According to Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, the Constitution is “Godless.” This observation would have come as quite a shock to Roger Sherman, Nathaniel Gorham, Caleb Strong, John Langdon, Nicholas Gilman, Abraham Baldwin, James Wilson, Gunning Bedford, James McHenry, William Livingston, William Paterson, Hugh Williamson, Jared Ingersoll, Oliver Ellsworth, John Lansing Jr., Robert Yates, James McClurg, William Blount, William Houston, William Davie, and Alexander Martin—delegates to the Federal Convention who were raised in the Reformed tradition. Some of these men were not particularly significant and a few ended up opposing the Constitution. Yet some of them, notably Roger Sherman, James Wilson, William Paterson, and Oliver Ellsworth, played critical roles in the debates. Political scientist David Brian Robertson has recently demonstrated that in many respects Sherman was a more effective delegate than Madison, and he suggests that the “political synergy between Madison and Sherman . . . very well may have been necessary for the Constitution’s adoption.”
At first glance the Constitution may appear to be “Godless” as the deity is only referred to in Article VII—where the document is dated “in the Year of our Lord...” Article I does presume that Congress will not conduct business on Sunday, but this provision is more than balanced by Article VI’s prohibition on religious tests for national office. Yet the argument for the influence of Reformed political ideas on the Constitution does not depend on explicitly religious references. It is more profitable instead to consider the ways in which Calvinist political thought may have influenced the men and women who wrote, debated, and ratified the document.
John Witherspoon’s student James Madison wrote in Federalist 51 that “if men were angles, no government would be necessary.” Almost to a person America’s founders were convinced that humans are self-interested or, in theological language, sinful. Of course one can reach this conclusion for a variety of reasons, but is it not probable that the approximately 75% of Americans connected to Reformed traditions adhered to this idea because they had heard it from the pulpit since childhood? It is true that every major Christian tradition in America in this era agreed that humans are sinful, but few emphasized it as much as the Calvinists who taught the doctrine of total depravity. In contrast, many Enlightenment thinkers believed that humans are basically good, and that through proper education they could be perfected. As Louis Hartz recognized, “Americans refused to join in the great Enlightenment enterprise of shattering the Christian concept of sin, [and] replacing it with an unlimited humanism.”
America’s founders believed that because humans are sinful it is dangerous to concentrate political power. The Constitution thus carefully separates powers and creates a variety of mechanisms whereby each institution can check the others. Critically, the power of the national government itself was limited by Article I, section 8. Indeed, the very notion of federalism, some scholars have argued, was itself modeled after Reformed approaches to church governance (especially Presbyterianism) and New England civic arrangements which, as we have seen, were themselves heavily influenced by Calvinist political ideas. It is noteworthy that the authors of the Connecticut Compromise, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, were both solid, serious Reformed Christians who were leaders in their Congregationalist churches. Enlightenment thinkers, on the other hand, generally embraced unicameralism and the centralization of power in a national government.
Federalism helps explain as well why religion is not mentioned in the Constitution. The founders recognized that it would be impossible to agree upon a single Christian denomination that could be established at a national level, and many feared giving the national government power in this area. Moreover, many founders were beginning to question the wisdom of establishments altogether (usually because they feared that they hurt rather than helped Christianity). There was almost complete agreement that if there was going to be an establishment that it should be at the state or local level.
63. Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution; M.E. Bradford, Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution 2nd, rev. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994); David Brian Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” American Political Science Review 99 (May 2005), 225-243, 242; Robertson, The Constitution and America’s Destiny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
64. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: New American Library, 1961), 322; Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America, 39.
65. Shain, “Afterword,” in Dreisbach, Hall, and Morrison, The Founders on God and Government, 274-77.
66. Mark David Hall, “Religion and the American Founding,” in A History of the U.S. Political System: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions, ed. Richard A. Harris and Daniel J. Tichenor, (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2010 ) 1: 99-112.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part VII
By Mark David Hall