Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

American -- the Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought by Barry Alan Shain

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

American -- the Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought by Barry Alan Shain

Article excerpt

The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. By Barry Alan Shain. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1994. Pp. xix, 394. $39.50.)

With this tightly organized, carefully argued study, Barry Alan Shain makes a major contribution to the contemporary debate over the political ideology of the American Revolutionary era. In recent decades, the hitherto accepted perspective that the revolutionary generation was committed to Liberal individualism has come under assault from revisionists who insist that the concept of republicanism better explains the political theory of late eighteenth-century Americans. Shain, a political scientist teaching at Colgate, offers an alternative interpretation. Basing his work on an extensive reading of primary materials, particularly New England election sermons, as well as virtually all the important secondary sources, he argues that reformed Protestant thought and a strong communitarian thrust defined the Revolutionary generation's values and ideas.

While finding his thesis congruent with the presence of both republicanism and early modern rationalism, Shain systematically demolishes the argument for individualism by exploring in depth two concepts central to the Revolution. The first of these, the public or common good, was privileged by republicanism, rationalism, and reformed Protestantism over any appeal to the private needs of individuals. In fact, the autonomous self was viewed as sinful and hence to be distrusted. Autonomy belonged not to individuals, but to communities and families; and communal concerns and values drove the politics of the Revolutionary era. Staunchly majoritarian, localism then and afterwards could be abusive of minorities and intolerant of what was regarded as deviant behavior. …

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