Two Concepts of Individualism: Puritanism vs. John Locke
Polderman, John W.
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Ideas do not develop ex nihilo, rather they develop over time from preceding ideas and beliefs. As Solomon said, "The thing that hath been, is that which shall be... there is no new thing under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1 :9). If this premise is true, then it follows that all ideas have precursors and that certain theories and ideologies grew out of a specific intellectual soil. John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, " What do we mean by Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people" (Bailyn,1). Ideas have consequences. Words and documents establish and frame the discussion of certain ideas, and shape the minds of the people. What then were the ideas that shaped early American notions of the individual? The Founding Fathers built American government on various ideologies, some of which involved differing conceptions of the individual and his or her relation to the state. These conceptions of individualism were developed by Puritan emigrants from England and by John Locke. Despite similarities in emphasis upon limited government and mutual consent of the governed to the governor, these two strands of thought are in conflict with each other. Puritan thought views the individual only within the covenant and emphasizes human dependence upon God, while Lockean thought places emphasis upon humanistic reason and concern for one's own interest. This paper will examine two different versions of early individualism, namely that of John Locke and the Puritans, and will draw connections between these ideas and the ruling elite during the colonial period. In order to understand the differences between Lockean and Puritan thought I will discuss who the Puritans were, what they believed and the results of those beliefs. I will then compare and contrast John Locke with the Puritans. Finally, I will draw connections between the Founders and these bodies of thought. These connections will be based upon documents that were written during that time, such as sermons and the Constitution, and upon statements made by the ruling elite. However, I am not trying to suggest that the Founders were influenced exclusively by these ideas, but rather that they had some impact upon their thought.