The First Amendment
America’s founders differed with respect to whether and/or how civic authorities should support Christianity. On balance, Reformed Christians were more sympathetic to significant state support for religion, as suggested by the survival of establishments in Vermont (1807), Connecticut (1819), New Hampshire (1819), Maine (1820), and Massachusetts (1833). Yet when Supreme Court Justices have turned to founding era history to shine light on the meaning of the religion clauses, they have overwhelmingly relied on the views of two Southern Anglicans—Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. This approach is particularly ahistorical as Jefferson was not even involved in crafting or ratifying the First Amendment.
In contrast to Jefferson, Roger Sherman—a latter-day Puritan if there ever was one—was intimately involved in framing the First Amendment. Sherman served on the committee of eleven that compiled the list of rights first debated by the House of Representatives (the only handwritten draft of the Bill of Rights is in his hand), he actively participated in debates over the amendments, and he served on the six-person conference committee that put the Bill of Rights into its final form. On some issues, such as whether amendments should be interspersed throughout the Constitution or attached to the original text, Congress sided with Sherman rather than Madison. Given Sherman’s extensive involvement in drafting the First Amendment and Jefferson’s absence from the country at the time, it is striking that when U.S. Supreme Court justices have used history to help them interpret the First Amendment’s religion clauses that they have made 112 distinct references to Jefferson but have mentioned Sherman only 3 times.
James Madison may have been a driving force behind the Bill of Rights, but the document was ultimately a product of a community—a community that included the following members of Reformed churches: Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Langdon, Caleb Strong, Paine Wingate, Philip Schuyler, Abraham Baldwin, Jonathan Elmer, William Paterson, Fisher Ames, Abiel Foster, Benjamin Huntington, James Jackson, Jeremiah Wadsworth, Nicholas Gilman, Egbert Benson, James Schureman, Henry Wynkoop, Daniel Hiester Jr., Daniel Huger, Benjamin Bourne, William Paterson, William Smith, and Hugh Williamson. Certainly these men were not all equally influential, but at least Sherman, Ellsworth, Huntington, Baldwin, Boudinot, Paterson, and Ames played important roles in key committees and/or debates. None of these seven men advocated anything like a wall of separation of between church and state, and they all thought that states and localities state should encourage Christianity. They agreed with their colleagues that the nation should not have an establish church, but even at the national level they supported things like hiring congressional and military chaplains and requesting that President Washington issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Students of the American founding often view the era through the eyes of elites such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. These men were brilliant, well educated, and influential, but they are not are good representatives of the many Americans who were associated with Reformed congregations in the founding era. Franklin and Adams, the only founders in this group who were raised in the Reformed tradition, clearly came to reject the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity—something that was quite rare for any American of that era. Yet even among in this small, unrepresentative group a reasonable argument can be made that at least some of these men (most obviously Adams and Madison) were influenced by Reformed political ideas.
Tracing intellectual influence is a messy business. Different people may express similar ideas for completely different reasons, or they may use similar words but mean different things by them. Even within the realm of Christianity members of different denominations may adhere to similar ideas, so it is problematic to label almost as distinctively Reformed. Yet if we recognize that Calvinists shared a basic set of political ideas, and that a large majority of Americans were raised in this tradition, it is only reasonable consider the impact of this tradition on America’s founders. I suggest above how taking this tradition seriously might help qualify the widespread view that the Declaration, Constitution, and First Amendment are fundamentally secular documents.
Let me reiterate that I am not arguing that America’s constitutional order is simply and solely a product of Reformed political thought. There were clearly other intellectual influences at work in the era, and founders often acted for non-ideological reasons. As well, although the Reformed tradition was dominant in New England, it was less influential in the middle and southern colonies. My point is simply that there are good reasons to believe that many founding era Americans were committed to and influenced by Reformed political thought. If scholars can pull their eyes away from indisputably fascinating men like George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin and consider the many members of the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention, and First Federal Congress who were relatively drab Calvinists, they will gain a fuller and richer understanding of this critical era in American history.
67. It is sometimes asserted that Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty influenced the authors and ratifiers of the First Amendment. I argue that there is little evidence to support this proposition in “Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Liberty, and the Creation of the First Amendment” (mss. in possession of author).
68. Mark David Hall, “Jeffersonian Walls and Madisonian Lines: The Supreme Court’s Use of History in Religion Clause Cases, Oregon Law Review 85 (2006): 568-69. Of course Reformed Christians often opposed established churches if their churches were not established, but even then they seldom supported a strict separation between church and state. See, for instance, Thomas E. Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977).
69. Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights of Conscience. 426-433, 441-87; Dreisbach, Hall, and Morrison, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, 65-100, 248-277 (on Sherman and Ellsworth), Dreisbach and Hall, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (on Baldwin and Boudinot), John E. O’Connor, William Paterson: Lawyer and Statesman, 1745-1806 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986); Marc M. Arkin, “Regionalism and the Religion Clauses: The Contribution on Fisher Ames,” Buffalo Law Review 47 (Spring 1999), 763-828. Charlene Bangs Bickford et al., ed. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 11: 1500-01
Monday, July 19, 2010
Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part VIII (Final)
By Mark David Hall