Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Elusive Common Good Religion and Civil Society in Massachusetts, 1780-1833

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Elusive Common Good Religion and Civil Society in Massachusetts, 1780-1833

Article excerpt

In 1810, Theophilus Parsons, the Federalist chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, argued that the state need not recognize voluntary churches, calling the idea "too absurd to be admitted." In contrast, the modern idea of civil society is premised on the right of individual citizens to associate and for their institutions to gain the legal privileges connected with incorporation.1 Federalists did not share this idea. They believed that in a republic the people's interests and the state's interests were the same, since voters elected their own rulers. Private groups threatened the Federalists' vision by dividing the population. The freedom of association was not considered a right, but a privilege extended to certain institutions that served the common good. One of the most important of these institutions was the parochial church, which Massachusetts supported with taxes until 1833. Other churches, as Parsons implied, served no positive civic good. After disestablishment in 1833, however, all churches became private associations. Moreover, by the 183Os, citizens of Massachusetts had joined associations to carry out all kinds of reform activity/This essay relies on debates over the relationship between churches and the state to trace the emergence of an independent civil society and to suggest some of the new conflicts that emerged within it.

Recent work on the public sphere and civil society provides a new context to think about religion in Massachusetts. Historians have demonstrated the importance of activities in civil society for denning who "the people" are and what they believe in. ' For example, in public ceremonies, Mary P. Ryan writes, citizens are organized, or organize themselves, "to learn, invent, and practice a common language that could be converted to other civic or political uses."4 Public activities could foster a "common language," but they could also be "converted" to other uses. For this reason, Federalists in Massachusetts worried that self-created groups in civil society would undermine the idea that there existed one people with shared interests. They believed that all citizens must put aside their own interests and defer to the common good. Dissent or division of any kind in the public sphere was to be avoided at all costs.5 Most historians of the early national public sphere have largely ignored the state and the role of law and public policy in defining the contours of civil society and its public sphere, yet the state, through its power to incorporate and to determine which associations would be legally recognized, was a vital force in shaping civil society.'' Those who have examined the activities of political elites have found that postrevolutionary leaders, especially but not only Federalists, were actively engaged in managing the public sphere, including deciding which associations and institutions to patronize and which to condemn.7 At stake was not only what groups should be permitted to exist, but also what kind of society the new republic would be.

Federalists argued that the state should provide tax support to the parochial Congregational Church because public religion was vital to creating a citizenry with shared values. Moral conflict, realized in the competition between groups in civil society, threatened the common good by implying that "the people" need not or did not share the same values. Federalists tried to limit the rights of voluntary dissenting churches by denying them corporate privileges.8 Debates over the legal rights of voluntary churches therefore became part of a broader discussion about the relationship between civil society and the state, and vice versa.9 In order to accept the proliferation of and the competition between interests-what Gordon S. Wood calls an "American science of politics"-and the moral and political diversity they implied, Massachusetts leaders needed to construct a new conceptual space in which competition could take place. In essence, civil society, not just the church, had to be disestablished. …

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