As evidenced by George Washington’s 1790 letter to a “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island, the new nation was to be open to a wide array of individuals who were willing to assume the responsibilities of citizenship:
Thinking about individuals as sovereign states, as that passage from Emersonpointed out, one might imagine that the only relations possible between themwould be by treaty, that is, by contract. And of course contract is an importantform of social relationship. But of late it becomes not simply something thatoccurs in the business world but begins to invade the private world. And some ofthe psychological advice sounds like it came out of a course in businessmanagement so that the concern is for making sure that you are going to get afair return on your investment-emotionally as well as in terms of money.
In another case, a woman who had recently renewed her commitment to Judaismat first seemed to explain that in highly individualistic terms. She assured usthat it wasn't because she believed in God because she doesn't. But joininga synagogue and even keeping kosher, which she was not raised to do, provides"structure" in a chaotic world for her children and herself and herhusband. In her highly educated mentality it was as though communal ties andreligious commitments could be recommended only for the benefits they yield, forthe social, emotional and cultural functions that they performed. Perhaps shehad had a course in the sociology of religion and succeeded all too well. Butthere was a moment in her conversation when she transcended thesepresuppositions. She told us,
Christian ideas underlie some key tenets of America’s constitutional order. For instance, the Founders believed that humans are created in the image of God, which led them to design institutions and laws meant to protect and promote human dignity. Because they were convinced that humans are sinful, they attempted to avoid the concentration of power by framing a national government with carefully enumerated powers. As well, the Founders were committed to liberty, but they never imagined that provisions of the Bill of Rights would be used to protect licentiousness. And they clearly thought moral considerations should inform legislation.
His protest ends in a confession: "It's like you periodically askyourself, 'Is this worth my effort? Is this worth that?'" Faced withongoing demands to work on their relationships as well as their jobs, separateand equal selves are led to question the contractual terms of their commitmentsto each other. Are they getting what they want? Are they getting as much as theyare giving? Are they getting as much as they could get somewhere else? This is aclassic mode of the pattern of American individualism, "If you don't likeit here go somewhere else", to another town, to another job, to anotherwife, whatever it may be.
Tocqueville says our fathers only knew about egoism. Now we have this newthing: individualism. "Individualism," and this is one of the placeswhere he comes as close as he ever does to defining it,
there are more and more people who though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.
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By "we" I mean Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, andSteven Tipton who share the authorship of and sharewhat I'm saying this afternoon. We decided in the fall of '78 or the springof '79 to embark on an effort to discover whether what Tocqueville was talkingabout was coming true. Are Americans still citizens? is another way of askingthe question of, Is America in its essential democratic form still possible? Orhas the individualism that worried Tocqueville become so dominant that we reallydon't have the capacity to sustain our freedom?. So I'd like to start byraising the question of what Tocqueville meant by individualism.
On the surface, this is a plausible hypothesis, and a few Founding-era documents such as James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” (1785) and Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802) seem to offer some support for this view. As we shall see, this interpretation of the Founding is inaccurate even with respect to Jefferson and Madison, and if one looks beyond them to the hundreds of men who attended the Federal Convention of 1787, participated in the state ratification conventions, and were elected to the first federal Congress, it becomes completely implausible. These individuals, without exception, called themselves Christians, and a good case can be made that many were influenced by orthodox Christian ideas in important ways.
If Shain and Lutz make the argument for Christian influence in broad strokes, others have made it in finer strokes through studies of individual Founders. For instance, I have co-edited four books that collectively shine light on 26 different Founders and several major traditions. These books, along with a number of other articles and books on less famous Founders, demonstrate that there is little evidence that the Founders as a group were deists who desired the separation of church and state.
In fact, states remained active in this business well into the 20th century. It is true that the last state church was disestablished in 1832, but many states retained religious tests for public office, had laws aimed at restricting vice, required prayer in schools, and so forth. Because the federal government was not to be concerned with these issues, they were not addressed in the Constitution. The First Amendment merely reinforced this understanding with respect to the faith—i.e., has no power to establish a national church or restrict the free exercise of religion.