Piety, Benevolence, Self-Government, and Free Institutions

The Rev. Timothy Dwight (President of Yale, 1795-1817, leading Congregational and Federalist thinker, enemy of Thomas Jefferson), wrote about the three great good works: piety, benevolence, and self-government. Self-government meant the well ordering of one’s life so he could live as a free and responsible human being. If a person was well self-governed, he would be able to live a pious life and a benevolent life. But self-government was difficult to obtain without piety and the support of free institutions upon which private benevolence also depended. So the three good works were closely intertwined and were supported by the institutions of family, church, and education. Dwight was so certain of the need for institutional ballast for self-government that he supported compulsory church membership for the inhabitants of Connecticut. That Dwight’s vision worked for quite awhile may be shown that the people of Connecticut proudly knew their state as “The Land of Steady Habits.”

This, I take it, is close to the vision of American liberty, as outlined by Ted McAllister in his lead essay. Indeed this was a conservative vision worked out over time in practical ways, liberty and individualism, not theoretical Liberty as a cause to be followed. One might even call it Tocquevillean. And yet, it was deeply based in Christian, Protestant, and Congregational theology, so this was not simply a historically derived set of institutions that practice showed contributed to the common good. Dwight, and our founding fathers, in general, knew that the way to righteousness was straight and narrow, while the road to sin was wide and deep. So, I would say there were founding principles as well as founding institutions.

As time passed we learned more about both these principles and the institutions so they could be described, discussed, deployed, and improved. Reason then could be applied to tradition and institutions, within limits could be modified by learning. For me this process brings us to Frank Meyer and fusionism. Liberty depends on virtue; virtue must be chosen not coerced. And we know more than before what constitutes virtue in a civil setting. Quoting selectively from In Defense of Freedom, Frank Meyer writes of a third way:

The history of the West has been the history of that third way, a way which has held in shimmering tension the authority of truth and the freedom of men. It has done so…by recognizing the absolute authority of truth in the intellectual and spiritual realm, while at the same time remaining aware of the contingency of institutions in the social realm ….It has distinguished…between the fundamental truths that constitute the structure of man’s being as a creature with a supernatural destiny, living in the natural world, and man-made certitudes, where authority can only be tyranny because truth is uncertain.

Truth has meaning only for persons; beauty illumines the consciousness only of persons; virtue can be pursued only by persons.

This point relates to Hayek’s famous “footnote”: “Why I am not a Conservative”. In his The Constitution of Liberty we read, “. . . I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it—or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism . . . . to think in terms of ‘our’ industry or resource is just a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest.” (From my perspective, President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union Address had no difficulty with this small step.)

But as McAllister argues, contemporary progressives have no such inhibitions. They glory in new, scientifically tested and managed programs to provide jobs, training, support for families, child and medical care, housing, and many other “good” measures. They are pleased not to acknowledge the modest achievements of improvement through, paraphrasing Hamilton on the Constitution, “reflection and choice,” because for all practical purposes they think there are no limits to the effectiveness of scientific organization of human life. Under their “orderly, provident, and gentle” rule, the American liberty of the founders, first becomes Liberty itself, and then, as Tocqueville argued, a new sort of tyranny.

Now, as McAllister tells us, and I agree, the institutions that once supported America liberty have decayed and their purposes diverted to new channels, and so he raises the eternal question: What is to be done? Let me briefly pursue this issue through two different threads.

First, early on Americans began to view the institutions of American liberty in different ways. Take public schooling. As McAllister notes, local schools were designed to protect and preserve local but diverse cultures. However, by the 1840s many educators turned their attentions to using the schools to teach a generic, non denominational Protestantism in order to assure that Irish and German Catholic children became “good” Americans. With the rise of professional teacher training university programs, the schools became laboratories of whatever educational theory dominated university curricula. Now, according to McAllister, they are no longer public schools, but government schools dominated by a “liberationist ideology” that reflects the curricula of the modern university. But I would say there has always been a narrow ideology of one sort or another behind American schooling which was designed to protect one culture against various competing cultures, as, indeed schools and churches did even in Dwight’s day in a relatively homogenous society.

Second, in a similar way the family and church and work have become less secure supports for American liberty. As we have learned from Charles Murray, among others, there is little poverty in two parent families where the parents have graduated from high school, gotten jobs, then married, and then had children . But if these steps are taken in a different order, too often the result is a single parent household in which escape from poverty is difficult. When I was a kid this would have been an obvious and unremarkable statement. Now it is a contentious and contested claim. Returning to an older way of looking at local and subsidiary institutions for the support of American liberty will take some new kind of thinking.

Recently, several public intellectuals and thoughtful political figures have argued that if American liberty is to be rejuvenated we must begin to restore, defend, and protect the institutions of liberty against the progressive reformers, and to do that successfully we must find a way to challenge the welfare state. However, this requires a different sort of assault on poverty, one that attacks the impoverished culture more than simply supplying material support to the poor while trapping them in their impoverished state. Arthur Brooks in a long article in the February 2014 issue of Commentary makes one such effort, and a good one at that. I have seen others. But I am not yet convinced that we can devise methods and programs consistent with liberty that will bring the sweeping changes needed. How on earth can we encourage marriage before children when Americans no long agree on what is a family or marriage, and where famous and successful women argue that children can do just fine in homes without a father?

Can we conceive of consciously developed programs to restore those institutions necessary for American liberty to continue to thrive? Imagine, if one can, the horrors likely to be associated with programs to promote marriage, or child birth within wedlock only. Can local successes and experiments, of which there are many, be scaled up to bring about extensive national change? Can aspects of the old welfare state be blended with this new approach? I am skeptical. The State will resist and the people will be obdurate. Any national government program will soon bog down in expensive and controversial bureaucratic regulation. Interest group rent seeking competition will ensure that corruption will emerge.

The late Richard Cornuelle, a friend of Frank Meyer, used to argue that the task of the friends of liberty was not to oppose government, but to out compete it by establishing institutions that performed those public functions better than did the State that claimed them for its own. His version of the Third Way was the Independent Sector. Throughout his life Cornuelle worked to promote such voluntary organizations with a public purpose. His legacy continues today through the Manhattan Institute’s “Richard Cornuelle Award for Social Entrepreneurship”. On this point, Meyer wrote, “When men are free, they will of course form among themselves a multitude of associations to fulfill common purposes when common purposes exist.”

But what if men’s minds are no longer free? At the end of his life, I am not sure how sanguine Cornuelle was about the success of his vision. Perhaps all that we can do is keep alive in scattered remnants the ideal of liberty while striving in our individual lives, and with the help of family, neighbors and friends, to practice the Rev. Dwight’s good works. Perhaps even contemporary Americans, viewing a bleak future ahead, will come to see the costs of any other course of action and we will have a rebirth of American liberty. As Cornuelle’s work shows, the third way, the way of liberty, is not altogether dead among the people at large.

William Dennis

William Dennis is a senior fellow at the Atlas Network.

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Comments

  1. G. M. Curtis III says

    For those who wish to see one example of Dwight’s view on the governance of the self that William C. Dennis discussed, please see:

    Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805. Two Volumes. Indianapolis, Indiana. Liberty Fund. 1998: II, 1363-1395 (1367, 1376-1379).

    THE DUTY OF AMERICANS, AT THE PRESENT CRISIS
    Timothy Dwight
    • NEW-HAVEN
    1798

    Behold I come as a thief: Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.
    Revelation XVI. xv.
    This passage is inserted as a parenthesis in the account of the sixth vial. To feel its whole force it will be necessary to recur to that account, and to examine it with some attention. It is given in these words.
    V. 12. “And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the king of the east might be prepared.”
    13. “And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.[”]
    14. “For they are the spirits of* devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth, and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.”
    15. “Behold I come as a thief: Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.”
    16. “And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.”
    To this account is subjoined that of the seventh vial; at the effusion of which is accomplished a wonderful and most affecting convulsion of this guilty world, and the final ruin of the Antichristian empire. The circumstances of this amazing event are exhibited at large in the remainder of this, and in the three succeeding chapters.
    Instead of employing the time, allowed by the present occasion, in stating the several opinions of commentators concerning this remarkable prophecy, opinions which you can examine at your leisure, I shall, as briefly as may be, state to you that, which appears to me to be its true meaning. This is necessary to be done, to prepare you for the use of it, which is now intended to be made.
    – – – –
    Assuming now as just, for the purposes of this discourse, the explanation, which has been given, I shall proceed to consider the import of the text.
    The text is an affectionate address of the Redeemer to his children, teaching them that conduct, which he wills them especially to pursue in this alarming season. It is the great practical remark, drawn by infinite wisdom and goodness from a most solemn sermon, and cannot fail therefore to merit our highest attention. Had he not, while recounting the extensive and dreadful convulsion, described in the context, made a declaration of this nature, there would have been little room for the exercise of any emotions, beside those of terror and despair. The gloom would have been universal and entire; a blank midnight without a star to cheer the solitary darkness. But here a hope, a promise, is furnished to such as obey the injunction, by which it is followed; a luminary like that, which shone to the wise men of the east, is lighted up to guide our steps to the Author of peace and salvation.
    Blessed, even in this calamitous season, saith the Saviour of men, is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.
    Sin is the nakedness and shame of the scriptures, and righteousness the garment which covers it. To watch and keep the garments is, of course, so to observe the heart and the life, so carefully to resist temptation and abstain from sin, and so faithfully to cultivate holiness and perform duty, that the heart and the life shall be adorned with the white robes of evangelical virtue, the unspotted attire of spiritual beauty.
    The cautionary precept given to us by our Lord is, therefore,
    That we should be eminently watchful to perform our duty faithfully, in the trying period, in which our lot is cast.
    To those, who obey, a certain blessing is secured by the promise of the Redeemer.
    [I.] The great and general object, aimed at by this command, and by every other, is private, personal obedience and reformation of life; personal piety, righteousness, and temperance.
    To every man is by his Creator especially committed the care of himself; of his time, his talents, and his soul. He knows, or may know, better than any other man, his wants, his sins, and his dangers, and of course the means of relief, reformation, and escape. No one, so well as he, can watch the approach of temptation, so feelingly pray for divine assistance, or so profitably resolve on future obedience. In truth no resolutions, no prayers, no watchfulness of others, will profit him at all, unless seconded by his own. No other person can make any useful impressions on our hearts, or our lives, unless by rousing in us the necessary exertions. All extraneous labours terminate in this single point: it is the end of every doctrine, exhortation, and reproof, of every moral and religious institution.
    The manner, in which such obedience is to be performed, and such reformation accomplished, is described to you weekly in the desk, and daily in the scriptures. A detail of it, therefore, will not be necessary, nor expected, on the present occasion. You already know what is to be done, and the manner in which it is to be done. You need not be told, that you are to use all efforts of your own, and to look humbly and continually to God to render those efforts successful; that you are to resist carefully and faithfully every approaching temptation, and every rising sin; that you are to resolve on newness of life, and to seize every occasion, as it presents itself, to honour God, and to bless your fellow men; that you are strenuously to contend against evil habits, and watchfully to cherish good ones; and that you are constantly to aim at uniformity and eminency in a holy life, and to “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.”
    But it may be necessary to remind you, that personal obedience and reformation is the foundation, and the sum, of all national worth and prosperity. If each man conducts himself aright, the community cannot be conducted wrong. If the private life be unblamable, the public state must be commendable and happy.
    Individuals are often apt to consider their own private conduct as of small importance to the public welfare. This opinion is wholly erroneous and highly mischievous. No man can adopt it, who believes, and remembers, the declarations of God. If “one sinner destroyeth much good,” if “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” if ten righteous persons, found in the polluted cities of the vale of Siddim, would have saved them from destruction, the personal conduct of no individual can be insignificant to the safety and happiness of a nation. On the contrary, the advantages to the public of private virtue, faithful prayer and edifying example, cannot be calculated. No one can conjecture how many will be made better, safer, and happier, by the virtue of one.
    Wherever wealth, politeness, talents, and office, lend their aid to the inherent efficacy of virtue, its influence is proportionally greater. In this case the example is seen by greater numbers, is regarded with more respectful attention, and felt with greater force. The piety of Hezekiah reformed and saved a nation. Men far inferior in station to kings, and possessed of far humbler means of doing good, may still easily circulate through multitudes both virtue and happiness. The beggar on the dunghill may become a public blessing. Every parent, if a faithful one, is a public blessing of course. How delightful a path of patriotism is this?
    It is also to be remembered, that this is the way, in which the chief good, ever placed in the power of most persons, is to be done. If this opportunity of serving God, and befriending mankind, be lost, no other will by the great body of men ever be found. Few persons can be concerned in settling systems of faith, moulding forms of government, regulating nations, or establishing empires. But almost all can train up a family for God, instil piety, justice, kindness and truth, distribute peace and comfort around a neighbourhood, receive the poor and the outcast into their houses, tend the bed of sickness, pour balm into the wounds of pain, and awaken a smile in the aspect of sorrow. In the secret and lowly vale of life, virtue in its most lovely attire delights to dwell. There God, with peculiar complacency, most frequently finds the inestimable ornament of a meek and quiet spirit; and there the morning and the evening incense ascends with peculiar fragrance to heaven. When angels became the visitors, and the guests, of Abraham, he was a simple husbandman.
    Besides, this is the great mean of personal safety and happiness. No good man was ever forgotten, or neglected, of God. To him duty is always safety. Around the tabernacle of every one, that feareth God, the angel of protection will encamp, and save him from the impending evil.

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