Negotiating the Social Contract

A Mass Humanities Special Initiative

Periodically the Mass Humanities Board of Directors identifies aspects of contemporary social or political life that would benefit from broad public discussion through the perspectives of the humanities, develops a theme statement suggesting some approaches to these issues, and solicits proposals for public humanities programs examining them. The theme statement also informs Mass Humanities’ own programming such as our annual fall symposium. Our current theme is Negotiating the Social Contract.

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to…be knit together, in this work, as one man…We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

— John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity (1630)

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.

— Frederick Douglass, The Nation’s Problem (1868)

There is [an] element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance…truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.

— Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1960 in Raleigh, NC)


On board a ship headed for Massachusetts in 1630, John Winthrop invited his fellow Puritans to imagine the challenges they would face in setting up a successful community. Although most in the group shared religious beliefs, some were from different areas of England and they would be separated by differences in wealth and class. To Winthrop, “some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.” They needed, he felt, to ensure the cohesion of the community by allowing those differences in “fortune” – the pursuit of individual families’ wealth – while also securing the consent of the poor by sharing this wealth as needed.

Winthrop anticipated Americans’ habit of periodically taking stock of the conditions of their social contract. His language of inevitable differences and obligation, however, has been replaced over time by the language of rights and equality embedded in the nation’s founding documents and insisted upon by civil rights leaders from Frederick Douglass to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the almost 400 years since Winthrop’s sermon, it has been left to each generation of Americans to balance the competing claims of individual rights and of responsibilities to the common good, and to negotiate the very definition of what each of these might be. 600,000 Civil War dead bear silent testimony to what happened when such negotiations broke down completely and “shipwreck” was the result of a failure to balance inequality with mutual obligation and protection.

Precisely this tension lies at the heart of so many of the debates in which we find ourselves engaged today – in the Congress, in our communities, and across our dinner tables. Today, as many times in the past, many Americans despair of agreeing with each other about what they owe the common enterprise, and what protections that enterprise owes them in return.

Mass Humanities’ theme for its fortieth-anniversary year (2014) and beyond is Negotiating the Social Contract. We ask the central question, “What happens when the idea of obligation to the common good starts to disappear as one of the central tenets of American well-being, leaving rights and liberties as the sole basis on which to negotiate the social contract?”

Grant Proposals Related to this Theme

Mass Humanities gives precedence to theme-inspired projects in everything we do, including programming, grant making, and collaborative activities. As part of this initiative, we welcome grant proposals in all humanities disciplines that engage audiences in grappling with the larger questions that shape our experience of individuality and community.

Below we list just a few of the questions proposals may wish to consider. Proposals most likely to succeed will be for projects that allow participants to examine today’s social contract negotiations, face to face, in the context of a particular issue or set of issues of interest in a particular community or place – such as immigration, gun rights/control, casino gambling, sentencing and imprisonment, affirmative action, political stagnation, participation in the democratic process, or environmental responsibilities.

  • Is there such a thing as the “general Welfare” (John Adams, Preamble to the Massachusetts Constitution, 1779) or “common good”? If so, how should we go about defining it?
  • If the “body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals” (Preamble), what happens when individuals claim the right not to participate in the common enterprise?
  • To what extent do we take responsibility for each other? What do we owe each other as members of the same nation? To what extent do we each take personal responsibility for what happens in the country at large? The world?
  • What can we do to tackle the rifts between ideologically polarized Americans, particularly those seared by histories of violence and enmity that stand in the way of constructive dialogue and negotiation?
  • What does a member of a democratic society do to influence the social contract when we simply cannot agree at all? Do Americans in numbers have the same rights, responsibilities, and obligations as individuals?
  • How does a member of a democratic society participate in the negotiation when many perceive the political process to be governed by groups (corporations, unions) and involve huge sums of money?
  • How do we balance the rights of individuals with the obligation to spread the risk of poverty, illness, and environmental degradation in service to the future of individuals and the nation?
  • How do we balance environmental protection with local, individual, or corporate ownership?

We welcome all project formats, although we require that all projects be substantively based on humanities themes and use humanities works.

All things being equal, projects that Engage New Audiences for the Humanities take precedence.

Mass Humanities has supported several public programs that evoke meaningful discussions on the social contract as it touches upon a variety of issues. Prominent examples include:

  • a gathering of Cambridge residents at the Museum of Science to make and submit recommendations to the United Nations Climate Change talks in Copenhagen in 2009
  • a diverse group of community events in Fitchburg exploring the historical and contemporary uses of censorship using Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as the touchstone
  • a series of WAMC FM radio programs using interviews conducted in public spaces on the topic of civility in public discourse