liberalism, the kind of liberty to which the Founders were primarily devoted, is its tendency to undermine the stability of the family over time. As the nation’s elites become more devoted to such principled individualism, the family weakens. Well before the Progressives, Tocqueville noted the many factors that would exact a toll on the kind of devotion that produces lots of well-raised children: self-obsessive, petty materialism; the restless anxiety that accompanies democratic affluence; the theoretical denial that we’re anything more than ephemeral, biological beings; and doubt that human beings share moral or social goods in common—doubt that we really are, deep down, social and relational beings. The modern democrat has more and more trouble, as he becomes both more principled and more narcissistic, thinking beyond his own, personal being toward generating biological replacements or finding loving personal compensation for his own natural finitude in his family, children, and personal accomplishments generally. From its beginning in 1776, one dimension of the nation’s heritage is the thought of the Lockean individual in the state of nature that being starts and ends with me. If I don’t endure, nothing endures.

That’s not to deny that modern, democratic liberty has in some ways improved family life. As Tocqueville says, the disappearance of cold aristocratic formalities has been good for love in America, maybe especially for the friendship of the father with both son and daughter. Because everyone is free to marry the one he or she loves, there is less excuse than ever for the dangerous liaisons that inevitably accompany being stuck with marrying for money or property or social standing. Who can also deny that thinking of women more consistently as free, consenting individuals has done wonders in the eradication of unjust “double standards,” making us much more attentive to the various dimensions of spousal abuse, undermining arbitrary and otherwise excessive reliance on “gender roles” in excluding women from the worlds of work and politics, and even in leading fathers to share the ordinary duties of parenthood? In general, we should follow Tocqueville in resisting the temptation to romanticize what was better about even the recent past by making our nostalgia so selective that we forget the human misery and injustice people endured then and which we should be grateful not to have to endure now. Lockean progress, we have to admit, has in many ways been real progress. But that progress has not proven beneficial in every way, and it has not delivered personal benefits without imposing personal costs.
Read the rest of the review here. 

Clearing Snow From Your Parking Space: What Would Locke Do?

Jonathan Chait has an entertaining post at his The New Republic blog entitled “Hobbes, Locke, and Snowmageddon.” He begins:

If you clear a parking space in the snow for your car, are you allowed to keep that space?

Here are the options:

Ethically, it’s a complicated question. The act of shoveling out a parking space is almost a perfect example of Locke’s definition of private property in the state of nature — something you have created by mixing your labor with freely available materials. Clearly the incentive of ownership is needed in order to spur this shoveling work. Why should I spend hours breaking my back to liberate my car only to take it out and find myself stranded when I return?

On the other hand, let’s consider the communitarian objection. Granting property rights to a shoveled-out space has limitations of its own. Creating a property right out of cleared spaces only gives people an incentive to clear out a single space. Thus, many streets will go for the entire duration of the snowstorm with most of their spots covered with snow. Why shovel out more than one space on your street? Yet sometimes we would like to drive to another neighborhood to park. The individual ownership principle essentially makes that impossible.

Ultimately, like a good market liberal, I side with the Lockean concept of property rights but with a proviso. We should be granted the right to keep the space we shovel, but after a reasonable amount of time, we should also be required to clear the other spaces in front of our property.

I don’t live in a city, but I think I lean slightly toward the communitarian position here.