Herbert Butterfield, in a classic essay entitled “The Whig Interpretation of History,” (1) explored a peculiar historiographical affliction of the Anglo-American historian. Its origins lay in the Whig predominance of the Anglo-American world stretching from the end of the seventeenth through to the early nineteenth centuries, a predominance which in itself constituted a rather curious development considering that Whigs did not even exist until about the time of the Exclusion Crisis in England, that is at about 1679, when “Whig” first labelled a particular viewpoint and agenda, calling up its consistent opponent and counterpart, the “Tory.” (2) This tradition, of which Butterfield concerned himself, presents Whigs as those who stood for progress, liberty, and parliamentary government; Tories, as those who stood for reaction, repression, and absolutist monarchy. As with any like caricature, the truth contained in that conception was necessary to evoke the resonance it found. The Whigs gained the predominance in England in 1688 in the wake of the so-called Glorious Revolution, in which William III took the throne upon the abdication of James II. (3) They proceeded thereupon to transform English society. Their innovations proved so popular that England became the model of enlightened progress in Europe. By the early nineteenth century everyone within the orbit of English politics and society had become so thoroughly permeated with their particular orientation that all the new political movements operated on terms the Whigs had established, thus according to post-Whig agendas with this fundamental set of beliefs as common ground. The demise of Whiggism (with capital “W”) was counterpart to the establishment of whiggism (with little “w”) – the mentalité of the Victorian era.
In their long period of hegemony the Whigs succeeded in establishing a powerful historiographical package at some deep subconscious level of Anglo-American thinking which lingers even to this day. Thus Butterfield’s strictures against the “whig interpretation of history” which he saw pervading Anglo-American scholarship, a view which tends to see all events in history converging to the freedom, democracy, and progress of which the whig believes he is in particular possession. The whig looks at the past either to take note of the events, the personages, the ideas, which furthered history on its unerring trajectory to his chosen point in time, the establishment of an order most fitting his predilections; or to mark out those events or personages which stood obstinately and treacherously in the path, blocking and obstructing this most obvious and desirable course of events, and thus due the contempt deserving all enemies of the truth.
The political theory of John Locke has been seen as one of the purest expressions of the original Whig orientation. His Two Treatises of Government were ostensibly written to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1689, providing the theoretical basis for king-in-parliament constitutional monarchy. However inapplicable that justification for it may have been (since it was actually written years earlier during the Exclusion Crisis, as Peter Laslett’s scholarship demonstrates) (4) it remains that Locke’s theory of political society greatly influenced both active Whig thinkers specifically and political actors and the reading public generally. (5)
It is often assumed that Calvinism provided Locke with the basis for his theory. Calvinists had been concerned to secure for themselves religious and political liberty over against usurping monarchy: precisely the same had been the goal, and the achievement, of Locke and the Whigs. Beyond that the theory of Locke itself bears strong resemblance to that of the Calvinists. Thus a line is traced from the Vindiciæ contra tyrannos, pseudonymously published by French Huguenot “Junius Brutus” in 1579, through to the Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford and his Lex Rex of 1644, and from thence to Locke. As one modern exponent of this line of progression puts it: “Beginning with Calvin’s Institutes, through the Vindiciæ of the French Huguenots, to Rutherford’s Lex Rex, the impact of Calvinist thinking on the English political experience is clear. John Locke’s Second Treatise continued to employ the major outlines of that thinking without substantial changes.” (6)
One of the foremost historians of political thought today, Prof. Quentin Skinner of Cambridge University, in his Foundations of Modern Political Thought (7) provides massive documentation in support for his own version of this view. For Skinner, Locke’s Two Treatises constitute “the classic text of radical Calvinist politics.” (8) Prof. Skinner presents to us the Protestant Reformers, and especially Calvinist Huguenots, as the developers of an ideological framework that Locke took over in his quest to provide us with a modern constitutional theory.
Such is very nearly dogma in much of modern historical scholarship. The hypothesis, however, of a direct line of descent from Calvinist to Lockean political theory is very much open to question. It does not appear to this writer that sufficient attention has been paid to the differences that exist between the Calvinist and the Whig approach to politics and government. It is the burden of this work that a world of difference exists between them; the idea that Calvinists simply played a mediating role between traditional and modern approaches is a misleading one. The restoration of Calvinist political theory from the rather degrading position it so often occupies as a partially-developed hybrid which Locke’s exposition brings to fuller, more mature, expression, is therefore the urgent need to which the present work is addressed. Calvinist political theory must in consequence be considered in its own right and not simply for the service it may or may not have done for John Locke. (9)
Upon taking up the consideration of Calvinist political theory one quickly realizes its heavy dependence upon the medieval past. The constitutionalism established in medieval times was by the time of the Reformation regarded as “the ancient constitution,” profoundly important to the crises of that time. The very nature of that ancient constitution as well as the degree to which it was still in force was the subject of vociferous and continual debate. Calvinists were among the foremost developers and proponents of both inquiry into the substantive content of the ancient constitution and the promulgation of the version which placed the sovereignty in the people and limited the authority of the crown. The very idea of the ancient constitution was fundamentally important to the development of Calvinist political theory.
But the nature of the ancient constitution itself was never conclusively resolved; and still today the social order of medieval Christendom lies shrouded in mystery. Modern scholarship, particularly in the works of such scholars as Brian Tierney, Harold Berman, and Georges Duby, has provided this generation with perhaps the first clear description of its outlines and contours. (10) Drawing upon that scholarship, an outline of the medieval juridical and political framework is here sketched enabling a firmer grasp upon which Calvinistic constitutionalism was so dependent. In placing sixteenth and seventeenth century constitutionalism against the backdrop of medieval constitutionalism, it is hoped that the clear contours of Calvinism as well as Lockeanism will be more readily discernible.
Additionally the influence of Hugo Grotius and the Dutch Republic as mediators in the course of constitutionalist development is highlighted. The fundamentally important place of the Dutch Republic to the subsequent course of events in England has yet to receive the treatment it deserves. How important Grotius was to the conflicts in England is also unappreciated, especially with respect to the degree Grotius’ Dutch provenance was formative to his work as jurist, theologian, and humanist. The crucial position he occupied as an inheritor as well as opponent of the Calvinist tradition provided the basis for his contributions which would prove so important to the further course of history. The Dutch Republic, and particularly Hugo Grotius, proved to be the indispensable intermediary between Calvinism and Whiggism, explaining many of both the continuities and discontinuities therein.
Thus this is an exercise in revisionism. A rehabilitation of Calvinist political theory, an understanding of its connections with earlier medieval political theory, and, subordinately, a reevaluation of the very nature of the medieval political framework have seemed the urgent need and provided the impetus. A proper appreciation of the depth of the dependence modern political theory and institutions owe to their Christian forebears is thereby made possible. As important, the proper appreciation of those earlier political systems as valuable and instructive in their own right also becomes possible. As a civilization the West, and the world which looks to the West for leadership, is at a crossroads. The course which it should take into the future remains unclear. Opportunities beckon, yet apprehensions do not quit. A clearer understanding of its past can do nothing but judiciously inform the choices it has yet to make.
1. Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1965 ).
2. For more on the origins and development of “Whiggism” see J.G.A. Pocock, “The Varieties of Whiggism from Exclusion to Reform: A History of Ideology and Discourse,” in his Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays in Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 215-310, and bibliographical information contained therein.
3. Whether James’ action may be called an “abdication” is another subject of debate. The Whigs said he did, and the Whig view predominates. The propriety of these judgments are precisely what is called into question when one brings “The Whig Interpretation of History” itself into question.
5. Although the precise nature of that influence is heavily debated today. See for example J.G.A. Pocock, “The Myth of John Locke and the Obsession with Liberalism,” in John Locke: Papers read at a Clark Library Seminar 10 December 1977 (Los Angeles: Wm. Andrews Clark Mem. Library, UCLA, 1980), pp. 1-24; Thomas Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founding Fathers and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
6. Gary Amos, Defending the Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., 1989), p. 149.
7. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume 1: The Renaissance; Volume 2: The Age of Reformation (Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978).
8. Volume 2: The Age of Reformation, p. 239.
9. For trenchant criticism of this kind of treatment with reference to Skinner’s book, see E.H. Kossmann, “Popular Sovereignty at the Beginning of the Dutch Ancien Régime,” The Low Countries’ History Yearbook 1981/ Acta Historiae Neerlandicae XIV.
10. Harold Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Brian Tierney, Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought 1150-1650 (Cambridge, England, et al: Cambridge University Press, 1982). See the text and bibliography for further bibliographical details.
3 replies on “The Right to Resist: Calvinist Constitutionalism and the Lockean Paradigm”
Over the past ten years a number of the works of John Witte, in many ways Harold Berman’s successor, develop the continuities and discontinuities of Calvinistic political thought from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Witte will probably be more sympathetic to the Calvinism->Locke thesis than I am.
Publish on, Reuben! This is absolutely necessary to further the dialog. Mark Kreitzer