Harlow Giles Unger’s recent biography on Thomas Paine makes the clarion call that Paine’s written words aroused his countrymen to action; his ideas helped shape the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It’s also likely true that as a defining muse of the American Revolution Paine’s reputation has been relegated to history’s dustbin since no one seems to know where his remains rest.
Still Paine is one of many vivid eighteenth-century figures revered as “Founding Fathers,” a phase popularized by Warren Harding suggesting it was they alone who played key roles in the formation of the new country’s independence-birthing events. Such an approach has merit but focuses on a small group of Founders. Something has been missing in this familiar story.
In an elegant and different book, T. H. Breen documents the constructive and stabilizing ways in which communities of ordinary folk who comprise “the will of the people” took responsibility for the actual course of the revolution. Professor Breen asks his reader to consider how a rural countryside minister might use the Bible and his own commonsense notions of civil liberty to propel his parishioners to mobilize and maintain allegiance to the colonial cause. It’s a neglected and under-appreciated story, as Professor Breen notes: “the story of those people whose will the republican system was meant to reflect … a founding people rather than a few Founders.” More to the point, Professor Breen suggests that if in fact “ordinary people … sustained the revolution in [their] small communities,” then throughout America “a different understanding of liberty” developed, “one that is now more than ever worth recovering.”
Professor Breen adds to his argument the notion that we should therefore attend closely to such sentiments as those voiced by Levi Hart, a Connecticut minister, highly respected, and a sermon titled “Liberty Described and Recommended.” Liberty, the good minister voiced to his congregation on a Sunday in 1775, a noteworthy date, is a “positive good.” Then with careful and common sense he qualified his enthusiasm thus: “Some people always give in to excess.” Therefore liberty is too often understood as the ability and power of doing as we please. One should therefore note that this small Connecticut congregation is a small portion of the “public square” into which “opinion” ventures.
Reverend Hart’s opinion for his congregation is wonderfully posed: The liberty of self-indulgence that is an expression of individualism poses a serious danger to civil society. Civil liberty does not mean freedom from all law and government. In fact, such liberty of self-indulgence is akin to mankind in a state of nature—that is, not a form of liberty flourishing in stable communities, which one should note are synonymous to those “little platoons” so admired by a conservative mind like that of Russell Kirk.