Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

If Voltaire had spent his youthful exile in the Netherlands instead of England, he would have noted a similar evolution in that country – radical, often militant Anabaptist and related sects, frequently preaching violent revolution on republican-egalitarian principles, being finally scattered by “legitimate” pro-royalist Calvinist establishmentarians, and only then gradually subsiding into the quietistic, pacifist folk recognizable as Mennonites in ages since. The many parallels in these movements in England and Holland – and in Germany, Poland, Bohemia and elsewhere on the continent, until they were drowned in blood – gives us a comparative basis for studying the factors that make for persistent grassroots dissent in a culture. But only in Britain, and on a smaller scale in Holland, were circumstances favorable for their survival in strength. (The Jewish experience of communal self-rule within their confined ethnic boundaries offers a highly distinctive case history of the nurturing of a community of divergent conscience over many centuries.)

Thanks to the planting of the American colonies there was a continental “hothouse” to which these tender growths could be transplanted. And thanks especially to the desire of the British Crown to remove dissent across a broad ocean – and to make a profit by so doing – several colonies came into being as a vast pale of refuge. (The practical reward for tolerance was not lost on Penn, who combined an idealist’s conscience with a real estate promoter’s sagacity. By the time of the Revolution, Philadelphia was the largest city in the British Empire, save only London – and Pennsylvania was gaining on Virginia in statewide population — to the delight of Jefferson and Madison who gleefully pointed out to their fellow Virginians the advantages of attracting prosperity with the boon of religious freedom.)

By short but steady steps, the Crown came to recognize the practicality of maintaining a truce with the dissenting population of America, to the frequent neglect of its own Anglican establishment in Virginia and other colonies. The London authorities gave the Calverts a refuge for Catholics and other nonconforming faiths (which the Lords Baltimore were shrewd enough to share with a wide variety of sects). Roger Williams got his Charter from a Commonwealth Parliament disposed to buffer their dissenting brothers in New England from the doctrinaire Puritans of Massachusetts, who were held in no more favor by Roundheads than their British high-Calvinist counterparts. And finally, after the Restoration, the Crown intervened to halt the persecution – that had including hanging – of Quakers who had defied the Massachusetts ban.

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