Christianity, the American Revolution, and the Common Good

Part 2 of a series by C. Bradley Thompson

The American Mind is happy to play host to the important debates raised in the below essay. We do not necessarily endorse one side or another, and will, of course, invite responses — Eds.

I would now like to drill down on one particular manifestation of the theological-political problem and that’s the issue of the so-called “common good.” My TradCon critics have criticized and even denounced me for rejecting their view of the “common good,” particularly as it relates to morality, culture, and politics. These TradCon critics seem outraged that I don’t support the proposition that the purpose of government is to promote religion, the “common good,” or what they sometimes call the “higher good.”

One particular statement from my “Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans” essay has caused the TradCons to suffer from a case of intellectual shingles. I there wrote that the TradCons’ notions of the common and highest good “are not a part of the American tradition unless you think John Winthrop’s Puritan Massachusetts was reborn in 1776 and re-instituted in 1788.” This statement is laden with historical and philosophical meaning, which I’m happy to unpack.

It is true that the New England colonies instituted some form of “common-good” politics during their early settlement years. Two excellent examples of this would be Plymouth’s disastrous experiment with “common-good” communism and then the Puritans failed experiment with “common-good” theocracy. As I have indicated already, I claim that the American Revolution represents a break not only with Great Britain but also with the “common-good” politics of Christian communalism.

None of this is cut and dry, however. There were trace elements of the spirit of American liberty born with the first colonial settlements in the early seventeenth century, just as there were trace elements of Christian communalism that lasted long past the Revolution.  Let’s dig a little deeper into the seventeenth-century Puritan world of Christian communalism to see why it was rejected by the American Revolution.

John Winthrop and the Puritans established a “common-good,” “Bible Commonwealth” in Massachusetts in 1629 that might be described as a “soft” theocracy (the franchise and office-holding were limited to members of the Congregational Church). As John Winthrop wrote in his “Little Speech on Liberty,” Puritan New England was ruled by Scripture and by men who received their authority and “special Commission” directly from God. The Puritans understood true liberty to be the freedom to do “that only which is good, just, and honest.” Puritan liberty was the freedom to do only “as Christ allows you,” Winthrop continued, which was to be determined by the clergy and divinely-appointed rulers; it was the liberty to “quietly and cheerfully submit unto that authority which is set over you, in all the administrations of it, for your good.” This is how the Puritans understood both liberty and the “common good.”

This view of liberty and the “common good” and its relationship to government is not dissimilar to Aristotle’s claim in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics, “what the law does not command, it forbids.” The purpose of Puritan law was to make men good, virtuous, and pious, just as it was for the ancient city. Sitting atop the Puritans’ “City Upon a Hill” were pious magistrates who made laws about family life, community manners and mores, church affairs, dress, and politics. The purpose of these laws was to form the Puritan communities into integrated wholes defined by God’s laws and the “common good.” There could be no separation of church and State for the Puritans.

Seventeenth-century New England theologians and statesmen thought of society as an organic moral whole bound together by God’s word. The Puritans viewed church and State as one, and individuals were subsumed under a higher and common good. They did not believe, as the founders of 1787 would later come to accept, that society was an aggregation of individuals with rights. In the Puritan community, the individual was bound to the “common good” of the whole community, which meant in practice to the divinely-inspired dictates of the magistrates.

For the Puritans, the State must not only regulate misconduct, it must also inspire and direct all conduct toward virtue and the common good. The Puritans’ purpose in coming to America was, after all, to create Godly communities in which there could be no dissent from the truth. Those who did not follow God’s word as interpreted by their divines and magistrates would be punished severely. Consider what this meant in practice. David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, from which I here draw, provides a clear picture of the Puritan experiment in virtue politics.

In the name of the “common good,” the Puritans permitted burning at the stake for cases of petty treason, which they defined as the killing of masters by servants. No fewer than two people were burnt alive in the Bay province. “Common good” Massachusetts also recognized a baker’s dozen of capital crimes that were punishable by hanging, including witchcraft, idolatry, blasphemy, homicide, rape, adultery, bestiality, sodomy, false witness with intent to take life, and adult children who were “stubborn” or “rebellious.” No adult child was ever executed in New England for disobeying a parent, but several in their forties were whipped by order of the courts for being rude or abusive to their progenitors.

In the name of the “common good,” Puritan New England also legislated maiming as a punishment, such as the splitting of the nostrils, the amputation of ears, the branding of the face or hands. Such punishments were most often inflicted upon Quakers, who were typically branded on their face with an “H” for heresy.

The Puritan’s “common-good” law was extraordinarily hostile to deviant sex. Bestiality, for instance, was punishable by death. Consider the case of one George Spencer, a one-eyed servant living in the New Haven colony. Spencer was charged with bestiality after a local sow gave birth to a one-eyed piglet. Initially forced to confess, Spencer later recanted, confessed again under duress, and finally recanted one last time. But the colony’s “common-good” magistrates had a serious problem: because bestiality was a capital crime, the law required two witnesses for conviction. In their Javert-like quest to convict, the magistrates eventually accepted the Cyclops piglet as one witness and one of Spencer’s recanted confessions as the other. The unfortunate one-eyed man was hanged for sow sex! It’s not known what happened to Spencer’s alleged offspring.

“Common-good” Puritans also outlawed the public kissing of one’s wife on the Lord’s Day. One sea captain, returning home on a Sunday morning from a three-year voyage, made the mistake of kissing his wife on the doorstep of their home. For such “lewd and unseemly behavior on the Sabbath Day,” the unfortunate sailor was forced to sit in the stocks for several hours. The Puritans also favored sumptuary laws, which forbade the manufacture and sale of fancy clothing. In 1634, the Massachusetts General Court outlawed finery of dress for both sexes, including “immodest fashions . . . with any lace on it, silver, gold or thread,” hat bands, beaver hats and other forms of adornment. Thirty-six young women in 1676 in the town of Northampton received criminal indictments for “overdress chiefly in hoods.”

Not surprisingly, the Puritans could not sustain a moral-theological regime of this intensity for more than a couple of decades. After the zeal of the first generation had subsided, the main trend of New England life for the rest of the century was toward gradual secularization and liberalization. The infusion of new blood into the colonies and the continual process of westward movement and settlement had the effect of breaking down the walls of high-minded Puritan moralism.  Eventually the spirit of “common-good” Protestantism gave way to the spirit of Enlightenment liberalism.

Share American Mindset

Fast forward to the Revolutionary era.

Yes, there were remnants of an inherited religious, cultural, and political tradition (with good and bad elements) that extended from the early colonies to the Revolution, but the America that emerged after 1776 was radically different from Britain’s seventeenth-century American colonies. Seventeenth-century Puritan political institutions and their understanding of the “common good” could be defined by the following virtues and principles: authority, order, hierarchy, communalism, coercion, submission, sacrifice, duty, orthodoxy, faith, piety, and God. That describes Puritan New England to a tee, but it does not capture the primary virtues and principles that came to define revolutionary- and post-revolutionary America—namely, reason, freedom, equality, independence, the pursuit of individual happiness, self-governance, constitutionalism, rule of law, limited government, and, for the most part, economic laissez-faire. The world of 1629 was radically different from that of 1776 in virtually every way and on every level. The Puritans and America’s revolutionary founders would have rejected each others’ world views.

According to the Declaration of Independence, which Thomas Jefferson described as an “expression of the American mind,” the origin of political authority resided, not in God or in divinely-anointed rulers as was true for the Puritans, but in the unalienable rights of individuals expressed through the sovereignty and consent of the governed. The founders’ view on the origin of legitimate government was likewise captured in The Preamble to the Massachusetts Constitution, which stated: “The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” My critics like to quote this sentence because of its reference to the “common good.” But we must, of course, ask what the framers of the Bay-State Constitution meant by the “common good.” Fortunately, they tell us exactly what they meant. The laws created by the new government in Massachusetts were to be created in light of the “end of the institution,” which was to “secure the existence of the body-politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it, with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquillity, their natural rights, and the blessings of life.”

American constitutionalism, as it was established at the time of the founding, was grounded on a principle the opposite of the Aristotelian-Puritan dictum (i.e., “what the law does not command, it forbids”) and all forms of Christian politics up to the Reformation. For America’s founders, the law permits what it does not forbid. In America’s individual-rights republic, the law forbids the initiation of coercive force or fraud, but it otherwise leaves men alone to pursue their spiritual and material values free of government interference. The purpose of government in America is to “secure these rights.” The Declaration says nothing about making men good, virtuous, pious, or promoting the “common good” above and beyond protecting rights.

Let’s be clear: America’s revolutionary founders created a natural-rights republic; they did not establish a “common-good” republic (and they certainly did not found a “higher-good,” Catholic integralist monarchy). A natural-rights republic begins with the individual as the primary unit of moral and political value. By contrast, the “common-good” republic begins with the tribe, nation, state, or “saved” as the primary unit of moral and political value. The founders’ Lockean republicanism, which is grounded on “reflection and choice” (see Hamilton, Federalist No. 1) and man’s unalienable individual rights, provided an answer to the defects associated with the “common-good” politics associated the ancient republics, the early modern Christian republics, and Christian divine-right monarchy. The founders replaced the City of God with the City of Rights.

From this followed the Americans’ distinction between society and government, which was summed up in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: “SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. . . . The first is a patron, the last a punisher.” This distinction between society and government eventually led American revolutionaries to develop de jure the practice of separation of church and State and a de facto separation of school and State and economy and State. The “common-good” politics of the ancient republics or the various forms of the Christian State did not and could not have fathomed such principles and institutions.


Dr. C. Bradley Thompson is the BB&T Research Professor at Clemson University and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.