Bonds of Freedom
The current identity of any political regime is tied to its founding. The notion that cultural recollection of such beginnings never fails to shape a contemporary society's moral vision, sense of purpose, and capacity to act is an insight as old as Plato. Thus, it still matters today that a number of key moments in the making of America were fashioned by the memorable words and deeds of political figures of uncommon intellect and skill who took New Testament teachings on love seriously, both personally and publicly.
We tend to remember the first of these figures, John Winthrop, only in caricature or barely at all. Both tendencies are unfair. The vices of Winthrop's model of Christian charity indeed made something like Jefferson's later model of natural liberty necessary, but its virtues provided a variety of enabling conditions for, and continuing correctives to, the rise of just such a republic. Here again we might listen carefully to Nathaniel Hawthorne, no Puritan apologist but one who always saw beyond simplistic moral dichotomies.
As The Scarlet Letter closes, after its searing indictment of Boston as a model of Puritan charity in actual practice, the reader catches a glimpse of Hester. She has returned to Boston of her own free will after self-exile to England and there remains to her last days with “sad eyes” looking forward to a future time when a “new truth” would be revealed to establish human relationships on a “surer ground of mutual happiness.”1 Of course, Hawthorne writes this with perfect knowledge that from Hester's perspective, a time will come when a self-evident “truth” will be declared, opening up the way for people to live together in the free “pursuit of happiness.” That the Declaration of Independence establishes a polity while avoiding many of the sweeping moral judgments that could make Puritan life so grim and repressive is something