Sunday, June 28, 2015

Our Religious Founders: Forgotten or Intentionally Neglected?

From the invaluable Daniel Dreisbach, with a HT to friend-of-the-blog Mark David Hall:

Consider the political career of Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721-1793), a largely self-taught man, devout Calvinist, and lifelong public servant. He was one of only two men who signed all three of the great documents of American organic law: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was a member of the five-man committee formed to draft the Declaration of Independence and a member of the committee of thirteen formed to frame the Articles of Confederation. At the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 he delivered more speeches than all but three delegates and was a driving force behind the Great (Connecticut) Compromise. He was a member of the first U.S. House of Representatives (1789-1791) and later of the U.S. Senate (1791-1793), where he played key roles in deliberations on the Bill of Rights and the creation of a national bank. 
If any man merits the mantle of “founding father,” surely it is Roger Sherman. Yet few Americans recall, let alone mention, Sherman’s name when enumerating the founding fathers; even among those familiar with his name, most would be hard pressed to describe his role in the founding. Why is it that a man of such prodigious contributions to our country is today an all but forgotten figure? 
The same question could be asked about many other patriots— John Dickinson, Elbridge Gerry, John Jay, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Charles Pinckney, Benjamin Rush, John Rutledge, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon, just to name a few—who labored diligently to establish an independent American republic.
When asked to identify the “founding fathers,” Americans typically respond with a short list of a half dozen or so notables who have achieved iconic status in the American imagination and collective memory.
This is true of even serious students of American history. The small fraternity of “famous founders” typically includes (in no particular order) Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. To this short list, individual historians occasionally add a favorite figure or two.  There is, however, a much larger company of statesmen who made salient contributions in thought, word, and deed to the construction of America’s republican institutions. Unfortunately, many among the founding generation, whose contributions and sacrifices were consequential in the creation of a new nation, have slipped into unmerited obscurity, exiles from the elite fraternity of the famous.
Why are some individuals, whose well-documented contributions were valued by their peers and celebrated in their time, largely forgotten in our time? Why are a few founders “famous” and others now “forgotten”? Separating the famous from the now forgotten founders may erroneously convey the notion that the founders were a much more single-minded, monolithic fraternity than they really were. Our understanding of the delicate balance of personalities, perspectives, and experiences so vital to the success of the founding generation is obscured when we train our sights on a select few famous founders and disregard the rest. 
As previously noted, for example, the most orthodox Christians among the founders (Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, Oliver Ellsworth, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon) are rarely counted among the company of famous founders, despite their substantial contributions to the new nation, suggesting, perhaps, that the founders (and, more important, their ideas) were more heterodox than they really were. The contributions of traditional Christian thought to the American founding are, in large measure, diminished in the process.
These distortions, unfortunately, are sometimes translated into modern law and policy. Judicial interpretations of the First Amendment illustrate the potential problems. The U.S. Supreme Court’s near exclusive reliance on the views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two purported advocates of church-state separation, to divine the original understanding of the First Amendment, while ignoring the input of others who, in the deliberative process, championed an essential role for religion in public life, has arguably resulted in a distorted construction of the First Amendment.
Mark David Hall has recently documented that, in its recourse to legislative history, the U.S. Supreme Court has given inordinate attention to Jefferson and Madison. The focus on these two Virginians is odd, if not counter-historical, because Jefferson was, at most, only indirectly involved in framing the First Amendment (he was serving as the American Minister to France when the First Congress framed the amendment) and Madison suffered decisive defeats in his efforts to shape the content of the religion provisions. As Cushing Strout observed: “Madison did not carry the country along with Virginia’s sweeping separation of churches from the state: indeed, the country in some degree carried him.”

Read the whole thing.


bpabbott said...

Sherman ranks 2nd on the Separation of Church and State Home Page

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ben, lovely to see you again, my friend! I think of you often.

JMS said...

Isn’t Dreisbach’s article a bit dated (2012)?

1) Forgotten? Certainly no longer true with recent books for Roger Sherman, John Dickinson, John Jay, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Rush, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon.

2) Professor Hall has eloquently made his point about Supreme Court’s uses of Madison and Jefferson. But to state that, “The focus on these two Virginians is odd, if not counter-historical,” is neither “odd” nor “counter-historical.” Jefferson’s lack of physical presence is no argument at all. He was constantly (albeit the vagaries of trans-Atlantic communication) in touch with Madison while in Paris. Jefferson had three major concerns about the proposed Constitution: 1) the need for a Bill of Rights; 2) limits on presidential terms; and 3) fear that ed judiciary was too independent.

So, in terms of religion, the original unamended Constitution was ratified with:
1) no religious test (Article VI, ¶ 3) for federal office-holding
2) allowance for Quakers and others (Amish, Mennonites, Moravian, etc.) to affirm, rather than swear, their oath of office
3) no recognition of Christianity, or any denomination, as the “established” national church

To assert that, “Madison suffered decisive defeats in his efforts to shape the content of the religion provisions” is also not true. As Joseph Laconte wrote for the (conservative) Heritage Foundation ( “As chairman of the House conference committee on the Bill of Rights, Madison's original draft was among the most ambitious: "the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship...nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed...." Though somewhat less expansive in its protections, the final version--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" --clearly bears the Madison stamp.”.

But, as I and others have noted on AC before, probably the most compelling reason not to discount or dismiss the “theistic rationalist” Madison-Jefferson imprint on the First Amendment religion clauses, is the popular evangelical support for legislative efforts by the Baptist ministers Isaac Backus and John Leland. They stated on several occasions that support of religion by governments inevitably corrupted churches. From opposite ends of the religious spectrum, they all agreed that while religion was necessary for public morality, leading a virtuous or Christian life would be best achieved without any support or interference from government.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Religion was left to the states. Even The Godless Constitution admits this; it just glosses over that key component, like a New York Times article that prints the truth, but buries it in the 16th paragraph continued on page Z68. [Indeed religious tests were left in place in many states, unaffected by the Constitution or the first Amendment.]

As for Madison, he did indeed lose battles, such as on paid chaplains. Thus

“Madison did not carry the country along with Virginia’s sweeping separation of churches from the state: indeed, the country in some degree carried him.”

is a valid counterargument re the over-reliance on Madison in jurisprudence. As for Jefferson, what he thought and wrote behind the scenes is of academic interest, but outside of Virginia, he fought none of these battles. Elsewhere in the essay, Dreisbach argues that historiography has over-emphasized Jefferson's importance and thoughts, mostly because so much of his correspondence remains.

It's like looking for your keys under the streetlamp instead of where you dropped them, because the light's better.

As for Roger Sherman, he should be put on our currency before most of this list.

That not one schoolkid in a thousand knows his name illustrates Dreisbach's argument.

Tom Van Dyke said...


"Fame has not smiled on founders of few words or those who left an insufficient paper trail to inform or interest historians. There must be enough of an extant record with which students of history can work. A written record or historical narrative is vital for duly crediting a founder for his contributions. With considerable discomfort, Madison scribbled transcripts and copious notes of proceedings during the Constitutional Convention that, not surprisingly, recorded his contributions in a favorable light and assured his place in history. All the famous founders left enough words that, even two centuries after their demise, archivists still labor to collect and transcribe them, their papers filling many scores of published volumes.[18] Of particular value to historians are letters, journals, and diaries, which often provide a measure of a man’s character, and open a window into his motivations and aspirations. (“Without Jefferson’s letters,” Gordon S. Wood asked, “what would we know of his mind?”)[19]


George Mason of Virginia and John Witherspoon of New Jersey are examples of founders whose reputations may have been diminished in subsequent historical accounts because of gaps in the relevant documentary records. Mason, the principal draftsman of the influential Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) and among the most voluble members of the Constitutional Convention, is survived by a dearth of papers, which have been collected in a mere three volumes.[20] As his first major biographer observed in the late nineteenth century, “His life never having been written, his papers having been lost and scattered,” it is, perhaps, no wonder that “justice has not been done to George Mason.” Mason’s biographers, unlike Washington’s, Jefferson’s, and Madison’s, have not had their subject’s extensive recollections and papers “before them” in which the subject’s leading role in legislative deliberations “is chiefly dwelt on” and emphasized.[21] Then there is the case of the Reverend Doctor John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation and an active member of over 120 committees in the Continental Congress. In Witherspoon’s case, the problem is not the lack of papers; rather, it concerns copious papers which were lost or destroyed.