Thursday, October 17, 2013
Following up on my earlier post introducing Oliver Ellsworth to readers of this blog, I now share an excerpt of Professor William Casto's biography that describes how, according to Casto, Ellsworth's Calvinism informed his understanding of the authority of government officials:
In 1800 when Ellsworth was on a diplomatic mission to France, he explained his understanding of human nature in a revealing conversation with Comte de Volney, a French philosopher. After Volney outlined a comprehensive plan for reorganizing the government of France, Ellsworth remarked, "there is one thing Mr. Volney for which you have made no provision . . . The Selfishness of Man." This pessimistic view of human nature is little more than a restatement of the doctrine of original sin that pictured humankind as inherently depraved. Even the phraseology is taken from the New Divinity that defined sin exclusively in terms of selfishness. For example, Joseph Bellamy wrote in his principal work, "From this same root--this disposition to love ourselves supremely, live to ourselves ultimately, and delight in that which is not God wholly--proceeds all our evil carriage toward our neighbor."
At first glance this doctrine of inherent depravity would seem to present an insurmountable obstacle to good government. After all, governors are themselves men. Therefore government would seem to be inevitably depraved. The Calvinists avoided this logical conclusion by invoking what was literally a deus ex machina. Government officials were not ordinary men. They were part of God's predestined plan, and they were selected by God to rule over men. This idea of divine selection was a common idea among Connecticut Calvinists and harmonized the apparent conflict between original sin and good government.
That Ellsworth embraced this idea of divine rule is evident in a closed 1789 senate debate in which, according to a fellow senator:
Ellsworth . . . got on the subject of Kings. Declared that the Sentence in the Primer ofFear God and honor King was of great importance that Kings were of divine appointment, that Saul the head & shoulders taller than the rest of the people was elected by God and anointed by his appointment.
This apparent reference to the divine right of kings should not be taken literally. If Ellsworth was a monarchist, he surely would not have espoused monarchy on the floor of the senate in 1789. He simply was too good a politician to commit such a gaffe. When Connecticut Calvinists used biblical verse to discuss government, they frequently used "king" as a generic word to signify government or government official. Therefore Ellsworth was saying that government officials--at least some of them--were "elected by God and anointed by his appointment."
This Calvinist idea of a Righteous Ruler explains many aspects of Ellsworth's public character. He clearly was an elitist who undoubtedly viewed himself as having been handpicked by God. He clearly sought to foster a righteous Calvinist order, and he undoubtedly viewed his opponents as unregenerate sinners. At the same time, we will see that Bellamy's The Wisdom of God permitted him to accept compromises and to work with fellow politicians who, according to Calvinist theology, were depraved.
[Casto, Oliver Ellsworth and the Creation of the Federal Republic at 24-25]
I welcome pointers toward sources that would assist in further understanding this account of government. Did Calvinists like Ellsworth rely on a deus ex machina, or is there more to the account than that? Would the idea of a righteous ruler have extended to judges in a system of separated powers? Or would it have been limited to those who could exercise will rather than judgment within their office?