Faith and Scholarship Integration Essays
David Corbin, Associate Professor of Politics
In teaching the 3-part sequence on American Political Thought & Practice, I am primarily interested in how early Americans became republican, turned more democratic over time, and then later in the 20th century turned to imperialism of various forms in an effort to share American values with the rest of the world.
The American history texts that I use in the class is University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall’s “Freedom Just Around the Corner,” and “In the Throes of Democracy. In these works, McDougall presents 17th through 19th century Americans as hustlers. On one hand, Americans’ incredible effort (positive hustling) enabled them to make their way to the New World, gain charters for the new colonies from the King and the British parliament, fend off native peoples, and design political institutions. On the other hand, Americans often had to resort to underhanded means (negative hustling) to achieve these ends.
My approach to American history using McDougall’s history neither conforms to the overly optimistic (e.g. Paul Johnson) or cynical Marxist (e.g. Howard Zinn) accounts of America and Americans. Equally valuable is that McDougall’s focus on hustling points to both the reasons why Americans became hustlers and how they justified their hustling regardless of some of its more reprehensible elements. What prompted this incessant hustling? McDougall explains that the American desire to hustle was encouraged, informed, and in some cases, ennobled by their love of liberty. Each of the major groupings of settlers in the New World brought a different understanding of liberty to America. The most influential peoples in this regard were the four major types of British settlers, each aligned with a different Christian sect.
Puritans settled the northeastern part of the country and defined liberty in terms of freedom from sin. Quakers settled Pennsylvania and parts of New York and New Jersey and defined liberty in terms of protecting the rights of individual conscience. Anglicans settled the Tidewater country (present day Virginia and the Carolinas) and defined liberty hierarchically, arguing that men can only be free if they live in a setting in which the natural order of rank among men is unquestioned. The Scots-Irish settled the outlying frontier (the mountains of Appalachia), and defined liberty in terms of the open frontier, desiring limitless open spaces and all of the freedom associated with being free from external constraints.
McDougall’s presentation adds another layer to the famous depiction of American life given by de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. In focusing primarily on the New England Puritans, de Tocqueville concludes that the 17th and 18th century Americans were unique because unlike their European counterparts, they believed that men could be dependent within the moral/philosophic sphere while independent in the political/social sphere. The wars that would tear through European society were caused by the tension between traditionalists who believed that men had to either remain dependent morally and politically and democratic revolutionaries who believed that modern men should annihilate any semblance of the moral and political status quo.
De Tocqueville suggests that the later establishment of town government was grounded in the same balance between moral absolutes and political liberty. Men willingly obeyed local political authorities because they had consented to their institution in the first place. In turn local authorities dared not violate the rights of their fellow citizens because they could as easily be voted out of office or have their own rights violated by their equals. De Tocqueville suggests that Madison and others architects of American federalism designed American political institutions a century later seeking to encourage the healthy interplay of the unquestioned moral authority of republican principles and independent exercise of political authority at the local level.
I think this approach to teaching American history and political thought differs dramatically from what students would learn at a secular institution. First, they would get very little sense of the important role that Christianity played as Americans came to grip with their sense of justice/injustice, right/wrong, good/evil. Second, I think this approach follows the trajectory of competing ideas (various Christian worldviews, modern political philosophy, modern republicanism, American nationalism) being balanced together so as to define an evolving American exceptionalism. Third, I think it’s a good thing for our students to understand that America is an exceptional place. But I am doubly concerned with them recognizing how culturally and politically we have begun to define ourselves very differently over the years. And finally, and most importantly, if we are to pursue earthly happiness aright, we must recognize our Creator as the author of our freedom, and thus as the moral authority we turn when comparing competing claims for freedom and equality. We have moved away from such an approach to our political life. By understanding why, we can begin to shape institutions in a manner that promotes ordered liberty, and hence a right conception of our place in God’s creation.