Civic Republicanism: Good for the JewsHistorians in the News
tags: Jewish history, political history
In 2016, the Jewish magazine Tablet marked the pending Thanksgiving holiday with an essay outlining the Jewish influences on the nation’s great day of civic-minded feasting. In “Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims’ American Jewish Holiday,” Ed Simon reported that Benjamin Franklin had recommended that the American republic adopt as its national seal a portrayal of “Moses in the Dress of a High Priest standing on the Shore, and Extending his Hand Over the Sea, Thereby Causing the Same to Overwhelm Pharaoh.” Simon also noted that “the Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World to the story of Exodus for more than a century.” These colonial settlers, Simon declared, were the “inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision.”
For the first Puritan exiles in the New World, the connection between their errand into the wilderness and the Mosaic saga was clear. Simon argues that John Winthrop’s 1630 Atlantic passage aboard the Arbella with his flock of Puritans to establish the future Commonwealth of Massachusetts represented the first of many American “enactments” of the Exodus story. The journalist and social critic Jim Sleeper agrees. Sleeper, who is Jewish, was raised in the Massachusetts town of Longmeadow, still populated by descendants of its original Puritan settlers. He grew up to become a student of what he calls the “Puritan-Hebrew synthesis”—a fertile brand of theological inquiry that helped launch the American civic-republican tradition. These early European settlers in the New World, he says, also adopted “Hebraic communal discipline,” as ballast to the relentless Puritan focus on individual salvation.
Sleeper argues that the heirs to Winthrop’s civic-religious vision established a fundamental republican principle as this founding synthesis took hold—namely, a strong belief in the reciprocity of “personal autonomy and communal obligation,” and of “public obligation and inner integrity.” He quotes Winthrop’s admonition to his fellow Arbella passengers: “It is a true rule,” he told them, “that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.”
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