A fanciful picture of early Americans as "rugged individualists" is too common in conservative circles. Ostensibly this characterization points out the incompatibility of the early American character with modern socialized thinking. Instead, it makes early Americans the forerunners of modern socialized man. The incompatibility of early American thought to socialism is not to be found in its individualistic nature, but in its Christian covenantal thinking.
Rugged individualistic explorers, trappers, and even hermits certainly existed. Many, no doubt, were brave men of high character, but they were not characteristic of American colonization, western migrations, or society in general. The history of the United States was more characterized by family and group dynamics. With the exception of the various gold rushes, movement and social organization was by family units. Very difficult migrations were made by families with aged grandparents, young children, and expectant mothers. This was not a work of individuals or individualists; this was a work of families who gave themselves over to years of hard work and deprivation in order to capitalize succeeding generations. They were more group oriented than the most idealistic Marxist.
If a society is seen as composed of atomistic units of one, then it exists primarily for those individuals. Society and laws will be for the benefit of the individual. Authority and responsibility are exchanged directly between the individual and the state. The atomistic individual has no intervening authority between himself and the state; he becomes a statist man. This is why totalitarian regimes seek to destroy all forms of authority, loyalty, and association not controlled by the state. The individual is easy prey for the state.
Early Americans were covenantal, both theologically and sociologically. Their Christian faith, their medieval past, and economic necessity had emphasized the importance of groups and local, limited authority. The covenantal nature of family and church life is easily identifiable, but association in terms of nationality, class, trades, charity work, civic endeavors, and political ideology or partisanship were common. Even the families who migrated west typically did so in groups which voted leaders and rules in place before their journey began. In a mining camp near this writer's home, a long, deep cut was made through solid rock by a self-organized group of miners so that a swampy area could be drained and mined. Similar groups of miners would meet early on to determine local mining laws where no real authority existed. These still form the basis of U. S. mining law. Few places exhibited the lawlessness our Western mythology has come to fictionalize and then romanticize as typical. Most towns saw law and order established very quickly by the residents themselves. The Reformed faith made the covenantal view of human responsibility paramount in church and family. This quickly and easily transferred to other areas. Responsible men tend to have large-scale goals and see organization and voluntary association, not individualism, as means to an end.
The claims of the state, usually in the person of the king or later by legislative bodies, first faced opposition from Calvinists. The crown feared John Knox and yielded to the Calvinists in Parliament in the English Civil War, though not without a fight. It was because of their strong views of their responsibilities before God in various aspects of life that they believed in a multiplicity of spheres of authority and law. Because of their belief in the sovereignty of God, they believed neither church, state, nor autonomous man ought to control all aspects of life. Unity of authority was transcendent in God; human covenants could serve the kingdom of God best by separate spheres of authority.
The multiplicity of spheres of authority could allow for free association based on conscience. In addition, it meant that cooperation between spheres, even church and state, was possible if both had a common or mutual goal. Christianity (but not the institutional church) was the unifying factor of these spheres of authority. In fact, without a religious or philosophical unity, law spheres and all individuals work at contrary purposes. Anarchy, or at least selfishness, will then prevail. It is the usurpation of one sphere that is then most to be feared; strength, or power, within proper bounds, is not. The church tried to usurp authority to itself early on; today the secular state is increasingly the problem. Statism is a lawless and dysfunctional societal system; it is never a responsible answer to societal lawlessness.
To the Christian, life and liberty are always under law. The Christian should therefore not fear laws in support of Christian social goals because they interfere with personal freedom. True freedom is not licentious. Godly laws are not a threat to the godly. The issue is not whether such laws interfere with personal choice, but whether they are a legitimate reach of civil authority or they interfere with the legitimate authority of another sphere, such as family or church.
The Puritan goal of a holy commonwealth was of godly civil government and a free and pure church.1 It was not intended that it be a theocracy, but rather a Christian civil order. Church and state were seen as united in a common faith, without being legally or structurally bound. It is not too different from when various Christian charitable groups or foreign missions work together on particular projects for a united purpose. Cooperation does not imply subservience or organizational control of one group over another. In fact, often a special group or board is set up to specifically direct the area of cooperation. Again, a multiplicity of law or authority spheres prevents any one from trying to create a false and oppressive unity.
The objection can be made that such a multiplicity of law spheres is complex, and that a supreme structural sovereignty simplifies the lines of authority and responsibility. John Adams saw this line of reasoning in French Revolutionary thought and responded that the simplest of all governments would be a despotism. Our lives and responsibilities are complex. We rightly get frustrated when a single responsibility demands too much of our time and energy. Statism demands all of our allegiance and leaves us without recourse. The atomistic individual is easy pickings for the state; in a multiplicity of authorities and responsibilities there is a degree of shelter from the claims of any one.
The Puritans were right. We are a covenant people. This covenant perspective cannot exist for long without a covenant faith, however. The personalization of the Faith in its reduction to an individualistic emotional experience so weakened Christianity that it made the secularization of the covenant inevitable. It was secularized by, among other factors, Unitarianism, public education, manifest destiny, and America's increasing imperialism in the twentieth century. Religion was marginalized and America's mission or calling was increasingly politicized, with Washington, D. C., the unifying sphere. We cannot find real freedom in political solutions. To recapture a plurality of freedoms we must recover a multiplicity of spheres of authority and corresponding spheres of responsibility.
1. See R. J. Rushdoony This Independent Republic (Nutley, New Jersey: The Craig Press, 1964). See chapter 8, "The Holy Commonwealth."