Monday, June 2, 2008

Hamilton v. Seabury:

Alexander Hamilton's "The Farmer Refuted" is a classic piece of American literature justifying rebellion against Great Britain. Less well known is the fact that Hamilton was replying to Tory loyalist, the Reverend Samuel Seabury, the first American Episcopal bishop. This page collects the pieces of literature to which Hamilton was responding. I'm fairly certain it was the third one down, this one, to which Hamilton specifically responded.

Regarding the theological implications of the letters, I've already conceded traditional Christianity to be compatible with both sides. When Hamilton wrote "The Farmer Refuted" in 1775 he didn't have any kind of established record as an orthodox Christian, while Seabury, as an Anglican minister, certainly did.

The content of "The Farmer Refuted" certainly has nothing to do with the Bible or Christianity but rather relies on theistic naturalism and rationalism to advance its claims. In short, it is an Enlightenment, not a Christian document. Here are some highlights:

Good and wise men, in all ages, have...supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

This is what is called the law of nature, "which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original." Blackstone.

Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety.

Hence, in a state of nature, no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property or liberty; nor the least authority to command, or exact obedience from him; except that which arose from the ties of consanguinity.


The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.

The nations of Turkey, Russia, France, Spain, and all other despotic kingdoms, in the world, have an inherent right, when ever they please, to shake off the yoke of servitude, (though sanctified by the immemorial usage of their ancestors;) and to model their government, upon the principles of civil liberty.

Hamilton invokes the law of nature which defines as what man discovers through reason unassisted by scripture, but also notes that the law of nature is dictated by God, which is necessary to make it binding everywhere and serve as an ultimate trump.

Where orthodox Christians run into trouble is when they suppose the Deity must be their God. Not according to Founding era doctrine. All that is needed is a monotheistic Deity. Christianity, of course, posits a monotheistic Deity, so Christianity could serve as the "religion." But so too could, according to America's Founders, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Native American Spirituality, and many other exotic world religions. Notice how Hamilton says, "[g]ood and wise men, in all ages,..." The plain meaning of Hamilton's words does not speak only to Christianity or Biblical religion, but rather assumes good men all over the world, even in non-Christian or "Judeo-Christian" lands worship the same God Christians do or at least can discover His rules through reason, without the Bible. This is what's known as theological naturalism or "natural religion." Some orthodox Christians of that era and today believe in natural religion. But Christians today still should question the compatibility. Francis Schaeffer, for instance, held natural religion (key to the American Founding!) to be inconsistent with Christian orthodoxy. The risk is, non-biblical ideas will be "imported" and given the same respect as sacred scripture.

And that's exactly what America's Founders did (the key ones of which held natural religion or the discoveries of man's reason supersedes what's written in the Bible!). That's exactly what the Declaration of Independence does. And that's what Hamilton does in this very document. Hamilton, like Jefferson et al., put words in God's mouth, saying God grants men unalienable natural rights, when the Bible says nothing of the sort. Those Christians who act as though America's Declaration of Independence and documents like "The Farmer Refuted" reflect "God's Truth" like Scripture essentially Mormonize their faith, importing non-biblical ideas under the auspices of "Christianity."

Finally a word on Blackstone whom Hamilton quotes. Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the law, likewise explicates the law of nature and defines it as what man discovers through reason, unaided by scripture.

This will of his maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws [my emphasis].

Blackstone then goes on to say that because man's reason is fallen, God revealed truth in the Bible, that reason and revelation should perfectly agree, but if seemingly not, scripture is more authentic than the findings of man's reason; it's probably fallen reason that errs.

And if our reason were always, as in our first ancestor before his transgression, clear and perfect, unruffled by passions, unclouded by prejudice, unimpaired by disease or intemperance, the task would be pleasant and easy; we should need no other guide but this. But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error.

This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine providence; which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce it's laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature, as they tend in all their consequences to man's felicity.

Still I've seen many Christians confused by that passage, thinking it means "the law of nature" is shorthand for scripture. Not so. According to Blackstone, the law of nature and the law of revelation are two separate things.

Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these [My emphasis].

Notice how Blackstone says TWO foundations. 1) Law of nature or reason and 2) law of revelation. That Blackstone said reason and revelation should always agree and if not, resolve the tension in favor of more authentic revelation, is nonetheless irrelevant to what America's Founders believed. They had a qualified appreciation for Blackstone and criticized him as much as they lauded him. They criticized him because his teachings were too Toryish and in fact supported the British, not American side, in the revolution. It is therefore ironic that Hamilton cited Blackstone for revolt against Parliament, the exact opposite position that Blackstone's commentaries take. As Blackstone said of Parliament:

It can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible; and therefore some have not scrupled to call it’s power, by a figure rather too bold, the omnipotence of parliament. True it is, that what they do, no authority upon earth can undo.

And as Gary North summarized the irony: “Blackstone was wrong: beginning eleven years later, the American colonies undid a lot of what Parliament had done.”

How to make sense of this? Hamilton, in "The Farmer Refuted" selectively cited Blackstone and when doing so, invoked the law of nature or what man discovers through reason and wisely avoided invoking the law of revelation. The Declaration of Independence likewise relies ONLY of the law of nature or reason and makes no mention of revelation. As a rationalist, Hamilton, like Jefferson, Adams, et al. probably believed man's reason was so keen it could pick out truth from a variety of sources whether it was Blackstone, the Bible or some pagan writer, and avoid the error. Theirs was the consummate cafeteria method of selective citation with man's reason as the penultimate guide.

Hamilton, in the that document, was wise not to credit the Bible or Christian religion with its ideas because to do so would be deceptive. As noted, the ideas contained in "The Farmer Refuted," though theistic, have nothing to do with the Bible or Christianity. They truly were a product of man's reason. Whether their reason really discovered what was dictated by God (as this understanding of the natural law claims) I'll not say. But if so, the Bible certainly doesn't inform us of this.

1 comment:

Brad Hart said...

It is striking how similar Hamilton is to Jefferson in his use of language. When Hamilton talks about nature I was reminded by how much Jefferson wrote about the same thing.

I'm guessin that this was the only thing Jefferson and Hamilton ever had in common!