Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rodda on Joel Barlow

Joel Barlow is a figure from the American Founding I've much neglected. We have the "key Founders" -- the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin -- who I, after much meticulous research, see as something in between orthodox Christians and strict Deists, whatever we term them (Christian-Deists, theistic rationalists, small u unitarians, etc. etc.). There were some very important second tier Founders who were orthodox Christians -- Roger Sherman, Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon and others. And then there were some who were closer to strict Deism; Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Elihu Palmer are the ones we've stressed so far. We should probably add Joel Barlow to the list with Paine, Allen and Palmer.

In doing research on Barlow, I came across this nifty post on him by Chris Rodda.  A taste:
Much of Barlow's other writing during this time was for The Anarchiad, a satirical political paper anonymously published from time to time by his literary club, the Hartford Wits. Among the original members of this club was David Humphreys, who, in 1797, as Commissioner Plenipotentiary in Lisbon, was the official who approved Barlow's translation of the Treaty of Tripoli and submitted it for ratification. Among those rejected for admission to the club were Oliver Wolcott and Noah Webster, two of the very religious founders that David Barton makes a point of associating Barlow with in his biographical sketch. Barlow may have started out together at Yale with Wolcott and Webster, but couldn't have ended up more different from these former classmates in both politics and religion. While Wolcott and Webster were die-hard New England Federalists and Congregationalists, Barlow became a Jeffersonian Republican and a deist.
Noah Webster, by the way, may well have ended up some sort of pious Christian; but I'm not so sure he was so while the Constitution was being ratified. He seemed, like many others, caught up in the Enlightenment rationalist zeitgeist.

I think the French Revolution may have killed Webster's Enlightenment buzz.

17 comments:

wsforten said...

I think that you should invest more study into Webster's beliefs. He referred to Christ as "our Saviour" on several occasions prior to 1800, and he recognized the divine nature of Christ in this comment:

We are informed by Ludolph, that the Ethiopeans, having but one word for nature and person, could not understand the controversy about Christ's two natures. This is not surprising; nations, in a savage state, or which have not been accustomed to metaphysical disquisitions, have no terms to communicate abstract ideas, which they never entertained; and hence the absurdity of attempting to christianize savages. Before men can be Christians they must be civilized; nay, they must be philosophers. It is probable that many who are called Christians, are in the state of the Ethiopians, with respect to the same doctrin; and that they pass thro life, without ever having any clear ideas of the different natures of Christ.

http://books.google.com/books?id=pcIgAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA224

He also recognized that the Bible was the "rule of faith and practice" in America in this comment:

It is said that there is no provision made in the new constitution against a standing army in time of peace. Why do not people object that no provision is made against the introduction of a body of Turkish Janizaries; or against making the Alcoran (the Quran) the rule of faith and practice, instead of the Bible? The answer to such objections is simply this -- no such provision is necessary ... the principles and habits, as well as the power of the Americans are directly opposed to standing armies; and there is as little necessity to guard against them by positive constitutions, as to prohibit the establishment of the Mohometan religion.

http://books.google.com/books?id=YJo0AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA36 [emphasis in original]

And he explained why he objected to the Bible being the only textbook used in schools in this statement:

Will not a familiarity, contracted by a careless disrespectful reading of the sacred volume, weaken the influence the influence of its precepts upon the heart? ... Those parts of the scripture, therefore, which are calculated to strike terror to the mind, lose their influence by being too frequently brought into view. The same objection will not apply to the history and morality of the Bible; select passages of which may be read in schools to great advantage ... My wish is not to see the Bible excluded from schools, but to see it used as a system of religion and morality.

http://books.google.com/books?id=pcIgAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA8

All of these are from publications prior to 1800.

Chris Rodda said...

On this one I have to agree with Bill. I had seen a number of people making the claim that Webster didn't become religious until after 1800, but when I fact checked that claim I also found quotes from Webster from before 1800 like the ones Bill posted here. I didn't look into it any further than that because I really don't focus on or speculate about what people's personal beliefs were unless it's unavoidable. My primary focus is on the actions of people, not their beliefs. But from what I saw, the claim about Webster's sudden post-1800 conversion just isn't true.

wsforten said...

Thank you, Chris. I appreciate the support. By the way, I also wrote extensively on the Treaty of Tripoli in a chapter in my own book, and I brought out some information that is missing from yours. If you have time and would like to see my position on that document, you can read that chapter from my book online at the link below. I would love to get your thoughts on it.

http://christian76.com/hidden-facts/

Jonathan Rowe said...

Admittedly, I haven't studied Webster in detail. I think I was remembering this link --

http://candst.tripod.com/tnppage/qwebstrn.htm

-- along with the "Empire of Reason" speech.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"It is said that there is no provision made in the new constitution against a standing army in time of peace. Why do not people object that no provision is made against the introduction of a body of Turkish Janizaries; or against making the Alcoran (the Quran) the rule of faith and practice, instead of the Bible? The answer to such objections is simply this -- no such provision is necessary ... the principles and habits, as well as the power of the Americans are directly opposed to standing armies; and there is as little necessity to guard against them by positive constitutions, as to prohibit the establishment of the Mohometan religion."

Seeing how history turned out, what an off the planet analogy.

The Bible was rule of faith and practice just as it was a rule of practice not to have a standing Army during peacetime.

In this case, the past isn't just a foreign country, but a different planet.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

FWIW, Noah Webster [my guess is from much closer to his death in 1843 than the Founding era]:

"A discussion of the great causes of our political and commercial dis-
orders, is not within my design. On one subject, however, I must take
the liberty to make a few remarks.

The citizens of the United States profess to constitute a Christian
nation ; but they have attempted to establish a government solely by
the help of human reason. Our constitution recognizes no Supreme
Being, and expresses no dependence on Divine aid for support and
success. In this respect, the framers of the constitution are rebuked,
not only by the Scriptures, but by heathen sages.

Says Cicero, " I
never thought any religion to be despised. I have always considered
the foundation of our state to be laid in religious institutions, and that
without the favor of Heaven, the republic would never have arrived to
its present flourishing condition."*

But what say the sacred writers ? " Take ye wise men and under-
standing, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers
over you." " Thou shalt provide out of all the people, able men, such
as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness, and place such over
them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens." " He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God."

Such are the directions of inspired truth ; but in the selection of men
to make and execute the laws, is any regard paid to these commands ?
Even if we had no divine precepts on the subject, every intelligent
man might know that the characters here described are the only suita-
ble persons to be intrusted with government.

Human reason is imperfect, subject to error and perversion from a
thousand causes, proceeding from ignorance, from prejudice, from in-
terest, from deception. To aid men in the proper use of this faculty,
and in the exercise of the intellectual powers, the Creator has furnished them with laws and precepts of positive authority, and binding on the conscience. The observation of these laws is essential to the safety
and happiness of human society in all relations, domestic, civil, and
political. It is not possible to deviate from the divine precepts, either in the choice of rulers, or in the administration of laws, without expo-
sing society to evils. In electing to office men wholly incompetent or
vicious, our citizens depart from divine precepts, renounce divine authority, and become responsible for all the evil consequences of their reli-
ance on their own reason. It is an eternal truth, that when the wicked
bear rule, the people mourn.

...

It is certain that a government thus formed, and thus administered,
can not be a good government ; it is not possible. It is the irreversible
decree of heaven, that in all governments founded by human wisdom,
and conducted only by human reason, corruption and disorders must
ultimately compel men to resort to physical force for the execution of
law and the preservation of public peace. These facts and principles
may be considered as unalterable, so long as the throne of the Almighty
and his moral government remain unshaken."

wsforten said...

Tom, would you mind providing a citation for that quote?

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's in the On Political Parties section, near the end of his 1843 book of collected essays. Lemme know if that's enough, working from memory here.

wsforten said...

Thanks, Tom. That was enough of a hint for me to be able to find it. You can find the above quotation in its original context at this link:

http://books.google.com/books?id=q1YNAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA336

In my search for this source, I came across several additional essays from Webster that I think offer an explanation for his remarks. First, it is important to note that his comments were made in a discourse on the formation of political parties in America. It is evident from the rest of the essay that Webster viewed the formation of parties as one of the greatest evils to have befallen our nation, and I think that this explains the change in his views on the Constitution. I do not think that he objected to the Constitution on religious grounds but rather that he objected to the fact that it permitted parties to arise. It was, in my opinion, his reflection on how parties could have been prevented which led him to the conclusion that the Constitution should have included a requirement that the leaders of the nation be men who fear God.

We can see that this was the source of Webster’s objection to the Constitution by chronologically tracing his writings on political parties. In 1802, for instance, Webster had this to sayabout the Constitution and party disagreements:

To avert the evils that threaten our public tranquility, more temper and forbearance, with a mutual disposition to conciliate confidence, must be manifested by the respective parties. Whatever may be the fact, with regard to the precise degree of merit in their systems, it is prudent for both to recede from some of their pretensions. There is no exact standard of political right and wrong, by which discordant opinions can, in all cases, be adjusted. Even the Constitution is not sufficiently explicit to furnish this standard. Our substitute for such a common arbiter, must be found in mutual concessions, which will answer the purpose; for it is a remark on which great stress is laid, that harmony of councils will obviate the errors and defects of legislation. Mutual concessions, therefore, would be honorable to the parties -- they are due to truth -- they are demanded by the imperious voice of public duty and national safety. Nor is it to be questioned, that without receding from some of the ground which has been taken, the most upright and able men in our country, will find it extremely difficult to recover the influence which they have lost, and which they certainly deserve.

From this excerpt, we can see that Webster first attempted to overcome the evils of the party system by advising a practice of mutual concessions. He was certain that this "harmony of councils" would lead the nation in the way of truth. Unfortunately, he soon found this to be an unrealistic expectation, and he despaired of ever obtaining a successful outcome under the current system of government. By 1839, his despair had caused him to doubtthe ability of human assemblies to ever produce a good outcome on their own:

There is one general mistake which characterizes our constitution, and popular opinions, which deserves to be particularly noticed: This is, a reliance on the discretion, good principles, and patriotism of men, for a faithful discharge of their duty to the public, and for a just administration of the laws. The fact ought to be directly the reverse. The constitution and laws should leave nothing to the discretion or virtue of the people, which can possibly be specifically prescribed.

wsforten said...

In this state of despair, Webster took an impossible position. A Constitution which would leave nothing to the discretion or virtue of the people would be longer than the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act put together. It was likely that Webster was still in this frame of mind when he opined that the Constitution should have required the rulers of the nation to be men who feared God.

Webster apparently did not take time to consider the problems which such a requirement would have produced. A written requirement that only those who fear God are permitted to hold to positions in the government would necessitate the formulation of a religious test against which the candidates for office could be measured in order to ensure compliance with this law. This, of course, should have led him to deliberate on the dangers that a religious test would produce, but we must remember Webster's insistence that nothing at all should be left to the discretion of the people. His question "Is any regard paid to these commands?" reveals that he desired to overcome the failures of the people to heed the instruction of Scripture by forcing them into compliance against their will. In short, Webster began advocating for religious tyranny.

wsforten said...

Minor correction: That should have read, "A Constitution which would leave nothing to the discretion or virtue of the people would be longer than the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act along with all their accompanying regulations put together."

Tom Van Dyke said...

All he needed to do was affirm natural law as the standard for all law to get most of the way there. I'm not exactly impressed with his philosophical acumen.

Exc analysis of how the logical conclusion of his thesis would be religious tests, although he must have realized that. In drafting the Constitution, the problem with religious tests was not so much their odiousness but the impossibility of the 13 states agreeing on what one might contain. [And of course Virginia would have never agreed to any.]

Jonathan Rowe said...

Some of them thought religious tests were quite odious and violated the Declaration of Independence.

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a6_3s8.html

Brian Tubbs said...

Not sure I'm comfortable with saying the first four Presidents plus Franklin represent the "key Founders" and everyone else was either second or third tier. If we're going to say Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin are "key Founders," then I think you'd have to include Hamilton in that list.

And of that "key founders" list, I think there are degrees within the Deist-Unitarian-Orthodox Christian range you cite. Washington and Madison were closer to the Christian side of the ledger than Franklin and Jefferson, for example.

And...call me old-fashioned or idealistic...but I still think we should put high stock in a person's self-identification. If a Founder called himself a Christian, then we should probably give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was. The only exception would be when we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary or when it's clear that the context of such a self-identifying claim was sarcastic or ironic or something along those lines, like when Jefferson called himself a "Christian." He did so not to say he was an orthodox Bible-believer, but merely to point out that he took the teachings of Christ more seriously than did many of his contemporaries who professed a Christian faith and were criticizing him for not having one.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Some of them thought religious tests were quite odious and violated the Declaration of Independence.

I was speaking of the Founding era as a whole. Since agreement betw the 13 states was impossible on what a religious test might contain [and Virginia would never agree on one anyway], it was easy to move on to the next of 100 other things.

Chris Rodda said...

Hey ... I just realized that there is an error in what Jon quoted about Joel Barlow from my post (which is actually an excerpt from Liars For Jesus).

The Anarchiad wasn't the paper. It was an epic poem published in installments in a paper. I wen't back and checked my draft for LFJ and the sentence is correct in that. I must have accidentally deleted eight words when I did the final formatting, which happens a lot when I'm adjusting the kerning to minimize the number of hyphenated words and and working too fast and don't realize that I still have the text highlighted and hit something I didn't mean to hit. My proofreaders always catch those errors, except on those rare occasions when the sentence still makes sense even with the deleted words missing. I'll add this one to the list of typos I need to fix when I get around to doing a revised edition of LFJ, and go fix it in my blog post as soon as I get a chance.

Nobody has noticed the error in seven years, so I guess not many people have read The Anarchiad, which is a shame because it's a very interesting and entertaining read. I highly recommend it! I was actually just reading part of it the other day because I'm quoting something from it in the book I'm writing now, which is what made me catch the typo in LFJ, which I noticed when I went to copy and paste my description of The Anarchiad, from LFJ into my new book. Then I remembered this morning that Jon had posted the section with the error in it here recently. Hence this comment with the correction.

This is how the sentence was supposed to read, with the missing eight words in brackets:

"Much of Barlow's other writing during this time was for The Anarchiad, a satirical political [epic poem published in installments in a Connecticut] paper …"