Date of Award

Spring 2012

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

English, PhD


School of Arts and Humanities

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Wendy Martin

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Robert Hudspeth

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Henry Krips

Terms of Use & License Information

Terms of Use for work posted in Scholarship@Claremont.

Rights Information

© 2012 Justin M. Scott-Coe


The argument of this dissertation is that a critical reading of the concept of "covenant" in early American writings is instrumental to understanding the paradoxes in the American political concepts of freedom and equality. Following Slavoj Zizek's theoretical approach to theology, I trace the covenant concept in early American literature from the theological expressions and disputes in Puritan Massachusetts through Jonathan Edwards's Freedom of Will and the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, showing how the covenant theology of colonial New England dispersed into more "secular" forms of what may be called an American political theology. The first chapter provides an overview of recent attempts to integrate theology and theory, specifically comparing Jacques Derrida and Zizek to better understand the latter's theology of materialism which relies on as well as informs the Reformed Protestant covenantal dichotomy of grace and works. The second chapter establishes the complicated architecture of the covenant concept within seventeenth-century New England Reformed Protestantism, and uses church membership transcripts along with Ann Hutchinson court trial documents to demonstrate how this inherently unstable theology created unintended slippage between God's grace and mankind's works, resulting in a theological formulation remarkably open to Zizek's analysis of political ideology. The third chapter demonstrates how Jonathan Edwards, through his ingenious counter-argument in Freedom of Will, provides a theoretical foundation for an uneasy but necessary alignment of the covenants of works and grace, releasing the subjunctive potential of grace to operate through history as a predeterminer of meaning and, potentially, freedom. In the last chapter, I argue that Emerson finally converts the covenant from a politically conceptualized theological framework for radical grace into a personal institutionalization of grace itself. Stanley Cavell's exploration of Emerson's "constitution" in light of the covenant motif demonstrates the political (im)possibilities inherent in America's self-conceptions of personal liberty and civic equality. In the end, complexities inherent in the concept of the covenant, especially its creative failure to control the radical nature of "grace," are determinative factors in our contradictory American egalitarian ideals.