The Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America—Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln
by Matthew S. Holland
Georgetown University Press, 2007
290 pp., $24.95
It’s a question as old as the Puritans and as new as “compassionate conservatism.” Can—and should—political leaders promote virtue? And, if so, how can they best inspire their countrymen to live more moral lives?
In Bonds of Affection, Matthew S. Holland, a Brigham Young University political scientist, closely studies the writings of three eminent American statesmen—John Winthrop, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln—to find some insight into the role that government should play in advancing morality. Holland is right to contend that the works of these three leaders reveal a deep and lasting strain of communitarian thinking in American history. But Holland is unable to show how the ideas of these men can or should influence contemporary public policy or charitable practice.
It should be noted that the “civic charity” in Holland’s title is a broader concept than simple philanthropy or benevolence. While Holland devotes plenty of space to the personal philanthropy of the three leaders he analyzes, his book is primarily concerned with what the ancients would call caritas or agape—the love we bear towards family and friends, those who most need our help and support.
For example, in his Second Inaugural Address of 1865, President Lincoln called upon all Americans to work together to “strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds,” and to do so “with malice towards none, with charity for all.” What Lincoln meant by the word “charity” was something deeper and grander than urging everyone to write a check or volunteer for a few hours. Lincoln charged every American with a moral responsibility—to forgive the enemy, and to put the war in the past.
Holland hopes that a similar sort of civic charity can be re-created today to address the social problems of our time. “Charity grounded in a certain biblical view of the nature of man,” Holland observes, “one that recognizes man’s dignity—but also his fallen tendencies toward selfishness and faction-underscores the practical wisdom of looking to a limited constitutional government of checks and balances for securing a social order that is both ethical and stable . . . .It is only some form of charity throughout the community that makes the existence of a free people possible, starting with the deep care and generosity required to raise young and vulnerable life to a life capable of responsible democratic citizenship.”
For Holland, this communal charity, where everyone looks out for everyone, was most closely realized in 17th century Massachusetts, particularly under its first governor, John Winthrop. That colony, which limited the franchise to men who were regular church attendees, was as close to a theocracy as any government in America, although Holland notes that Winthrop at first allowed non-churchgoing men to attend town meetings. (By the end of his term of governor, these non-churchgoers could vote.)
Winthrop is perhaps best remembered for a passage in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” “For we must consider,” Winthrop preached, “that we shall be as a City Upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop took the challenge seriously. He wanted the colonists of Massachusetts to work together, in a mutual labor of love, to create a commonwealth animated by Christian charity, which would be emulated throughout the world.
Winthrop believed that, through such Christian charity, the state’s interests were to intertwine with the individual’s, and that this harmonious union would in turn ensure the happiness and prosperity of Massachusetts. “We must,” he wrote, “not look only on our own things, but on the things of our brethren.” In Winthrop’s view, a Christian society was one where “every man might have need of another, and from hence they might be knit more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affection.”
Winthrop described his ideal state in substantial detail. Residents of Massachusetts were supposed to give as much as they could to the poor. In “a time of peril,” they were to abandon their work and defend the colony against invaders. Colonists were encouraged to lend money, but told that debts had to be forgiven if the debtor was unable to repay the loan.
The second subject of Holland’s book is Thomas Jefferson. As Holland makes clear, Jefferson was more concerned with promoting individual happiness than he was with cultivating collective virtue. “A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness,” Jefferson wrote to Thomas Cooper in 1802. “If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.” It is impossible to imagine Winthrop writing, as Jefferson did, that “[t]he legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Jefferson was devoted to the idea of a minimalist state and a flourishing private sector, so it is no surprise that he was personally very charitable. (Although he helped pass a bill to aid Virginia’s poor and disabled, Jefferson supported the measure because it transferred poverty relief from Anglican vestrymen to county aldermen—enhancing, he believed, the separation of church and state.) Jefferson even gave small donations to groups whose ideas he opposed.
If Winthrop and Jefferson represent the extremes of Christian communalism and secular individualism, writes Holland, then Lincoln occupies the middle ground between them. On the one hand, Lincoln often invoked the language of civic charity. In 1842, for example, Lincoln addressed the Springfield chapter of the Washingtonian Temperance Society and expressed his admiration for how “benevolence and charity possess [the teetotalers’] hearts entirely, and out of the utterance of their hearts, their tongues give utterance. ‘Love through all of their actions runs, and all their words are mild.’ In this spirit they speak and act and in the same, they are heard and regarded.”
On the other hand, Lincoln could often sound like a Jeffersonian self-improver. In 1839, Lincoln’s stepbrother, John D. Johnston, asked to borrow $80 (the equivalent today of several thousand dollars). Lincoln refused. Instead, Lincoln offered his stepbrother what amounted to a matching grant: he would match Johnston’s income for a year, giving him a dollar for every dollar he earned. “You are not lazy,” he wrote to his stepbrother, “and still you are an idler. I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work, in any one day . . . .This habit of uselessly wasting time is the whole difficulty.”
Holland believes that, during the Civil War, Lincoln increasingly tended towards a communitarian view. Lincoln was never an active churchgoer, and scholars can and will debate how religious Lincoln was. But it is clear that, particularly after the death of his son Willie in 1862, Lincoln was frequently seen praying and his speeches increasingly employed biblical allusions, themes, and cadences. In his Second Inaugural Address, for instance, Lincoln declared, “[L]et us judge not, lest we be judged . . . .The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’”
Holland believes that Lincoln’s mature vision of civic charity can guide us today. Civic charity, Holland writes, “is not a principle that will, or needs to, speak to everyone. But given the continuing political and religious convictions of vast numbers of Americans today, it may well be worth identifying and reviving.”
Yet having identified the tradition of civic charity, Holland never offers a vision for how the tradition might be revived. This is, of course, a book of political philosophy, not policy analysis, so the lack of programmatic suggestions is perhaps understandable. Nevertheless, neither friends nor foes of the notion of civic charity will find any guidance on precisely how this idea could be revitalized. Given the size and diversity of the country, it is hard to imagine how any president—even one with Lincoln’s eloquence-could re-create a smaller, simpler America, a sort of national village, where everyone cares for everyone else.
In Bonds of Affection, Matthew Holland reminds us of the enduring tradition of civic charity in American political thought, particularly as it was expressed by Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln. But it is not clear whether that tradition, important as it historically has been, is necessary or even relevant today, and Holland provides few clues as to how-and if-civic charity could address the social ills of our time.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of Great Philanthropic Mistakes.