The First Founder

225pxroger_williams_statue_by_fra_2 Martha Nussbaum on Roger Williams, in TNR:

Instead of seeing ourselves as fighting on the side of the angels in a great “clash of civilizations,” we should see each nation, Western and non-Western, as fighting its own internal “clash” between people who are prepared to live with others on terms of mutual respect and people who seek the protection of religious (and cultural) homogeneity. At a deeper level, each of us is always engaged, within ourselves, in an internal “clash of civilizations,” as narcissistic fear contends with our capacities for concern and respect.

In this struggle, it helps to have philosophical friends. Locke, ubiquitously invoked in this connection, is a good enough friend, but somewhat lacking in psychological insight. The history of the North American colonies, however, shows us another friend, an even better one–a hero, really–whose writings, now virtually unknown, can help us greatly as we grapple with problems that are not unlike those he confronted in the seventeenth century. He is Roger Williams. Williams wrote many books, including two lengthy philosophical treatises that are among the major works on religious toleration in the history of Western thought. Prolix, diffuse, and ill-organized, their thousand pages are hardly ever consulted, while Locke’s succinct A Letter Concerning Toleration is taught in countless college classrooms. Even Williams’s American contemporaries did not have much knowledge of his books, which were published in England.

Williams, who founded Rhode Island in 1636, was a political leader who translated his ideas into practice, through both law and policy, in a way that was initially seen as shocking but that gradually shaped what other colonies aspired to and permitted. This influence was enhanced through Williams’s voluminous public correspondence, which expressed his philosophical ideas in a compressed and available form. By the time of the American founding, virtually all state constitutions embodied ideas such as those Williams had instituted in the 1640s. James Madison, the chief architect of our Bill of Rights, had views that were remarkably similar to those of Williams, though he very likely did not read Williams’s books. It is not too much of a stretch to view Williams as one of the shapers of our constitutional tradition.

For us, Williams is important above all as a conversation partner whose humane insights can inform our own divisive debates.