Wednesday, August 02, 2017

West on the American Founding (4): Character Formation in Voluntary Associations without Governmental Coercion

I have argued that Martin Diamond's Midwest Straussian interpretation of the American founding is superior to Tom West's interpretation, because Diamond rightly saw that the founders recognized that the virtuous character of the people was best formed by civil society--by families and voluntary associations in private life--without legal coercion by government.  In a liberal regime like that favored by the founders, the purpose of government is liberty, while the purpose of society is virtue.

Throughout much of his book, West rejects this separation of government as promoting liberty and society as promoting virtue, because he argues "that according to the founders, virtue is necessary for freedom, and that government cannot rely solely on private institutions such as families and churches to sustain it" (270).  "Enforcement of moral law," he insists, is "the purpose of government" (177-81).  In some parts of his book, however, West seems to agree with Diamond that the founders thought the purpose of government was liberty rather than virtue, and that the cultivation of virtue was the concern of private society (405-10).

The importance of voluntary associations in forming the moral, religious, and intellectual character of Americans was noticed by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, and recently scholars like Kevin Butterfield--in The Making of Tocqueville's America: Law and Association in the Early United States (2015)--have written the history of this.  Butterfield shows how these voluntary associations were extensions into private society of the social compact theory of government: people organized themselves into societies by writing and consenting to constitutions that became the supreme law for securing the ends that they wanted to promote. 

As one of many examples of what he calls "everyday constitutionalism," Butterfield tells the story of the Ladies Literary Society of Norwich, Connecticut that was founded in 1800 when a small group of women wrote a constitution declaring: "we the undersigned do agree to form ourselves into a Society, by the name of the Ladies Literary Society for the special purpose of Enlightening our understandings, expanding our Ideas, and promoting useful knowledge among our Sex; to this end we propose we assemble ev'ry other Wednesday eve, or ev'ry Wednesday from the first of October, to the first of March from 7 Oclock till 9" (93-94).  Following this same pattern of constitutional founding, associations were established for every conceivable social purpose--including moral and religious reform, as in the temperance societies and the anti-slavery societies.

West cites Butterfield's book with approval (West, 255).  But West is silent about Butterfield's emphasis on the "voluntary principle" in these associations, which denied the need or the right of government to coercively enforce morality or religion.  For example, West defends the establishment of religion by state governments as a necessary way for government to promote religion.  But Butterfield argues that the disestablishment of religion in the states after the Revolution--with Massachusetts in 1833 being the last state to terminate its state religious establishment--showed the trend toward "fully voluntary religious societies."  And as a consequence of this, church membership increased dramatically in the first half of the 19th century, which demonstrated that religious belief was promoted by a total separation of church and state (Butterfield, 29-37).  This vindicated Roger Williams' argument for a "wall of separation" between "civil" matters supervised by government and "spiritual" matters left to the conscience of private individuals.

What one sees here in these voluntary associations--churches, schools, clubs, moral reform societies, business firms, mutual aid societies, and utopian communities--is what we might call "private lawmaking" or "private governance," which has been the subject of a previous post (here).  We could also see this as showing what is required in what Douglass North and his colleagues have called the "open access" society (the subject of a post here).

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