Political Thought of John Dickinson and William Penn — Two Books Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

Jane E. Calvert.  Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  382 pp.  $98.

Andrew R. Murphy.  Liberty, Conscience, and Toleration:  The Political Thought of William Penn.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  301 pp.  $75.

The first two decades of the 21st century seem to mark a major turning point in western history.  (I’m just finishing a fascinating overlooked 2017 book, In the Shadows of the American Century:  The Rise and Decline of US Global Power by a University of Wisconsin historian, Alfred W. McCoy, that sets this point in its historical context.)  Events during this rather brief period have offered a major, if not quite worldwide, challenge to the liberal worldview that has underpinned western thinking since at least the American Revolution at the end of the 18th century.  Since the rise of Quakerism and the slow emergence of capitalism about a century and a half before, this way of looking at things has not been confronted as fundamentally as it has now, except perhaps following the success of Communism in Russia in 1917.

With its initial stress on individual expression and revelation, the Religious Society of Friends grew up with and mirrored this worldview while appealing religiously to those caught up in its overall impact.  It amounted to an expression within the world of Christianity to this innovative, liberal, and path-breaking approach to economic and political activity.  Quaker scholars, understandably intent on exploring more religious themes in their history, have seldom commented on the connection between the rise of capitalism and democratic practices and their faith, but it was there nevertheless.  Failure to comment did not change the reality.  And this is not the place to explore this theme even though it intersects nicely with these two books.

Until the unexpected victory of Donald J. Trump in the United States presidential election of 2016, most Americans and Friends within its borders were blithely unaware of the challenges to this consensus in places as far removed as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Hungary, France, Poland, Great Britain, the Philippines, and, most lately, Venezuela.  In challenging the assumptions underlying capitalism and democratic institutions, the political forces in these countries—not to mention similar instincts existing elsewhere—threw down a gauntlet to the theories that Friends had articulated over the years as they defended their unique faith and the background it needed to prosper and succeed.  The two books before us, both written before Trump’s electoral success, inform us of the contours of the political theories that Friends developed not only to express their desires, but also and more importantly, to show how Quakerism underpinned capitalism and democracy.

In addition, the political thought of Friends has not captured the attention of very many Quakers, authors, publishers, or political scientists whose attention runs to political theory.  That truth can be documented by quick glance at the prices attached to these two valuable books, counted not only in price but acute insights.  About the only exception to this lack of attention is Doug Gwyn’s fine 1995 analysis, The Covenant Crucified:  Quakerism and the Rise of Capitalism, which unfortunately has not circulated very much beyond exclusively Quaker circles.

 I myself encountered this neglect when I wrote my book on the religion of Richard Milhous Nixon, Nixon’s First Cover-up:  The Religious Life of a Quaker President.  In my research, I never come across Calvert’s book; hence I never knew that I had deprived myself of insights its author offered in bringing 17th and 18th century Quaker political thought up to the present, in her case 2009, a period including all my subject’s life.  In my search for relevant works on Quakers and politics, I found few—probably, I concluded, because most Friends often eschewed personal political involvement and barely gave the theory behind it a second thought.  Fortunately, because our thirty-seventh president conceived of himself more of a political practitioner and certainly not a Quaker thinker, I doubt that this omission much hamstrung my effort.

Both authors focus on William Penn, whose thinking was never captured in one discrete work, like his 17th century counterparts, Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and John Locke (Two Treatises of Government).  Instead his theories have to be collected from disparate and scattered documents where his political thinking lay hidden.  Although not ignored, Penn’s life story continues to be slighted.  Thus Murphy asserts, accurately, that the most useful Penn biography among thirty-six, one of only two he deems not “quite simply forgettable,” was published long ago in 1851 by Hicksite Samuel M. Janney (p. 4, n. 11).  (With publication of his compelling new biography, William Penn:  A Life [New York:  Oxford University Press, 2019], Murphy has gone a long way in filling this 170-year long gap.)  Murphy does not dwell on how Penn’s thought meshed so well with capitalism, certainly in those words, though he does refer a number of times to his subject’s interest in making sure that property rights were not interfered with by the state.

Writing about the reach of state power, for example, Murphy quotes Penn arguing in 1679 that the first of three fundamentals Parliament must guard “is property, that is, right and title to your own lives, liberties, and estates:  in this every man is a little sovereign to himself. . .  (p. 96).”  Such a statement may not have been as quotable as Locke’s assertion of a person’s inherent right to “life, liberty, health, and . . . the possession of outward things,” which would influence author Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration of Independence, but it was powerful enough to raise a property owner to a level of a “small sovereign” in a monarchy with a much larger one.  That’s a major ingredient of capitalism.

Calvert’s research goes well beyond Murphy’s, who concentrates on Penn’s writings; she draws heavily on Scottish theologian Robert Barclay, whose 1676 book, The Anarchy of the Ranters and Other Libertines, targeted dissidents within Quakerism rather than formulating an explicit political theory.  She also looks at even earlier and sometimes overlooked Friends, such as Edward Burrough and Richard Hubberthorne.  But for some unstated reason, she fails to dip into First Friend George Fox, whose copious writings and actions offer a fine source for political analysis.  He never shied away from advising his followers, both in sermons and pamphlets, to resist the demands of their “betters” who demanded they acknowledge their social inferiority from those they considered below them.

Murphy, a political scientist at Rutgers, wants his Liberty, Conscience, and Toleration to insert Penn as a major player in the scholarly world of that field.   In my opinion, he succeeds convincingly and elevates the Quaker to a level only a cut below Locke when it comes to conscience.  Calvert, an intellectual historian at the University of Kentucky, has a broader vision:  she wants to locate in the religion of Quakerism the essence of Friends’ political thought, so she borrows from Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch Jew, his term “theologico-political” to capture the interrelatedness of religious experience and political thinking. 

What’s more, she isolates what she calls Quakers’ “peaceful resistance to government to effect constitutional change” (p. 6) as exemplifying the civil disobedience marking Quaker political action from the turmoil of the 17th century down through the Quaker fellow traveler John Dickinson in the American Revolutionary era to Martin Luther King in the 1960s.  This, she reveals, is Quaker constitutionalism.  Moderation is its keynote, even when its adherents are driven to resist nonviolently unjust demands of the state.  She may occasionally stretch, but she is always provocative.  Talk about important and vital books, particularly for those interested in Quakerism and its political ramifications!

Based firmly on the religious experiences of the Friends they cover, both books situation themselves within what Murphy aptly reiterates as the “liberal tradition” (p. x) upheld by religious toleration and liberty of conscience, concepts that were at the political center of Quakerism from the beginning.  Had not George Fox written Protector Oliver Cromwell in 1657, “Let not there be a cry of oppression heard in the land”?  This was a stance from which they never retreated; they could not and still call themselves Friends.  Both Murphy and Calvert also stress that Quakers’ adherence to the Inward Light—whether that phrase referred to Christ, the divine, or even at times reason—something of God within each person.  They affirmed an egalitarianism, which was, averred Murphy, “theologically explosive” in the world of Stuart England and after (p. 9).

Murphy expertly charts Penn’s changing circumstances over the years, a moderate Whiggish-type who supported Parliament and the king’s right to rule during the 1670s, a condition that made him an important national figure, but in the 1680s reduced to being considered a virtual toady to an autocratic-leaning king James II.  And of course after 1681, Penn was proprietor of a colony and had to endure and confront from a distance as best as he could the purely localized demands of colonists in Pennsylvania.  These colonial forces made him ponder seriously whether his emphasis on what he called “civil interest” among the people was in fact the bond that would hold diverse groups of them together.  Yet he never gave up his adherence to that concept.

So whatever the changes in his condition and writings, the principles of liberty of conscience and religious tolerance never disappeared.  Murphy’s achievement is not, as one overly enthusiastic blurb on the book’s back dust jacket judges, “the best book on Penn in our time and in all time,” but it is sure valuable and important enough to recommend and recommend highly, well beyond Janney’s 1851 not “quite simply forgettable” biography.

For broader Quaker history, Calvert’s Quaker Constitutionalism is more consequential.  It makes the case for carrying Quaker theoretical legal considerations from the mid-17th century down to the present, a case that is as convincing as Murphy’s for liberty of conscience being the central demand of Quakers beginning in the same period.  Of course the bulk of the book covers political theorizing before 1787—only its “Epilogue,” “The Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism, 1789-1963,” focuses on the years after ratification of the Constitution, 176 years in twenty-one pages. 

Moreover, there are at least two other problems.  The first is that the man who gets the most coverage is John Dickinson, who would not sign Jefferson’s Declaration but fought in the Revolution as a Patriot, and authored an early draft of the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation.  (Since publication of her book, she has been appointed editor of  Dickinson’s papers, a project that should rightfully bring him and his thinking to broader attention.)  The problem centers on the fact that, born into a Quaker family, as an adult he conscientiously refused to join a meeting though he worshipped at one or another more often than every Sunday; so he was not formally a Friend and technically could not be identified as a Quaker constitutionalist. 

While Friends tended to be more concerned with one’s actions regardless of formal affiliation, it is still a reach to group him with Friends when he so firmly resisted that label, no matter how “Quakerly” he seemed to others.  Calvert does not try to hide this blurry status—indeed, she explores it and its implications expertly—partially because like her subject here, she is not a member but an attender at Friends’s meetings.  She seeks out his contemporaries who considered him a Friend.  Like Dickinson, she approaches his (and her) problem with membership deftly.

The other problem involves Calvert’s rigorous insistence on the way Quakers came to the theory she finds.  She is clearly on target when she says in her Introduction that too many commentators on Quakers and political topics divide religion too distinctly from thought and action.  I certainly found this to be true in my study of Nixon. (Actually I would go a giant step farther to say that public figures’ religions are usually ignored or downplayed by journalists, historians, and political scientists.)  So she is exactly right when she says, “Quaker theories on church and state emerged simultaneously” (p. 2).

The problem I have as she works through the development of this reality is that she seems to assume that when later Quakers approached a new problem they did so almost solely in the context of silent worship with too little attention to the facts of the situation they confronted.  She seems determined to treat Quakers’ thinking after the earliest period as following a formula, a problem plus silent waiting equals God’s will via revelation.  The Friends she fully respects are those who exemplified moderation.  Hence beyond his early espousal of slave abolition, Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) illustrates her discomfort because he aimed his guerrilla theater at Quaker grandees who owned slaves; such untoward actions were, she allows, “accusatory and disruptive” (p. 40).  This points to how ignoring Fox foreshortens her vision, for he modeled how to be both accusatory and disruptive toward hireling priests holding forth in their steeplehouses.  He defended “going naked as a sign” in the 1650s, hardly a moderate position.  And his great achievement was to face down opposition vigorously and put in place a polity that allowed Friends to survive into the present.

Calvert makes religion Dickinson’s “organizing theme and a means for discerning the way to civil happiness” (p. 192). For her it appears that Friends nearly always approached exploration of any problem with worship to find God’s leadings, almost as though concrete, actual, circumstances made little difference.  On the very next page, 193, she explains how Dickinson “used [the Quaker] religion to explain the latest and most important scientific principles.”  She does point out he did so in an essay on “the religious instruction of youth,” but how relying on the guidance of God’s Spirit can teach, say, the nature of electricity leaves me mystified.  It was a spark against a key on scientist Benjamin Franklin’s kite string that induced him to see that lightening was electrical, not the Spirit striking.

Similarly she sees the Quaker demand for peaceful, internal change within a society intertwined with the silent worship of their meetings.  When Friends explored the possibilities of Penn’s colony, “the goal for Pennsylvania was the same as the goal of any Quaker meeting—to achieve a perfectly united godly society. (p. 138)”  Achieving that goal would require the moderation Dickinson embodied and Quakers sought.  

Calvert refuses to pull her punches:  though it had no established church, Pennsylvania was “a powerful theocracy” because throughout “most of the eighteenth century, Quaker candidates for the Assembly were selected by the religious meeting” (pp. 140-41).  Her chapter 4 probingly demonstrates how the colony’s diversity sowed dissention that lead to the withdrawal of most Friends from the Assembly in the mid-1750s—it also suggests, without her saying it so baldly, that the goal of political moderation could no longer be squared with Friends’ testimony opposing war and reformers who wanted it applied. 

Calvert’s treatment of later Friends with whom she deals follows the same pattern; it is as though the theologico-political conclusions never change, regardless of the circumstances or the events confronted. Quakers, in her view as she follows Dickinson, have always worked for reform from within rather than revolution propelled by abstract ideas—they remained moderates.  This tendency is most clear when we look at Calvert’s “Epilogue” where she raises questions about more than a smattering of radical Friends, starting with the Hicksites who challenged the authority of elders guiding meetings.  Their emphasis on each individual Friend following the Inward Light could easily shade over into a non-moderate antinomianism with little more than a glance backward at a meeting’s authority.

Dickinson was clearly not a Hicksite.  She treats Friends like Hicksite abolitionist Lucretia Mott fairly, even if she sees her stepping beyond the pale of moderation.  She is only a little less hard on Inward Light reformer Elias Hicks of Long Island who unwillingly lent his name to the insurgents.  But she can ignore the early Communist radicalism of a Friend like Bayard Rustin who instructed, she shows, civil rights leader Martin Luther King on nonviolent pacifism.  In turn King produced his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963, brought to the world and endorsed by none other than the American Friends Service Committee, by that time a virtual nest of Hicksites. Calvert fails to comment on this anomaly when she ends her always-provocative book by saying that the “Society of Friends could not have written a better statement of their traditional theologico-political philosophy themselves” (p. 333).

Yet both Calvert and Murphy have done themselves proud.  The tradition of civil disobedience and resistance to restrictions on religious liberty are two principles that Friends have hallowed by putting their faith on the line over the last three hundred fifty years.  A well known historian, Andrew Bacevich and retired U.S. Army colonel, a Roman Catholic, calls himself “a conservative and a traditionalist” and a person leery of revolutionary plotters “more interested in satisfying their own ambitions than in pursuing high ideals.”  In a recent article in the American Conservative, he writes that in the new Trumpian era “[i]ncremental change will not suffice.  The challenge of the moment is to embrace radicalism without succumbing to irresponsibility.” If statements like that from people like that do not suggest an audience primed for Calvert’s definition of Quaker constitutionalism, I don’t understand the English language.

Calvert’s interpretation explicitly elevates the political part of Quaker thinking to a level it has not enjoyed before, while Murphy reemphasizes why earlier Friends understood the absolute necessity of securing liberty of conscience and religious freedom for all. In short, what would benefit Friends would redound to others of whatever faith, or even lack thereof.  And both Quaker components have immense value, as much now as in the 17th and 18th centuries. They—tangled amidst their Quaker roots, if these two commentators are correct—deserve broader attention.

I had an undergraduate history instructor who drilled into students that the purpose of doing history is to force textbook authors to revise their chapters.  Let’s hope that kind of creatively revisionist history will be the happy legacy of these two books.  It will be if they are widely read.  And more:  there is a great people waiting—anxiously—to be gathered out there.

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