Monday, July 19, 2010

Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part VIII (Final)

By Mark David Hall

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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes:

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

17 comments:

Pinky said...

There--almost--seems to be an inordinate amount of focus on the origins of those rights specifically outlined in the first ten amendments, The Bill of Rights, to our Constitution.
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I'm not thinking that there wasn't a religious sense that helped fuel where the Founders and other colonists stood regarding such an important issue. It would have been near impossible for religion to not have played a role in the Founding--not only Christianity; but, all religions.
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And, the idea of the focus being almost inordinate brings up the teachings of Leo Strauss. I think it is appropriate to give a quotation from pages 48 & 49 of Shadia Drury's book to make a point:

Strauss is a highly regarded scholar of Jewish thought, ... In view of the fact that Strauss divides the history of thought into the wise ancients and the vulgar moderns, it is quite legitimate to attribute to him the ideas he attributes to his wise ancients. Maimonides is a classic case in point; an examination of Strauss's study of Maimonides is therefore bound to reveal a great deal not only about Strauss's view of Judaism, but also about Strauss's political philosophy as a whole.
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Strauss's interpretation of Maimonides combines the two opposite accounts in a uniquely Straussian reading in which Maimonides emerges as a Straussian. Whenever Strauss examines the work of a great thinker, he invariably uncovers himself. Strauss's interpretations of Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Alfarabi, Averroes, Maimonides, and the other greats, tells us more about Strauss than about the thinkers in question. The point that Strauss wishes to impress upon us is that there can never be any disagreements among the wise on any matters of substance. And since his own teaching accords perfectly with ancient wisdom, its truth cannot be questioned, and anyone who dares to question it must be a fool. One thing for which Strauss deserves credit is his masterful use of the old argument from authority--something is true because the divine Plato says so. This is the subtle process of intimidation that is integral to a Straussian education.

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I think we should use discrimination to help us consider whether or not some of the contributions here are not deeply influenced by Strauss's teaching in the positions. Bloggers most certainly have every right to be positioned anyway they like; but, because Straussians are so esoteric in their presentations, it seems we all should be a little suspicious when there seems to be an overdone focus.
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By the token that Strauss might be 1963ish, some of the posts are ancientish.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Strauss does not recognize "rights" as we know them in this modern age.

However, Donald Lutz argues that 3/4 of the rights in The Bill of Rights date back to the are in the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, with a Bible verse attached to each one.

Your call, "Pinky." Pls let us know the results of your research into this claim.


Here.

You continually intimate somebody's trying to sell you something. True.

Somebody's trying to sell you on doing some research into the facts and reporting back even when you [inevitably] don't like the results, not just moving onto the next thing.

So far, we get the latter in place of the former. But it is fun to watch the gyrations and machinations, even if I'm the only one who notices, which I apparently am.

Pinky said...

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pshaw....
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I don't claim Strauss had anything to do with rights in my post above.
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What I wrote was more about Straussians putting an inordinate focus on premodern thinking.
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Period.
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Pinky said...

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By the way, that's you, Tom. You're one of those who likes to emphasize the importance of premodern thinking.
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I'm more of an observer who makes observations once in a while.
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You don't seem to like it.
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Pinky said...

Recently, Tom mentioned C. S. Pierce in one of his posts. Here's some of Pierce on authority:

The Path To Peace

"The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the
various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning
ought not be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser
forms of constraint, then uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the
respectability of society will give its thorough approval. Following the method of authority is the
path of peace. Certain non-conformities are permitted; certain others, considered unsafe, are
forbidden. These are different in different countries and in different ages; but, wherever you are,
let it be known that you seriously hold a tabooed belief, and you may be perfectly sure of being
treated with a cruelty less brutal but more refined than hunting you like a wolf. Thus, the greatest
intellectual benefactors of mankind have never dared, and dare not now, to utter the whole of
their thoughts; and thus a shade of prima facie doubt is cast upon every proposition which is
considered essential to the security of society. Singularly enough, the persecution does not all
come from without; but, a man torments himself and is oftentimes most distressed at finding
himself believing propositions which he has been brought up to regard with aversion. The
peaceful and sympathetic man will, therefore, find it hard to resist the temptation to submit his
opinions to authority."


-------Charles Sanders Pierce

Pinky said...

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I am often portrayed as some sort of a nincompoop by Tom.
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It's best to take his insults with a grain of salt tossed over the shoulder. (Smile)
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Much of what I know about Leo Strauss comes from This Book. I don't claim any expertise; but, I am not what I am so disrespectfully painted to be by Mr. Van Dyke.
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The book is a set of Strauss's essays selected and introduced by Thomas L. Pangle.
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I'm also reading a criticism of Strauss

which I am reviewing at this site

I read something in Pangle's introduction that strikes my fancy about overdoing things by some
scholars. The reader might get a smile on their face. I guess it was originally written by Brian Barry
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"To spend one's working life rolling the classics round the tongue like old brandy (as
advocated by Leo Strauss and disciples) hardly seems likely to advance the sum of human
knowledge." (smile)
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King of Ireland said...

Pinky,

None of this has anything to do with the post. I have been wondering why you keep bringing up the Strauss thing. Now I know that you are trying to use ad-hominem attacks to discredit Tom. That is so boring and has served to hijack many threads here.

I would suggest dropping the accusations and just focusing on the content of the blog.

Pinky said...

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Read the thread.
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King of Ireland said...

I did. It has nothing to do with the post.

Pinky said...

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It can easily be argued to the contrary, KOI.
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Not a single one of us comes here without some bias. And, that is especially true of the ones who post the articles about which participants hold discussions.
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It is appropriate, in our American society, to question to motives of those persons that present information in support of any view on our history.
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Please don't waste time on petty complaints that some participant here doesn't get in line with what you think should be taking place here.
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King of Ireland said...

Pinky,

You have brought Strauss into every thread that I can think of for about two weeks. I wondered why and finally get it when you accuse Tom of hiding something and have a hidden agenda. You are saying that he is a Straussian and intentionally misleading people.

I assume this gets into the whole Neo-Conservative crap and modern politics. This is really not the place for it. Jon's other blog discusses it all the time. There is in fact a thread over there now about Straussian thought that Jon linked here.

Pinky said...

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If you don't get the connection between Strauss and many of the posted articles here, then, of course, you won't see the relevance of any comment I might make about the same.
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In either case, why waste your time on argumentation?
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Pinky said...

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By the way, I haven't seen any link regarding a discussion on Strauss.
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If you have it, give it. I'll check it out.
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Who knows, maybe I can learn something.

King of Ireland said...

It is Jon's last post to his other blog. It talks about Fukuyama who is a Straussian.

Nothing personal Phil. I do see some connection to the topics and Strauss. I even posted on it. But it does not have to come up every thread. It also does not have to be accusatory of Tom having a hidden agenda.

Pinky said...

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I've had my share of attacks by Tom. I don't hold that against him as long as he is able to express a little reciprocity. And, he seems quite amiable to that. (Sometimes it takes an extra jab or two.) :<) As long as a person can take his not always so subtle insults, there doesn't seem to be much problem. I thought we had this problem all worked out more than a year ago, KOI. Where were you?
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Which blog of Jonathon's are you referencing?
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King of Ireland said...

Pinky,

No worries Phil. Just do not want to get distracted from what Dr. Hall is saying. Strauss has been germane in much of the dialogue here lately. I would say just not here. I very well could be wrong. Peace.

Jon links to the blog is his post. I think it is called The One Way.

King of Ireland said...

Phil,

I open things up in my lastest post. Feel free to talk about Strauss and the modernity vs. classical thought to your hearts content. I for one do appreciate you being around here and listen to what you have to say.