A Fox News poll reports that 31% of Americans described the nation’s founders as “villains.” Some 38% call them “heroes.” What is the truth?
We are living in an era of cultural self-indictment, supported by an assertion that America has been “systemically racist” from its beginning — an irredeemable project of white supremacy. This version of history has little truth in it. I don’t buy it.
Radically different from the white nations of Europe, America was founded as a mission, a collective task, a dream to be lived out in years to come, a multigenerational enterprise.
England, Scotland, France, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Russia and more started out as tribal communities, sharing a tribal language and customs, a collective memory and legend of ancestors. These tribes had no governing ideal other than collective honor and prestige. They had to evolve their institutions over the centuries, from warrior chieftains to monarchies and then, with some exceptions, to democracies supervising modern bureaucratic states.
The founding impulse for America came with the Pilgrims, mooring at Plymouth 400 years ago this autumn. The Calvinist Pilgrims came in search of a place to live out their faith — an intangible mind-set that called them to work and to pray. They set moral standards for themselves and organized their personal, family and community lives to aspire to those ideals.
Their moral vision was of a community of industrious believers in the good, of proud and hardworking, self-governing individuals, accepting a vocation of service to God and community.
The men who had chosen this course for their families agreed to:
“Solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic ... to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws ... as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good ... .”
This Mayflower Compact provided for the rule of law in governing the community; it honored personal freedoms under the law; it set expectations of each person to work for both personal and the common good. It presumed good will, good faith and commitment on the part of those who joined the common effort. It also presumed some education and rationality.
This moral vision came to be the American dream.
In 1776, this aspiration was applied to ennoble political separation from the government of Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence echoed the Mayflower Compact in being a contract among those who believed in “certain truths.” The new nation of the United States of America would seek to live by ideals, not by tribal identity or by the doctrines of any one religion. The new nation would be a novus ordo seclorum — “a new order for the ages.”
The Mayflower Compact was Calvinist in its contents and its idealism, following the Calvinist preference for Old Testament practices. In the Old Testament, God had made covenants with Noah and Abraham. He kept his promises to the descendants of Abraham through Moses, and restored to them their ancestral homeland — on condition that they would “walk in his ways.”
Covenants provide benefits in return for faithful execution of responsibilities.
This Calvinist covenant theology carried with it a promise of American exceptionalism — if only Americans would meet their responsibilities.
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 was again Calvinist in its provisions. A covenant created the federal republic. The Preamble says: “We the people of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution ... .”
So how did Calvinism come to be the founding vision of Americans?
The first governing arrangements for what would become the United States was a charter of 1606 issued to some English entrepreneurs, giving them land rights and political authority to make laws for the territory along the Atlantic Coast of North America, from today’s Florida north to Maine in a jurisdiction called “Virginia.”
The territory was subdivided into two administrative divisions — a northern one, the Plymouth Colony, and a southern one, the Virginia Colony, that were in time further subdivided under charters from the British Crown.
The northern colonies — the Calvinist ones — would lead the movement for independence and so would shape the American character. Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, New Haven were Calvinist. Rhode Island was Baptist, an offshoot of Calvinism. New York had been founded by Dutch Calvinists and some Calvinist refugees from Catholic France, the Huguenots; Pennsylvania by Quakers, another offshoot of Calvinism; and Delaware by the Dutch and then Quakers.
Maryland was a safe space for Catholics.
The southern colonies, carved out of the original Virginia colony, were for-profit business ventures, funded by faraway investors. Those colonists focused on the pursuit of wealth, especially through plantation agriculture dependent on slave labor. Making covenants with the Lord God to do right in his eyes was not at the top of their agendas.
The boundary between the original Plymouth Colony and the original Virginia Colony roughly corresponded to what became the line between the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War of 1861-1865.
The Calvinists, by the way, were opposed to slavery. From them came the abolition movement, the leadership for Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the needed backstop for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Mayflower Pilgrims had lived in Holland for 12 years before sailing to their new homeland. They had experienced the emergence of constitutional democracy among the Dutch, an ideal which they carried with them and wrote into their compact with one another.
The Dutch Calvinist thinker Johannes Althusias in 1603 wrote a manual on statecraft promoting setting up communities through compacts. He wrote that the parties “are co-workers who, by the bond of an association and uniting agreement, communicate among themselves whatever is appropriate for ... a common life.”
John Calvin himself had recommended governmental checks and balances to prevent abuses of power by humans prone to sin and error. And he had opposed slavery.
English philosopher John Locke’s thinking on constitutionalism, which inspired the idealism in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s requirement that government be a public trust, was derived from Althusias and English Calvinists. Locke, too, considered slavery contrary to the law of nature.
So, if systemic racism is not the complete story of what has shaped America, where does our challenged nation go from here?
We go forward with the true beginning in mind — still building a city upon a hill, a task that will not be finished in our lifetime. We secularize Calvinist idealism — each one of us in our own way — as personal stewardship over ourselves, in our economic, cultural and political lives.
We must remember Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
And Jack Kennedy: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an organization dedicated to promoting ethical capitalism.