“Impious and Fearful”: Early Republic Episcopalians Against the Social Contract

In an 1848 election sermon to the Massachusetts legislature, Alexander H. Vinton, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Boston, told the state legislators the state had a divinely ordained function in moral government. Interestingly, Vinton rejected Locke and the idea of the social compact outright. “The philosophy of the day, and specially of Mr. Locke himself” was a philosophy of “materialism” that became “infidelity’s great battering – ram.” Locke’s philosophies, including the social compact, “shattered the outmost bulwarks of society, even as, by the other weapons of that philosophy, she sapped the strong holds of social defense, the church, and the family.”

Social compact theory, argued Vinton, relied on self-interest as the method by which society governed itself. “The theory of the social compact points to the enlightened self-interest of the people, the inborn love of order, and the conscientious sense of duty to the nation.” “Are these,” asked Vinton, “sufficient to conserve the government? —is the grand world-problem of the present century.” Did social compact theory “supply the necessary helps and incentives to conscience for the conservation of the nation?” It did not, said Vinton, because according to that theory, government was “only a mutual contract, a contract from which, on violation of its conditions, either party may recede. Each party is thus the arbiter of its own cause, and acts on its own independent of the other, both in its judgement and in its execution.” Allegiance, therefore, became not true allegiance but merely a “mercantile value, the principle of the counting house and the exchange.”  

By making allegiance something based on human interdependence, and not divine obedience, Vinton cautioned, Americans did “injustice to the great cause of human rights, we do injustice to the social theory itself, when we allow it to resolve all the obligations of citizenship into a merely social duty.” Social duty, Vinton declared, “belongs only to the second table of the great moral law, and, by resting upon it, the social theory divorces itself from the yet higher sanctions of the first table.” Merely social duty “urges only our obligations to our neighbor, and shuts out the more exalted, solemn sense of duty to God.”

Building a political culture on the experiment in Lockean self-government was metaphysically incomplete, according to Vinton. It also was dangerous. “The experiment of self-government, as we are fond of describing our polity, is, to say the least, an awful experiment for fallen man.” Vinton went so far as to argue that “the phrase itself, if taken in its absoluteness, is impious and fearful.” Even if self-government only meant “so much as is consistent with the recognition of some sort of law higher than human enactment, as, indeed, the supposition of a popular conscience implies; still the experiment is momentous.” Reliance on Lockean self-government imperiled the great issues of government, “and, in them, we peril the wellbeing of humanity at large, when we trust them to a national conscience supported only on one side. The constant tendency of self-government is for man to become his own standard.”

It was not safe, Vinton warned, “to reduce the quality of our political obligations; to make the moral element of duty exclusive; banishing the religious element from our system. it is not safe, simply because it is not religious.” God, he advised, would not “approve a nation which is irreligious on system, and dutiful only from a conscientiousness which may be based on pride or interest. And if he fail to approve, then a woe betides her grandeur.” A godless nation’s “prowess and distinction are only a more attractive mark for the destroyer when her fated day shall come.”

The way in which the American republic might avoid divine disfavor, Vinton proposed, was “infusing into our political system the religious element.” A religious element reinforced “the sanctions of conscience” and exalted “the sentiment of national duty, from a cool-blooded calculation of interest, into a reverential affection.” Acknowledging God brought “the whole stress of the divine law to conserve the republic.” This acknowledgement constrained order and peace, “not only by the sense of mutual right among equals, but by the noble convictions of duty to God.” Allegiance to the state was ultimately “fealty to Heaven, and patriotism, then, looks upwards in its devotion, and its countenance reflects a heavenly light.”[1]

[1] Alexander H. Hamilton, The Religious Theory of Civil Government: A Discourse Delivered Before His Excellency George N. Briggs, Governor, His Honor John Reed, Lieutenant Governor, The Honorable Council and Legislature of Massachusetts at the Annual Election, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 1848 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1848).


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