Thursday, April 5, 2012

William Livingston to John Mason: The Bible is NOT the "Higher Law" of America

I did a double take on the date and the letter when I first read this. Livingston is NOT talking about the US Constitution but the Articles of Confederation. They were written in 1777 but went into effect in 1781. They do mention God but (see the letter below) do NOT reference the Bible as the source of "higher law" in America. John Mason was one of the "religiously correct" of the Founding era who was sorely upset that America's Constitution was "Godless." AND he complained about it.

I don't have the original letter that Mason wrote to Livingston; but the context seems he approves of God being invoked in the Articles, but disapproves that the Bible is not referenced as a source of "Supreme Law" for the United States.

And, as we know, the US Constitution didn't even mention God; Mason (and other members of the "religiously correct") flipped out. And 200 years later gave the authors of "The Godless Constitution" fodder for their book.

Livingston's original letter, reproduced below, may be found here.

"TO THE REV. MR. JOHN MASON.

"Princeton, 29th May, 1778.

"Dear Sir,

"I am much obliged to you for your kind letter of the 27th instant, and the favourable sentiments you are pleased to entertain concerning the designs of Providence, in raising me to my present station. May it please God to enable me to answer the honourable expectations of the genuine friends of liberty, and especially the pious hopes of the real friends of Zion.

"To have prefaced the confederation with a decent acknowledgment of the superintending Providence of God, and his conspicuous interposition in our behalf, had doubtless been highly becoming a people so peculiarly favoured by Heaven as the Americans have hitherto been. But any article in the confederacy respecting religion was, I suppose, never in contemplation. The States being severally independent as to legislation and government, tho' connected by the federal league for mutual benefit, were presumed to have formed a political constitution to their own liking, and to have made such provision for religion as was most agreeable to the sentiments of their respective citizens ; and to have made the 'law of the eternal God, as contained in the sacred Scriptures, of the Old and New Testament, the supreme law of the United States,' would, I conceive, have laid the foundation of endless altercation and dispute, as the very first question that would have arisen upon that article would be, whether we were bound by the ceremonial as well as the moral law, delivered by Moses to the people of Israel. Should we confine ourselves to the law of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the New Testament (which is undoubtedly obligatory upon all Christians), there would still have been endless disputes about the construction of the of these laws. Shall the meaning be ascertained by every individual for himself, or by public authority? If the first, all human laws respecting the subject are merely nugatory; if the latter, government must assume the detestable power of Henry the Eighth, and enforce their own interpretations with pains and penalties.

"For your second article, I think there could be no occasion in the confederacy, provision having been made to prevent all such claim by the particular constitution of each State, and the Congress, as such, having no right to interfere with the internal police of any branch of the league, farther than is stipulated by the confederation.

"To the effect of part of your third article, that of promoting purity of manners, all legislators and magistrates are bound by a superior obligation to that of any vote or compact of their own; and the inseparable connexion between the morals of the people and the good of society will compel them to pay due attention to external regularity and decorum; but true piety again has never been agreed upon by mankind, and I should not be willing that any human tribunal should settle its definition for me.

"I am, &c.

"WiL. Livingston."

7 comments:

Chris Rodda said...

I might have to borrow this one for Volume 2 of my book! I have a section in it where I'm showing examples of people of the founding era who were complaining that the Constitution was "godless." The reason for this section in my book is, of course, to refute Barton's claim that this is just something modern historians have concocted. I forgot about John Mason! I wrote about him in Volume 1 in connection to the 1800 election. I may end up having to include Jon in my acknowledgements in Volume 2 because this isn't the first post of his here that I've saved to borrow the a great example of something that he has found that I'm going to add to a section my book on that subject! ;-)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Many thanks Chris!

Tom Van Dyke said...

The deeper meaning is that the letter leaves religion to the states---each state controlled by different sects who differed on interpretations of the Bible.

But by all means use the brutish "godless" interpretation, which is not exactly what's being said here. The truth of the matter is irrelevant.

mark boggs said...

But Tom, when he says this:

and to have made the 'law of the eternal God, as contained in the sacred Scriptures, of the Old and New Testament, the supreme law of the United States,' would, I conceive, have laid the foundation of endless altercation and dispute, as the very first question that would have arisen upon that article would be, whether we were bound by the ceremonial as well as the moral law, delivered by Moses to the people of Israel. Should we confine ourselves to the law of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the New Testament (which is undoubtedly obligatory upon all Christians), there would still have been endless disputes about the construction of the of these laws. Shall the meaning be ascertained by every individual for himself, or by public authority? If the first, all human laws respecting the subject are merely nugatory; if the latter, government must assume the detestable power of Henry the Eighth, and enforce their own interpretations with pains and penalties.

doesn't it kind of seem like his opinion of any use of the Bible as the law of the land (or state, for that matter) would end up being problematic?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark, the primary point is that it's left to the states. For example, Massachusetts established Congregationalism as the official state church and didn't disestablish until 1833!

You [we] need to know how they felt about things back then, and then it all comes clear:

"But any article in the confederacy respecting religion was, I suppose, never in contemplation."

In other words, that the Articles of Confederation government unified the patchwork of denominations among the states.


"The States being severally independent as to legislation and government, tho' connected by the federal league for mutual benefit, were presumed to have formed a political constitution to their own liking, and to have made such provision for religion as was most agreeable to the sentiments of their respective citizens...

Each state being free to use its interpretation of the Bible as the inspiration of its laws---or not to use it at all!

See also Madison in Federalist 45,

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State."

The states rule everyday life, and using the Bible [or not] was how they did it.

See also Joseph Story's Commentaries on the Constitution, where he elegantly notes a primary reason for the "no religious tests" clause, that

It had a higher object; to cut off for ever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government.

But again, note national government. Religious tests for state office were fine, and indeed some remain on the books to this very day!

There's a lot more to parse in Livingston's letter, the desirability of the Mosaic code. The fundies respected it, many other sects were "dispensational," that is, the arrival [or death] of Christ creates a New Covenant, meaning the Mosaic Law is out.

Also the problem of government being called in to arbitrate what the Bible says, how to interpret it. In the debates over Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, it was the Baptists who joined up with Madison's separationist [church & state] arguments, one of which intimated that the Presbyterians and Anglicans [Episcopalians] could gain control of government and define the Baptists out of Christianity.

it's all very interesting, Mr. Boggs [nice to see you here]; unfortunately, too many people view letters like this through 21st century eyes instead of 18th century eyes, which is the necessary and proper way to do history.

Livingston personally could have been against any Bible in the laws, but his argument here is more specific, keeping sectarianism out of the national government. Indeed, Locke's seminal arguments for religious toleration is based on the multiplication of [Protestant] sects, and therefore multiple interpretations of the Bible. But as we see here, Livingston does not argue against using the Bible at the state level, that each has

"made such provision for religion as was most agreeable to the sentiments of their respective citizens..."

mark boggs said...

I guess I understand that, technically, it was still left to the states at that point. But it seems that you just end up with the problem Livingston discusses here but on a smaller scale.

And, yes, I guess I'm looking at it through 21st century eyes and, admittedly, eyes that think any codification of scripture into law is probably a bad idea, be it at a federal or state level.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Cool, Mr. Boggs. The question of the desirability of using the Bible in law is a separate one. It's my observation---opinion---that although law tended not to be not theocratically based directly on the Bible, it tended not to be in direct conflict with scripture either.

This quite comports with "made such provision for religion as was most agreeable to the sentiments of their respective citizens..."

[This is congenial to the "natural law" understanding of the Bible, that reason and revelation are not in conflict.]