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Here’s our most characteristically philanthropic antidote to the excesses of individualism in the American political tradition: the thought and deeds of the Puritans as Tocqueville understood them…

Here’s our most characteristically philanthropic antidote to the excesses of individualism in the American political tradition: the thought and deeds of our first founders—the Puritans.

Philanthropy, of course, means loving concern for our fellow human beings. It means not merely regarding others as beings with interests or sovereign free agents or those to be deployed and manipulated in the service of maximizing productivity. It means, in our country, thinking of them as beings with souls, as creatures of a personal God. It’s the egalitarianism of that kind of philanthropy that is an antidote to the distances in wealth, power, and status that are inevitably the result of our liberty.

Our Puritans, as Alexis de Tocqueville explains, were the most serious of philanthropists. They became pilgrims not in the service of some get-rich-quick scheme, as did the first colonists in Virginia, but to make an idea real. They founded a political community based on a completely unprejudiced view of the equality of all citizens under God.  So they developed unprecedented political institutions grounded in heartfelt democratic civic duty, and they provided for the education of everyone as creatures not only born to work but to share the truth about God and the good as revealed in the best of books.

The problem with our Puritans, of course, is they cared too much about directing the development of souls. And so they tended to turn every sin into a crime, and their hugely intrusive legislation violated the properly Christian freedom of conscience.  The Puritans, Tocqueville suggests, weren’t Christian enough, insofar as their legalism has no place in the New Testament.

Our second Founders—the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—were more about individual freedom than personal love. So their excess pointed in the direction of indifference to the well-being both material and spiritual of their fellow citizens. Mr. Jefferson, for example, wrote eloquently against the injustice of race-based slavery, but he never did much about it.  He was, as Martin Luther King, Jr. later put it, a “white moderate,” who preferred order to justice.  And so he, like the lukewarm liberals on the early 1960s,  told the oppressed to wait for a more convenient season. Any full account of the history of American philanthropy would have to include a celebration of the huge voluntary association that was the Civil Rights movement, one that brought not only justice but prosperity to the South.

The successors of our original Puritans didn’t hold the power under our secular, rights-protecting Constitution, and so they organized themselves into voluntary associations—such as the Anti-Slavery League—to educate and transform public opinion to link Americans together as citizens and creatures, aiming at profound political change down the road. Their causes were typically those that were embraced by both our first and second founders, correcting the individualism of our first founders in the direction of moral egalitarianism, the correction immortally captured by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address—our renewed and transformed dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Their moralism was fervent and political, as in the abolition of slavery and segregation.  And it was sometimes unjustly and counterproductively extreme. Abolition of slavery is one thing, a cause worth the war celebrated in the Puritanical “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but the prohibition of alcohol is another.  Our temperance associations, Tocqueville notes, weren’t short on enthusiasm, and the pursuit of temperance was sometimes not so temperate. Prohibition criminalized a sin, much to the benefit of the (not so) voluntary association called the Mafia.  That’s not to say that the temperance movement didn’t do some good in reducing rampant alcoholism among ordinary Americans, and that there still isn’t room for some philanthropy directed to educating Americans on how to live well with the responsibilities of free men and women.

Tocqueville also celebrates our Puritanical tradition for having protected Sunday from the imperatives of commerce for leisure. Part of that tradition is the singularly American institution of the Sunday School, which Christian Americans (here in the rural South, for example) have often taken more seriously than the public schools. The public school and the Sunday School, of course, divided into two functions what the Puritans believed were the comprehensive purpose of the public schools.  Now public schools are pretty much, at best, techno-vocational, professing no moral authority.

A properly philanthropic goal, even today, is to preserve Sunday—and American education—from total immersion into the commercial busyness which is so much of American middle-class life.  Philanthropy itself, after all, isn’t about merely instrumental or “bourgeois” virtue; it’s animated by the high virtues of generosity and charity, which are good for their own sake and displays of the greatness of beings with souls. They are virtues that should be practiced by us all.

Here are two philanthropic projects I especially recommend today.

First, the coming apart of Americans into two distant classes is especially clear in the lives of men who have been detached from the relational worlds of work and love. Today we need to be especially solicitous to those who experience the loneliness of being superfluous. Our churches, in this respect, need the wherewithal to become more egalitarian, to function institutionally as homes for the most homeless.  This voluntary effort, of course, is especially indispensable, because there is, in truth, no government program that could do much of anything at all to deal with the collateral damage of the largely beneficial progress of the division of labor in our time.

Second, in the spirit of protecting our genuine moral and religious diversity from total immersion into commerce or schoolmarmish soft despotism, I would use big money to help our schools with genuinely religious missions to wean themselves from any dependence on government.  I would deploy that “libertarian” means to make them wholly voluntary associations in the service of the whole truth about who we are as relational beings born both to be stuck with virtue and to joyfully share the truth in common. It’s our religious schools—such as the Catholic parochial skills—that have been, in truth, even more successful than our Sunday schools in devoting themselves to the uncondescending egalitarianism of our original Puritans: Some kinds of higher education are for everyone.

2 thoughts on “Being a Tocquevillian philanthropist today”

  1. Mairead m. Barrett says:

    A great explanation this topic. Thanks awesome and inspiring. Mairead

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