Thursday, July 24, 2014

Frazer: "Problems with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God (not in any particular order)"

Note: Dr. Gregg Frazer sends over what is reproduced below:

Problems with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God (not in any particular order):

Thesis: “Spinoza is the principle architect of the radical philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American Republic, and Locke is its acceptable face.  So-called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.”

My two favorite lines: a) Locke and Spinoza produce a “deeply atheistic proof of a God.”
b) Consciousness “may be found in animals, plants, and even frying pans and thermostats.”

Stewart argues that people falsely identify many with Christianity and that we should not accept their use of that term uncritically. He then enormously expands the meaning of “deism” (without substantiation or support) and expects the reader to accept his use uncritically. Regarding the examples that he does give to try to show this very broad notion of deism, some were instances of opponents calling someone a “deist” as an epithet – i.e. derogatorily; some were simply references to unitarianism, and some merely denials of orthodox Christianity.  Later, he also takes derogatory charges of “atheist” as proof of someone’s atheism.

This leads to another problem: like the prominent “Christian America” advocates, Stewart assumes (without proving) a false dichotomy: that one was either a Christian or a deist (i.e. that those were the only options).  So Christian America advocates find a quote that “proves” that someone disbelieved a deist tenet and proclaim them a “Christian.” Stewart does the same thing in reverse: if someone is not incontrovertably an orthodox Christian, he proclaims them a “deist.” [of course, there was at least one other option: theistic rationalism]

Stewart makes far too much of the content of individual’s libraries.  One need not agree with every book in one’s library.  I have LOTS of books with which I disagree (including Stewart’s) and others that I have not read.  One must have the books of those with which one disagrees in order to deal with them knowledgably.  Stewart assumes that if a particular person had a certain book in his library he must have agreed with it.  The Christian America people do that, too.

He also makes far too much of notes taken on texts.  His assumption is that if someone copied something from a text or took  notes on it, that the individual was, by that action, showing agreement with the text/passage.  The simplest way to demonstrate the falsehood of this notion is to confess that I took LOTS of notes on Stewart’s book – the margins are filled – but I agreed with very little of it.  If someone using Stewart’s methodology were to pick up my copy of his book, they might conclude that I loved it because I took so many notes.

Related to this, Stewart also makes a specific error made by the guru of the Christian America movement – he acts on the assumption that Jefferson’s Notes on Religion reflect Jefferson’s own opinion rather than merely encyclopedic entries of what others believed.  The fact that Jefferson begins a relevant section with “Locke’s system of Christianity is this” and that most of it is nearly verbatim from Locke does not dissuade Stewart or that guru from attributing it to TJ.

In this same vein, Stewart (like his Christian America counterparts) assumes without demonstrating that students agree with all that their teachers believe/teach.  As a college professor, I only wish that were true. J  This saves them from having to show that someone believed what they attribute to them [which they often did not] – they just have to show that their teacher believed it.

Another annoying tactic that Stewart shares with his counterparts on the other side of the argument is regularly suggesting that first drafts and/or initial discussions tell us more of what someone wanted or thought than their final draft!  He does it re the Declaration and the Bill of Rights.  I confess I’ve never understood this logic when used by the Christian America people and I don’t understand it here: what someone REALLY wants or REALLY means is what they rejected/changed?  Hmmmm.

Stewart suggests throughout that the whole American project was an assault on religion -- particularly orthodox Christianity.  Apparently, the political aspects were more or less a byproduct.  Also, his analysis is all about the Revolution; for Stewart, revolutionary thought is definitive for “the American Republic.”  This, of course, ignores the significant changes that came due to experience in the critical years between 1776 and 1787.

Related to that, to accept Stewart’s thesis, one must believe that Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, a twentysomething Ben Franklin who never grew up [America’s Peter Pan], and a partially and conveniently quoted Thomas Jefferson were THE key political/historical figures in the establishment of America.  Others matter only tangentially.

To accept his thesis, one must believe that the Revolutionary/Founding writers did not know who their REAL influences were.  They quoted (as Stewart admits in a footnote) men such as Pufendorf, Grotius, Beccaria, Blackstone, Montesquieu, Vattel and others – but the real driving intellectual forces on them were the ancient Greek Epicurus and the early modern Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. More precisely, it was Epicurus channeled by and improved by Spinoza. Stewart wrote an earlier well-received book on Spinoza and sees the modern world through Spinozist eyes – and says we should, too.  There are a number of hyperbolic statements to this effect.

He gives a very poor, deficient, and one-sided account of Franklin’s prayer proposal at the Constitutional Convention.  It fits his argument the way he selectively and creatively reports it, though.

In order to be able to use his favorite adjective – “Locke-Spinoza” – Stewart terribly abuses John Locke to the point that Locke scholars will not recognize him.  He quotes Locke partially (with his own commentary interspersed to make it look like Locke’s), regularly uses ellipses to change the meaning of Lockean statements, and quotes Locke out of context.  These are also all very familiar tactics for Stewart’s Christian America counterparts.  He takes a square Locke and forces him into a round Spinoza.  He does the same regarding Jefferson – Jefferson is forced to conform with Spinoza whether he will or not.  To be fair, Stewart gives a warning/explanation for his distortion of Locke – he explains that he (basically) subscribes to the Straussian notion of “esoteric” interpretation (while disagreeing with what Strauss does with it).  In other words, as Stewart takes it, Locke did not know what he meant or was too cowardly to say what he meant, so Stewart must channel the real Locke and explain what he meant to say or would have said if he had the nerve.  This, presumably, makes it fine to ignore parts of sentences that are inconvenient and places in which Locke’s words are diametrically opposed to what Stewart wants from him.  Often, what Stewart leaves out of a passage or where he cuts it off is more telling than what he quotes.

The same is true with Jefferson, although Stewart actually quotes passages from Jefferson which contradict Stewart’s take and he just moves on.  One of those cases is absolutely critical for Stewart’s whole thesis.  He argues that the first sentence of the Declaration is the key to the whole American enterprise and that they key to that sentence is the idea that God and Nature are synonymous (not related – synonymous).  He says that Jefferson held this view (pretty important since he wrote the sentence) – but quotes from Jefferson on pages 189, 190, and 194 clearly show Jefferson saying the contrary!  Undeterred, Stewart proceeds as if his take is confirmed.

Also re Jefferson: Stewart takes very seriously Jefferson’s statement: “I am an Epicurean” – not so much Jefferson’s statement: “I am a Christian” or his statement: “I am a sect unto myself.”

As noted briefly above, Stewart – like many who desperately want Franklin to be a deist – keeps Franklin at 19 years of age or in his twenties.  Stewart’s Franklin apparently died at 28.  He quotes Franklin’s famous/infamous confession that he became a deist (at age 19), but somehow (like others) misses Franklin’s statement two pages later that he grew out of it.  Stewart is also apparently unaware of Franklin’s essay On the Providence of God in the Government of the World in which he explicitly rejects deism as irrational (at the ripe old age of 24).  Stewart also cites Franklin’s Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity to show Franklin’s agreement with Stewart’s thesis, but Franklin wrote that at age 19 and years later considered it an embarrassment – he burned as many copies as he could find. Stewart says “he never gave reason to think that he [Peter Pan Franklin] ever departed from the convictions acquired as [a] youthful bibliophile” [meaning his twentysomething position].

The book vastly overemphasizes Hobbes’s influence in America.

Stewart seriously mangles the meaning/interpretation of several biblical passages.  At one point, he admits concerning a passage written by the apostle Paul: “the ultimate implications of this intuition about God are dramatically different from anything Paul seems to have contemplated.” Then that should call into serious question your implications/interpretation!

Stewart has his own idiosyncratic notion of the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment.  By his account, it does not – and was not designed to – guarantee religious freedom.

He constantly uses unqualified, universal terms such as “the founders of the American Republic” and “America’s founders” when ascribing ideas – as if they were all of the same mind.  I doubt that  he’s ever heard of Roger Sherman.

His constant condescending, arrogant, and rather snarky jabs at anyone foolish enough to be religious or to believe in God is equal parts annoying and inappropriate in an academic work.  The last chapter is devoted to making fun of religion and those who are superstitious or gullible enough to believe in something beyond Nature.  “Alert” readers or persons are those who share his views.  Conventional religion relies on “make-believe” and “self-deception,” but his preferred philosophers produce “knowledge.”  Philosophical assumption and/or “doctrine” is fact/”truths.”  Those who refuse to bow to the “obvious” superiority of atheism, simply show “the tenacity of their ignorance” and promote “hallucinations of divine agency.”

He argues that deism was not limited to the elite (pg. 37), then proceeds to talk throughout about the difference betweent the views of the elite and those of the common people who were conventionally religious (e.g. pgs. 32, 35, 68, 73, 122, 274, 404-05).

He argues without substantiation re the Great Awakening: “the revival, while pretending to unite the nation, in reality unified it only in the belief that there are aliens in our midst.” 

He criticizes “enthusiasts” for making personal, sensory judgments, but approves of so-called “deists” making them – ostensibly because he approves of the judgments.

Like certain groups today, he attempts to stifle alternate views and studies with which he would disagree: “The new Christian nationalists [which, in his example, includes Mark David Hall, Daniel Dreisbach, et al and yours truly] represent a powerful force within American history, but their success consists chiefly in creating the illusion of a debate where in substance there is none.  … scholars tout their ‘even-handedness’ by giving equal credence to every ‘narrative’ of the history, however fatuous.  A version of this false equivalence can be found in [Hall, Dreisbach, & Morrison’s] The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life.”  Those who do not know should be aware that there are no chapters from the “Christian America”/David Barton extreme in this book – they are all written by established scholars in the field from places such as Stanford, George Mason, American University, James Madison Univ., Notre Dame, Univ. of Texas, etc.  But because they do not subscribe to Stewart’s “everyone was an atheist deist” view, their views are “fatuous” and unworthy of inclusion in discussion!

Stewart may have included his own marching orders on page 333: “Like revolutionaries throughout history, Young and his gang understood that in order to change the future it is necessary first to change the past.”  That appears to be Stewart’s real project.

NPR: "Founders Claimed A Subversive Right To 'Nature's God'"

Check it out here.  A taste:
RATH: So can you tell us - back in 1776, what did nature's God refer to? 
STEWART: So nature's God is one - a deity that operates entirely through laws - natural laws - that are explicable. And we have to approach this god through the study of nature and also evidence and experience. So it's a dramatically different kind of deity from that you find in most revealed religions. 
RATH: Not the God of Moses who literally gave the law, you know, from on high - revealed in that way. 
STEWART: No, that's right. And it also turns out to have a very different genealogy, if I may say so. Nature's God really descends from an ancient Greek tradition that was passed along to the early modern philosophers. And these were quite radical thinkers who were really challenging the ways of thinking of their time and the established religion. Many of them ran into trouble, but it was from them that America's revolutionary philosophers picked up their ideas and, in particular, the idea of nature's God.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Boston Globe: "‘Nature’s God’ by Matthew Stewart"

Here. A taste: 
The book is a pleasure to read, its often surprising conclusions supported by elegant prose and more than 1,000 footnotes. Stewart’s erudite analysis confidently rebuts the creeping campaign of Christian nationalism to “ ‘take back’ the nation and make it what it never in fact was.” The next time someone like Jerry Falwell asserts that the United States is “a Christian nation,” he’ll have to answer to “Nature’s God.’’  
The United States, Stewart writes, was in fact founded by a “club of radical philosophers and their fellow travelers” who were known as deists in their day and today would be called “humanists, atheists, pantheists, freethinkers, [or] Universalists.” “America’s revolutionary deism remains an uncomfortable and underreported topic,” writes Stewart, and in his view the Revolutionary leaders — famous men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as “Forgotten Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Young, one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party — are themselves partly to blame, since for the most part they veiled their religious unorthodoxy for fear of condemnation.

Franklin, for example, urged his friend Ezra Stiles not to “expose me to Criticism and censure” by making his deistic beliefs known. George Washington, who refused to kneel in church or to take communion, simply declined to answer when asked by clerics whether he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. “[T]he old fox was too cunning for them,” his friend and fellow freethinker Jefferson noted approvingly.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rothbard: "Coercing Morality in Puritan Massachusetts"

By Murray Rothbard here (and newly reproduced here). The whole thing is worth a read. I'm going to reproduce below an interesting quotation discussed in the article from Puritan theologian Rev. Nathaniel Ward’s "The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam in America" (1647).
God does nowhere in His word tolerate Christian States to give toleration to such adversaries of His truth, if they have power in their hands to suppress them … He that willingly assents to toleration of varieties of religion … his conscience will tell him he is either an atheist or a heretic or a hypocrite, or at best captive to some lust. Poly-piety is the greatest impiety in the world.… To authorize an untruth by a toleration of State is to build a sconce against the walls of heaven, to batter God out of His chair.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lillback v. Boston on Washington's Faith

Peter Lillback takes on Rob Boston on George Washington's faith.

I don't know a whole lot about this dialog, but I wonder if Lillback's paper, which is reproduced on Wallbuilders, was an exclusive to that site. Perhaps merely associating with David Barton's Wallbuilders is enough to damage one's credibility ... or not. (Just a thought.)

Ultimately, I agree with Lillback that the record demonstrates Washington a man of prayer. According to the theory, 1. Washington was a theist; 2. Since the God of theism intervenes in the affairs of man; 3. Praying is a rational activity.

The record does not prove, however, that Washington was a "Christian" according to Lillback's standards. Indeed, as American Creation's Brad Hart has shown, according to Lillback's own evidence, Washington never prays, either publicly or privately, in exclusively Christian language (i.e., in "Jesus' name").

The best Lillback can offer is Washington, unlike fellow Anglican Thomas Jefferson, agreed to be a Godfather where he'd have to go through high church Anglican rituals that required the Godfather to recite orthodox language. (But elsewhere Lillback claims Washington rejected high church Anglicanism, which is the same thing as stating you reject official Anglican doctrine while simultaneously remaining a member of the club.)

Jefferson was obsessively compulsively anti-Trinitarian; Washington didn't appear to be. In what exists of Washington's extant words -- tens of thousands of pages of them, loaded with God talk -- explicit thoughts on the doctrine of the Trinity and cognate orthodox doctrine, are entirely absent.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Volokh: "'In a country professing Christianity, … I find my religion and myself attacked'"

Eugene Volokh reproduces a firsthand account from early American artist John Trumbull in 1793 where one of Jefferson's invited guests -- a senator from Virginia, and therefore one of the hundreds of unknown "Founders" -- articulated something very close to strict deism (indeed, something way stricter than what Jefferson himself apparently believed) or perhaps atheism.

From 1793:
Thinking this a fair opportunity for evading further conversation on this subject, I turned to Mr. Jefferson and said, “Sir, this is a strange situation in which I find myself; in a country professing Christianity, and at a table with Christians, as I supposed, I find my religion and myself attacked with severe and almost irresistible wit and raillery, and not a person to aid me in my defense, but my friend Mr. Franks, who is himself a Jew.” For a moment, this attempt to parry the discussion appeared to have some effect; but Giles soon returned to the attack, with renewed virulence, and burst out with — “It is all a miserable delusion and priestcraft; I do not believe one word of all they say about a future state of existence, and retribution for actions done here. I do not believe one word of a Supreme Being who takes cognizance of the paltry affairs of this world, and to whom we are responsible for what we do.”

Monday, July 14, 2014

David Stokes Contrasts the American and French Revolutions

Columnist David R. Stokes contrasts the American and French Revolutions in an opinion piece for The writer of this excellent article is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, ordained minister, commentator, and broadcaster based in Northern Virginia. He's also a personal friend and my former pastor. Follow the link below to the article...

...and let us know what you think in the comments section.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

John Fea Stands Up Against Latest David Barton Sliming

To his great and good credit, friend-of-the-blog Dr. John Fea of Messiah College [and author of Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction BUY! BUY!] sets the left-wing jackal pack straight on their favorite whipping boy's latest careen into the PC ditch:

What David Barton Really Said About Women and Voting

Everyone seems to be ripping on David Barton today. They are claiming that he said that women's suffrage is somehow bad for the country.  Here are some of the headlines:
"David Barton: Allowing women to vote "hurts the entire culture and society."
"Barton: Denying Women's Suffrage Protects the Family"
"David Barton: Women Weren't Allowed to Vote in Order to Preserve the Family."


Most people who read this blog know that I have been very critical of Barton.  In fact, I could probably write something critical about David Barton every day on this blog and see my readership double.
Barton, of course, represents the Christian Right, but as this most recent incident shows, the Left is not immune from this kind of cherry picking and manipulation of evidence to promote their own political agenda.

Perhaps all of those historians (yes, some legitimate historians have jumped on the bandwagon) and pundits should listen to the entire Wallbuilders Live episode before hitting social media to skewer Barton for saying that women's suffrage was a bad thing.  If you listen to the entire context of this discussion of women's suffrage, you will notice several things:

1.  Nowhere in this episode does Barton say the 19th amendment was a bad thing or that women voting is a bad thing.  Listen for yourself.  Some might say he is implying this.  If someone wants to make this argument, it is a stretch.

2.  The clip I posted above has been edited.  The part of the discussion in which Barton and Green seem to suggest that women's suffrage is a positive development in American life has been cut out.

Etc.  Like the man says, read the whole thing.  Kudos, John.  Every man deserves a fair trial.  Then we can hang him.

Joseph Blast: "A Founding Father Profit Sharing Fix for Inequality"

From The Daily Beast here. A taste:
In fact, while Adams drafted the new Massachusetts Constitution, some of his political colleagues considered changing the name of that state to Oceana, the fictional commonwealth of political philosopher James Harrington, where wide property ownership helped secure political liberty. Like all the Founders, Adams wanted property rights protected and he wanted everyone to be a property holder. 
Land was the main form of capital at this time, and the Founders’ preferred idea of spreading capital ownership through land was expressed in repeated far-reaching governmental actions. Washington asked Jefferson to draft a liberal approach to the sale of public lands to citizens which commenced, albeit with some complications. They moved against the institution of primogeniture, a key plank of European feudalism,...
Admittedly, I'm less well read on the Founders & economic policy than I am on the Founders & religion; but I see two strains of competing thought on the former: 1. The more individualistic "liberal" laissez faire notion that accepts applying equally a set of rules to individuals with differing talents results in vastly different outcomes, and that's okay as long as the same set of rules applies to all; and 2. The more collectivistic "republican" notion that demands some kind of redistribution or indeed, wealth based "affirmative action" to undo some of the unfairness of the history of aristocracy. Abolishing primogeniture was a first step ....

And as Eric Nelson has shown the Bible, particularly the Hebraic writings offer more for an egalitarian redistributionist republicanism than did Greco-Roman republicanism, whose teachings eschewed economic redistribution.

As I teach my students, the dialog in Western Civilization on individualism v. collectivism traces back to the very beginning and runs the entire length. Marx didn't invent it.

Indeed, I think we forget the origins of the term "utopia." It was the Christian Thomas More who coined the term while defining the concept. In More's Utopia, both wealth and poverty were abolished, which looks something like Marx's economic "equality according to need." Marx was More stripped of his Christianity. It was Marx's atheistic dictated utopia that was novel, not his notion of economic leveling. (Atheists weren't appreciated in More's Utopia.)

(But Leo Strauss would probably see More as a secret esoteric atheist anyway.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Right Wing Watch: "Bob Barr Challenges Barry Loudermilk To Disavow David Barton's Endorsement"

I know it's a bit off topic. But I thought I'd post it because it represents one of the odder moments in David Barton history I've yet seen. Check it out here.

Kirkus: "NATURE'S GOD The Heretical Origins of the American Republic"

Here. A taste:
Stewart gives the simplistic “common religious consciousness” and much presumed wisdom a fair hearing, then demolishes them utterly, though not dismissing what is useful in faith. By closely analyzing the writings of Jefferson, Young, Franklin, Paine et al., he quashes the delusion that America was established as a “Christian” nation.

New Republic: "The Dangerous Lies We Tell About America's Founding"

Here. A taste:
To conclude that America is a “Christian nation,” as numerous Christian conservatives insist, underestimates both the radicalness of the ideas on which the republic was founded and, more crucially, the source of our continuing national strength. That power, according to Stewart, is the ability of liberalism to effect progress—however slowly—through ideas like equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty. 
Stewart, best known for his philosophical history of Leibniz and Spinoza, The Courtier and the Heretic, gives deism the gift of serious historical roots. He traces this strain of radical philosophy from Epicurus, via Lucretius, to Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and through to the ideas of Jefferson, as evidenced in the Declaration of Independence.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fea: "Boston 1775 Covers Three New Books on the American Revolution"

Here John Fea tells us about three great post from Boston 1775, my favorite one of which is found here. A quotation from that one:
[Matthew] Stewart is clearly arguing against claims of our modern religious right that the U.S. of A. was founded on and for Christian beliefs—almost always the beliefs of the people making those claims. As Stewart points out, people of a particular faith tend to assume that when historical figures they admire mention “God,” that means the same God they themselves believe in. But even when people of the past specifically allude to Christianity or Jesus, they may not share the same understanding of those terms and ideas as their modern readers. 
That can cut in all directions. “Presbyterian“ was often used as a general derogatory term by eighteenth-century non-Presbyterians. John Adams’s understanding of “Unitarianism” doesn’t map directly onto the modern Unitarian-Universalist creed. And so on.

Den Hartog: "Religion and the Founding, 2014 edition"

Jonathan Den Hartog on the book in which he participated along with some other familiar names here. The book is here. A taste:
In the introduction, the editors speak of their desire to "expand the conversation" about how to understand multiple religious beliefs acting in multiple ways during the founding era (6). On one hand, this means moving beyond the simple binaries of Christian orthodoxy/Deistic secularism that often get presented as the only options for understanding the founding. On the other, they strongly argue that religion for the founders cannot be understood simply through the lens of  "the Big 6": Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin. Rather, many other founders who also played important roles--and the groups in which they were enmeshed--need to be considered. To advance this two-fold strategy, the essays in the volume are divided in half, with the first eight essays examining how religion interacted in multiple ways with the political culture of the founding and with the last five examining other important founders whose religious commitments shed light on the complexity of religion in the founding.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Two Reviews of "Nature's God The Heretical Origins of the American Republic"

A book by Matthew Stewart. Here is a more friendly review by the LA Times; and here is a more hostile review by Robert Tracy McKenzie.

From the later:
Apart from the hyperbole, what precisely is new about Stewart's reading of the founding? It's not his assertion that the religious views of the most prominent Founders were unorthodox. With apologies to David Barton, there is little evidence that the leading Founders were devout Christians who based their political philosophy primarily on Scripture. Whether we label them "deists" or "theistic rationalists" or "Enlightenment Christians," no historically sound argument can transform them into card-carrying evangelicals. Nor is Stewart being innovative in claiming that the Founders drew extensively from Enlightenment sources in thinking about the proper structure and function of government. Scholars of the Revolution almost unanimously agree with this, and that includes Christian historians who take religion's role with great seriousness. 
But the predominant view within the academy would complicate each of these conclusions. Scholars typically argue that the leading Founders were unorthodox, but not irreligious. Yes, they found much of value in Enlightenment philosophy, but they gravitated toward the Enlightenment's more moderate expressions, especially Scottish "Common Sense" writings that could be reconciled with Christianity. ...
Update: Here is a Q&A from the Boston Globe.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A 4th of July story: John Dickinson's conservative dissent bought us time for success

Happy 4th of July! Today is the day Americans commemorate the independence our nation, declared by that courageous band of Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia and signed the document that declared our nation to be free and independent from the United Kingdom. One of the great Founders that summer in Philadelphia was John Dickinson, a statesman admired second only to Washington by the other delegates.

A Pennsylvania man, Dickinson had long written in defense of the American cause against parliamentary encroachments on the traditional rights of Englishmen that the American colonists had long enjoyed. Yet, as Wilfred M. McClay writes in this fascinating review of a recent biography of Dickinson posted  over at The American Conservative notes, Dickinson opposed the push for American independence for most of that summer and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Despite this opposition, when the Crown in Parliament pressed war upon the American nation, Dickinson took to the field and fought fiercely for American liberty, honor and life. 

And in the course of Providence, Dickinson's refusal to go quickly along with the rush towards independence proved essential to the success of the American cause. As Daniel Foster explains in this post over at National Review Online, Dickinson's caution provided the time necessary for the Americans to adequately prepare for war with the greatest superpower the world had yet known at that time. 

So, on this 4th of July, spare a moment or two to think about John Dickinson, probably the greatest Founding Father that almost nobody has heard of. A defender of American rights, then attacked as a Loyalist, then a solider in the cause of the Revolution, always a statesman who put love of country and need for order ahead of grant schemes and personal aggrandizement. A worthy model for Americans of any stripe, but especially for conservatives.  Here is a Founder who preferred the tried and the true to the novel and innovative, but who also understood that sometime reform, even radical reform, is necessary to preserve the established institutions and customs of a society based on law and traditional rights. And he was a proud patriot who shows that dissent, far from being a source of weakness to be extirpated, can give a nation an opportunity to become stronger and more able. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rights, government and a punctuation ambiguity in the Declaration of Independence

For rather obvious reasons, here at American Creation we take the 4th of July seriously. As we ramp up for the official Independence Day holiday here in the United States, the New York Time is running a story on what appears to be a newly discovered drafting ambiguity in the formal statement by the Continental Congress that got this whole America things rolling:  A Period is Questioned in the Declaration of Independence.

As the article details, the ambiguity isn't in a minor part of the Declaration, either, or in a one of the parts that hardly anybody reads anymore.  It is dead-center in the heart of the part of the Declaration that has been most interesting to Americans since the 1850s: the statement about inalienable rights and the basis of human government.  The way the text has traditionally been thought to read is as follows, with the newly-called into question punctuation in bold brackets:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness [.] — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Why does this matter?  As the article explains:
The error, according to Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., concerns a period that appears right after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the transcript, but almost certainly not, she maintains, on the badly faded parchment original.  
That errant spot of ink, she believes, makes a difference, contributing to what she calls a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the document.

The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights.  
"The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”
An interesting issue.  Fortunately, since the Declaration of Independence has no binding authority as a constitutional document, it is the kind of issue that likely won't have any major practical effect on how our rights and duties are understood legally.  But from the perspective of political philosophy, as well as basic drafting principles, the difference between a comma and a period in the text could be significant in understanding how the two parts of that section of the Declaration were meant to be read.

In any event, this story is a great reminder that there is always stuff waiting to be discovered in the historical record, and technology is only going to make that more true as time goes on.  Even a document as massively studied as the Declaration of Independence can offer up new insights over time.

Update:  in the comments fellow American Creation blogger Tom Van Dyke points out the counter-argument that the punctuation used in the document doesn't make all that much difference.  Clink on the comments and give his contribution a serious read.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Research On Religion: "Mark David Hall on Religious Minorities in the U.S. Founding"

Mark David Hall always has something usefully informative to say on the matter. From Tony Gills' excellent podcast here, discussing, among other things, this book by Dr. Hall, et al.