For Justin Taylor at a webpage the purports to do “history,” this exchange rises to the level of true knowledge about human motivation — in this case, why American Protestants fought for independence:
“Captain Preston,” he asked, “what made you go to the Concord fight?”
“What did I go for?” the old man replied, subtly rephrasing the historian’s question to drain away its determinism.
The interviewer tried again, “. . . Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?”
“I never saw any stamps,” Preston answered, “and I always understood that none were sold.”
“Well, what about the tea tax?”
“Tea tax? I never drank a drop of the stuff. The boys threw it all overboard.”
“I suppose you had been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?”
“I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms, and hymns and the almanacs.”
“Well, then, what was the matter?”
“Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free, and we meant to be free always. They didn’t mean we should.”
Historical causation is notoriously complex. Yet sometimes we forget that a historical actor’s motivation can be surprisingly simple. As those interested in correctly interpreting the past, we should never stop our investigation with the self-perception or motivation of those involved in the events. But we should often start there.
But if you listen to someone who is trying to make sense of his own life, like Glenn Loury is while writing his memoirs, you might actually wonder if any of us can make sense of our motivations. It is one of the reasons we have friends, spouses, pastors, and even therapists — to learn that sometimes what we thought we were up to was actually done for different reasons. Most of us delude ourselves much of the time. It is part of being a sinner.
I suspect what caught Taylor’s eye was the soldier’s reference to the Bible, and other religious texts and ignorance of English political theory. I wonder, though, why Taylor would not question a devout Christian was so willing to take up arms without political reasons. I remain unconvinced that the Bible teaches rebellion. That’s why you need 2k, to find reasons to do things about which the Bible is silent or not conclusive.