The Declaration Now—and Then

In 1996, Barry Alan Shain published his Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought.  It was a book that should have shaken professional conservatism to its foundations.  At the time Patrick J. Buchanan was a standard-bearer for an America bound by a common cultural and religious tradition and was being resisted by a conservative “movement” that preferred a big-government conservatism based on abstractions and embodied in a centralized bureaucracy.  Shain, a professor of history at Colgate University and a child of secular Los Angeles, argued that the generations leading up to and including the founding were not lovers of an abstract liberty or an untrammeled individualism.  The sentiments and mores of the colonists were based not in Locke or some post-Renaissance “republicanism,” but in small-town Calvinist Protestantism and a strong sense of the heritage of English liberty.  This tradition undergirded the founding generations and continued long after the War of Independence.

The language of our founding documents, Shain argues, “does not describe an individualistic disposition.  Rather, it reflects a Protestant communal world of ideas in which only a narrow range of behavior could be described as liberty rather than license.”  To be sure, Americans were influenced by different schools of thought, including classical...

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