We oft-hear the phrase "right reason" bandied about to describe reason's proper function; some use the term to describe reason's limits or that it is subservient to the Bible's text.
I argue "the Founders" or at least a great deal of them and the influential philosophers and divines they followed, held a higher view of man's reason than this. While many viewed man's nature as crooked ("partially depraved" I think would be a fair standard) they didn't view the intellect as corrupt. The Founders certainly had no use for Luther's idea that "reason" is the Devil's Whore.
Some Founders like Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin thought their reason so keen that it could "discern" which parts of the Bible were legitimately revealed which parts weren't. Some argue, like my friend Tom Van Dyke, that the prevailing "rationalism" of the Founding was probably more like Aquinas' -- that the Bible is infallible and if reason & revelation appear to conflict then fallen man's reason must be in error.
No doubt some held to this view. However, the Founders adhered to some widely held premises that exalted reason to a higher level. One of them was reason was God's first revelation to man. Accordingly scripture was God's second revelation to man. I've seen John Adams, James Wilson, and Ben Franklin endorse this theory. If reason is the first revelation, that automatically seems to relegate scripture's role to secondary. Revelation's role is to "support" or "corroborate" the findings of man's reason. As James Wilson put it, describing scripture's "secondary" role in "Works":
But whoever expects to find, in [Scripture], particular directions for every moral doubt which arises, expects more than he will find. They generally presuppose a knowledge of the principles of morality; and are employed not so much in teaching new rules on this subject, as in enforcing the practice of those already known, by a greater certainty, and by new sanctions. They present the warmest recommendations and the strongest inducements in favour of virtue: they exhibit the most powerful dissuasives from vice. But the origin, the nature, and the extent of the several rights and duties they do not explain; nor do they specify in what instances one right or duty is entitled to preference over another. They are addressed to rational and moral agents, capable of previously knowing the rights of men, and the tendencies of actions; of approving what is good, and of disapproving what is evil. [Bold mine.]
Did you get that? The Scriptures were designed not really to teach man new moral rules, but to clarify and support that which "rational" and "moral" man already knew without the Bible. This entirely contrasts with the evangelical idea that men are lost without scripture.
In 1735 Ben Franklin defended a Presbyterian preacher named Hemphill from a heresy charged and echoing Hemphill noted something similar:
Now that natural Religion, or that the Laws of our Nature oblige us to the highest Degrees of Love to God, and in consequence of this Love to our almighty Maker, to pay him all the Homage, Worship and Adoration we are capable of, and to do every thing we know he requires; and that the same Laws oblige us to the Love of Mankind, and in consequence of this Love, as well as of our Love to God, (because he requires these things of us) to do good Offices to, and promote the general Welfare and Happiness of our Fellow-creatures…What Hemphill means by the first Revelation which God made to us by the Light of Nature, is the Knowledge, and our Obligations to the Practice of the Laws of Morality, which are discoverable by the Light of Nature; or by reflecting upon the human Frame, and considering it’s natural Propensities, Instincts, and Principles of Action, and the genuine Tendencies of them.
Franklin goes on to describe the proper relationship between reason and revelation and positions scripture as secondary revelation, with “reason” or “the light of nature” as primary:
Now, that to promote the Practice of the great Laws of Morality and Virtue both with Respect to God and Man, is the main End and Design of the christian Revelation has been already prov’d from the Revelation itself. And indeed as just now hinted at, it is obvious to the Reason of every thinking Person, that, if God almighty gives a Revelation at all, it must be for this End; nor is the Truth of the christian Revelation, or of any other that ever was made, to be defended upon any other Footing. But quitting these things; if the above Observations be true, then where lies the Absurdity of Hemphill’s asserting,
That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.
The notion of a God given natural law discovered by reason is itself controversial in orthodox circles precisely because of the "un-biblical" results that could be "snuck in." Still some parts of orthodox Christendom, through Aquinas, believe in the "natural law," (which has its antecedents in Aristotle). But, the "Christian" natural law has its way of putting "right reason" in its place.
As above mentioned, my friend Tom Van Dyke noted the "Christian" view of natural law teaches what's discovered by reason must accord with the Bible; if reason and revelation appear to conflict, it must be reason that erred. However, the idea that reason is God's first revelation to man can easily lead to resolving the seeming contradiction the other way. At least that was the case with John Adams' approach.
As Adams wrote to Jefferson December 25, 1813:
Philosophy, which is the result of reason, is the first, the original revelation of the Creator to his creature, man. When this revelation is clear and certain, by intuition or necessary inductions, no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it.
I've found evidence of Adams twice denying the Trinity on the basis that it violates this "first" revelation of God to man. As Adams reacted to John Disney's thoughts:
D[isney]: The union of all Christians is anticipated, as it has been demonstrated to be the doctrine of Christ, his apostles and evangelists, as also of Moses and the prophets. Nor is it less the language of the religion of nature than of revelation . . .
A[dams]: The human understanding is the first revelation from its maker. From God; from Heaven. Can prophecies, can miracles repeal, annul or contradict that original revelation? Can God himself prove that three are one and one three? The supposition is destructive of the foundation of all human knowledge, and of all distinction between truth and falsehood. ["Prophets of Progress," p. 297-98.]
And Adams to Jefferson on Sept. 14, 1813:
We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or the fulfillment of any prophecy, or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle, as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature’s God, that two and two are equal to four….This revelation had made it certain that two and one make three, and that one is not three nor can three be one….Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and admitted to behold the divine glory, and there been told that one was three and three one, we might not have had the courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it.
Adams intimates even if the Trinity were revealed to him by God Himself with Moses on Mt. Sinai he wouldn't believe it. This is what we mean when we say "reason" trumps "revelation."
Another controversial issue at the time of the Founding is that God Himself is "rational." Now, perhaps the scriptures can be perfectly reconciled with reason. But what if they don't appear to be? Some might note it's reason that's the problem; others like Jefferson might counter it's the Bible that's the problem -- someone snuck a "corruption" into the text that made God look less than rational. Since God is perfectly rational, the Bible must be wrong. Under this impression, Jefferson felt free to take his razor to the Bible editing large parts out.
Again, my friend TVD asks, since Jefferson kept his cut up Bible private, what could the FFs get away with saying publicly. I would turn to the minister Rev. Samuel West. Like the key Founders, he was a secret unitarian. And like them, he believed in a "rational" God. Such God was incapable of giving irrational revelation. Thus if something in the Bible appeared to be irrational, it could not have been from God. This is what West noted in a PUBLIC sermon.
First the discoveries of "right reason" are as binding scripture:
Now, whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is as much the will and law of God as though it were enjoined us by an immediate revelation from heaven, or commanded in the sacred Scriptures.
And second that God is perfectly rational:
A revelation, pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural law, ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture; for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself,--a thing in the strictest sense impossible, for that which implies contradiction is not an object of the divine power.
The thrust of West's sermon is to find a right to revolt against tyrants. Where does he look for this right, the Bible? NO. In nature.
The doctrine of nonresistance and unlimited passive obedience to the worst of tyrants could never have found credit among mankind had the voice of reason been hearkened to for a guide, because such a doctrine would immediately have been discerned to be contrary to natural law.
Now, Jefferson was someone who disregarded everything the Apostle Paul wrote as "corruption," so he didn't have Romans 13 on his conscience. West wasn't, or couldn't have been so overtly heterodox; but Rev. West in his own subtle way elevated reason over revelation. Note that West already determined by looking to natural reason whether men had a right to revolt. With that question already answered he looked to the Bible for "secondary support." As James Wilson would put it, "corroboration."
West is confronted with Romans 13 which on its face seems to forbid revolt and demand submission to the worst of tyrants. But that CAN'T be "right revelation" because reason already determined that men had a right to revolt against tyrants. Here is how Rev. West deals with Romans 13:
I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome; that therefore the apostle, by enjoining submission to the powers that then were, does require unlimited obedience to be yielded to the worst of tyrants. Now, not to insist upon what has been often observed, viz., that this epistle was written most probably about the beginning of Nero's reign, at which time he was a very humane and merciful prince, did everything that was generous and benevolent to the public, and showed every act of mercy and tenderness to particulars, and therefore might at that time justly deserve the character of the minister of God for good to the people,-- I say, waiving this, we will suppose that this epistle was written after that Nero was become a monster of tyranny and wickedness; it will by no means follow from thence that the apostle meant to enjoin unlimited subjection to such an authority, or that he intended to affirm that such a cruel, despotic authority was the ordinance of God. The plain, obvious sense of his words, as we have already seen, forbids such a construction to be put upon them, for they plainly imply a strong abhorrence and disapprobation of such a character, and clearly prove that Nero, so far forth as he was a tyrant, could not be the minister of God, nor have a right to claim submission from the people; so that this ought, perhaps, rather to be viewed as a severe satire upon Nero, than as enjoining any submission to him.
The first point -- the epistle was written during the beginning of Nero's reign when he was "nicer," not towards the end when he was a tyrant -- strikes me as invoking hair splitting context to reach a desired result.
The second point -- if Paul said this when Nero was indeed acting tyrannical, he must not have meant it! -- shows West's willingness disregard scripture which disagrees with reason. Maybe Paul didn't mean it when he preached against homosexuality either.
West's sermon seems a clear example of public Founding era preaching on how "right revelation" was that which submitted to "reason." This wasn't as overt as Jefferson cutting up his Bible, but perhaps West's subtle method made his heterodoxy more dangerously subversive to the existing Christian order.