John Wise and the Christian Congregationalist Origins of the American Democracy

For most people, the origins of modern American democracy lie in the Revolution of 1775. In fact, American clergymen and political philosophers had been advocating democracy almost from the beginning of the 18th century. One of the first was the Congregationalist minister, John Wise (1652-1725). Wise was the pastor of the second church at Ipswich in Massachusetts. He was imprisoned during the Andros regime for urging his congregation to withhold their taxes. He wrote his two books, The Churches Quarrel Espoused of 1712 and A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches of 1717 in defence of the Congregationalist system of church government. In Congregationalism, every church is independent, and the congregations choose their own ministers. At the time Wise was writing, there was a movement within the Church to replace that system with a Presbyterian organisation. Wise rejected this and defended the Congregationalist system of church government as that had been the form of ecclesiastical government established by New England’s founding fathers. He went further than merely defending democracy in church, however. He advocated that it should also be established as the secular political system as it was based on ‘right reason’.

Sovereignty Lies in the People through the Social Contract

Like Locke, the basis of his argument for democracy is the idea of a social contract: that sovereignty lies with the people, who surrender their freedom to a king or other authority in order to preserve order. He states:

‘The first human subject and original of civil power is the people; for as they have a power every man over himself in a natural state, so upon a combination they can and do bequeath this power unto others, and settle it according as their united discretion shall determine. For that this is very plain, that when the subject of sovereign power is quite extinct, that power returns to the people again. And when they are free, they may set up what species of government they please; or if they rather incline to it, they may subside into a state of natural being, if it be plainly for the best. In the eastern country of the Mogul, we have some resemblance of the case, for upon the death of an absolute monarch they live so many days without a civil head; but in that interregnum those who survive the vacancy are glad to get into a civil state again, and usually they are in a very bloody condition when they return under the covert of a new monarch; this project is to endear the people to a tyranny from the experience the have so lately had of an anarchy’.

‘A civil state is a compound moral person whose will (united by those covenants before passed) is the will of all, to the end it may use and apply the strength and riches of private persons towards maintaining the common peace, security, and well-being of all, which may be conceived as though the whole state was no become but one man; in which the aforesaid covenants may be supposed, under God’s providence, to be the divine fiat pronounced by God, “Let us make man.” And by way of resemblance the aforesaid being may be thus anatomized.’

The Position of Magistrates and other State Servants and Officials Depends on the Sovereign Power

‘As it takes in ministers for the discharge of business, so it is called the right of appointing magistrates. So that all great officers and public servants must needs owe their original to the creating power of sovereignty; so that those whose right it is to create may dissolve the being of those who are created, unless they cast them into an immortal frame, and yet must needs be dissoluble if they justly forfeit their being to their creators.’

Human states are formed by People to Protect themselves from Harm from Other Humans

The chief end of civil communities is that men thus conjoined may be secured against the injuries they are liable to from their own kind; for if every man could secure himself singly, it would be great folly for him to renounce his natural liberty, in which every man is his own king and protector.’

Origins of Democracy in Ancient Communities Where All Men are Equal

A democracy, which is when the sovereign power is lodged in a council consisting of all the members, and where every member has the privilege of a vote. This form of government appears in the greatest part of the world to have been the most ancient. For that reason seems to show it to be most probable that when men (being originally in a condition of natural freedom and equality) had thoughts of joining in a civil body, would without question be inclined to administer their common affairs by their common judgment, and so must necessarily , to gratify that inclination, establish a democracy; neither can it be rationally imagined that fathers of families being yet free and independent, should in a moment, or little time, take off their long delight in governing their own affa9irs and devolve all upon some single sovereign commander; for that it seems to have been thought more equitable that what belonged to all should be managed by all, when all had entered by compact into one community. The original of our government, says Plato (speaking of the Athenian commonwealth) was taken from the equality of our race. Other state there are composed of different blood, and of unequal lines, the consequences of which are disproportionable sovereignty, tyrannical or oligarchical sway, under which men live in such a manner to esteem themselves partly lords and partly slaves to each other. But we and our countrymen, being all born brethren of the same mother, do not look upon ourselves to stand under so hard a relation as that of lords and slaves, but the parity of our descent inclines us to keep up the like parity by our laws, and to yield the precedency to nothing but to superior virtue and wisdom. And moreover, it seems very manifest that most civil communities arose at first from the union of families that were nearly allied in race and blood. And though ancient story makes frequent mention of kings, yet it appears that most of them were such that had an influence rather in persuading, than in any power of commanding. So Justin describes that kind of government as the most primitive which Aristotle styles an herioical kingdom, namely, such as is no ways inconsistent with a democratical state.’

A democracy is then erected when a number of free persons do assemble together in order to enter into a covenant for uniting themselves in a body. And such a preparative assembly hath some appearance already of a democracy; it is a democracy in embryo properly in this respect: that every man hath the privilege freely to deliver his opinion concerning the common affairs. Yet he who dissents from the vote of the majority is not in the least obliged by what they determine till by a second covenant a popular form be actually established, for not before then can we call it a democratical government, namely, till the right of determining all matters relating to the public safety is actually placed in a general assembly of the whole people; or by their own compact and mutual agreement, determine themselves the proper subject for the exercise of sovereign power. And to complete this state and render it capable to exert its power to answer the end of a civil state, these conditions are necessary.

(1) That a certain time and place be assigned for assembling.

(2) That when the assembly be orderly met as to time and place, that then the vote of the majority must pass for the vote of the whole body.

(3) That magistrates be appointed to exercise the authority of the whole for the better dispatch of business of every day’s occurrence; who also may with more mature diligence search into more important affairs, and if in case anything happens of greater consequence, may report it to the assembly; and be peculiarly serviceable in putting all public decrees into execution. Because a large body of people is almost useless in respect of the last service and of many others, as to the more particular application and exercise of power. Therefore it is most agreeable with the law of nature that they institute their officers to act in their name and stead’.

It’s clear from the above that Wise’s model of democracy was based on the direct democracies of the ancient world, such as Athens. While this is some way away from modern, representative democracy, where MPs, senators and congressmen actually pass the laws as the people’s elected representatives, it nevertheless shows the beginning of American democracy and particularly the Town Hall meetings that are a vital part of it.

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