Sunday, July 31, 2011

Founding Fathers as Westerners

We argue over the heritage terms used to describe the American Founding -- "Christian," "Protestant Christian," "Judeo-Christian," "Theist," "Deist," "Unitarian," "Universalist," "Enlightenment," etc. America's Founders certainly well drew from the "Western" tradition. Is that synonymous with Christendom? Perhaps; but Western Civilization had a noble pagan Greco-Roman source as well which was certainly evident in the American Founding.

Terming the Founders as "Westerners" isn't to take a side in the culture wars that pits the defenders of Western Civilization against multiculturalism. Indeed, Multiculturalism itself is a Western concept. As is Marxism, classical liberalism and modern lefty liberalism and a whole bunch of other good and bad things.

Speaking of bad things, pagan Anglo-Saxonism, apart from fantasy literature and entertainment, really isn't respectable anymore, for obvious reasons (i.e., 20th Century German nationalism's poisoning its well). Yet, pagan Anglo-Saxonism represents another "heritage" source for Western Civ., though, the Anglo-Saxons weren't quite as accomplished as the Greco-Romans. Thursday is Thor's Day, after all.

What brings this to mind are the proposals for the Great Seal by Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They proposed three different illustrative concepts: One, Moses and Pharaoh; two, Hercules "contemplating images of Virtue and Sloth"; and three, "Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed."

Those three concepts include the Judeo-Christian, but also the pagan Anglo-Saxon and Greco-Roman.

Finally see historian Wayne Dynes' deconstruction of Jefferson's Hengist and Horsa proposal. As alluded to above, modern 20th-21st Century folks can get away with affinities for pagan Greco-Romanism, but pagan Anglo-Saxonism seems racist.

Update: Here is a link to John Adams' original letter.


Anonymous said...

And here's another take on the subject, from David Hume's (Tory-leaning) History of England. The chapter on "The Saxons" begins:

"Of all the barbarous nations, known either in ancient or modern times, the Germans seem to have been the most distinguished, both by their manners and political institutions, and to have carried to the highest pitch the virtues of valor and love of liberty; the only virtues which can have place among an uncivilized people, where justice and humanity are commonly neglected."

Jeffrey Kramer

Tom Van Dyke said...

This touches on Jefferson's ideological argument that attempted to cut Christianity out of the sources of English common law, a battle still waged in the culture wars---but one that Jefferson lost first to the great English legal scholar William Blackstone, and later in the post-Founding to the first great analyst of the Constitution, SC Justice Joseph Story and later SC decisions.

Note also Ben Franklin's contribution, the motto "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God," which is Calvinist resistance theory in a nutshell.

In the 21st century, though, these historical factoids have been lost. Whether it's revisionist history or simply ideological change, Jefferson has won.

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW, Jefferson vs. Hume's History of England," on ideological grounds as well. He banned it from his University of Virginia!

So we have Hume accused of revisionism, and Jefferson accused of academic censorship, if not propagandizing. Plus ├ža change:

If anyone epitomizes the ideal of academic freedom it is surely the “Sage of Monticello.” After all, this is the humanist who “swore eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the minds of men.” Consider too Jefferson’s paean to freedom which he said characterized the University of Virginia. The university, he wrote at [74] its founding, “will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

However, when one looks further, the “darker side” of Jefferson’s perspective comes into view. For instance, when asked how David Hume’s Tory-oriented History of England might be safely used by American students, Jefferson recommended that to prevent students from “sliding into Federalist doctrine” the editor should “give you the text of Hume, purely and verbally, till he comes to some misrepresentation or omission … he then alters the text silently, makes it say what truth and candor say it should be, and resumes the original text again as soon as it becomes innocent, without having warned you of your rescue from misguidance.”

Again when the time came for Jefferson to choose the faculty of law, he was not reluctant to favor Republican rather than Federalist perspectives. He did not want the Revolution to be subverted by “wrong” Federalist ideology and felt justified in censoring “wrong” texts and curtailing those who espoused “wrong” principles. He had his own view of political correctness or “political purity” and imposed it on his university in the name of a higher end—namely, the survival of Republican institutions. I suppose he could even have claimed that such indoctrination made his university a freer place to study the “truth” about the new nation.

Jason Pappas said...

Of course the FF would prefer Catherine Macaulay’s History of England to Hume’s. They also read Tacitus’ romanticized descriptions of German barbarians.

The Saxon mythology of a free people shackled by the evil Norman’s was popular in Whig history. (Adams thought it was mythology.)

I don't think a people's heritage is necessarily racist. Culture often passes from generation to generation by parental teaching.