Recently A Waco Farmer posted an excellent piece entitled The Age of Paine. One of his comments prompted a response from me. He wrote:" Plenty of contemporary commentators warn that the Middle East is culturally ill-prepared to embrace democratic rule; consequently, they cast the US project to remake the Middle East as unadulterated folly. The argument in a nutshell: how can a society without an understanding and appreciation of John Locke adopt popular government? President Bush has intimated that this argument is a form of racism (or at least Eurocentrism). An aside: as one who teaches freshman history, I can only hope that a democratic society without an appreciation for John Locke can survive." To which I expanded "A brilliant essay. I would add that we colonials were the beneficiaries of the military power of English nobles (Magna Carta)[, the] violence of the English Civil War in the 17th century, and the miracle of the Glorious Revolution. Much of our violence had been done for us already before our Revolution. But, re: the Midle East, before Locke, the English also had the Puritans, followers and adapters of a Reformed theology from Switzerland that taught that tyranny was devilish. Calvin in Geneva granted a right to nobles and magistrates to rebel against a tyrant, Knox in Scotland turned it into a religious duty incumbant upon all Christians. (Committment to limited government based not on Burke, but on a radical understanding of Human Depravity.)"

I now would like to expand on the contributions made by the Reformed Tradition, mediated through the Puritans, that have contributed to our understanding of republican government, especially the idea of limited government. (cont. below)

Bernard Bailyn in his 1967 book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (expanded edition 1992, Belknap Press of Harvard University), demonstrated the importance of the English Whig or Country political tradition to the Revolutionary generation. This tradition viewed with suspicion any attempt to centralize and expand governmental power. J. C. D. Clarke sharpened and deepened Bailyn's work in his book The Language of Liberty, 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World (1994 Cambridge University Press). Taking a North Atlantic perspective, Clarke showed that the Whig ideology had two major roots, one of which was the English Dissenting Church tradition (the other was legal), which included the Puritans as a major component. Barry Shain, in 1994 took a narrower focus by examining the origins of political thought in the American Colonies becoming a new nation: his book The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton University Press). He found that the bedrock idea of American political thinking was the idea of original sin, applied to politics: no one can be entrusted with too much power because of human sinfulness. He termed this way of thinking a sort of lower case r Reformed Thought.

I have listed these authors to make the point that my claim that the Reformed Tradition is a major root of American political thought is not mine alone; nor is it the creation of "Christian America" pseudo-scholars with a political agenda. While political science types might not have caught on yet, it is becoming clearer and clearer to historians that a major root of our way of political thought goes back to Switzerland, especially to John Calvin. We can't give all the credit to Locke (or to the Italian City States).

With that in mind, here is the crucial passage from Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (the Ford Lewis Battles translation):

"And if you compare the forms of government among themselves apart from the circumstances, it is not easy to distinguish which one of them excels in usefulness, for they contend on such equal terms. The fall from kingdom to tyranny is easy; but it is not much more difficult to fall from the rule of the best men to the faction of a few; yet it is easiest of all to fall from popular rule to sedition. For if the three forms of government which the philosophers discuss be considered in themselves, I will not deny that aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy, far excels all others: not indeed of itself, but because it is very rare for kings so to control themselves that their will never disagrees with what is just and right; or for them to have been endowed with such great keenness and prudence, that each knows how much is enough. Therefore, men's fault or failing causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government, so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another; and, if one assert himself unfairly, there may be a number of censors and masters to restrain his willfulness. This has both been proved by experience, and also the Lord confirmed it by his authority when he ordained among the Israelites an aristocracy bordering on democracy, since he willed to keep them in best condition [Ex 18:13-26; Deut. 1:9-17] until he should bring forward the image of Christ in David. And, as I freely admit that no kind of government is more happy than one where freedom is regulated with becoming moderation and is properly established on a durable basis, so also I reckon most happy those permitted to enjoy this state; and if they stoutly and constantly labor to preserve and retain it, I grant that they are doing nothing alien to this office."

Notice that Calvin's view of the danger of kings proceeds from the idea that humans are fallen and so are dangerous when possessing power. This same idea is behind his view that freedom must be "regulated with becoming moderation," for the masses also are dangerous and may slip into license. And, the aristocrats must have the mutual censor that restrains self-assertion on the part of one. This view is familiar to all who understand republican ideology (the political thought of the Revolutionary generation). The founders wanted an aristocracy bordering on a democracy, rule by a group of the best citizens. (We moved closer to a democracy a generation or so later in the Age of Jackson).