by Tom Van Dyke
James H. Hutson [Ph.D in history, Yale '64] is chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress and is a particular hero to the sincere readers of this blog.
In this worthy Hutson essay on James Madison, I was struck by the section below:
"The story of how Madison and a diverse band of evangelicals and civil libertarians mounted, in 1785, a successful public relations campaign against [Patrick] Henry's bill, highlighted by Madison's celebrated religious liberty manifesto, the Declaration and Remonstrance, is a familiar one in American church-state literature, especially since it resulted in 1786 in the passage by the Virginia Assembly of Jefferson's landmark Statute for Religious Freedom.
The downfall of the general assessment bill is usually depicted as a kind of slow moving Armageddon, in which Madison and his followers, representing the forces of light and progress, gradually vanquish the legions of reaction who would have dragged America back into the dark ages of religious persecution and bigotry."
Oh, we know that story quite well. Theocrats at the gates!, then and now. The heroes of Enlightenment beat them back. But Hutson continues:
"There are several things wrong with this interpretation, one being that it can not explain why, if the general assessment bill was so wrong-headed and regressive, it was supported by "most Protestants in Virginia," not to mention several of Virginia's most eminent patriots and champions of human liberties, including Henry himself, Richard Henry Lee, John Marshall, Edmund Pendleton and George Washington.
Nor can it explain why similar general assessment bills were supported, after 1776, by the legislatures of five other states and by a galaxy of revolutionary heroes, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Roger Sherman Oliver Ellsworth, and in neighboring Maryland, Samuel Chase, William Paca and Charles Carroll."
I see a couple presidents, a Chief Justice, and a guy whose name appears on some very good beers, but who are all these other guys? Has the secular academy made them all nonpersons? Well...mebbe!
"This explanatory failure is the result of a form of scholarly malpractice that Herbert Butterfield denounced early in the last century as the Whig interpretation of history. According to Butterfield, "Whig" historians regularly succumb to the temptation of concentrating on precursors of present day "progress" and denying their opponents the benefit of "historical understanding."
Butterfield warned that Whig historians will fix their eyes on "certain people who appear as the special agencies of...progress." In Whig eyes Madison and his supporters deserve to be explained and extolled because they are the pioneers of what is currently regarded as the "progressive" doctrine of strict separation of church and state. No time need be wasted on their opponents, as an offhand remark by Irving Brant, a prime example of Butterfield's Whig historian, indicates."
Aha. No wonder we've hardly heard of all those other guys, or anything of their arguments. No wonder so many people these days think the Founding's public square was pretty "naked" of religion. Some scholars are just more subtle than Christian Nationists---instead of putting stuff in, they just leave it out.
"Brant noted that Henry's 1784 speech, advocating "religious assessments," had not survived but that this was not a matter of regret, since it would have contained nothing worth reading; "a plea to unite church and state is not," wrote Brant, "of the sort on which libertarian fame is built." Ignoring the case for general religious assessments does not alter the reality that in post-1776 large numbers of Americans, great and small, approved them."
And that's the point, dear Brothers & Sisters, gentle readers, good Americans all. By focusing only on what some call the "key" Founders [and I prefer "marquee" Founders, the guys they tend to make HBO miniseries about] and ignoring the rest, we might see the valleys and mountains, but not the streams and roads that weave through them. The "eureka" moment of a Madison quote that's congenial to our position isn't checkmate after all.
A couple historical notes refine Hutson's argument. Although Madison's words are cited as a milestone separating religion and politics in the Founding era, they're of more scholarly value than historical:
"Madison's Memorial circulated as a petition during the summer and fall of 1785 and was eventually signed by over 1500 Virginians, an impressive figure but less than one-fifth of all signatories of anti-assessment petitions. The most popular petitions came from the pens of Baptists, who agreed with Madison's position on the total separation of church and state but argued for it from different premises, from their traditional scriptural view that Christ's kingdom was not of this world rather than from a Lockean theory of the social compact."
And although we return often to Madison's thoughts in a similar vein, Hutson notes that
"When Madison became president in 1809, Congress had been employing and paying chaplains for more than thirty years, ample time, he evidently thought, to give the sanction of precedent to a practice he personally deplored."
...a practice that continues to this day. Although we always want to improve the road, we don't always need to tear up the sidewalks in the process. I mean, Christmas has only been a federal holiday since 1870, but I still like having the day off.
When we contemplate the Founding, whether our purpose is to "restore" it or "update" it, let's first admit the difficulty of knowing where all the zigs and zags are. None of us were there, and Lord knows you can't believe everything you read.
And, oh yeah, God bless James H. Hutson. This Sam's for you, dude.