Silence in paradise

An espousal of equality, even the ontological equality at the intersection of Christianity and Lockean liberalism, must get around to answering this: what about property? (We saw a school production of Robin Hood Saturday that brought the issue back to mind.)

To someone steeped in the Book of Genesis as well as in Locke’s Second Treatise, property accumulation may feel like the moral equivalent of divorce. Jesus says that “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” And John Locke’s version of the Garden of Eden, the state of nature, involved no accumulation of property as a means of oppressing others.

Joyce Appleby saw that Locke’s version of paradise connects property “with a moral end: God’s desire to provide sustenance for man. The labor which made the common gift into private property executed God’s design. The picked apple facilitated nourishment at the same time that it became private. The introduction of money,  however, destroyed the moral purpose associated with God’s gift of the earth, for it removed the check on accumulation” (Appleby’s Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination at 88 – 89).

Joyce Appleby

Appleby says that Locke later, in effect, contradicted himself by championing the old balance-of-trade monetary theory during the recoinage battle of 1696. In that battle, he argued that mankind “put an imaginary value upon gold and silver. This intrinsic, unique value of specie had created the utility of money because it made possible a standard for all other commodities. Because men held gold and silver in unique esteem, they were willing to trade useful goods for them.” (I’m quoting Appleby’s summary of Locke’s position, not Locke himself.) Therefore, the king couldn’t put an arbitrary value on coins because people would always weigh the coin’s silver and trade it based on how much the silver was worth. Locke’s view was discredited on economic grounds, but it led to his conclusion that “the value of money was rooted in nature” (Appleby’s words), or at least in nature in the sense of beyond the reach of man or even kings to fix or change.

Locke was wrong from a macroeconomic standpoint, but he laid the metaphysical groundwork for Adam Smith some eighty years later. Smith added the market to liberalism’s doctrine as something that had a mind of its own — discernible, but incapable of being contradicted by tyrants or by anyone else, really — like natural law itself.

Looking out his Parisian window at pre-Revolutionary France, however, Jefferson wrote to Madison that the existence of the “unemployed poor” meant that “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.” In a society with unemployment, private property  is no longer God’s means of providing for his children but a means of oppressing them.

A longer excerpt from Jefferson’s letter:

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Jefferson here seems to propose the end of primogeniture with regard to inheritance, an indexed property tax rate, and the grant of small parcels of land. But he leaves a qualified door open for other ideas (“legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind”).

But why “silently” in Jefferson’s “silently lessening the inequality of property”? Because the rich would otherwise discover the lessening and stop it? Because (as happened in France a few years later) the loud lessening of equality means violent revolution? Because the dignity that people find in work requires that any supports remain silent, almost providential?

Soccer and Our Founding Document

3PictureTimHowardGeorgeWashingtonIt’s the Fourth of July. In today’s Washington Post, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist, urges Americans to get over “their nagging emphasis on nationality” and to find a team to root for among the remaining eight World Cup countries.

Independence Day, with impeccable timing, is here to help.

But hold that thought. First, let’s take in the biggest news ever for American soccer: this week, the entire country seemed riveted to a soccer match. At its end, Team USA was eliminated from the World Cup in a 2-to-1 loss to Belgium. This excerpt from a New York Times article is typical of the American media’s euphoria over the way our team played:

Trying to figure out where soccer fits into the fabric of America is a popular topic but, for one afternoon at least, there was this unexpected truth: All around the country, from coast to coast and through the nation’s belly, sports fans of every kind were inspired by the performance of a soccer goalkeeper. In a loss.

The key to figuring out “where soccer fits into the fabric of America,” of course, has always been figuring out where America fits into the fabric of the world. The key is coming up with an alternative to mere tribalism, to what Jenkins calls our “nagging emphasis on nationality.” To restart that figuring, we might look into why we find ourselves celebrating this loss.

We are celebrating because our goalkeeper, Tim Howard, broke a World Cup record for saves. I’ve seen an Internet meme conflating Tim Howard with George Washington, and for good reason: General Washington was a master of that most defensive of tactics, the retreat. His resilience at our end of the field won us the world’s respect. Howard’s resilience did the same thing.

We are celebrating this loss because, deep down and to the surprise of many – including ourselves – we still care what the rest of the world thinks. We cared when we fought the Revolutionary War. We had a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” back then, to borrow the Declaration of Independence’s famous noun phrase. That respect, in fact, drove us to write the Declaration.

The Declaration’s respect for world opinion isn’t just a throwaway line. Grammatically speaking, the word “respect” is the sole subject of the Declaration’s introduction. If that weren’t enough to raise its profile, “respect” comes at the end of the Declaration’s opening sentence, a periodic sentence that dramatically highlights its point by saving its subject for the end:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Aristotle taught us that every speech or writing has an audience that shapes it. The Declaration’s explicit audience is mankind. We owe the world an explanation, it says. The Declaration, which reached England, France, Italy, and even Poland by the end of 1776, was our first apology tour.

The Declaration doesn’t declare our independence from the world or its opinions. It declares our independence from Britain, but in the process, it declares also our “separate and equal station” with the rest of the nations. And it expressly solicits those nations’ opinions.

In fact, the Declaration of Independence never calls itself that. I think a better name for it would be the Declaration of Interdependence. Independence, after all, is just a necessary stage between dependence and interdependence. This progression from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is true also for highly effective nations. We have a lot to offer other nations, of course, not the least of which are the rights enumerated in the Declaration. But for other nations to benefit from us, we must understand that they still share an “equal station” with us. For other nations to adopt our rights, we need to be willing to respect theirs.

Lincoln knew that other nations would not adopt the Declaration’s abstract principles – equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – through American military might. He countered Stephen Douglas’s version of Manifest Destiny with an understanding, as political scientist Harry V. Jaffa has it in his book Crisis of the House Divided, that America’s “primary action upon the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85). We need to get our house in order because other nations need us.

The reverse is also true. Long after France helped us bottle up Cornwallis at Yorktown, we still need other nations. We don’t need them to form another “coalition of the willing,” as George W. Bush called the nations that supported America’s invasion of Iraq. Instead, we need mankind’s culture, its fellowship, its perspectives. (How obvious this is; how sad to feel the need to write this.) We need its candid opinions, as the Declaration claims. In his 1939 essay “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann argues that the foundation for freedom of speech is our need to learn from one another. The same need is the foundation for diplomacy.

The Framers believed in a “candid world” – the final two words in the Declaration’s famous preamble. “Candid” back then didn’t mean “forthcoming” but, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “free from bias; fair, impartial, just.” Do we still believe in such a world?

Our reaction to this week’s World Cup loss suggests we might. Despite the dismissal of world opinion that has characterized our politics and even our foreign policy this young century, we may have rediscovered a truer understanding of ourselves this week on the pitch. There, for at least ninety minutes, we remembered what it was like to be respected rather than feared.

Today, and hopefully for ages to come, the Declaration of Interdependence can help us more fully adopt that perspective.

And so can the Post, though for a limited time. It put together an assessment of each remaining World Cup team – why you should root for each, and why you shouldn’t. So adopt a team as well as the Declaration’s perspective, and for the remainder of the Cup, celebrate our nation’s interdependence!

The duty to preserve life and liberty & to pursue happiness

3PictureMortonWhiteJefferson doesn’t encourage us to retrace his thinking in writing the Declaration of Independence. He writes copiously during his long retirement, but when someone asks him about the origins of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the rest of the Declaration’s more epistemological lines, he claims only to have “harmonized” views contained in “elementary books of public right.” His list of authors amounts to only “Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” I was glad see that “etc.” made flesh this week while reading American philosopher and Princeton professor Morton White’s book The Philosophy of the American Revolution (1976). White ties Jefferson’s thought not only to Aristotle and Locke but also to the works of the German philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf (1632 – 1694), the Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746), and the Swiss jurist Jean Jacques Burlamaqui (1694 – 1748), none of whom I knew anything about.

I found White’s book while reading another writer’s list of influences on the United States’ founding generation of political thinkers. David Hackett Fischer in his book Liberty and Freedom includes White’s book in a footnote substantiating his list of all the theories that have come before his own to explain American liberty and freedom:

. . . Greek democracy, Roman republicanism, natural rights in the Middle Ages, the civic humanism of the Renaissance, the theology of the Reformation, the English “commonwealth tradition” in the seventeenth century, British “opposition ideology” in the eighteenth century, the treatises of John Locke, the science of Isaac Newton, the writings of Scottish moral philosophers, the values of the Enlightenment, and the axioms of classical liberalism.1

White’s book, according to Fischer’s footnote, is supposed to assert the founders’ natural rights tradition theory mentioned above. It establishes that Jefferson, et al. were still on the rationalist side of the rationalist/utilitarian divide, but it challenges the internal consistency of the founders’ rationalism at several turns. It therefore doesn’t celebrate the influence of natural rights dating back to the Middle Ages on the founding generation’s thinking, but it proves that influence. It shows how the different founders, and the different philosophers before them, strive to maintain their claim to universally accessible natural rights and self-evident truths in the face of disagreements over the role of reason and conscience and in the face of challenges to universal truths.

White’s book certainly discusses, as its title suggests, the philosophy of the American Revolution – that is, the bounds of philosophical discussion between Locke’s rationalistic notion of natural law and what would later develop into Jeremy Bentham’s results-oriented utilitarianism.  But the discussion of these philosophical struggles has a single focus – a close analysis of the Declaration’s famous second sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”2 This is chiefly where Pufendorf, Hutcheson, and Burlamaqui come in. White weaves these three early modern philosophers with Aristotle, Hooker, and Locke in part because, at least in Hutcheson’s and Burlamaqui’s cases, theirs were the latest words on natural rights3 and because, particularly in Burlamaqui’s case, Jefferson’s thinking in the preamble’s first draft so precisely matches theirs.

And it is the Declaration’s first draft with which White feels much more at home. The first draft’s equality clause reads as follows:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty & the pursuit of happiness . . .

(White helpfully employs parallel structure to untangle “Jefferson’s characteristically unsettling punctuation” in the rough draft to a more comprehensible “the preservation of life, the preservation of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”)4 White’s book focuses on the different views of government reflected in the Declaration’s first and final drafts, and he finds that the revision is mostly a move from clarity to imprecision. To him, the first draft’s purpose is

to aid and abet men in attaining ends proposed by God: the preservation of life, the preservation of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But in the final version of the Declaration the purpose of government must be understood as merely that of making secure rights which have been given by God, which means making them secure against invasion.5

Jefferson, cagey and opaque as he often is, attributes the changes to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and says that the changes were “merely verbal.” White doesn’t offer an historical account of why the changes were made, and he disagrees with Jefferson about the changes’ significance. White doesn’t say so, but I think Jefferson’s outward acquiescence to the changes stems from his desire to hang onto his claim to the Declaration’s authorship, the first among only three feats from his accomplished life that he has carved onto his tombstone at Monticello. (Even his consequential two-term presidency doesn’t make the cut.) But White sets Jefferson’s motives aside, whatever they are.

Although he eschews such historical speculation, White explodes Jefferson’s “merely verbal” explanation just as he annotates the “etc.” at the end of Jefferson’s list of philosophical influences. He establishes not only the first draft’s more active role for government in promoting virtue but also its more duty-oriented approach to rights and its use in explaining why Jefferson’s troika of inalienable rights ends with “the pursuit of happiness” instead of property, unlike most such formulations of rights in the states’ revolutionary documents.

I was surprised, with respect to the first draft’s vision of government, that White doesn’t mention a connection with Aristotle. The government’s role in aiding and abetting “men in attaining ends proposed by God” parallels Aristotle’s teleology and his concept of the state’s active role in promoting its citizens’ pursuit of happiness.

White also fails to point out both the more individualistic notion of rights we are left with in the final version and the more serious claim that the Continental Congress makes against King George III and Parliament as a result of the changes included in the final draft. In the final draft, George goes beyond merely failing to aid us in our pursuit of happiness; he also hinders us in it. Perhaps it is Jefferson’s often-conflicted feelings about the size and role of the federal government as well as this stronger accusation against English authority that causes Jefferson to accede to Franklin and Adams’s muddying of the philosophical waters in the final draft. But I catch myself here indulging again in my lifelong fascination with Jefferson’s variable mind.

So what were the clear waters White finds in the Declaration’s first draft? For starters, a more accurate application of the notion of self-evident truth. White breaks down Locke’s and other rationalists’ epistemology into two moves – an initial intuition and a logical deduction from that intuition. (White refers to Locke interchangeably as a rationalist and an intuitionist.) Strictly speaking, only what can be intuited as a truth is axiomatic and, therefore, self-evident. Deductions from that self-evident truth are just as sure, but a deduction by definition is not self-evident.

As we shall see, of the rights proclaimed in Jefferson’s famous sentence, White shows that only the equality clause is self-evident. White believes that Jefferson is on firmer ground when, in his rough draft, he calls “sacred & undeniable” the list of rights that includes “the preservation of life, & liberty & the pursuit of happiness.” Those rights are not self-evident but are derivative of self-evident truth, such as “all men are created equal & independent.” They are just as sure as self-evident truth – just as sacred and undeniable – but they are derivative of the truth that all men are created equal.

White never makes his best argument in this regard: perhaps it’s too obvious for him to point out. The rough draft’s language after “sacred & undeniable” makes explicit the derivative nature of the rights concerning life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: “that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty & the pursuit of happiness . . . ” [emphasis added]. Our equality – our common status as God’s children – is the sure ontological foundation for our rights involving life and liberty.6

White also finds in Jefferson’s first draft a clear example of the eighteenth century notion of rights and duties.  Pufendorf and Burlamaqui influence the American revolutionaries to see a right as a moral power:

Burlamaqui defines a right as a power or a faculty which a man has to use his liberty and strength (ses forces naturelles) in a particular manner either in regard to himself or in respect to other men, so far as this exercise of his liberty and strength is approved by reason.7

Burlamaqui, like Pufendorf, sees a right as a power, and he finds that a power disassociated from morality is also disassociated from right. When power is “used in morally objectionable ways by the many it is called ‘license,’” White summarizes. Put another way, a right is “a power to use physical strength in conformity with, or not in violation of, natural law.”8 Many American social conservatives today complain that our culture has gotten too rights-oriented. Using the term “rights” in this modern manner, however, disassociates it from our natural-law heritage. Our rights, as White demonstrates, include duties and no “license.”9

We’re ready to see the connection between “LLPH” (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and Burlamaqui’s influence on Jefferson. Burlamaqui’s rights stem from self-evident truths or “states,” all of them ontological in nature:

First of all, man is a creature of God, from whom he has received his life, his reason, and all the advantages he enjoys. Secondly, his is a being composed of body and soul who naturally loves himself and desires his own felicity. And, thirdly, he is a member of a species, all of whose members live with him on earth and in society.10

Each of these “states” has “a trio of different sorts of duties: duties toward God, duties toward oneself, and duties toward other human beings.” Burlamaqui infers these duties by reflecting “on the nature and states of man, which indicate the intentions of God with respect to man.”11 Aristotle’s teleology not only explains what Jefferson means by happiness, but it also through Burlamaqui and then Jefferson explains how we obtain our rights regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness:

Since God gave us life, he must have proposed the preservation of our life. Since he gave us reason, he must have proposed for us the perfection of our reason. And since he created us with a desire for our own happiness, he must have proposed for us the pursuit of that happiness.[Id., emphasis original.]

(“Happiness” in the declaration, of course, is not the vague and transitory notion of happiness we associate with the word today. It is Aristotle’s idea of happiness – the happiness that comes as a result of a full life pursuing the ends for which one is created.) These ends then translate into duties, which in turn translate into rights (that is, into moral power):

Here we see the final link in the chain which begins with man’s God-created essence, moves to the ends God proposed for him, and from that to what God wants man to do, namely, to man’s duties. But once we have shown that we have the duty to preserve our lives, it is easy to deduce that we have the right to preserve them; once we have shown that we have the duty to pursue happiness, it is easy to deduce that we have the right to pursue it; and once we have shown that, having been created members of the same species who are equal by nature and therefore mutually independent, we can know, first, that each of us has a duty not to dominate the other and, secondly, that each of us has a right to preserve this freedom from domination.12

This “chain” from essence to duties and from duties to rights is reinforced in the rough draft by the abstract noun “preservation” that provides for life and liberty what the abstract noun “pursuit” provides for happiness – something for us to do. That is, we have duties. While White doesn’t point out the rough draft’s parallel structure, he shows me something I wouldn’t have known from the text: the “use of ‘sacred’ is characteristically Burlamaquian because of its religious connotation,” and “the reference to ‘inherent’ rights . . . is reminiscent of Burlamaqui’s constant harping on the fact that the laws of nature follow from the essence of man and his states as created by God . . .” The entire sentence in the Declaration’s rough draft, as White puts it, is “a telescoping of Burlamaqui’s argument.”13

What about property? As White points out, property couldn’t exist in the final draft since under no theory of natural law could property be considered unalienable. The notion that “one may alienate what one owns is at least as old as Aristotle.”14 But the bigger point is that the right to property, unlike the right to preserve life and liberty and the right to pursue happiness, is an adventitious right. Many natural law theorists, such as Burlamaqui, believed in a distinction between “primary or primitive natural law, which, Burlamaqui says, ‘immediately arises from the primitive constitution of man, as God himself has established it, independent of any human act,’ and secondary natural law, which ‘supposes some human act or establishment.’” When man modifies his primitive state, he creates adventitious rights, “which are properly the work of man” and not God. Like Locke, Blackstone, and other natural law theorists and jurists, Burlamaqui recognizes an original right to a common use of property that is restrained and limited when individuals claim private property. Although, like Locke, Burlamaqui asserts a limited right to individual property, he ranks it among the adventitious rights.15

It is worth quoting White’s excellent summary of his argument, at least insofar as I’ve covered it here:

. . . I cannot accept the statement [contained in Daniel Boorstin’s 1948 book The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson] that Jefferson’s “natural rights’ theory of government left all men naturally free from duties to their neighbors: no claims could be validated except by the Creator’s plan, and the Creator seemed to have created no duties but only rights.” This, I believe, can be maintained only if one neglects the Lockean and Burlamaquian roots of Jefferson’s thinking which require reference to duties not mentioned in the Declaration but implicit in Jefferson’s telescoped derivation of rights. Jefferson never could have derived his rights from equal creation without statements of God-imposed duties of natural law as intermediate steps.16

I believe that if our country would grasp the import of each phrase of that final sentence, we’d understand most of what we need to know about our nation’s founding.

  1. David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, at 2 and 739 – 740.
  2. White, supra, at 246 – 247.
  3. “Having published on natural law in 1747, Burlamaqui was . . . much closer to Jefferson in time than Hooker, publishing in 1593, or than Locke, publishing in 1690, and hence more likely to be thought of by Jefferson as uttering ‘the last word’ on the matters that concerned the author of the Declaration with regard to natural law as it affected individuals,” White says. Id. at 161.
  4. Id. at 165 – 166.
  5. Id. at 250. Emphasis original.
  6. Fischer describes the competing heritages of freedom and liberty, the first from Northern European tribes, from whom we get the term “freedom,” and the second from the ancient Romans, from whom we get the term “liberty.” Freedom was gradually understood to be a birthright, but in ancient Rome liberty implied inequality since one’s liberty required others’ slavery. Fischer, supra, at 4 – 6. The struggle between the free states and the slave states before and during the American Civil War can be understood as a struggle between these competing notions of freedom or liberty, with Virginia’s John Randolph and South Carolina’s John Calhoun attacking Jefferson’s equality clause as error, while Lincoln later brandishes the clause in his Gettysburg Address.
  7. White, supra, at 188 – 189.
  8. Id. at 190.
  9. Fischer agrees with this assessment for historical reasons. Examining the Northern European tribes’ notion of freedom from which the Declaration’s equality clause is derived, Fischer says, “A person who was born to freedom in an ancient tribe had a sacred obligation to serve and support the folk, and to keep the customs of a free people, and to respect the rights of others on pain of banishment. In modern America too many people have forgotten this side of our inheritance. They think of liberty as license without responsibility, and freedom as entitlement without obligation. To think this way in the modern world is to remember only half of these ancient traditions.” Fisher, supra, at 8 (emphasis original).
  10. White, supra, at 162.
  11. Id.
  12. Id. at 162 – 163.
  13. Id. at 163 – 164.
  14. Id. at 214.
  15. Id. at 215 – 216.
  16. Id. at 254. Fischer from a linguistic point of view also makes the connection between freedom’s historical foundation in the notion of equality and our duties to one another. “Freedom . . . derives from a large family of ancient languages in northern Europe. The English word free is related to the Norse fri, the German frei, the Dutch vrij, the Flemish vrig, the Celtic rheidd, and the Welsh rhydd. These words share an unexpected root. They descend from the Indo-European priya or friya or riya, which meant dear or beloved. The English words freedom and free have the same root as friend, as do their German cousins frei and Freund. Free meant someone who was joined to a tribe of free people by ties of kinship and rights of belonging.” Fisher, supra, at 5.

American unexceptionalism

What do you think of the notion that America has a world mission? Does it sound too religious, too much like the language of crusade? Mr. Romney, a former missionary, speaks of America’s world mission with an almost religious zeal. Here’s an account of one of Mr. Romney’s recent speeches:

Addressing a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Tuesday, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made it clear he is “an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country.”

“I am not ashamed of American power,” he said. “I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair.” . . .

Romney told the VFW he . . . would be “guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.”

Mr. Obama also speaks of America in superlative terms in almost every stump speech: we have the world’s best workers, entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists, colleges, and universities. We still offer the American Dream to people willing to move here and to work hard, he says.

Is our world mission linked to our military power, as Mr. Romney suggests, or to our economic opportunity, as Mr. Obama suggests? Whether our mission is to spread liberty beyond our boarders or to offer economic opportunity to those willing to relocate inside them, the candidates agree that we have a mission. Do we?

Continue reading

John field notes 3g: Why write gospels?

Luke and John said why they wrote; Matthew and Mark didn’t.

Some later wrote them to harmonize these four.

Jefferson wrote a gospel with a razor. Reynolds Price wrote one, too, using Mark as a tree and material from the other gospels and elsewhere and his own informed imagination as leaves.  (Price is part harmonizer, part inventor, and part Jefferson.) Each term, Price even makes his students write gospels.

Why write anything? I think it’s push and pull, attraction and revulsion. And the need to add our own testimony, even if only as editors, commentators, or (like me) marginalists.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

Sources

Reading this 1791 letter from Benjamin Banneker, the son of a former slave, to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson makes me understand Jefferson better.  How could someone who penned the lines Banneker quoted and who received the letter Banneker wrote not be, as Jefferson’s enemy Hamilton kindly put it, “a man of sublimated and paradoxical imagination”?

An appeal to heaven

[flags]

I love those flags from the Revolutionary War era. The excitement of the times must have led some colonists to stay up nights on CorelDRAW (it was a while ago) designing flags to express why their people were fighting. “Everything is new and yielding,” Benjamin Rush enthused about his generation’s time, and everyone may have had a fair shake at making his design into his local regiment’s – or even his colony’s – flag.

I didn’t know until today that many Tea Party movement members have appropriated one of our nation’s early flags to represent the movement – the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, called the Gadsden flag. I think many Tea Partiers and I have at least this in common: we envy the Revolutionary Generation’s opportunity to help shape a young republic.

I like movements as well as flags, and I’m glad the Tea Party movement is looking into our nation’s founding documents with the idea of turning the nation’s attention back to something it has overlooked somewhere between its founding and now. I’d love to watch a series of debates by real authorities over what certain phrases and sections in the founding documents mean and how they might apply to us today. Wouldn’t that be the best political theater? Maybe a separate session for each document, one, say, for the Treaty of Tripoli that the U.S. Senate ratified in 1797, giving the force of law to the proposition that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Another Revolutionary-era flag better represents my own, one-man movement to reclaim our founders’ natural law understanding: a variation of the Pine Tree flag known as the Washington’s Cruisers flag. These two flags have always been my sentimental favorites: where I grew up, a few miles from where Cornwallis surrendered, it seemed like pines accounted for three-quarters of the tree population.

The Pine Tree flag is a simple jack of a green pine on a white field. The Massachusetts Navy pulled the idea for the flag’s design from the more complicated Bunker Hill flag, which had a much smaller pine stuck in the flag’s upper-left corner. Washington used the basic design of the Pine Tree flag for his own squadron of schooners in 1775, adding the words “Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to Heaven” to it.

Perhaps the experts could debate founding flags as well as founding documents. Most sites I looked at attribute the origin of the words “An Appeal to Heaven” to a kind of prayer, to the American Navy’s realization that, going up against the greatest navy in the world, they would need all the help from heaven that they could get. I had no reason to doubt this explanation until I started reading John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. He used the phrase “appeal to heaven” several times in it as a term of art.

For Locke, the state of nature was like the state of war: in both situations, individuals, groups, or nations are “without a common superior on earth with authority to judge between them” (III.19). The difference between the state of nature and the state of war is how the parties in such a situation relate to each other. If they live together “according to reason,” then they are in a state of nature. But if one party uses “force, or the declared design of force upon the person of another,” then they are in a state of war (id.). A state of war may exist between individuals or nations, or it may exist between people and their rulers who exercise “a power the people never put into their hands” (XIV.168). Because there is no “common superior” to appeal to in such a state of war, the aggrieved party may appeal to heaven. That is, they may resist their rulers based on an unwritten law superior to the rulers’ law:

. . . where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of their power without right, and have no appeal on earth, there they have a liberty to appeal to heaven whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have by the constitution of that society any superior power to determine and give effective sentence in the case, yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves, which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven. (Id.)

Such an appeal would be ineffective if heaven were bound by the rulers’ laws, Locke here says. Instead, heaven judges the people’s case “by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men” – natural law.

So our nation’s first navy sailed under a flag that proclaimed our rights under natural law.

References to God or heaven in our nation’s founding documents, or even on its flags, are not necessarily indicia of its founders’ intent to form a Christian nation.  Natural law, while it was coherent enough for a navy to grasp, was not as simple as that.

[The above detail is from an illustration in an 1885 American high school textbook.]

[Washington Cruisers flag]