Saturday, February 26, 2011

John Fea Updates With Grizzard on "The Daily Sacrifice"

Dr. Fea updated his original post. I'm reproducing this because too many folks still believe "The Daily Sacrifice" is valid. It is not.

UPDATE: Several of the comments on my article have challenged my assertion that Washington did not mention Jesus Christ in his personal and public writings. These commentators appeal to the multiple references that they say Washington made to Jesus Christ in a "Prayer Journal" from 1752. Unfortunately, most reputable scholars, including Frank Grizzard Jr., a former senior editor of the George Washington Papers, believe that this journal was not written by George Washington. I would ask readers to consult Grizzard's book "The Ways of Providence: Religion and George Washington."

In that book, Grizzard writes (p. 51): "On April 21, 22, 23, 1891, there was sold at the auction rooms of Thomas Birch's sons, 1110 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, a collection of Washington relics owned by Washington descendants Lawrence Washington, Bushrod C. Washington, Thomas B. Washington, and J.R.C. Lewis. Included in the sale was 'The Daily Sacrifice,' a twenty-four page manuscript document written in a pocket memorandum book and subsequently circulated as 'Washington's Prayers,' 'Washington's Prayer Book,' or 'Washington's Prayer Journal.' The catalog of the sale was prepared by Philadelphia auctioneer Stan V. Henkels, who asserted that the manuscript was not only in Washington's own handwriting, written when the future Father of His Country was about twenty years of age, but that Washington even composed the prayers himself. Both claims are patently false. The prayer book had been among a group of papers already rejected by the Smithsonian Institute as having no value, and at the time of the sale others continued to challenge its authenticity. Tens of thousands of genuine Washington manuscripts have survived to the present, including many from the youthful Washington, and even a cursory comparison of the prayer book with a genuine Washington manuscript reveals that they are not the same handwriting. Nevertheless, the prayers continue to be disseminated under Washington's name, thanks to their publication in the early twentieth century by William Herbert Burk (1867-1933) as 'Washington's Prayers' (Norristown, PA, 1907) and later republication by William Jackson Johnston in 'George Washington: The Christian'."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Endowed by Their Creator

This is an interesting phrase. If the Founding Father meant “God” why didn’t they just use the “G” word? Along with the phrase “Nature’s God” it leads some to assume this is a Deist or Stoic document. It reminds me of the current debate over saying “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays.” Obviously the Founders weren’t upset with the generic references to the Deity. They apparently didn’t have a Bill O’Reilly to bemoan the specter of “secular Whigs.” Still, why the use of the word “Creator?”

Let’s look at the whole sentence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all 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.”
The Declaration's preamble is virtually a summary of Locke’s Second Treatise. Locke derives natural rights from the natural law of self-preservation. These quotes of the Founders indicate the fundamentality of the law of self-preservation. In other words, it is man’s mortality that requires that he labor and secure the product of his labor. Being mortal is obviously “unalienable”; man was created as a mortal being, requiring industry for his sustenance and self-preservation.

This, of course, is a very naturalistic derivation of rights. Locke (as Aquinas before him) saw no conflict between reason and religion--nor did the Founding Fathers. However, this line of argument fits awkwardly with the Bible as it is usually understood. In the Bible, Adam initially didn’t have to labor to sustain his life. Self-preservation and hard work become necessary by his Fall. Thus, the need for private property to secure the fruit of his labor wasn't inherent in his creation; it was Adam’s Fall and eviction from the Garden of Eden that changed his fate. God as Lord and Master, not as Creator, imposed that burden. Isn't this how the Founders read the Bible? Or Locke?

It isn’t clear that this notion of “unalienable” or “inalienable” rights comes from Locke. Locke refers to the law of self-preservation as a duty owed to God, our creator (Ch 2, section 6). If we go further and consult Locke’s “The Reasonableness of Christianity” we find:
“what Adam fell from (is visible) was the state of perfect obedience, which is called justice in the New Testament; though the word, which in the original signifies justice, be translated righteousness: and by this fall he lost paradise, wherein was tranquillity and the tree of life; i. e. he lost bliss and immortality ... that the state of paradise was a state of immortality, of life without end; which he lost that very day that he eat: his life began from thence to shorten, and waste, and to have an end; and from thence to his actual death ...”
Adam wasn’t created mortal with a need for self-preservation and rights. Human nature apparently changed 5700 years ago (rather recent by evolutionary standards!) If this is the case, Natural Law is not Eternal Law! It is not “coeval with mankind” as Blackstone expressed it. This agreement of religion and reason isn't as easy as promised.

For Locke, mankind became mortal after the Fall, securing rights became part of man’s need of self-preservation. While Locke implies rights are unalienable, it was John Trenchard who added this powerful wording in letter No. 59 called “Liberty Proved to be the Unalienable Right of all Mankind”. He writes, “All men are born free; liberty is a gift which they receive from God himself; nor can they alienate the same by consent, though possibly they may forfeit it by crimes.” The logic here isn’t as clear and rigorous as Locke. It introduces the grace of God (i.e. gift), which makes rights an alienable addition; and he doesn’t tie rights to self-preservation. (He does better in letter No. 60 when he essentially paraphrases the “2nd Treatise” and “Letter of Concerning Toleration.”)

How well does the Lockean theory fit with the spirit of religion? The centrality of self-preservation, “the first law of nature” as Sam Adams puts it, is an odd focus for a religious foundation. Duty, as opposed to self-interest, tends to be the operative concern of every religion to my knowledge. After all, are people so passionate about killing themselves that one has to issue exhortations to do otherwise?

As far as political philosophy is concerned, Locke and the Founding Father used religion in a minimalist manner. Very little is required to establish the principle of unalienable rights. What is missing may be more interesting than what is included. Not only are all the other “natural laws” of social morality superfluous but God’s positive laws also aren’t required for the establishment of fundamental political principles. Locke makes a distinction between God’s positive law and natural law. He quotes Hooker making the same distinction. (By the way, Aquinas makes the same distinction.) By omitting God’s positive law, all the commandments and covenants of the Bible become irrelevant to the political foundation of a rights-respecting order. Lockean theory is explicitly religious but in a minimal manner that allows almost any religion or no religion to sign-on to his philosophy.

I’m not implying that the Founders weren’t generally predisposed to religion or the lessons of the Bible. My focus is on the public document and the reasoning that went into it. I think we can agree that the whole purpose of this important sentence in the Declaration is to remove man's rights from positive law. It is general enough that no one is offended--orthodox, deist, or otherwise. I can’t help but think that the Founders wanted it that way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

John Fea on GW & Religion on AOL

AOL picked up John Fea's op ed on whether George Washington was a Christian. See it here. It's got 1500 comments already. Alas, too many of them seem imbibed in Christian Nationalist "phony quotation" land (i.e., "it's impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible" and the Daily Sacrifice).

I stopped by and tried to respond to a few of them. But there are too many stones to try to push up the hill, in a sisyphean sense.

Update: Here is a comment I left there.

BTW, at American Creation we are friends with Dr. Fea. If you WANT to continue the conversation on GW's religion AFTER AOL has long forgotten about it, check out:

Likewise I have meticulously read all of the extant primary sources on GW and religion and am happy to answer your questions via email (

My own conclusions are similar to Dr. Fea's: No question GW was a "theist" not a "strict deist" believing in a warm Providence, but was not provably "Christian" in the orthodox Trinitarian, accepted Jesus as Lord & Savior/Finished Work on the Cross, accepted the Bible as inerrant/infallible sense.

Further, from reading GW's two letters to the UNCONVERTED NATIVES that speak of God as "the Great Spirit" and letter to the Jews that speaks of God as Jehovah, and letter to the Freemasons that speaks of God as "the Great Architect" I am convinced GW believed all good men of all religions worshipped the same God.

Finally, The Daily Sacrifice Prayer and "it's impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible" quote are not valid. At least not confirmed in the primary sources.


Jon Rowe, Esq. JD, MBA, LL.M.
Yardley, PA

Associate Professor
Mercer County Community College
Trenton, NJ

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Salute to George Washington

"I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man." -George Washington

Today (February 21) is the day Americans set aside to honor the birth and legacy of George Washington. Though we've gotten in the unfortunate habit of calling the holiday "Presidents Day," its original and still legal purpose is to honor one President: George Washington. That Washington deserves his own holiday should be beyond dispute, as he was much more than simply a President. He was the father of the United States of America...and, in the words of King George III, the "greatest man" of his time.

Here at American Creation, we've argued over whether George Washington was a Christian, Deist, or somewhere in between. In American society overall, his name is used to advance political causes and to sell cars. But one thing all Americans and certainly everyone here should agree upon is that George Washington was a man of great character and integrity, and the United States of America was blessed to have him at the center of its birth.

Washington was not a perfect man. He was a slave owner after all. But he was a highly conscientious man, someone who aspired to live a moral and honorable life, even so much that he genuinely wrestled with the contradictions and tragedy of slavery, an institution he had no cultural reason to question, given his upbringing and the economic nature of plantation Virginia. His attitude was summed up in a letter to his friend Robert Morris, in which he wrote: "I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]."

Though slavery is an understandable stain on Washington's legacy (which is why I address it above), it should not define the man or overshadow his many other noteworthy qualities and achievements. We are, after all, talking about a man who put his fortune, reputation, and life at risk to lead his nation through the American Revolution. We are talking about a man who resisted the temptation to power, sternly refusing to even consider dictatorial office at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War and who voluntarily resigned his commission once the issue of independence was decided. This act alone makes him worthy of every square inch of every monument and building erected to his name, for he is one of the very, very few revolutionaries in history to walk away from power vertically. And his actions established the principle in America of respect for democratic rule and civilian authority over the military. And we are talking about a man who conducted himself with wisdom, humility, and moral discipline while serving as our nation's first President.

I will not take the time to list out all of Washington's achievements, but suffice it to say that, when faced with challenges or opportunities, Washington's consistent moral compass was that he maintain a worthy reputation under the shadow of Divine Providence and in the eyes of his fellow countrymen. George Washington's sincerity, integrity, character, bravery, and charisma made him the truly indispensable man in American history. Without Washington, there likely would not be a United States of America today. I will let the nation's sixteenth President get the final say in summing up George Washington's legacy...

"Washington is the mightiest name of earth — long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation. On that name, an eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor, leave it shining on." -Abraham Lincoln


For more on George Washington's legacy, check out...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

John Winthrop on Inequality

"GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission."

Dude look like Shakespeare or what?

I continue to find the 1600s and 1700s the most fascinating period in man's history: the bridge between the ancient and the modern, the Biblical and the Enlightenment. Particularly interesting are those who left the Old World for the New World, the American forefathers, and their descendants, the men of the Founding era.

They asked the same questions we do today, with even less certainty of what man could and should do if given the chance to start over. This new America was a blank slate; the colonists could keep the good and leave the bad behind in the Old World.

In this case we have the estimable John Winthrop [1588-1649], the elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company. In his speech to a boatful of émigrés aboard the Arabella in 1630, his A Model of Christian Charity speech is best known for this line:

"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we haue undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake."

The "city upon a hill" part is familiar; that this Christian "New" England could shame Christianity if it didn't behave righteously, not as much.

Eventually, this "new" England---America---came to the proposition that all men are created equal. But John Winthrop, like all sensible men, noticed that's not literally true. Some are bigger, some are smarter, better-looking, more charismatic, dignified. How then to reconcile this with his Bible?

Winthrop's theological answers are fascinating, that "princes" [no doubt, leaders such as himself as well] use their God-given station and power

"...first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them: so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor nor the poor and dispised rise up against and shake off their yoke."

Not that the princes or leaders are better than anyone else:

"From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honourable than another or more wealthy &c., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man."

There's more, about Christian charity, mercy, and the like, citing Matthew 7:12: Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you---although Winthrop notes we must "perform this out of the same affection which makes him careful of his own goods." [In other words, you must love your neighbor as yourself, but not more than yourself: to ignore your own good is more than you'd reasonably ask of your neighbor.]

What's amazing is that on the boat on the way to this New World, this "new" England, Winthrop already has a pretty good picture of what starting over from scratch will look like. Inequality is inherent in nature, whether by genes, charisma or blind luck. What will these godly men and women do about it?

In our current culture wars between ancient and modern, the right and left, the religious and secular, and the label-defying whirlpool of the "social gospel"---communitarianism, libertarianism and "radical individualism"---these Puritans like John Winthrop understood the questions clearly, and deeply:

It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than an ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and Consortship under a due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical.

There were two parallel justice systems in "Olde" England, the civil and the ecclesiastical. The former was more technical, the latter dealt with not only religious matters, but the "social issues," marriage, divorce, adultery, and the like.

The Puritans left that parallel system behind---most likely out of a hostility toward Roman Catholicism and its successor regime, the Church of England. Their system would be both ecclesiastical and civil, but this also means it was not to be theocratic: indeed, the clergy were kept away from the reins of government.

Winthrop continues:

"In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular Estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public."

Theological concerns ["conscience"] are put on a level plane with "civil policy": the care of the public. The "particular Estates" are of course the rich, privileged, and I would also think the clergy and their theological concerns and moral judgments. They cannot be permitted to bring about "the ruin of the public."

And, we might say, neither can any "private respects," in other words, what's called "radical individualism."

It's tempting, in the current cultural wars, for religious/biblical conservatives to claim the Puritans, and for the secular left to reject them. "City on a hill" was echoed by Ronald Reagan and there's no doubt about the Puritans' religiosity. However, socially and politically speaking---John Winthrop's political theology is first and foremost communitarian, not libertarian, not "Tea Party."

In the interest of history, I tried to pare Winthrop's Bible stuff to the minimum here, but it's impossible to separate his communitarianism from his theology, to separate his vision for man's restart in the New World from his Bible. Winthrop's complete speech is here. For him to have given that speech to English self-exiles without really knowing what to expect, well, that it's worth reading after almost 400 years, and it's why we keep studying these guys.

Me, I think John Winthrop could probably get elected president as the nominee of either of our parties. Or perhaps his communitarianism would torpedo him with the right and his religiosity with the left. Or perhaps all the more reason to listen to what he had to say.  On one hand, by abandoning ecclesiastical courts, they separated church and state, on the other, they combined the ethos of religion and government.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Revolutionary Christianity

[What follows is a modified version of an email I sent to an historian.]

Whether a revolutionary mentality is compatible at all with social conservatism and traditional Christianity is seriously disputed. I don't think the Tea Party types are aware, however.

Revolutionary thought did present itself under the auspices of Christianity. But it's not clear whether the Right or (social gospel) Left wing liberation theologians are true heirs to revolutionary Christianity. Lino Graglia once cynically remarked:

"What [the Declaration of Independence] is, of course, is a document meant to justify revolution -- that is, illegal action. Having no human law to rely on -- being in defiance of authority -- revolutionaries necessarily come to rely on the law of God, who, happily, rarely issues a protest."

There is a profound truth here. Marx's atheism can't rally the poor and working class to economic revolution. Paul E. Sigmund, Prof. Emeritus at Princeton, is one of the foremost Locke scholars AND scholar of Latin American liberation theology. I'm pretty sure he's a liberal Christian who supports the social Gospel cause (I've informally chatted with him on a number of occasions at Princeton). He's friendly with Robert P. George's conservative bunch and Sigmund seems pretty anti-atheist in his sentiments because he realizes you need God to support his politics. Those Marxist Latin American revolutionaries are/were theists who call themselves Christians.

John Fea's Christian Nation Book

I placed my order for it over the weekend. You can preview the book here. Fea graciously thanks me (and Ray Soller) on page xix.

The Unconfirmed Phony Quotations

They just won't die. Rational rant has the details.

The Language of Liberty

The title of a book by JCD Clarke published in 1994.

Unfortunately I can only see the "preview" which means I might have to buy it. It covers a lot of the political-theological subject matter that American Creation has delved into over the years.

The book gets interesting around p. 335 when it discusses the theological heterodoxy of the singers of the DOI.

Likewise with Calvinism, we have Calvin himself teaching, like a proto-Tory, unconditional submission to tyrants, and that lower magistrates who want to check tyrants may do so only within the confines of the extant positive law. But later Calvinists seemed more generous in their understanding of the privilege to resist tyrants. Likewise all the various orthodox Churches had currents within them that wanted to "reform" Protestantism OUT of orthodox Trinitarianism. The New England Congregationalists actually did this and became Unitarian churches. But, again, those currents existed in all the churches, including the Presbyterians.

Unitarian Presbyterianism was much bigger in England (Joseph Priestley was a Presbyterian minister). But it did exist in America. The book on page 353-54 states they haven't determined the degree of "Christological heterodoxy" among the colonial Presbyterians. But it seems unlikely that it didn't get smuggled over into the colonies from Great Britain. And it does mention Rev. Samuel Hemphill as one notable Presbyterian heretic. He was tried for heterodoxy and defended by none other than Ben Franklin in Franklin's classic "Dialog Between Two Presbyterians."

And that tract is a clear explication of the non-Trinitarian "rational Christianity" in which the "key Founders" seemed imbibed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Murray Rothbard on Federalism

I don't always agree with the Murray Rothbard, the late libertarian-atheist-Thomist-natural law political philosopher. [The last two are a weird fit with the first two. "Thomist" refers to Thomas Aquinas, a Roman Catholic saint.]

But Rothbard never fails to delight, and I think he nails the Founding's understanding of what they were ratifying:

“And finally, does anyone seriously believe for one minute that any of the 13 states would have ratified the Constitution had they believed that it was a perpetual one-way Venus fly trap – a one-way ticket to sovereign suicide? The Constitution was barely ratified as it is!”

[From an essay on "Just War," also a recent topic here at American Creation.]

Egypt, Freedom, and America

Regular reader, commenter and friend-of-the-blog Ben Abbott forwards a particularly egregious hijacking of American history, comparing the recent events in Egypt to the American Revolution.

Well, it warms the hippie heart to see hundreds of thousands of "the people" in the street chanting and Raging against the Machine. Surely they are on the side of the angels! [Unless it's a pro-life rally, which can be safely ignored but that's another story, int it...]

I'll hold off on the warm & fuzzy for the moment. We don't even know yet what sort of "freedom" the "Egyptian street" is demanding. Perhaps it's to live like Americans in a bourgeois neo-liberal democracy [or let's say Swedes, whose society is so much warmer & fuzzier than ours, eh?]. Or perhaps it's to start up again with the Jews and to live in a less secular state. Or perhaps it's just that grain prices have gone through the roof. Riots over the price of bread are as old as civilization itself.

In 2011, after the incompetence of Yeltsin-era freedom, the Russkis are back with some relief to KGB veteran Vladimir Putin, because liberty is useless without order.

And despite the rather expansive claims and comparisons to our Founding Fathers' own fight for their and our liberty, Egyptian youths Twittering or standing in a park screaming at an army that won't shoot back is no analogue to actually fighting for one's freedom---dying---actually getting shot at, or suffering through a deadly winter at Valley Forge.

There were no Storming of the Bastille moments, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or Yeltsin-on-a-tank. [Not even toppling Saddam's statue, albeit quite clumsily, as we recall.]

From 1000s of miles away, we certainly can't pretend to know what the Egyptian people want, where they want to go from here. What I suspect is that they don't know either.

"Soldiers, officers, generals," [Yeltsin] boomed. "The clouds of terror and dictatorship are gathering over the whole country. They must not be allowed to bring eternal night."

Yeah, yeah. Mankind has been there, done that, over and over and over again. That's not how the American Revolution went down. Unlike America, Russia suffocated on its newfound freedom and brought back a Putin. The Storming of the Bastille resulted in Emperor Napoleon.

This American wishes Egypt and the Egyptians the best. All men chafe against tyranny. But opposing tyranny is not the same as fighting---and dying---for freedom. One fights for freedom not just for himself, but for his fellow man and woman, and for his children and their children.

"THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."
---T. Paine, The Crisis, distributed to Washington's troops at Valley Forge, Winter, 1776

Chris Rodda on Her AOL-Huff-Po Connection

Here. A taste:

I had no idea that my whole life was about to change one day when I signed onto AOL to read my email. On days when I wasn't too busy, I would usually read a few of the news stories on AOL when I signed on to check my mail, and one of the stories that day was about ex-Judge Roy Moore's infamous Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama courthouse. Having a little time to kill, I decided to click on the link to the message board about the story, something I had never done before. Little did I know when I decided to click on that link that I was about to discover a whole new version of American history, or that six months later I'd be writing a book about it.


Before long, other people who were battling the lies on the AOL message boards began emailing me posts from the both the Ten Commandments board and other related boards, asking me whether or not they were true. Apparently, these people had gotten the impression from my now quite lengthy, footnoted posts that I was some sort of expert on the subject. I wasn't -- at least not yet -- but I did know enough to be able to answer most of these emails, even if it was only to tell someone where they could find the information they needed to disprove whatever lie they were trying to disprove. Between writing my own posts on the boards and answering emails, what had begun as a simple click on an AOL message board link had become somewhat of a "calling" that I was spending several hours a day on.

From time to time over the next few months, someone on the message boards would respond to one of my posts by saying that I should write a book. While I appreciated the compliment, I didn't take the idea very seriously -- at least not at first. For one thing, I was was sure that there must already be plenty of books on the subject, written by people far more qualified than I was to write about it. When I tried to find such a book, however, I couldn't. I found a few books that refuted the lies to some degree, but none providing the amount of information or level of detail I was including in my message board posts. At this point, the idea of writing a book was beginning to seem a little less crazy, and when I half-jokingly mentioned the idea to a few of my real life friends, I was surprised to find that they didn't think it was crazy at all. So, never having written anything before, with the exception of posts on AOL message boards, and having no particular qualifications to write a history book, I found myself writing a history book.

Fast forward to 2006. What had started out as a plan to spend a few months writing a short book debunking the historical myths and lies floating around the internet had become a much bigger project than I had anticipated. My little book, titled Liars For Jesus (after a phrase coined on the old Compuserve message boards to describe Christians who will make up or lie about anything for the sake of their religion), had evolved from a short single volume into what will eventually be a three-volume series (I'm still working on Volume 2). There were just too many lies to cover in one book. These lies were everywhere -- on the internet, in the books of pseudo-historians like David Barton, in debates in Congress, and even in the opinions of Supreme Court justices.

The Muslim Biblical Argument For Why Jesus is Not God

Muslims are a bit like Mormons: They both believe in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, but add a third Holy Book which is the lens through which they read the prior two. And those third Holy Books were both supposedly revealed by Angels as well: Gabriel in the case of the Muslims and Moroni for the Mormons.

Likewise, Christianity did to Judaism what Mormonism and Islam did to Christianity. Christianity adds an additional Holy Book to Judaism but makes their final Holy Book the lens through which the first is to be read. Reading the Old in light of the New renders a RADICALLY different meaning to SOME OT texts as compared to the traditional Jewish interpretation.

I'll give one (of potentially NUMEROUS) example(s). Many orthodox Christians believe Jesus, as Word of God, is the ONLY mouthpiece between God and man. "Jehovah" as it were, is not just "The Father," but rather Triune in His Nature. That is, Jesus is "Jehovah" as much as the Father and Holy Spirit are. So all of those instances where Jehovah speaks to and interacts with man in the Old Testament really involve JESUS or the 2nd Person in the Trinity speaking to man, NOT the Father. That means when the Jews rejected Jesus as God, they rejected the very Jehovah who revealed the Old Testament. The irresistible logic is that Jews and orthodox Christians worship different gods. (Non-ecumenical orthodox Christians who believe this would note the Jews worship the false god of the Pharisees, not the TRUE God of the Bible.)

Now, I know there are different ways to interpret the Bible. But one canard I won't stand for is "Jews and Christians worship the same God, Muslims a different one." Every single argument that supposedly shows Muslims worship a different god can be tweaked to show Jews and Christians worship different gods. No they either all worship the same God -- some ecumenical God of Abraham with the pieces of the furniture rearranged (as Tom Van Dyke once put it) (and we'll find out whose cosmic interior design plan was the RIGHT one when we die) -- or they all worship different gods.

Update: Perhaps I should have been clearer about how this post relates to American Creation's mission.

As we know, many FFs and the philosophers and divines they followed turned out to be unitarians. And the issue there is whether unitarians and trinitarians worship the same God. Likewise we have FFs claiming Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God and that even uncoverted Natives who worship the Great Spirit worship the same God they do.

What Kind of "Christian" Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

If you didn't know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer lead the "Christian resistance" against Hitler in Nazi Germany and was martyred for it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer relates to American Creation's mission for a variety of reasons. We've discussed Romans 13 and the reductio "does that mean Christians have to submit to Nazi government?" And then there's the dynamic of folks wanting to claim someone who history judges as a great hero as "one of them." Evangelicals are certainly guilty of this, but no more so than any other social group. And at American Creation we -- or at least I -- highlight when evangelicals (and others) do that with America's Founding Fathers.

With that evangelical Eric Metaxas has done this with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And now some of his fellow evangelicals are calling him out for it.

See here, here and here.

A few points I get from the reviews on what Eric Metaxas does not adequately deal with: 1) Like a lot of his fellow contemporary German intellectuals, DB's "Christian theology" was imbibed in German post modern philosophy (indeed the very philosophy that led Heidegger to support Nazism). And 2) Bonhoeffer did not believe the Bible was the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Well there you go, that explains how his hermeneutic could get around an "absolute" reading of Romans 13.

Friday, February 11, 2011

John Adams on belief in God as a necessary predicate for belief in natural law

"To him to believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all power Will, discovered by Reason.  A Man who disbelieves the Being of a God, will have no perplexity in defining Morality or the Law of Nature, natural law, natural Right or any such Things to be mere Maxims of Convenience, to be Swifts pair of Breeches to be put on upon occasion for Decency or Conveniency and to be put off at pleasure for either."

-- Letter to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton:  2005), pg. 132.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

John Fea on the American Revolution & Concept of Just War

Outstanding article from Dr. Fea here. If one is some kind of orthodox Christian and a non-American, a British or Canadian citizen, for instance, one might scratch one's head at the attempts of Christian Americanists -- the sophistry and mental gymnastics they have to go through -- to reconcile everything about the American Founding with their creed.

A taste:

... But in the 1770s, cases for war against England failed to conform to classic Christian arguments used to support what we commonly refer to today as a "just war." In fact, just war arguments, often associated with historic church leaders such as Augustine and Aquinas, were rarely if ever employed by Revolutionary-era Protestant ministers and were certainly not employed by the founding fathers.


... John Wesley, the famed 18th-century English evangelical, could not understand why the colonists demanded more liberty than they already possessed as members of the British Empire. The colonists, he wrote, "enjoyed their liberty in as full manner as I do, or any reasonable man can desire."


Was the English government as "tyrannical" as the colonies claimed? And if it was, did the level of tyranny justify armed conflict? After all, Great Britain offered more freedom to the inhabitants of their empire than any other nation in the world.

I'm obviously no fan of King George III, or, for that matter the British Parliament against whom America's Founders rebelled. However, to call them "tyrants" seems a bit of a hyperbolic stretch, unless we accept quasi-anarchist libertarian arguments that ANY government that exceeds libertarian maximums (including those of every single American President) is in fact "tyranny."

Benjamin Franklin's creed

Franklin is generally acknowledged to one of the least religious of founders. Early in his career as a public person, he expressed in private correspondence to family members his own aversion to orthodoxy in religion and its professions of faith, particularly if such orthodoxy detracted from orthopraxy (or right conduct):
I think vital Religion has always suffer'd, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue. And the Scripture assures me, that at the last Day, we shall not be examined [on] what we thought, but what we did; and our Recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord, but that we did good to our Fellow Creatures. See Matth. 26.
Letter to Josiah and Abiah Franklin, April 13, 1738, quoted in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. button (Princeton: 2005), pg. 80.

Interestingly enough, Franklin doesn't evidence a hostility for orthodoxy per se, simply orthodoxy that detracts from the cultivation of right conduct. Works were at the center of true religion for Franklin -- not to exclusion of belief in God, but as the foundation for how to determine if that belief was authentic.  And he cited to the Christian New Testament in support of his approach.  This balanced approach to belief and works appears in Franklin's most well-developed articulation of his religious convictions, found in his Autobiography, an articulation that he referred to as "an intended Creed, continuing as I thought the Essentials of every known Religion, and being free of every thing that might shock the Professors of any Religion." Franklin then set forth this "Creed":
That there is one God who made all things.
That he governs the World by his Providence.
That he ought to be worshipped by Adoration, Prayer and Thanksgiving.
But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing good to Man.
That the Soul is immortal.
And that God will certainly reward Virtue and punish Vice either here or hereafter.
Franklin's views on religious belief and the necessity of works are thus remarkably consistent over time, and far from evidencing a hostility or apathy towards religious life, manifests a concern that religion -- belief in a God who is an active creator & governor of the world -- must manifest itself in the life of the individual.

While Franklin's creed is not expressly Christian (and was not intended to be), it certainly is not incompatible with certain orthodox forms of Christianity.  Depending on how one parses its first article, Franklin's creed could be affirmed by a Roman Catholic, for example, who steadfastly held to the decrees of the Council of Trent.  And it would be completely consonant with the faith of Christian unitarians like Franklin's nemesis John Adams and Adams' wife Abigail. 

Franklin's statement of belief should put to rest any talk of him not have a theistic belief system. His God is no absentee landlord, but is an active presence in the world, who not only creates but "governs the World" via divine Providence. This God is worthy of worship -- including prayer and thanksgiving, indicating that Franklin believed that God acted in the lives of individual people -- hence the benefit of asking God for help (through prayer) and thanking Him for His blessings.

Most touchingly to me, Franklin insists on the importance of good works in human life.  The best way to serve this God is through good works, and that the judgment of each person's immortal soul will be based on what he or she has done in this life.

While not a regular churchgoer like Washington, or a Hebrew scholar like Madison, Franklin -- who attended no church regularly nor could read any biblical languages -- left a far clearer statement of faith than virtually any of the other founders, Jefferson included.  And it was a statement of faith that affirmed an active, providential Creator deity, a deity who would sit in judgment upon all human beings, rewarding and punishing them according to the deeds they did in this life.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The best part of this year's Superbowl

Was the pre-game presentation and recitation of the key language of the Declaration of Independence:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Compact Theory, Interposition & Nullification

I have previously discussed the nature of the Constitution and how it allows interposition and nullification by states. I especially relied on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798-99 by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

However, in email conversation with Professor Kevin Gutzman, it came to my attention that I had made a fundamental misunderstanding of these Resolutions, which many others of the time did as well, including both the Federalist Party (who rejected the Resolutions due to this misunderstanding), and the Southern nullification party (who eagerly embraced the Resolutions, erroneous understanding and all).

The issue was this: Madison had said,
...this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government, as resulting from the compact to which the states are parties; ... and that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers not granted by said compact, the states who are parties thereto have the right ... to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil...the authorities, rights, and liberties appertaining to them.

The Federalists responded that no, the Constitution was not ratified by the states (meaning the state legislatures), but that it was ratified by the people. And as a matter of history, they were quite right; it was popular ratifying conventions, not state legislatures, that had done the ratifying.

Madison responded, in the Report of 1800 (text form, scanned reproduction) that by "state", he meant not the government of a state and its legislature, but the sovereign people of the state, as a democratic body, working through their state. In the end, this meant interposition and nullification operated pretty much the same regardless, but it made a big difference as a matter of political philosophy.

I had already been coming to a realization that something was amiss, when I read Miracle at Philadelphia recently, and saw Madison successfully argue that the ratification of the Constitution must be done by the people, popularly, and not by the states, because the people too would be directly affected by the Constitution. This was not a federal compact among states, but a national government that would operate directly on the people. Furthermore, Madison said, as the states were themselves the products of the people, they could not do anything the people had not consented to. If the people had elected the state legislatures under the Articles of Confederation, the state legislatures lacked power to alter this arrangement.

At first, I was alarmed: what would happen to interposition and nullification?! Then, I was puzzled: what happened to the Virginia Resolution that said the Constitution was a compact of states?

First, eliminating my alarm and fear, I realized that this would do no damage to interposition and nullification. Madison's argument was based on social contract theory, that a return to the "original principles" of the Declaration of Independence was needed. So it meant, at worst, that the people ratified the Constitution and that the people could un-ratify it as well. Madison was taking power from the states, not to give to the federal government, but to give to the people. Furthermore, the people could always appoint the states as their inferior magistrates, as their interposing protectors, an idea that goes back at least as far as John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion 4:20:31, and continually recurs in Reformed Christian writings (such as Theodore Beza's De Jure Magistratum and the anonymous Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos). As best I can tell, in America, the states replaced the feudal hierarchies which earlier Reformed Christians had assumed would be the interposing inferior magistrates. So even if all the power went back to the people, the people could in turn re-appoint the states as their protectors against the federal government, as had been a commonplace among Reformed Christians since the mid-16th-century.

Furthermore, a friend showed me a letter by Madison to Daniel Webster. There, we read,
[T]he undisputed fact is, that the Constitution was made by the people, but as imbodied into the several states, who were parties to it and therefore made by the States in their highest authoritative capacity. ... The Constitution of the U.S. being established by a Competent authority, by that of the sovereign people of the several States who were the parties to it...
This confirmed my suspicion that the people could always appoint the states as their interposing inferior magistrates. According to Madison here, the Constitution was ratified by the people working through their states. If they could work through their states to ratify, then they could work through their states to nullify.

The only question remaining was, what happened to the VA Resolution, which said that the states alone had made a compact? In the Constitutional Convention and in his letter to Webster, Madison had said one thing, but in the VA Resolution, he said something else! And the Report of 1800 is the answer. It turns out that all along, in the VA Resolution, by "state", Madison had meant the people of the state.

Dr. Gutzman told me to see the following books:
* Chapter 4 of his Virginia's American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840
* His The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution
* His forthcoming biography of Madison.
* William Watkins's Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy

So there you go. I made a mistake, Calhoun made a mistake, but now you won't.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Alexander Hamilton' Creed

This post recycles claims I've before made on Hamilton. The folks at American Creation seem to disagree on which Founding Father was more important than the others. Some recent comments argue for Hamilton's status as a "key Founder." I would agree but wouldn't put him as more important than any of the first four Presidents because he didn't, well, become President!

As to his creed, no evidence shows he was a "mere Christian" (as CS Lewis would term it, believing in a Triune God, etc.) until after he had done his work Founding America, after his son Philip died in a duel, after his life came crashing down on him.

Hamilton was such a newbie orthodox Christian when he died, he never got around to joining a church and was initially refused communion by both of the orthodox Churches with which he sought communion.

Hamilton always seemed to have been a theist, and like Washington and most other Founders believed in the value of "religion" (which included orthodox Christianity) for its instrumental purposes, the way it facilitated republican virtue. During the later 1790s he did seem to lament the way cold, strict deism headed towards atheism during the French Revolution.

He nonetheless does NOT claim, during those periods, that orthodox Trinitarian Christianity is the only way to God or that this is the only form of "religion" that properly supports republicanism. Hamilton's opinions on the French Revolution and its turn towards irreligiousity seem exactly those of and completely compatible with the militant unitarianian, John Adams'. Note, I do not say this proves Hamilton was a "unitarian" like Adams during this period, just that it does not prove, as some argue (i.e., the Christian America narrative), Hamilton was orthodox during this period or he defended only "real" orthodox biblical Christianity because he was one of "them."

In order to believe in the "Christian America" narrative of Hamilton's orthodox Christianity during the 1790s one has to read in one's desires that do not exist in the historical record.

During the Constitutional Convention, it was rumored, when asked why they didn't mention God in the Constitution, Hamilton said, "we forgot." And that they didn't need "foreign aid." Those two quotations appear to be "unconfirmed" as David Barton would put it.

I like Matthew Franck's reaction when learning those quotations were "unconfirmed":

... I doubt very much that Alexander Hamilton was ever such an ass as to say such a thing, even in his most freethinking days. Nothing like it appears in Hamilton’s collected papers. ...

I disagree that "nothing like it" appears in Hamilton's record. If that's your standard for what constitutes an "ass," other things Hamilton said during that period arguably merit him that label. For instance, when speaking on what he values in a military chaplain, in a letter to Anthony Wayne July 6, 1780, Hamilton said:

“He is just what I should like for a military parson except that he does not whore or drink. He will fight, and he will not insist upon your going to heaven whether you will or not."

Likewise when noting what he was looking for in a wife, to John Laurens, December, 1779, Hamilton writes:

In politics I am indifferent what side she may be of. I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine. As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in God and hate a saint.

But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. You know my temper and circumstances and will therefore pay special attention in the treaty. Though I run no risk of going to Purgatory for my avarice, yet as money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world, as I have not much of my own, and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry, it must needs be that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies.

Notice how Hamilton cares more about the specifics of his political creed than his religious creed. He cares about converting his future wife to his politics; but as to religion, she has to merely "believe in God and hate a saint." We see no, "I have arguments that will easily convert my wife to Christianity because I can show her the evidences of its historical truth."

Given his wife turned out to be an orthodox Christian, it's likely that she converted him at the end of his life.

Finally, regarding Hamilton's self interested avariciousness referenced in the above letter, if compatible with "Christianity" at all, seems more like the prosperity Gospel of Benny Hinn, Jim Bakker, or Robert Tilton than of respectable Christianity.

[Final final note: I'm not so sure how seriously to take Hamilton's crack on "purgatory." That's certainly part of Roman Catholicism, an orthodox faith; but most reformed/evangelical Protestant creeds of the Founding era, like those today, reject purgatory. The more "enlightened" Protestant Christian unitarian-universalists, however, did believe in Protestant Purgatory, where good people went to Heaven, bad people were temporarily punished there.]

Jehovah's Witness Cartoon

It's not as amusing as the Mormon Cartoon. But it looks like it was made from the same folks.

American Creation needs a Jehovah's Witness blogger (is anyone out there available?). I see JWs, like the Mormons and Swedenborgs, typifying the reductio ad absurdum of Protestant logic. Theologically freed from the Magesterium, and political free to read the Bible for themselves and voluntarily form their own churches and communities, you get a variety of Protestant biblical interpretations, not all of them that will accord with historic orthodox doctrine.

As I've noted before, the JWs do believe in an odd version of the Arian heresy, which was very popular among elite freethinking Enlightenment "Christian" crowd in American and England during the Founding era. This was especially so in John Adams' mid to late 18th Cen. New England.

John Adams on the Bible

"Must a man possess a Library equal to that mentioned by St. Luke which he says the whole world would not contain and live to the age of Methusalah before he could read half of it before he can work out his salvation with fear and trembling?  I find in the old Testament and especially the new internal evidence of a philosophy a morality and a Polity which my head and heart embraces for its equity humanity and benevolence.  This is my religion."
- John Adams (1735-1826), Founding Father and second president of the United States, letter to Adrian van der Kamp, January 23, 1813, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton:  2005), pg. 23.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Founding Fathers as Mormons?

Vicarious baptism -- more commonly known as baptism for the dead -- is one of the more controversial points of doctrine in the Mormon religion. For devout Mormons, this practice is seen as a holy and ultra-spiritual event, which brings salvation to the souls of the deceased. For the critic, vicarious baptism for the dead is viewed as a bizarre and secretive practice with little or no backing in traditional Christian doctrine. Yet despite the criticisms leveled against it, baptism for the dead has become a centerpiece in the religious lives of Mormon faithful.

The Mormon Church has practiced vicarious baptism since the 1840s, when their founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, revealed the doctrine to the Mormon congregation. Since then, baptisms for the dead have continued to be conducted in Mormon temples. To support the practice of vicarious baptism, Mormons will usually point out a few biblical verses from the New Testament. The first of which is Paul speaking to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul is quoted as saying:
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
In addition, Jesus' advice to Nicodemus in John 3:5 has been used to support the practice of vicarious baptism. The scripture states:
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
One important factor to remember about Mormon baptisms for the dead is that the baptism DOES NOT guarantee salvation. Instead, the deceased is given the opportunity -- in the afterlife -- to accept or reject the baptism that has been performed on their behalf. In other words, the PHYSICAL act of baptism, which is believed to be required of God for salvation, is performed on Earth, while the deceased is given the chance to accept the ordinance or reject it.

So what does all of this have to do with the Founding Fathers?

In 1877, President Wilford Woodruff -- the 4th President and Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- related the following experience that allegedly took place while he was working in the St. George Temple:
Before I left St. George, the spirits of the [Founding Fathers] gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights...I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others. (Wilford Woodruff, The Journal of Discourses of Brigham Young, His Counselors, and the Twelve Apostles. Vol. 19, Pp. 229).
In addition to this account, President Woodruff recalled this experience before the 1898 April General Conference of the Church:
Those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men. General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord...Everyone of those men that signed the Declaration of Independence, with General Washington, called upon me, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Temple at St. George, two consecutive nights, and demanded at my hands that I should go forth and attend to the ordinances of the House of God for them. (Conference Report of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. April, 1898. Pp. 89-90).
In addition, President Ezra Taft Benson -- the Church's 13th President, who also served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration -- had the following to say about Wilford Woodruff's experience:
The temple work for the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence and other Founding Fathers has been done. All these appeared to Wilford Woodruff when he was president of the St. George Temple. President George Washington was ordained a high priest at that time. You will also be interested to know that, according to Wilford Woodruff's journal, John Wesley, Benjamin Franklin, and Christopher Columbus were also ordained high priests at that time. When one casts doubt about the character of these noble sons of God, I believe he or she will have to answer to the God of heaven for it. Yes, with Lincoln I say: "To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is . . . impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name and in its deathless splendor, leave it shining on."
So, not only were the founding fathers given a vicarious baptism, but George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and others were ordained to the highest office of the Mormon priesthood. An interesting and controversial prospect to say the least

What I find so very interesting about this entire story is that it demonstrates -- on the part of the Mormon Church -- a powerful devotion to the idea that the United States was founded by the hand of God. What is even more interesting is that this ideology was not a new concept, but it began in the latter part of the 1800s, while tensions between the Mormon Church and the United States government remained hostile. This idea of American providentialism has continued to the present day for the majority of Mormons. In fact, I found it surprising that Brigham Young University has the largest ROTC program in the country. Obviously relations beteen the Mormon Church and the U.S. government have changed over the past few decades.

Unlike George Washington and James Madison,...

Barack Obama is a Christian. The title to my post is a little tongue in cheek. Actually, more conservatively put, Barack Obama AGAIN gives evidence, this time quite a bit, of believing in certain traditionally held Christian minimums (granted he believes in some off-beat theology along with it) that James Madison and George Washington do not give. And Jefferson & J. Adams, as we know, bitterly rejected those minimums.

From Jacques Berlinerblau:

Well, when the President of the United States of America (a Democrat) delivers a 22-minute address about his personal faith, drops half a dozen Scripture bombs along the way, and declaims “I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior”—all I can say is that the sixties are over, man!

The Golden Age of Secularism has passed. The Secular Movement—if there ever was a viable one in this country—must look at events such the NPB as an invitation to think secularism afresh (something I am trying to do in my current research).

From Carter, to Reagan, to Bush, to Clinton, to Bush, to Obama, the modern Presidency seems far more "Christian" than the Founding era one at least in terms of explicit words given by each President, in public and private, about his faith.

John Fea on Why Jefferson and Franklin were not "Deists."

Here and here. Also order Dr. Fea's book that comes out sometime this month. It's sure to bring much greater understanding of the issue of the FFs' personal religious creed to the orthodox Christian audience to whom it is primarily directed. (Yet, I think it will also be a very valuable resources to any curious person regardless of his or her religious faith.)

Here is a taste from Dr. Fea's personal blog:

... And yes, one can be a theist and reject all the tenets of Christianity. One could certainly believe in a God who intervenes and providentially orchestrates the world without believing that that God revealed himself in the form of a human who died for the sins of the world. What I am basically doing (and I am giving a bit of my book away here) is trying to argue that the founders were neither deists or Christians, but something in-between. Some scholars have suggested that they were "theistic rationalists." I think this is a fair term (although I am not sure I use it in the book).

The larger truth that I've been pressing for years: We've got two boxes "Christian" and "Deist" each of which can have narrow or broad meanings. The narrow meaning of "Christian" is someone who believes in the Trinity and cognate orthodox doctrines, that the biblical canon is inerrant or infallible, etc. The narrow meaning of "Deist" is someone who believes in a non-intervening clockmaker God who does not reveal anything to man in any Holy Book. What a wide gulf between those two concepts! It shouldn't surprise that many Founders wouldn't fit into either box, but be somewhere in between.

The game that scholars or advocates can play is define one box strictly and one box broadly in order to capture a particular founder for a preferred outcome. Strictly speaking the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin were neither Christians nor Deists (with some admitted uncertainty regarding Washington and Madison). Broadly speaking they were both Christians AND Deists.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Edmund Genet and the "Conspiracy" to Destroy America

One of the few consistent truths throughout the course of United States history has been that Americans of all generations have believed that conspiracies to thwart their freedom lurk around every corner and under every rock. Whether it takes the form of Catholic incursion or McCarthy communist witch hunts, Americans have always been on the lookout for the next big threat to our seemingly fragile republic.

And our founding generation was no different.

During the early years of the new American republic, scandals and conspiracies against the infant republic were a regular fixture in the halls of government. Divisions between those who supported a strong federal government (the Federalists) and those for limited centralized power (the Democratic-Republicans) created a rift in the political arena that seemed to grow with each passing day. Issues such as the Jay Treaty, which created an economic alliance with Britain over France, had caused an uproar amongst Democratic-republicans that only intensified with the later election of Federalist John Adams. For Democratic-republican leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the cause of France was the cause of America. They passionately believed that America needed to throw its weight behind the French cause, which was rapidly moving toward revolution itself. In their minds, to deny the French would be treasonous against the very ideals of the American Revolution itself. And as war between England and France continued to become more of a reality, America's economic and political preference with the British made relations with the French extremely tense.

The arrival of Edmond Genet as French ambassador to the United States in 1793 only intensified the ongoing political battle. Genet had been sent to America in an effort to garner support for the French cause. Democratic-republicans like Jefferson were initially ecstatic over Genet's arrival. As Gordon Wood points out in his book, Empire of Liberty:
He [Genet] landed in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1793, and in his month long journey north to Philadelphia he was everywhere greeted with warmth and enthusiasm. Americans sang "Marseillaise," waved the French revolutionary flag, and passed liberty caps around. Some Federalists thought the French Revolution was being brought to America. Later in his life John Adams still vividly recalled the frenzied atmosphere of "Terrorism, excited by Genet," that ran through the nation's capital in the late spring of 1793. "Ten thousand People in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his office and effect Revolution in the Government, or compel it to declare War in favour of the French Revolution, and against England" (185-186).
Perhaps nobody was as excited to see Edmund Genet as was Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to his friend James Madison, Jefferson attacked President Washington's quest for neutrality, stating that Genet's intentions (and the larger French intentions) were as pure as the driven snow:
"It is impossible for anything to be more affectionate, more magnanimous, than the purpose of Genet's mission. He [Genet] wishes to do nothing but what is for our own good and we should do all in our power to promote it." (Jefferson to Madison, May 19, 1793).
For Federalist leaders like Alexander Hamilton, Genet's arrival was not met with the pomp and circumstance afforded it by the Democratic-republicans by instead with a deep sense of concern. As Ron Chernow points out in his autobiography on Hamilton:
Where others saw camaraderie and high spirits, Hamilton detected an embryonic plot to subvert American foreign policy. The organizers of Genet's reception "were the same men who have been uniformly the enemies and the disturbers of the government of the U[nited] States."


In private talks with George Hammond, Hamilton promised that he would vigorously contest efforts to lure America into war alongside France. He also predicted that the United States would extend no large advances to the revolutionary government, and he delayed debt payments owed to France. In a dispatch to London, Hammond noted that Hamilton would defend American nutrality because "any event which might endanger the external tranquility of the United States would be as fatal to the systems he has formed for the benefit of his country as to his...personal reputation and...his...ambition."
(Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 439).
And Hamilton wasn't alone in his disdain for the French ambassador. After observing Genet's antics, President George Washington commented:
"Is the Minister of the French Republic to set the Acts of his Government at defiance, with impunity? and then threaten the Executive with an appeal to the People? What must the world think of such conduct, and the Government of the U. States in submitting to it?"(Elkins and McKitrick, Age of Federalism, 351).
For the Federalists, Genet's arrival was seen as a precursor to an even deeper plot to undermine the sovereignty of the new American republic. In a very real sense, Hamilton (and other fellow Federalists) saw Genet's presence in America as a possible foreshadowing of the French guillotine, which would sever not only the heads of Federalist leaders, but would destroy everything the revolution had created. As historian Paul Newman, author of the book, Fries's Rebellion points out:
"The Republican leadership, men like Jefferson and Madison, were not the Hamiltonians’ greatest fear. What frightened them most was the popular following the two Virginians and their newfound French ally attracted, and the fact that citizens had begun to publicly criticize and directly oppose Federalist policies" (52).
The following clip from HBO's John Adams miniseries helps to illustrate some of the tensions that Genet's arrival had caused:

In the end, it would be Genet's arrogance and lack of foresight that would be his undoing. The harsh tone in both his letters and speeches against the American government ended up costing Genet not only his American allies but his French support back home as well. Instead of coming off as the great "citizen of world liberty", Ambassador Genet became a liability. In addition, the American populace was beginning to see that the French Revolution was not as similar to their own as they had once thought. And as the French Jacobins seized power in 1794 (and demanded the return of Genet to France to face execution) the former French ambassador was forced to plea for asylum from the very government officials he had once opposed. Coincidentally, it was Hamilton, Genet's fiercest opponent, who advocated for Genet's asylum in the U.S. Genet lived out the rest of his life as a humble New York farmer.

And the republic, despite all of the threats to its security, lived on...happily ever after.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

John Adams on Virtue

The Founding Fathers held that virtue was a prerequisite for a sustainable republic. But what did they mean by “virtue?” Here are a few quotes from John Adams’ Novanglus, published in the Boston Gazette in 1774. After 200 years we do not exactly use the word in the same way. As an experiment, ask people today what comes to mind when they hear the word virtue and see if they sound like any of the quotes below.

Adams argues that without virtue, liberty cannot survive.
"When a people are corrupted, the press may be made an engine to complete their ruin; and it is now notorious, that the ministry are daily employing it, to increase and establish corruption, and to pluck up virtue by the roots. Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence, than the body can live and move without a soul. When these are gone, and the popular branch of the constitution is become dependent on the minister, as it is in England, or cut off, as it is in America, all other forms of the constitution may remain; but if you look for liberty, you will grope in vain; and the freedom of the press, instead of promoting the cause of liberty, will but hasten its destruction, as the best cordials taken by patients in some distempers become the most rancid and corrosive poisons." (Novanglus III)
The converse holds as well: without liberty, virtue withers. Dependency begets corruption which begets more dependency.
"Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society." (Novanglus III)
Odd, that sounds familiar! Speaking of familiar here is Adams on the debt problem:
"That is the reason that the Massachusetts has paid its debt [for the French and Indian War], and the British minister, in thirteen years of peace, has paid none of his? Much of it might have been paid in this time, had not such extravagance and speculation prevailed, as ought to be an eternal warning to America, never to trust such a minister with her money. What is the reason that the great and necessary virtues of simplicity, frugality, and economy cannot live in England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as America?" (Novanglus IV)

"But when luxury, effeminacy, and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch in England; when both electors and elected are become one mass of corruption; when the nation is oppressed to death with debts and taxes, owing to their own extravagance and want of wisdom, what would be your condition under such an absolute subjection to parliament? You would not only be slaves, but the most abject sort of slaves, to the worst sort of masters! at least this is my opinion." (Novanglus II)
Since virtue is a public concern, the clergy are asked to speak out against political corruption.
"It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example,—if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions, ..." (Novanglus IV)
Now, how does that compare to today's everyday use of the word virtue?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Land of Confusion: The Delusions and Realities of New World Colonization

Once upon a time, in a land far away, lived a brave and wise man named Christopher Columbus. Columbus lived in a world of ignorant fools, who refused to believe that the earth was round. One day, Columbus convinced the King and Queen of Spain to give him some boats, so that he could prove his theory was right. Columbus then sailed on the ocean blue, in the year 1492. He arrived in a new world, populated with dark-skinned savages, whom he educated and converted to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Soon, scores of people flocked to the New World, bringing the imbecile Negroes of Africa with them. Years later, a group of brave Christians known as the Puritans set out upon the Mayflower, in hopes of creating a better world. When they arrived in Massachusetts, these pilgrims became best friends with their savage Indian neighbors, who were more than happy to welcome their new neighbors. Together, the Puritans and Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving, by eating turkey, singing songs, and praying to God. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Any person with even an elementary understanding of history is more than capable of seeing through the sarcasm of this fairytale. To suggest that such a story provides a just and accurate account would invoke laughter and scorn from most. Despite this knowledge, there are still many who have succumbed to a fairytale of their own. They maintain that the "New World" was a land of freedom, opportunity, and wealth for European immigrants, who were blessed by the watchful hand of Providence. While their assertion is partially true, its bias is obvious. Such a perspective fails to recognize what the New World meant to the thousands of Africans, who instead of freedom, found themselves in chains in the New World. It also negates the opinions of millions of Natives, who had called this “New World” home for centuries. Such a simple perspective also denies us the opportunity of understanding the numerous nations, cultures, religions, social classes and motivations of Europe, which all contributed to American colonization. In essence, the colonization of America was not a simple affair, but a complex series of events that changed the world forever.

For years, the history of American colonization has been wrapped up in a counterfeit blanket of ignorance. This blanket has provided a warped sense of warmth and comfort, which has given many a blissful but misled understanding of the past. Though the established myths of popular culture provide an uplifting account of American colonization, they neglect essential truths that help piece the puzzle together. For example, to suggest that American colonization was a loving endeavor, brought to pass by God himself, is hard to prove conclusively when we take into account the actual motivations for colonization. From the English perspective, the elder Richard Hakluyt made it clear that the main motivations for colonization were, "To trafficke" and "To conquer." Not exactly a well-balanced Christian agenda.

Despite the primary agenda of securing worldly wealth, there is no doubt that the establishment of Christianity was a strong motivation for American colonization. From the very beginning, many explorers were driven by religious convictions, which propelled them into the unknown. Alan Taylor, an early colonial historian and author of the book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, claims that Columbus desired to convert those he encountered to Christianity and, "to recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem. Such a victory would then invite Christ’s return to earth" (33). The Franciscan Friars of Spain were also motivated to migrate to America, in an effort to convert the Pueblo Indians. Upon their arrival, the Friars committed themselves to eradicating old Indian traditions. They raided homes, confiscated ceremonial emblems, destroyed idols, and defiled native gods (Taylor, 89). The Friars also sought to undermine the family traditions of the Pueblo Indians, by indoctrinating their youth, restricting their sexual activities, and emasculating the men (Taylor, 92-93). A strange agenda for a group of self-proclaimed pious Christians.

With the expansion of the Spanish into the New World, the Protestant nation of England felt additional pressure to secure their own colonies and preach their own brand of religion to the "savages" of America. To allow the Catholics of Spain total access to the New World was fundamentally unacceptable. As historian Karen Kupperman points out in her book, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony:
We should not underestimate the emotional force of this confrontation between Christians, which has been compared to the Cold War of the twentieth century. Each side believed the other was absolved by its religion of all normal moral and ethical behavior in dealing with the enemy, and capable of the most heinous plots”
To the English, there was nothing worse than confronting the possibility of a New World ruled under the banner of the Pope.

While there is no doubt that religion played a vital role in American colonization, it was not the exclusive motivation for settlement in the New World. The drive to establish trade with the Indians, and to conquer new lands, was just as significant as the drive to spread Christianity. Contrary to popular opinion, European colonization was not an explosive and daring operation. Instead of seeking to further humanity’s knowledge of the unknown world, many explorers hoped to find lands and cultures that could be exploited for profit. As Alan Taylor states, "the adventurers did not pursue exploration for pure love of geographic knowledge…They proceeded incrementally…seeking the sources of known commodities" (American Colonies, 29). Instead of being a benevolent voyage to chart the unknown, most European exploration was empowered to exploit opportunity for immediate profits.

The conquest of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortes is a prime example of these profit-hungry intentions, which many explorers exhibited. Like many other conquistadores, Cortes came from the Spanish gentry. To turn a profit, men like Cortes depended on their ability to plunder, conquer, and enforce their will on others. Alan Taylor sums up the life of a conquistador perfectly when he writes, “Greed was the prerequisite for pursuing the hard life of a conquistador” (American Colonies, 58). Upon discovering the riches of the Aztecs, Cortes held to the Spanish law of conquest, which demanded that all Indians were required to submit to Spanish rule, or receive the punishments of a “just war.” By gaining the allegiance of neighboring tribes, who detested the Aztecs, Cotes was able to conquer a literal treasure of wealth for himself and his nation.

The conquests of the Spanish in the New World provided an incredible amount of wealth for the homeland. Between 1500 and 1650, Spanish settlers shipped home 181 tons of gold, and 16,000 tons of silver (American Colonies, 63). With such a bountiful supply of riches, the Spanish government moved to monopolize on the market. They made it illegal for all foreigners to trade directly with the colonies, which forced them do deal directly with Spain. Such a policy protected Spain from losing this very lucrative market.

Spain was not the only European nation to seek economic gain in the New World. England quickly caught the fever of colonization, believing that the New World was an undiscovered Utopia, overflowing with untapped potential. In their planning, Europeans perceived the New World to be a bountiful paradise, which “bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor” (Karen Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 17). This Eden-like New World must have appealed to the hopes and imaginations of many English, especially considering all the poverty, disease and warfare that had plagued Europe over the past two centuries. There is little doubt that such hopes and dreams grew into unrealistic fantasies for many who longed for a better world. Speaking from his perspective, nevertheless lacking a full understanding of global weather patterns, the elder Richard Hakluyt made the following assumption of what settlers could expect in the new world:
"This land that we purpose to direct our course to, lying in part in the 40 degree of latitude, being in like heat as Lisbone in Portugall doth, and in the more Southerly part as the most Southerly coast of Spaine doth, may by our diligence yeeld unto us besides Wines and Oiles and Sugars, Orenges, Limons, Figs, Resings, Almonds, Rice…"
Returning from his recent explorations to the New World, Sir Richard Grenville stated that “we have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven” (Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 34-35). With such a Utopia awaiting them, Englishmen began gathering and making preparations for a journey that they believed would ultimately make England even mightier than it already was. All of these men, “had an image of England’s future greatness and the exhilarating feeling that they were the people who would make it come true” (Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 30). From the English perspective, there was a clear expectation of a bountiful, fertile, and relatively easy to maintain oasis that awaited them, and that England would become even greater because of it.

Needless to say, these religious and economic motivations for the colonization of the "New World" primarily resulted in utter failure. Converting the "savages" proved to be more difficult than previously thought, since, contrary to European beliefs, the Native Americans cared very little for Christian theology. On the economic front, colonization proved even more difficult. Instead of discovering and settling in a Garden of Eden-like frontier, European settlers were met with Indian attack, harsh weather, terrible crop yields, and disease. For the English, their first experiment at Roanoke met with complete failure, as was almost the case with Jamestown. Even Plymouth suffered terrible losses and afflictions.

What is interesting about these preconceived European beliefs as to what awaited them across the Atlantic is their complete faith and surety that God would grant them a safe and uneventful trek into an unknown land. Upon their arrival, these same Europeans quickly came to the realization that their faith was not only lacking, but their arrogant presumption that God would grant them immediate success was unlikely to happen. This tug-o-war between the religious presumptions of the Europeans and the reality they experienced helps to explain why the early years of American settlement were a violent, hostile, intolerant and unpredictable environment.