July is the first full month of summer, a time for lazy hazy days of going on vacation, cooling off, doing nothing. For historians, it is the month when things really start to heat up, the month of the two great revolutions that have shaped the politics of the modern West. On July 14, the French celebrate Bastille Day to commemorate the storming of a royal prison that came to symbolize the destruction of the French monarchy. On July 4, Americans celebrate Independence Day to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, by which British colonists rejected their allegiance to the British monarchy.
Catholics tend to be ambivalent toward, if not hostile to, the French Revolution, in large part because the assault on the monarchy extended to an assault on the Church. American Catholics tend to have little to no reservations about celebrating the American Revolution.
As a person of Irish descent, I am happy to join in the celebration of anything that sticks it to the Brits. As a Catholic, I should be more ambivalent. Thomas Aquinas may have offered some rationale for rebellion against unjust authority, but the Church recognized King George as a legitimate ruler. At any rate, the Catholics who supported independence, most notably the Carroll family of Maryland, did so not for any distinctly Catholic reasons but based on their understanding of British and Enlightenment political traditions as interpreted by the patriot movement within the overwhelmingly Protestant British colonies.
Most scandalous of all, the Carrolls threw their lot in with the patriot cause in the hope that the new nation would institute religious toleration, which they believed would ease the plight of the Catholic minority: this at a time when no pope would affirm religious toleration as a positive good. Patriotic Catholics continue to evade, ignore or excuse this disconnect between Catholic teaching in 1776 and the American Founding. I suspect no historical argument would shake their faith in a Founding made safe for Catholicism.
However, I wish here to assess the historical meanings of independence from the perspective of Catholic social ideals, particularly the ideal of the Church as the Body of Christ and society as the Body Politic. These ideals, which long pre-date the modern social teaching tradition inaugurated by Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, assume that community precedes and constitutes individual personhood. Nothing could be further from the social contract traditions that have shaped modern politics, including the political history of the United States.
The founders of this tradition, including Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, disagree on many things but all agree that man is first and foremost, by nature, an individual. Existing freely in the state of nature, individuals come together and, by consent, create society for the purpose of maximizing individual freedom. To be sure, this tradition was but one that shaped the thinking of the American Founders. The history of the British colonies stood as a refutation of the fantasy of some pre-political state of nature; older, still living British political traditions tempered the radical individualism implicit in social contract theory. Yet, with political independence came a weakening of the ties to older, more communal traditions. Independence from Britain soon raised the question of the meaning of independence within America. American history has offered a variety of answers to this question.
Left-liberal historians are quick to point out that the freedom and equality associated with independence were for white men only. This is only partly true. It would be more accurate to say that the Founders understood freedom and equality as reserved for men of a certain amount of property, who in late-colonial America just happened to be white. The emphasis on racial and gender exclusion has obscured the more basic exclusion of class. The Founders believed that political equality was meaningless without some general economic equality. Political actors could only act responsibly if they were economically independent and self-sufficient; otherwise, they would be vulnerable to bribes or other forms of control by the economically powerful. Such corruption would undermine public virtue, which would in turn undermine the republic itself. The first response to this dilemma was to limit political power to those with enough economic power (understood in terms of landed property) to remain immune to bribery or economic coercion. Let us call this the classical republican response.
The second response was to expand political power while at the same time to maximize the distribution of productive property. Let us call this the democratic response. Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder that he was, imagined an America peopled by sturdy, independent yeoman farmers, each supporting himself and his family on a plot of land sufficient to ensure basic subsistence, with a small surplus to bring to market to secure those few necessities the farmer could not produce for himself; any prosperity beyond this would lead to luxury, another sure-fire corruptor of public virtue. A growing population living within a finite amount of land threatened the realization of this vision of widespread independence. At the Peace of Paris that concluded the Revolutionary War, the United States had received all that Indian territory west to the Mississippi River, in effect doubling the size of the young nation. Jefferson still feared it would not be enough to ensure is yeoman farmer ideal. As president, he authorized the Louisiana Purchase (1803), covering much of the territory from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, doubling the size of the nation once again. Still, there never seemed to be enough land for everybody to feel safe and secure in their independence.
There were reasons for farmers to feel insecure, but they had less to do with the amount of land than the way it was settled and how the agricultural economy developed. The comparatively small ratio of people-to-land in the Midwest and the government’s commitment to incentivizing large-scale commercial farming ensured the decline of commercially viable, small-scale farming in the East. Jefferson’s dream lived on in the settlement trans-Mississippi west and found its clearest legislative expression in the Homestead Act of 1862. This act of Congress granted to citizens and noncitizens alike (yes, noncitizens!) 160 acres of public domain land, each on the condition that they develop the land into a viable, working farm. This idea of an independent homestead on the frontier retains a powerful hold on the American imagination, as witnessed by the continued popularity of the Little House books. Anyone who reads between the lines of those books knows that Pa Ingalls never did achieve the independence he sought through farming and often had to work for wages in a lumbermill to provide for his family.
The Homestead Act failed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the dream of independence itself. Jefferson’s equation of land and independence proved illusory. Sustainable independence requires tools, seeds, animals, food, clothing, shelter and enough reserve supplies, either in cash or materials, to survive until the first harvest. Weather, locusts, and above all the aridity of the land in the Far West often meant that the first harvest was a failure. Cut off from broader social networks of support, most of these farmers forfeited their land, which speculators and large-scale “bonanza” farmers then bought up, creating the agri-business that feeds most Americans today. The would-be sturdy, independent yeoman farmer then either hired on as an employee of some corporate agriculture firm or left farm life to work as an employee of an industrial corporation in a city. By the standard of the yeoman farmer, a wage worker was little more than a “wage slave” because he depended on another man to provide for himself and his family. That is, the wage worker lacked independence.
Ironically, the people that came closest to achieving something like independence through agriculture were those who rejected the extreme forms of independence that proved the ruin of so many American farmers. These people were groups that in one way or another were at a distance from mainstream America. In the Upper Midwest, Scandinavian and German Lutherans succeeded as farmers largely by settling as whole communities; with safety in numbers, they were better able to survive the difficulties that would accompany the early years of settlement even with the best possible advanced preparation. In the Far West, the most successful group proved to be the Mormons. Persecution back East drove them to Utah but also helped them to develop the intensely strong communal ties necessary to survive in an arid, seemingly barren land. Mormon families cooperated with each other, limiting their farm size and sharing water access. Though Mormons would go on to achieve success in the more individualist fields of business and the professions, the state of Utah can boast one of the lowest rates of economic inequality and highest rates of income mobility in large part due to the immense private welfare system organized through the Church of Latter-Day Saints. That is, their communal traditions survived long after they were necessary for basic communal survival.
Americans no doubt have a soft spot for community. As a soft spot, it only sharpens our awareness of the hard spot by which we judge ourselves and guide our society. If that hard spot has a name, it is “independence.” The Declaration of Independence made clear our separation from England; operating within American society, the ideal of independence has too often made clear Americans’ separation from each other. Independence from England did not lead inevitably to a competitive individualism that sets fellow citizens against each other and then celebrates the last man standing; it did follow that path historically. Our public memory tends to conflate the victory of the few with that of the many. A Ford autoworker with a good-paying factory job in the 1950s might not understand how a worker from the 1850s would see him as a wage slave; he certainly would not shed any tears for the competitors Henry Ford defeated on his way to the top. Life was good. Until it wasn’t. During the 1980s, the executives at Ford and other auto manufacturers had no qualms about shipping jobs overseas, where they would not have to provide workers with the wages and benefits that made life good for American workers in the 1950s.
Recent years have seen a political revolt of the rustbelt, looking back on the good times, feeling robbed, betrayed, and in the great tradition of Independence Day, tending to blame an oppressive government. These angry rebels look back on a past in which they sense they were free and independent and wish to have that freedom and independence again.
The rustbelt was betrayed. One culprit is certainly globalism, promoted by elites in both the private and the public sector. Yet it was also betrayed by its own aspirations, a desire to cash in on the big postwar boom, to get as much as it could out of the system, to make enough money to at least feel independent. This is what popes since Leo XIII have identified as the great occasion of sin created by modern affluence.
American history provides alternative models for a more modest understanding of prosperity in keeping with Catholic social principles. We may even find these models in non-Catholic communities, such as those achieved by Lutherans in the rural Midwest and Mormons in Utah. As we celebrate our nation’s independence from England, let us recall that a life well-lived requires, first of all, a recognition of our dependence on each other.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!