Changing Patterns of Obligation and the Emergence of Individualism in American Political Thought

Article excerpt

Students of American political thought have long noted changes in the goals pursued by colonial American communities. Relations between Americans and their communities, previously characterized by security and peaceful existence were transformed into relations grounded in economic well-being. This shift in focus had the effect of altering the relationship between individuals and their community. Obligating members to behave industriously has the effect of weakening the social, familial, religious, and political controls originally used to keep the "sinful" individual in check. These weakening ties were exacerbated by colonial developments in constitutional theory that contribute to the movement away from the religious origins of American political thought. This secularizing process paves the way for the introduction of individualism into American thinking prior to 1776.

The debate over the nature of the American founding has suffered from the pursuit of the wrong question. Instead of asking whether or not the true needs of the individual were met, scholars need to consider the question of what type of relationship between the individual and his or her community was favored and sought (Shain 1994: 13-14). In taking up this question, the analysis presented here shows that America's understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community changes between 1610 and 1787. The effect of this is to introduce individualism into America's public philosophy. The introduction of individualism, as shown here, is a natural consequence of the changing patterns of obligation and not the result of an elite conspiracy (Shain 1994).

The natural emergence of individualism in American political thought speaks to the debate over the nature of the American founding.1 Each of the intellectual traditions brought to bear on the study of the American founding provides a distinct understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community. The liberal perspective requires the liberation of the individual from restrictive social, familial, religious, and political controls. The republican perspective, in contrast, requires the total surrender of the individual and his or her private concerns to the interests and good of the political community.2 The Protestant perspective holds that it is the legitimate and necessary role of local religious, familial, social, and governmental forces to limit, reform, and shape the sinful individual (Shain 1994; P. Miller 1956: 143; Morgan 1963, 1965; Lutz 1988, 1992). The evidence presented here identifies a secular movement from a Protestant understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community to a liberal understanding where the individual is freed from restrictive communal restraints.

Identification of this secular movement and its implications fills a gap in the extant literature. A primary focus of this literature defends the "old and traditional view" that "the natural rights philosophy as articulated in the Declaration was indeed the understanding of political right on which the founding was conducted and which has served as the cornerstone of the American political tradition" (Zuckerl 1996: 269). The emphasis on natural right is part of a larger defense of liberalism where, Nathan Tarcov (1983) in particular, has argued that scholars need to reconsider Locke's political thought before abandoning the idea of a Lockean founding. Zuckert (1994, 1996, 2002), more than anybody else, has responded to this invitation in his critique of the republican synthesis. While his critique points to an understanding of the Founding grounded on this broader, deeper, and loftier liberalism, Zuckert does not provide a theoretical understanding of the developments facilitating the adoption of Lockean liberalism in America "proceeding and immediately following 1776" (Zuckert 1994: 299). This understanding is found here in the analysis of the political, social, and economic transformations of eighteenth-century America. …