The Calvinist Roots of American Social Order: Calvin, Witherspoon, and Madison
Witherspoon and Madison’s Calvinist theology and political philosophy imparted a firm belief that self-interest could be harnessed, ambition checked, and power balanced within government so that liberty and the common good were made secure.
. . . every good form of government must be complex, so that the one principle may check the other. . . . They must be so balanced, that when every one draws to his own interest or inclination, there may be an even poise upon the whole.
So taught the eighteenth-century clergyman John Witherspoon in his famous Lectures on Moral Philosophy. It was ideas like these—checks and balances, harnessing self-interest for the common good—that launched America on its grand experiment in self-government 230 years ago.
Witherspoon was a Founding Father: a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a delegate to the New Jersey state convention that voted unanimously in 1787 to ratify the national Constitution. A Scottish transplant to the new nation, Witherspoon became one of its most ardent defenders.
“He is as high a Son of Liberty, as any man in America,” John Adams proclaimed him. As a later historian noted, “no American born and bred could have had greater faith than he in the future of the country.”
Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister and the sixth president of the College of New Jersey (known today as Princeton University), a position he assumed in 1768. These quieter roles were his more influential ones. Witherspoon was the first college head in America to lecture systematically on ethics, and his Lectures on Moral Philosophy remain an intellectual staple of America’s most formative period. Scores of Princeton graduates, inspired by Witherspoon’s ideas, went on to distinguished public service in the fledgling nation as state governors, congressmen, cabinet officials, and Supreme Court justices. Many of these names are probably unknown to readers today: William Bradford, Morgan Lewis, Henry Lee, and Henry Brockholst Livingston, to name a few.
One name, however, certainly is not: James Madison, perhaps Witherspoon’s most famous pupil.
In 1769, at the age of eighteen, Madison left his home in Virginia’s Tidewater region and made the ten-day journey to Princeton. It was an unusual decision at the time: most young men in Virginia (Thomas Jefferson among them) attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. It was also a decision that would change the nation’s fate. After the young Madison completed his undergraduate studies at Princeton, he remained an additional six months to study Hebrew and political philosophy with Witherspoon. It was there, under the careful tutelage of “the old Doctor,” that Madison acquired his basic political and philosophical instincts. These presuppositions about the nature of man, virtue, self-interest, and power would profoundly shape his later work as chief architect and defender of the national Constitution. Indeed, if Madison is the “Father of the Constitution,” then Witherspoon might well be its grandfather.
Witherspoon, Calvinism, and the Scottish Enlightenment
Historians have always been intrigued by Madison’s intellectual influences, and political philosophers such as Locke, Hume, and Montesquieu always get top mention. But what of Madison’s theological influences? This question, too long neglected, has only recently enjoyed scholarly attention, and the inquiry leads inexorably to Madison’s postgraduate mentor.
Witherspoon was a Scottish Calvinist, a Presbyterian evangelical rooted in the “common sense” philosophy of his homeland. He spoke often of human nature, and his lectures and sermons evince a thoroughly Calvinist understanding of original sin and human fallibility. “Man is every where considered as in a fallen and sinful state,” he taught. “Everything that is prescribed to him, and everything that is done for him, goes upon that supposition.” Yet, while man was in a state of depravity, he was not incapable of virtue. Witherspoon taught not only the redemption of man through the sovereign grace of God, but also what he called the “dominion of Providence,” the idea that God was universally present and constantly attentive to human affairs. All of man’s “disorderly passions” were ultimately under God’s guiding hand and restraining authority.
For Witherspoon, man’s depravity, his reason, and his conscience (what Witherspoon called “moral sense”) exercised a “reciprocal” influence on one another. “Passions” and self-interest would always “bias the judgment” and “incline the will.” Yet reason and conscience created the possibility of virtue, producing in each person those “disinterested affections that point directly at the good of others.”
Witherspoon saw man as a confluence of virtue and vice—capable of the former, inclined to the latter. This had distinct political implications, and in his Lectures, Witherspoon’s distrust of human motives made checks and balances in government a necessity. “Pure democracy,” he said, was not durable due to “caprice and the madness of popular rage.” Certainly it was necessary “to have as much virtue among the particular members of a community as possible.” But it was “folly to expect that a state should be upheld by integrity in all who have a share in managing it.” What was needed was a “complex” system, a separation of powers into different branches that were nevertheless interdependent. Between them, there must be some “nexus imperii,” something to make each branch necessary to the other.
These ideas weren’t original to Witherspoon. He was drawing on two centuries of Calvinist thought, strained through the filter of the Scottish Enlightenment. In the mid-1500s, John Calvin made the theological concept of original sin the key impetus for institutional reform within the church. Calvin, like Witherspoon, saw humans as capable of good but inclined always toward evil. Calvin thus maintained, simultaneously, both a deep distrust of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and a rational hope that structural reforms would help check clerical abuses. Calvin saw these reforms, particularly an emphasis on representative structures, as equally applicable to secular governments.
For Calvin, the solution to the ecclesiastical corruption of his day was not somehow to increase man’s virtue and thereby fix his depravity. That was impossible. It was, rather, to control the effects of that depravity and even perhaps to channel them toward the common good by reforming the institutions of the church’s life. As legal scholar Marci Hamilton has argued, Calvin, unlike Martin Luther before him, was aiming not at “individuals per se, because humans—even clergy—were inherently fallible. Rather, he sought to construct a system that would deter Church leaders from sinning in the future. In light of the depravity of humans, he believed, churches required internal checks that would deter abuses of power.”
Later Reformers translated these ideas to the civil sphere, and Scottish thinkers added their own glosses, such as the separation of powers and the need for interdependent branches of government. Witherspoon in turn carried these ideas across the Atlantic and transmitted them to young American thinkers at Princeton, where Madison became their most passionate exponent.
Madison, Calvinism, and the US Constitution
Witherspoon’s Scottish-Calvinist ideas were not merely threads in Madison’s thought; they were its backbone. Witherspoon’s influence is especially evident in two of Madison’s most important essays on American government: Federalist 10 and Federalist 51.
In Federalist 10, Madison confronts the problem of “faction,” what we today would call partisanship or interest group politics. Madison, like his contemporaries, worried that in a democratic form of government, self-interested groups would too easily gain power and pursue measures that sacrificed the public good to selfish ends. This concern was more than theoretical. In the state legislatures under the failed Articles of Confederation, Madison noted that public measures had been “too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, though, Madison didn’t propose that citizens and public officials become more “virtuous.” To the contrary, Madison believed the “latent causes of faction” were “sown in the nature of man”: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.”
Here, on full display, is the Calvinist realism that lay at the core of Witherspoon’s theology and Madison’s own politics. Madison shrewdly deployed it against both Enlightenment theorists, who were overly optimistic about man’s capacity for reason, and civic-republican idealists, who thought good government would arise if only citizens were better educated and more attentive to the common good. To Madison, these ideas were naïve. Since the “causes of faction cannot be removed . . . relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” Madison argued for structural solutions, and Federalist 10 goes on to advocate both a representative form of government (“to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens”) and a large rather than a small republic (to “take in a greater variety of parties and interests” and thereby prevent any particular group from seizing power for too long).
Federalist 51 expands on Federalist 10 and contains one of Madison’s most famous expositions on the nature of man, government, and power:
what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Madison wrote. He argued that in the “compound republic of America,” a “double security” arose: power was first divided between the national and state governments, and then, within the national government, was divided among separate departments, each arranged so as to “be a check on the other.” Here again, one hears echoes of Witherspoon’s lectures.
Madison, of course, wasn’t the only one advocating these ideas, nor was Witherspoon the only one teaching them. But Madison, in his design and defense of the Constitution, was plainly building on Calvinistic instincts he had acquired under Witherspoon’s tutelage. Indeed, Madison would later emphasize the “strong dose of Calvinism” he had been prescribed by Witherspoon.
For Madison, a “Witherspoonian” brand of the Calvinist tradition provided the theological seedbed in which his own political philosophy could put down roots.
But these roots go even deeper than the individuals themselves. As scholars like Marci Hamilton have noted, most Americans in the eighteenth century were steeped in Calvinist theology, and Calvinists, particularly Presbyterians, dominated the public square. Their influence at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was evident. Delegates coupled a realistic appraisal of human nature and a firm distrust of power, with a keen emphasis on balanced, representative government. They weren’t directly citing Calvin’s Institutes for their arguments, but they were drawing on Calvin’s insights as they designed American institutions of government.
For founders like Madison, the ultimate aim was justice. “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society,” Madison wrote in Federalist 51. “It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” What Calvinism contributed to this project was a hope for justice grounded in realism—a firm belief that self-interest could be harnessed, ambition checked, and power balanced within government so that liberty and the common good were made secure.
Source: Ian Speir is a First Amendment attorney and a lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.