Because scholars and popular writers have tended to focus on founders who were not part of the Reformed tradition, and because they often simplistically attribute any reference to natural rights, government by consent, and the right to resist tyrannical authority to a secularized Locke, they have neglected the influence of Calvinist political thought on the American founders. However, if we take the tradition seriously and look beyond a few elite founders, a fuller and richer picture of the founding comes into focus. Within the academy, historians have done a better job of doing this than have political scientists and law professors. The latter two groups are far more likely to focus on a few texts such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and the Bill of Rights. Moreover, they tend to interpret public documents in light of the privately held views of a few elites rather than as a product of a community—for our purposes a community that included a significant number of Reformed Christians. In the following sections I indicate ways that taking this tradition seriously can help scholars better understand texts such as the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Each study is necessarily brief and is meant only to be suggestive.
The Declaration of Independence
The War for Independence involved a variety of issues, but particularly relevant for Reformed Americans were concerns that Parliament and the Crown intended to restrict the colonists’ freedom of worship. Notably, they worried that the King planned to appoint a bishop for the American colonies. The Puritans and their descendents had always been in the precarious position of maintaining what was in effect a dissenting establishment. They feared that a bishop would attempt to take over all colonial churches and set up oppressive ecclesiastical courts. The most recent episode in the long-running pamphlet war concerning an American episcopate had erupted in 1763. Two years later, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which contained a reference to courts “exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the said colonies.” This was taken by partisans of both sides to imply that a bishop would be sent shortly, and that for the first time ecclesiastical courts would operate in the American colonies.
These fears may seem excessive today, but to an eighteenth century Calvinist they made perfect sense. Calvinists had often struggled against unfriendly governments, and New England Puritans had come to America precisely because they were unable to reform completely the Church of England. Throughout the eighteenth century some American Anglicans continued to argue that the Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches were not “true” churches because their ministers had not been ordained by bishops. The extent to which Anglican leaders supported the plans of American Anglicans has been extensively debated by scholars; but there is little reason to doubt that Reformed Christians genuinely feared an Anglican episcopate. Ill-conceived actions by the Church of England such as founding a “mission” in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1759 did little to calm their fears.
Calvinists in America were also troubled by the Quebec Act of 1774. From Parliament’s perspective, this innocuous piece of legislation simply provided for the efficient governing of territory won from France after the French and Indian War. The act extended the colony of Quebec into what is now the American midwest, permitted the use of French civil law, and allowed Catholics to freely practice their faith and take oaths without reference to Protestantism. To many Protestants, these steps constituted a significant retreat for the kingdom of God in North America. Reformed Protestants of the era considered Roman Catholics to be, at best, seriously deceived and, at worst, in league with Satan. Expanding territory controlled by “Papists” and giving them full civil rights did not bode well for the Protestant cause.
Reformed Christians had long been on their guard against tyrannical rulers desiring to stamp out the true gospel. Although they recognized that God is sovereign, they were haunted by events such as the massacres of French Huguenots, where evil rulers seemed to succeed. When tyrannical rulers had failed it was, from a human perspective, because Protestants had resisted them with arguments, laws, and force. As Reformed Americans began to perceive a pattern of tyranny by Parliament and the Crown, they reacted forcefully against the threat.
The influence of Reformed political ideas on American Patriots is often ignored because students of the era focus on the Declaration of Independence as the statement of why separation from Great Britain was justified. Moreover, they read the document in light of the views of its primary drafter, Thomas Jefferson, who was more influenced by the Enlightenment than virtually any other American. The Declaration of Independence is compatible with the Reformed political theory, but this tradition’s influence is more evident in other public documents stating the Patriots’ case. These texts are not narrowly Reformed—indeed, they might be better characterized as articulating Protestant concerns. However, a large majority of Protestants in America at the time were, in fact, Reformed Protestants, and these Protestants were more likely to support the Patriot cause and use such language than, say, Anglicans.
On September 17, 1774 Paul Revere delivered the Suffolk Resolves to the Continental Congress. The Resolves recognized the sovereignty of King George, but challenged the legality of recent acts and practices by the British Parliament. The Resolves proclaimed[t]hat it is an indispensable duty which we owe to God, our country, ourselves and posterity, by all lawful ways and means in our power to maintain, defend and preserve those civil and religious rights and liberties, for which many of our fathers fought, bled and died, and to hand them down entire to future generations.
As well, they condemnedthe late act of parliament for establishing the Roman Catholic religion and the French laws in that extensive country, now called Canada, is dangerous in an extreme degree to the Protestant religion and to the civil rights and liberties of all America; and, therefore, as men and Protestant Christians, we are indispensably obliged to take all proper measures for our security.
The Suffolk Resolves played a significant role in encouraging congressional delegates to take a strong stand against Parliament. Shortly after receiving the Resolves they adopted a “Declaration of Rights” that asserted the colonists’ constitutional and natural rights. They objected specifically to the act passedfor establishing the Roman Catholick Religion in the province of Quebec, abolishing the equitable system of English laws, and erecting a tyranny there, to the great danger, from so total a dissimilarity of Religion, law, and government of the neighbouring British colonies, by the assistance of those whose blood and treasure the said country was conquered from France.
Congress’s “Appeal to the People of Great Britain,” approved at the same time, expanded on the significance of the Quebec Act and challenged Parliament’s ability “to establish a religion, fraught with sanguinary and impious tenets, or, to erect an arbitrary form of government, in any quarter of the globe.” These and other congressional documents highlight concerns that are only vaguely represented in the Declaration of Independence’s charge that the king abolished “the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province…” The difference has something to do with the person who drafted the latter document, but even more to do with the intended audience. Jefferson was obviously not in the Reformed tradition, and a critical audience for the Declaration was Roman Catholic France. The eventual intervention of France on the Patriots’ side did much to diminish the vehement anti-Catholicism of many Americans in this era, but suspicion of “papists” remained a powerful force in the American imagination well into the twentieth century.
Like the Declaration of Independence, Congress’s 1775 “Declaration on Taking Arms” makes broad theoretical claims about natural rights, the necessity of consent, and the ends of government; but it communicates these claims in powerful religious rhetoric. Originally drafted by Jefferson, it was revised significantly by John Dickinson and then debated and approved by Congress. The document began by arguing that if:it was possible for men, who exercise their reason, to believe, that the Divine Author of our existence intended a part of the human race to hold an absolute property in, and an unbounded power over others, marked out by his infinite goodness and wisdom, as the objects of a legal domination never rightfully resistible, however severe and oppressive, the inhabitants of these Colonies might at least require from the parliament of Great Britain some evidence, that this dreadful authority over them, has been granted to that body. But a reverence for our Creator, principles of humanity, and the dictates of common sense, must convince all those who reflect upon the subject, that government was instituted to promote the welfare of mankind, and ought to be administered for the attainment of that end.
This paragraph reflects well some of the basic tenets of Reformed political theory. God is the author of freedom, and He ordains limited governments to promote the common good. The document goes on to proclaim that Parliament’s actions must be resisted, not because of the particular harm of any one policy but because its ultimate aim is to enslave the colonies. Congress emphasized Parliament’s overreaching claims, particularly its extravagant assertion that it could “make laws to bind us IN ALL CASES WHATSOEVER.” After listing a number of specific grievances against Parliament and the King, the delegates proclaimed that:With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with our [one] mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.
This declaration, passed a little less than a year before its more famous cousin, falls short of requiring separation from Great Britain. Instead, it concludes “[w]ith an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore his divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the empire from the calamities of civil war.” It is interesting for our purposes because it more obviously reflects the concerns and language of Reformed Protestants. It is noteworthy that the text is seldom cited by scholars attempting to understand the ideological influences on America’s founders in this era.
On July 4, 1776 Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. Its most famous lines proclaim thatall 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.
These words reflect arguments long made by Patriots, relatively few of whom read Locke and many of whom were active Calvinists. Of course their primary drafter, Thomas Jefferson, definitely read Locke and was most certainly not a Calvinist, but he later noted that he was not attempting to “find out new principles, or new arguments” and that the Declaration’s authority rests “on the harmonizing sentiments of the day.” Jefferson indisputably borrowed language from Locke, but the ideas to which he referred predated Locke by years. There is simply no evidence that signers from Reformed backgrounds such as Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, William Ellery, Roger Sherman, William Williams, Samuel Huntington, Oliver Wolcott, William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, John Hart, Abraham Clark, James Smith, James Wilson, Thomas McKean, and Lyman Hall understood the “Creator” to be “nature” or thought they were approving a document that mandated a “secular politics” as some scholars have claimed.
With the exception of John Witherspoon, no active clergyman is listed above. Yet observers have long recognized that Reformed ministers were among the most important supporters of the Patriot cause. The Loyalist Peter Oliver railed against “Mr. Otis’s black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a part in the Rebellion.” King George himself reportedly referred to the War for Independence as “a Presbyterian Rebellion,” and historians have recognized that there was an “almost unanimous and persistent critical attitude of the Congregational and Presbyterian ministers toward the British imperial policy.” Indeed, before real bullets were exchanged at Lexington and Concord the Congregationalist minister Jonathan Mayhew fired “the MORNING GUN OF THE REVOLUTION, the punctum Temporis when that period of history began.” The gun in question was Mayhew’s influential sermon “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers” delivered and published in Boston in 1750. The sermon powerfully and eloquently argued that governments are ordained by God, that their powers are limited, and that citizens have a duty to resist rulers who do evil. Mayhew is not a good representative of Calvinist theology, but his sermon is an excellent example of Calvinist political thought. And it is only one of many sermons preached, printed, and circulated that encouraged Reformed Christians to be wary of and to resist tyrannical governments.
With a handful of exceptions such as the Swiss born Presbyterian John Joachim Zubly and a few Old Light Dutch Calvinists and Congregationalists, Reformed clergy were unanimous in their support of the Patriot cause. Most of their parishioners were as well. It should come as no surprise that men and women rooted in the Reformed political tradition, a tradition that had long held that individuals possess natural rights, that governments should be based on the consent of the government, that civil authority should be limited, and that the people have a right to overthrow tyrannical regimes would join the Patriot cause. From the English perspective, British Major Harry Rooke was largely correct when he confiscated a presumably Calvinist book from an American prisoner and remarked that “[i]t is your G-d Damned Religion of this Country that ruins the Country; Damn your religion.”
51. For an argument that political theorists should be interested in the views of non-elites see Shain, Myth of American Individualism, 6-8 and Donald Lutz, A Preface to American Political Theory (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992), passim.
52. Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics: 1689-1775 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 207-87, 256; Frohnen, American Republic, 110.
53. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 95-96; Heimert, Religion and the American Mind, 351-52; Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre.
54. Kidd, The Protestant Interest; Martin I. J. Griffin, ed., Catholics and the American Revolution (Rideley Park: self-published, 1907), 1: 1-40; 3: 384-92.
55. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), (hereinafter JCC), 1: 33-35
56. Adams, ed. Works of John Adams, 2: 16; JCC, 1: 68-70, 72.
57. JCC, 1: 83, 87-88. On the decline of anti-Catholicism in the era see Charles P. Hanson, Necessary Virtue: The Pragmatic Origins of Religious Liberty in New England (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998
58. JCC, 2: 140-41, 146, 150-55, 157. Of course Christians from a variety of backgrounds could assent to the paragraph quoted above, and Dickinson came from a Quaker background.
59. Koch and Peden, Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 24.
60. Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, in Ibid., 656-57; Zuckert, Natural Rights Republic, 76, 141. Of course some of the founders listed above (and in the following lists) were better Calvinists that others—i.e. John Adams was a life-long Congregationalist, but privately he came to embrace Unitarian theology. On the other hand, he specifically claimed to be heavily influenced by Reformed political theory (supra, 20-21). As well, some joined other denominations later in life (e.g. Wilson eventually became an Anglican). I have compiled each list of Reformed founders myself, but where possible I list a printed account of the denomination affiliation of the founders. Lists commonly available on the internet are generally accurate but often contain mistakes. William Stevens Perry, “The Faith of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” Magazine of History (1926), 215-37.
61. Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion, ed. Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), 41; Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 173; Baldwin, New England Clergy, 91; John Wingate Thornton, ed., The Pulpit of the American Revolution 2nd (Boston: D. Lothrop, 1876), 43; and Sandoz, Political Sermons, passim.
62. Randall M. Miller, ed., “A Warm and Zealous Spirit”: John J. Zubly and the American Revolution (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1982); Leiby, The Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley, esp. 20-25; Mark A. Noll, Christians in the American Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Christian University Press, 1977), 120-21. Oscar Zeichner estimates that only 8% of adult males in Connecticut were Loyalists—and that most of these were Anglicans who lived in the western part of the colony. Zeichner, “The Rehabilitation of Loyalists in Connecticut,” The New England Quarterly 11 (June 1938), 308-309. John Leach, “A Journal Kept by John Leach, During His Confinement by the British, In Boston Gaol, in 1775,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 19 (1865), 256. This is not to say that all Patriots who were members of Reformed congregations were motivated by religion or Calvinist political thought. Ethnicity, interests, and other factors wholly unrelated to the Reformed tradition undoubtedly played a role with some individuals and groups. Tiedemann, “Presbyterianism and the American Revolution” (quoting additional contemporary sources blaming Presbyterians for the war), esp. 311-313.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part VI
By Mark David Hall