Thursday, August 20, 2009

Religion Left to the States?

Or Were the State Constitutions
Hated by the Founding Fathers?

Tom Van Dyke, my very worthy blog brother, recently posted a list of several preambles of various state constitutions, in an effort to prove his theory that religion was intended to be left to the states. Mr. Van Dyke is far from alone in his conclusions. Several notable scholars have also come to the same conclusion. And while there are some good arguments to back such a conclusion, I remain somewhat undecided on this issue. It's not that Mr. Van Dyke presents a weak case...quite the contrary. I believe that this particular point is the single most provocative and legitimate issue that could possibly be used by the "Christian Nation" crowd.

Now, it is not my intention to dispute Tom's conclusions in this post. As I mentioned above I remain somewhat undecided on this particular issue. Instead, I want to simply site what I see to be a strong counter-argument to the "religion was the domain of the states" argument. In his book, Unruly Americans, historian Woody Holton's central thesis is that the federal constitution was created primarily out of a disdain for the state constitutions -- which were seen as being "too democratic" and "too misrepresenting" for a legitimate republic to function. Holton writes:

The textbooks and the popular histories give surprisingly short shrift to the Framers' motivations. What almost all of them do say is that harsh experience had exposed the previous government, under the Articles of Confederation, as too weak. What makes this emphasis strange is that the Framers' own statements reveal another, more pressing motive. Early in the Constitutional Convention, James Madison urged his colleagues to tackle "the evils...which prevail within the States individually as well as those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation."

Madison, preoccupation with what he later called "the internal administration of the States" was by no means unique. On the eve of the convention, expressions of concern about the weakness of Congress, numerous as they were, was vastly outnumbered by the complaints against the state governments. "What led to the appointment of this Convention?" Maryland Governor John Francis Mercer asked his colleagues. Was is not "the corruption & mutability of the Legislative Councils of the States?"

Once the Constitution had been sent out to the thirteen states for ratification, its supporters affirmed that some of the most lethal diseases it was designed to cure were to be found within those same states. William Plumer of New Hampshire embraced the new national government out of a conviction that "our rights & property are now the sport of ignorant and unprincipled legislatures." In the last of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton praised the Constitution for placing salutary "restraints" on the "ambition of powerful individuals in single states."

What was wrong with the state assemblies? Given the modern perception that the Founding Fathers had devoted their lives to the principle of government by the people, it is jarring to read their specific grievances. An essay appearing in a Connecticut newspaper in September 1786 complained that the state's representatives paid "too great an attention to popular notions." At least one of those Connecticut assemblymen thoroughly agreed. In May 1787, just as the federal convention assembled, he observed that even the southern states, which under British rule had been aristocratic bastions, had "run into the extremes of democracy" since declaring independence.
Simply put, if Holston's thesis is correct it means that state Constitutions became of little consequence, since they were esteemed to be a threat to effective Republican government. Having a Christian text or invocation of God would be nothing more than just that...text. Now, I still remain unconvinced that the Founders' sole purpose for establishing a new Constitution was to eradicate the evils of state power. In addition, the Founders did compromise some power in the federal constitution to the states (not originally but later in the Bill of Rights). So clearly not everyone had such a powerful disdain for state power.



Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, my reply is that general criticisms of the state governments don't necessarily apply to the subject of religion, and the internet tells me that Woody Holton's book is largely about financial issues.

Absent specific criticisms of religion in the several states, there's no there there.

For if one area seems sui generis, a unique thing in itself, it's religion. My impression is that it was such a hot potato [and the differences between the sects were indeed irreconcilable], that the Framers were quite happy to steer around it, and so the First Amendment reads quite clearly, "Congress shall make no law..."

Hands off.

Indeed, had they even started hassling about religion, I doubt the constitution ever would have got finished.

[I'd also note that interestingly, many of the state preambles listed come from their most or more recent versions, from eras well after the Founding. It's been the mistake of many "Christian Nation" proponents to use pre-Founding era documents, which prove very little.]

Brad Hart said...

Yeah, I can't disagree with what you're saying. And yes, much of Holton's thesis centers on the financial mess made by the states. I also agree that most of the founders simply swept away the religion issue knowing that it would be a cluster f*** to attempt to address.

What gives me pause, however, is the fact that Madison DID witness first hand how state authority -- in his native Virginia -- had caused P. Henry and others to fight for a single state religion. I can't help but wonder if Madison and others harbored at least a little bit of resentment for the states based on the religion issue. Yes, I would agree that it wasn't THE major issue -- or at least nobody vocalized it as such -- but I wonder if it was on anyone's mind?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I saw one Madison scholar on C-SPAN say that the biggest surprise of his research was Madison's affinity for federalism. I don't see it [yet], but I keep his remark in mind while reading Madison.

Again, we run into the confusion of terms---"state-established church" is not the same thing as "religion" in general.

And a number of states like Massachusetts did indeed have officially established churches, and the ratification of the Constitution didn't require that they disestablish them.

Hands off.

And regardless of Madison's private feelings, or those of other Framers, the "Founders" include all the Ratifiers as well, and the Ratifiers tended to be members of the state legislatures we're discussing.

I think it's quite clear from his writings that Madison disfavored established churches [and government's financial support for them]; however, Madison alone is not the Founding, and the Constitution quite clearly tells him and the federal government to butt out.

Madison had perhaps the biggest impact of all the Founders, but he didn't win every battle.

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW, Brad, did you catch Holton's greatest revelation? The establishment of the US government led to it assuming all the debts of the states. Many folks speculated on the states' paper, hoping to eventually get paid off.

Holton's biggest winner? Abagail Adams! She made a fortune.

Brad Hart said...

Gordon Wood argues that Madison went through a bit of a personal evolution with regards to his sentiments on federalism. Early on, while laboring with Hamilton on "The Federalist Papers," Madison clearly is a supporter of federalism. However, once in place, Madison begins to see its flaws and becomes more Jeffersonian in his beliefs (I'm sure it didn't hurt that Jefferson -- was, by then, back from France and able to "persuade" his "Boy wonder" to his side).

And no, I did not read that part about Abigal Adams. I just bought the book yesterday, but I'm excited to read that!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson = authoritarian, as in Leviathan? Pls explain.

And yes, I certainly see Jefferson as a dominant personality, with Madison and John Adams taking their cues from him.

Madison for one switched sides from being Washington's man to Jefferson's. [Washington and Jefferson were not the best of friends.] Which is why I don't give Madison a lot of admiration. I feature him as more the contract lawyer of the Founding, not its heart or soul, and the Founding had both.

A clever man, and we are tempted to call him wise, since by setting factions against each other in his design of the constitution, he was manifestly wise in the ways of men.

But so was Machiavelli. I meself would follow neither into battle, and tend to think of them both as weasels.

Brad Hart said...

Yeah, the Washington/Jefferson relationship went south soon after the "Samson in the field" letter from Jefferson during the Jay Treaty. Pretty much the nail in the coffin.

As for Madison, I don't know if I would ever go so far as to call him "Washington's man." They were never really joined at the hip in the same way that he and Jefferson were...truly the "Batman and Robin" of the founding.

You wouldn't go into battle with Madison? You know, he did lead an artillery unit -- impromptu mind you -- during the War of 1812. And as you might have guessed, the man didn't do too well.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No. I didn't know. Heh.

Daniel said...

The greatest difficulty with applying Holton's thesis to religion is that the Constitution did nothing to limit the States' power in that area. The First Amendment is quite explicit in it application that Congress shall make no law. In financial matters, the Constitution limits the States by giving the national government the key power. What the Founders wanted in their heart of hearts is another question, but (as it concerns the States), it is not expressed in the Constitution.

J said...

Not exactly. The Federalists' fears were more along the traditional tory-aristocratic sort (also found in Aristotle and Plato for that matter). They feared that the popular vote and congress--and really,states rights-- would turn into a rule by mob, or create a tyranny of the majority, and say, vote in property reform ala Rousseau (if not create a duplicate of the "Mountain", jacobins, sans cullottes,etc). They discuss the issue in various sections of the Fed. papers.

The religious issue is tangential, but read between the lines of the Federalist papers and Madison's essays, and you note a suspicion of the "low church" protestants (often allies with the anti-federalists). Madison had no love for the fundamentalists of his time.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Pls do substantiate your claim about Madison, Mr. J. Sounds interesting.

Mari said...

Why do Americans hate John Adams? I want to KNOW!!