Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Levellers: A Forgotten or Distorted History? Part III

The Putney Debates
of 1647

In part III of my series on the history of The Levellers I would like to shift my focus a bit. As has been pointed out in the comments sections of my previous posts on this subject, many of you feel that the Levellers are a product of a general trend towards popular rights in both England and Europe. And while I agree that the Levellers are hardly the exclusive guardians and protectors of this trend towards the rights of the masses, I do believe that they should be credited for their intense drive -- a drive that was arguably more passionate than any other organization at the time -- to bring about social change.

This drive is best illustrated in the Putney Debates of 1647. First off, let me briefly describe the Putney Debates since they, like the Leveller movement in general, are a neglected historical topic.

In the wake of the New Model Army's victory over King Charles I in 1647, Oliver Cromwell and other senior officers of the army -- known as Grandees -- attempted to negotiate new terms with the crown, which they hoped would secure additional rights for the common man. However, during the course of these negotiations, Cromwell and his fellow officers backtracked on their demands and acquiesced to the king's desire to maintain a powerful monarchy and House of Lords. For the more radical segment of the New Model Army -- which consisted primarily of Levellers -- these compromises were completely unacceptable. As a result, members of the Grandees -- led by Cromwell himself -- agreed to meet with Levellers and other radical apologists within the army, who were anxious to see that their demands be met.

Hence, the Putnam debates were born! Later in the Fall of 1647, these two opposing sides came together in Putnam to debate their proposals. For historians, these debates are a literal treasure trove of primary documents that reveal the intense political and ideological struggle that gripped 17th century England. Virtually all of the early proceedings were recorded verbatim, allowing historians of all generations the chance to examine how these debates played out. For the most part, the debates center around the general premises found in the Agreement of the People, a document drafted by key members of the Leveller movement that outlined the precise demands being made by the radical members of the New Model Army (I discussed the general history of Agreement of the People in a former post that can be found here). In fact, the Putney Debates began with a reading of Agreement of the People and then a detailed discussion on each of it's primary points followed.

The Putney Debates played host to two primary topics: representation of the masses and freedom of religion -- or perhaps better put, freedom from religion. As Professor William Whyte of St. John's College in Oxford states:
In the run up to the Civil War, the role of religion in national life was hotly contested. For most people, England was a Protestant place. But what Protestantism meant in practice was far from clear. For Charles I and for Archbishop Laud, the ideal was a centralized, hierarchical Church: led by its bishops, who were the King’s servants. Church buildings should be stately and gracious and worship should be orderly and measured. For their opponents – the people we know as Puritans – all this smacked of corruption. Their ideal was simplicity and authenticity. Church buildings were unimportant; ritual and religious images were dangerous – even idolatrous; bishops had no place in a believers’ church.

The struggle between these different religious ideals was political as well as theological. It was political because the Church was political: its bishops were appointed by the king and sat in parliament; the Church was responsible to the State. It was political because people understood politics in religious terms. At the Putney Debates themselves, the problems faced by the New Model Army were attributed to God’s anger. And it was political because the religious reforms envisaged by both Charles and his Puritan opponents had a political dimension. For Charles and for Laud, the orderly, hierarchical Church was intended to underpin an orderly, hierarchical society. For the Puritans, by contrast, the simple, honest, authentic Church was intended to transform the country into a nation of Bible-reading Christians; people who would abandon ‘Pagan’ festivals like Christmas, ‘Pagan’ activities like sport, and ‘Pagan’ habits like drinking too much.

Whilst Charles and many of his Puritan opponents wanted to enforce their vision of religion on all people, at the Putney Debates another vision of religious life was proclaimed. Almost all those present were Puritans – but they were what were known as ‘Independents’. They believed in freedom of conscience and in freedom of worship. No one, they affirmed, should be compelled to attend church or forced to conform to another person’s beliefs.

This was not the first time that such a principle was articulated. Nor did everyone accept its implications. But some these ideas were carried out under Cromwell and still others were embodied in the Toleration Act of 1689. Religion remained hotly contested, but increasingly – in England at any rate – people no longer died to preserve their freedom of conscience.
It is from this understanding of religion that the Levellers pushed for additional rights. As Colonel Thomas Rainsborough stated on day two of the debates:
We do not empower or entrust our Representatives to continue in force, or to make any Laws, Oaths, Covenants, whereby to compell by penalties or otherwise any person in any thing in or about matters of faith or to exercise of Religion according to his conscience, nothing having caused more distractions and heart burnings in all ages, that persecution and molestation for matters of Conscience in and about religion.
Rainborough continued his rhetoric regarding the freedom of the individual to choose by shifting his focus to the political arena:
I desired that those that had engaged in it might be included. For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under. And I am confident that when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons — insomuch that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no that should doubt of these things.
And though these ideas did not have their genesis in the Leveller movement -- one could trace these ideas back quite a ways -- it is clear that the Putney Debates carried trmendous political and social clout. Now, it is worth pointing out that Cromwell, despite hearing the various arguments presented at the Putney Debates, chose to present an entirely different set of proposals to the King. As a result, the Leveller demands were never proposed or discussed outside of Putney. However, this should not be taken as proof positive that the Leveller movement was but a simple failure that eventually faded away with the passage of time. The Corkbrush Field mutiny in the latter part of 1647 illustrated -- at least for Cromwell and many of his followers -- that the ideas of freedom, equality, etc. were not likely to die out with the extermination of the Leveller movement. Instead, an unstoppable titlewave of change was underway.

***As I stated before, the Putney Debates are a treasure trove of valuable primary source material that is both interesting and enlightening. I hope the readers and contributors of this blog will take the time -- at least at some point -- to thumb through these documents. They are excellent sources that fit nicely with this blog's theme.***

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Freemasons: Fact & Fiction

Freemasons are the buzz, thanks to novelist Dan Brown, whose book The Last Symbol promises to blur fact and fiction regarding America’s Founding Fathers the way The Da Vinci Code did with the historical Jesus. But the truth remains more interesting than the creations of Hollywood or the publishing industry.

Conspiracy theories trace the Freemasons' origins back to the builders of ancient Egypt, to Solomon and his Temple and other secret orders shrouded in the obscurity of time. But the real story is that the masonic order was an outgrowth of the European Enlightenment.

Freemasonry as the Founders knew it was part philosophical society, part social improvement club, part mystic brotherhood. It had its beginnings in 1717 with the organization of the Grand Lodge in London. Earlier Masonic lodges were composed mostly of stone workers, remnants of the craft guilds that build the medieval cathedrals. But with the opening of the 18th century, these guilds were on the wane. The Grand Lodge revived Masonry by drawing in an entirely new breed–called “speculative” masons–whose interests were mainly scientific and intellectual. Like their predecessors, these newcomers evinced an enthusiasm for architecture and engineering. Not content to carve in stone, however, “speculative” Masons hoped to lay the foundations for a whole new society.

John Desaguliers, whose Huguenot family brought him to England shortly after his birth in 1683, was among the principal founders of the lodge where these ideas germinated. As chair of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford, he was an intimate of Isaac Newton and became Curator and Demonstrator for the Royal Society. His great gift was as a popularizer. He was able to lecture freely on gravity, optics, geometry and mechanics and, with the aid of ingenious working models, bring the concepts of elementary physics within the reach of non-scholars.

An ordained deacon in the Church of England, he became the proponent for a faith whose God owed more to the harmonies of physics than to the traditional Christian scriptures. For deity should be demonstrable, Desaguliers argued, like the laws of science, which his own work had proven to be within the grasp of even average minds. So theology should look to the natural world rather than to revelation for inspiration–to the vast Creation and the orderly working of its laws. For just as Newton’s laws seemed incontrovertible and beyond dispute, a purely natural religion might avoid the disputations that had so vexed human history. Persecutions of the kind that drove his own family from France would become a thing of the past if only people would reorient their faith, away from doctrinal differences and variant readings of the Bible, toward what to Desaguliers seemed beyond question–the existence of God (whom he called the Great Architect and Organizer of the World) and the unity of humankind.

This was religion shorn of supernaturalism, devoid of the Trinity, simplified to an affirmation of the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of man. And it was this simple faith that appealed to many of America’s founding generation. Early America masons included figures like John Hancock and Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington–who laid the cornerstone of the nation’s capitol building with a Masonic trowel. With lodges around the world, from Russia to France to Britain, Masonry was poised to become a unifying, international force for the uplift of society, they believed.

There is no Harvard Department of Symbology to “decode” the hints and clues of the fiction writer’s brain. But ultimately none is needed. Symbols like the pyramid, the compass and all-seeing eye which capture Dan Brown’s imagination were far less important to America’s Founders than the moral substance of Masonry–promoting general education and public virtue rather than dividing people along narrowly sectarian lines.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Madison's Drawing Room

As I noted in my last post, I recently returned from a trip to several historic presidential homes in Virginia, James Madison’s Montpelier being one of them. The Montpelier estate was acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation from the DuPont family in 1984. A massive restoration project to return the exterior of the home to the way it looked during Madison’s time was commenced in 2003 and completed in 2008. The Montpelier staff is now hard at work trying to restore the interior of the mansion to Madison’s time. (However, if anybody gets the chance they should try to visit Madison’s Montpelier…it is just as stunning as Jefferson’s Monticello, but less crowded.)

One thing I thought some of you might find interesting was two of the pictures the Montpelier staff has determined Madison hung on the walls of his drawing room, the room in the house where the Madison’s formally welcomed visitors and where people would sit and wait to until President Madison was able to see them. I find these two painting interesting because they speak to the religious divergence we so often find in the Founding Fathers' worldviews: They were Christian in some sense, but rejected traditional Christianity’s emphasis on supernatural revelation and instead focused on natural revelation and human reason. As many of you know, Madison is one of the Founding Fathers whose personal religious faith we have the least amount of information about.

On one side of Madison’s drawing room hung a large painting titled “Supper at Emmaus” from 1610, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), a Flemish Baroque painter. It depicts the moment from the Gospel of Luke when the resurrected but incognito Jesus revealed himself to two of his disciples (presumed to be Luke and Cleophas) and then instantly vanished from their sight. This seems like an unusual painting for a non-traditional Christian to have hanging in his home, especially because it deals directly with the supernatural.

However, on the opposite wall is another large painting titled “Pan, Youths, and Nymphs” (1630s) by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656). Pan, as you may know, was the god of nature in Greek mythology. The painting shows a scene of Pan also with several other mythological creatures surrounding a bare-chested female character (the moon goddess Selene?).

So that is a really interesting contrast in one room. Perhaps both paintings were placed there so that regardless of who was waiting to see Mr. Madison, they would have something to view of their liking. However, it might also speak to Madison’s religious mind itself, struggling to make sense of his inherited Christian faith, the dominate faith tradition of his country, while also entertaining new thoughts about revelation, nature, human constructs of religion and Christianity. Then again, perhaps his ex-Quaker wife Dolley demanded something religious be included in such a public and prominent room. Nonetheless, these are two interesting and divergent pieces of artwork to be located in a single room, yet alone facing one another (the staff has done “nail hole analysis” to determine exactly where the pieces of work were hung).
Another thing I found interesting about Madison's drawing room was that he had two different portraits of Thomas Jefferson on two different walls. One Jefferson picture is grouped with several of the Founding Fathers, but the other one is grouped with members of Madison's family. This certainly represents the close relationship between these two men.

In more general news from Montpelier, according to our tour guide, among the upcoming projects during the interior restoration the staff will attempt to reconstruct Madison’s personal library collection. Obviously they will probably not be able to get many originals, so it will mostly be made up of copies of volumes they are able to determine Madison owned. It should be interesting to see what religious tomes he possessed when they complete their research.

On Poverty, Popery and Providence

by Benjamin Franklin

I have heard it remarked that the poor in Protestant countries, on the continent of Europe, are generally more industrious than those of Popish countries.

May not the more numerous foundations in the latter for relief of the poor have some effect towards rendering them less provident?

To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity; it is godlike; but if we provide encouragement for laziness, and support for folly, may we not be found fighting against the order of God and nature, which perhaps has appointed want and misery as the proper punishments for, and cautions against, as well as necessary consequences of, idleness and extravagance?

Whenever we attempt to amend the scheme of Providence, and to interfere with the government of the world, we had need be very circumspect, lest we do more harm than good.

In New England they once thought blackbirds useless, and mischievous to the corn. They made efforts to destroy them. The consequence was, the blackbirds were diminished; but a kind of worm, which devoured their grass, and which the blackbirds used to feed on, increased prodigiously; then, finding their loss in grass much greater than their saving in corn, they wished again for their blackbirds.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gregg Frazer's Thesis For Evangelicals

I have many evangelical "friends" (in an Internet sense) on WorldMagBlog. I have shared with them Dr. Gregg Frazer's thesis, with mixed results. Many agree with it entirely; many resist its implications vehemently, and many are on the fence. Here is an example of a note I shared with them on today's open thread:


Here again I reproduce p. 12 of Dr. Gregg Frazer (history/political philosophy at The Master’s College) PhD thesis from Claremont Graduate University where he takes all of the established churches in late 18th Cen. America (save the Quakers who had no creed), examines their creeds, and forms a 10 point lowest common denominator among them as to what it means to be a “Christian.” Question: [When it comes to defining "Christianity," h]as this test really changed at all? Is there anything you don’t agree with in this test?

I’ll recite the 10 points: 1) the Trinity; 2) God active in human affairs; 3) the deity of Christ; 4) original sin; 5) virgin birth; 6) atoning work of Christ/satisfaction for sins; 7) resurrection; 8) eternal punishment for sin; 9) justification by faith; and 10) inspiration/authority of scripture (i.e., its infallibility).

His research shows that of the “key Founders” (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, G. Morris, Wilson, and Hamilton before his deathbed conversion to Christianity) they provably believed in one maybe two of these 10 points and hence were not “Christians” according to the late 18th Century understanding of the concept EVEN IF most of them presented their personal theology (which also happens to be America’s Founding political theology) under the auspices of “Christianity.”

I would note that one probably could disbelieve in points 4) (as the capital O Orthodox Church does) 8) (many Christians hope for a universal reconciliation) and 10) (many Christians also question whether the Bible is infallible even if they believe most of it was dictated by God) and still qualify as a “Christian.” However, the other 7 tenets (those found within the Nicene Creed) seem non-negotiable to Christianity’s historic dominant teachings.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Forrest Church RIP

Forrest Church has died after a long battle with cancer. He was pastor at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side of New York. He wrote notable book on America's Founders and religion entitled "So Help Me God."

He was truly a remarkable man.

One critique of present day Unitarian Universalists is that their beliefs are too "wishy washy," and that too many of them are atheists, agnostics or non-theists. But not Rev. Church. He was a devout believer in God, how belief in God brings meaning to life, and he faced death his death with a remarkable attitude. (I would say on par with Randy Pausch).

Here is the Rev. Church on death:

And you can read more on Rev. Church and America's Founders here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The "Orthodox" on Joseph Priestley

Lots of great new stuff -- primary sources in the area of history that I research -- continues to be uploaded. Expect much more like the following. In this book of correspondence of Rev. Joseph Priestley's, we see him communicating with an "orthodox" figure named "Dr. Kenrick." They discuss Priestley's potential to "convert" "infidel" philosophers like Hume to "rational Christianity":

"As to your concern for the conversion of infidels, I look upon it as the cant of a philosophical crusader, and am sorry I cannot coincide with you in your projected conciliation of the rational truths of philosophy, with the mysterious truths of Christianity. I am apprehensive that it is impossible, without endangering the cause of both, to bring them into too close a contact....It is a moot point with me, whether the really thinking and intelligent philosophers, whom Dr.Priestley wishes to convert, are greater infidels in their present state of unbelief, than they would be, if converted by him into rational Christians,..."

This is notable because the heterodoxy in which Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin and probably others believed in (i.e., Joseph Priestley, Richard Price influenced theology) didn't present itself as "deism" or "infidelity" but "rational Christianity." But to the "orthodox," this "unitarian" "rational Christianity" was not much different than the "infidelity" of strict deism. Still it enabled Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin to couch their political-theological plans under the auspices of "Christianity." Their republican project wouldn't have succeeded if done otherwise.

Priestley later explains (scroll down a few pages) what "rational Christianity" is all about:

If, for example, bread and wine, philosophically, i.e., strictly and justly considered, cannot be flesh and blood, the popish doctrine of transubstantiation cannot be true. So also if one cannot be three, or three, one, mathematically considered, neither can the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity be true. It certainly, therefore, behoves every rational christian to prove the consistency of the articles of his faith with true philosophy and the nature of things.

This also, to me sheds light on Leo Strauss' argument that, however much they may agree on some or many things, reason and revelation ultimately boil down to inconsistent teachings.

The Levellers: A Forgotten or Distorted History? Part II

In yesterday's post, I briefly outlined the role and alleged impact that a group of English reformers -- known as The Levellers -- had in helping to bring about social change during the Cromwell era.

For many historians, the Levellers have come to represent an early foreshadowing of the political and social advances that later became a hallmark of the American and French Revolutions. But for other historians, the Levellers represent how a 21st century perspective can thwart objective scholarly inquiry. For these historians, the legacy of the Levellers has been immersed in a modern mythology that has the appearance of 17th century history but is, in reality, more akin to modern interpretations of social equality. In other words, the Levellers have fallen victim to the dangerous plague of "presentism."

Historian Edward Vallance of Roehampton University is a champion of such an interpretation. In his October, 2007 article from BBC History Magazine, Vallance explains that modern Leveller historiography has fallen victim to, "the condescension of the tourist industry." Regarding the modern historiographical approach to Leveller history, Vallance writes:
Marxists scholars such as Christopher Hill saw the Levellers as representing the English petty bourgeoisie. American liberals like William Haller praised John Lilburne as an early advocate of ‘free enterprise’. The celebration of the Levellers’ contribution to the development of democracy has spread into the political arena. Since 1975, left-wingers have commemorated the suppression of the Leveller-inspired mutiny at Burford in 1649. The socialist icon Tony Benn used his speech at the second ‘Leveller Day’ to applaud them for their forward-looking ideals which ‘anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.’ Paraphrasing Benn, Tristram Hunt has described Rainborowe’s comments as expressing the ‘ethical ideal of socialism’ and suggested that the ‘language and ideas expressed in the US constitution were lifted straight from the Putney debates’.

It is doubtful that the words spoken at Putney influenced the Founding Fathers, given that the text of the debate was not published until 1891. In 1649, the imprisoned John Lilburne had defiantly predicted that ‘posterity … shall reap the benefit of our endeavours whatever shall become of us.’ Yet, for over two hundred years, references to the Putney debates and the Levellers were few and far between. Although a permanent record of the debates was kept by the general secretary of the army, William Clarke, all reporting of the debates in the press was banned. They were barely mentioned in contemporary newssheets and pamphlets.

This secrecy was unsurprising. The discussion of the franchise, the most celebrated element of the debate for recent historians and commentators, was neither the most significant nor the lengthiest portion of the discussions. The focus instead was on settling the kingdom: in particular, the King’s role in any future peace negotiations. During the debates, two soldiers referred to Charles I as a ‘man of blood’, a tyrant who had waged war against his people and must be brought to retributive, divinely-willed justice. Religious language suffused the talk at Putney. People attending the debates also gathered for prayer meetings charged with apocalyptic language. New historical research suggests that Putney saw a shift from the pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the King to the decision to bring Charles I to trial. In the chaotic political situation following the first civil war, few of the participants in the debate, Cromwell least of all, were prepared to leave hostages to fortune by letting the proceedings be reported in public.

Celebration of the Levellers...has been driven by a desire to fit them into a tradition of British radicalism, as forerunners of democracy, liberalism and socialism. But if the Levellers are part of a ‘democratic tradition’, it is a tradition which has largely been invented by twentieth and twenty-first century historians, journalists and politicians, not one created by radical movements themselves. Until the late nineteenth century there was very little reference to the Levellers and there is, frankly, scant evidence that their works influenced any subsequent radicals either in Britain, America or France. Even once C. H. Firth’s transcriptions of the Putney debates had been published, they were mainly seen as being of interest to military historians. It was not until the publication in 1938 of A. S. P. Woodhouse’s provocatively titled Puritanism and Liberty, that Putney was established as a milestone in British constitutional history. Woodhouse’s edition of the debates had an explicitly political aim: to provide ideological ammunition for the public in the battle against the forces of Fascism and, later, Soviet totalitarianism. It is his re-interpretation of Putney as a crucible of democratic thought which has proved most influential to the present day.

Historians have now begun to ask if the Levellers have been given disproportionate attention; and whether, indeed, we can talk of the ‘Levellers’ at all. Recent scholarship has argued that there was no coherent ‘Leveller’ programme before the autumn of 1647. The term ‘Leveller’ itself did not appear until after the Putney Debates and was a pejorative label attached to these London radicals by their opponents. The radicals’ critics claimed they wanted to ‘level’ all social distinctions and do away with private property. The leading ‘Leveller’ writers, William Walwyn, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, were always keen to disassociate themselves from the term. In A Manifestation (1649) they complained that they ‘never had it in our thoughts to level men’s estates, it being the utmost of our aim … that every man may with as much security as may be enjoy his propriety’. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, we have been guilty of accepting the words of the Leveller’s critics too literally and have viewed them as a more radical, more modern and more coherent group than they really were.

The proposals for St Mary’s Church Putney to remember the 360th anniversary of these debates threaten to set the anachronistic interpretation of the Levellers as the first democrats/liberals/socialists in stone, institutionalising an invented tradition of British radicalism through museum displays, heritage centres, and public memorials. Hunt has argued that commemorations of this kind provide an antidote to a heritage industry fixated on the lives of our kings and queens but, in fact, this version of Putney really only offers its ‘radical’ equivalent: a romantic vision of great historical democrats (Lilburne, Walwyn) struggling against oppressive tyrannical ‘baddies’ (Cromwell, Ireton). Good melodrama perhaps, but bad history. E. P. Thompson, whom Hunt invokes to promote his project, would, I suspect, be horrified at the proposed ‘heritage- ization’ of British radicalism. Thompson believed that the role of radical history was to arm the people for the political struggles that they faced in the future. Yet the recent Guardian competition offered only an opportunity to ‘celebrate’, through a Whiggish narrative of ever-broadening British freedom, the rights we enjoy at present. The history of the Levellers themselves, crushed by the army leadership and largely forgotten for nearly a quarter millennia, should warn us against this smug complacency about the security of our civil liberties.

So should we bother to commemorate Putney at all? Yes – but in ways which will allow us to continue to benefit from the most recent historical research on the subject. The Levellers are important. They were the first western Europeans to develop the idea of an essentially secular written constitution (though they did so to preserve their own deeply held religious beliefs). Consequently, they were the first to approach a more modern understanding of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech as natural, human rights. Their analysis of the politics of the 1640s remains very relevant today. They saw that an over-mighty Parliament could be as dangerous (if not more so) than a tyrannical King and called both for greater accountability in government and the establishing of civil liberties which could not be undermined by either the monarch or his ministers (even under the pretence of ‘emergency’ or ‘necessity’).

This month sees the release of a new paperback edition of the debates, and a major new collection is forthcoming on the Agreements of the People. These publications and the celebrations of the 360th anniversary of these remarkable debates should be used to spark a discussion of the enduring importance of these English writers and politicians. Leveller writing has much to say about present threats to our rights and freedoms, if we read their own words and not the anachronistic bowdlerisations of their twentieth-century interpreters. Those who spoke, wrote and gave their lives for liberty deserve more than to have their ideas reduced to ignominious (and inaccurate) banalities on a blue plaque.
Regarding the alleged impact that the Levellers had on future figures like Locke, historian Julian Franklin writes the following:
The main point, in any effect, is that Leveller ideas were not, unfortunately, were not to have any direct effect on subsequent is often taught to be the case...
Critics of Dr. Vallance and other skeptics of modern Leveller historiography argue that if the Levellers are simply the mere invention of modern enthusiasm, how was it possible for men like Lilburne to have such a direct and dramatic influence on 17th century England? David Hoile, a pro-Libertarian author and supporter of the modern Levellers scholarship, argues that skeptics of the current Leveller scholarship are often too quick to throw men like Lilburne and others under the bus, simply because the Leveller movement eventually faded away. He writes:
The Leveller movement failed because of the several factors mentioned above. They had tried to work through a parliament which was ultimately unsympathetic and suspicious of the movement, its leaders and its political aspirations. It was a parliament deeply uneasy with any break with the Crown, nurturing as it did for much of the 1640s a hope for a rapprochement with the king. And when the break did come, with the execution of Charles Stuart, Leveller views were still seen as too radical for the English body politic under Cromwell, a man more concerned, at that stage at least, with the nature of political power than with political philosophy. It was this growing gulf between the Levellers and the government of the Commonwealth which saw a stepping-up in the extra-parliamentary activity such as the political propaganda petition which was the hallmark of the movement. It would lead ultimately to the advocacy of armed struggle against what was perceived as an illegitimate authority.
In comparison, Marxist apologist and historian William F. Warde offers roughly the same pro-Leveller interpretation:
The Levellers called for sweeping democratization of both Church and State. Among the religious reforms were full freedom of religious belief, separation of Church and State, the suppression of tithes; among the political reforms were a constitutional republic, annual election of a Parliament responsible to the people alone, general manhood suffrage; among the legal reforms, the right to a trial by jury, no star-chamber hearings, no capital punishment or imprisonment for debt; among the civil rights, freedom of the press and no license on printing.

Although they have since become commonplace, in their day such doctrines were audacious revolutionary innovations which their advocates like Lilburne and others paid for with tortures, fines and prison terms.

The Levellers started as a propaganda group and transformed themselves into a party as their mass influence extended and the revolutionary movement mounted. They were the first popular revolutionary party in English history, playing a role comparable to that of the Sons of Liberty in the First American Revolution. They were essentially a party of mass action. Like Tom Paine, their leaders addressed themselves first and foremost to the common people, educating, arousing, guiding and organizing them for direct intervention on the key questions of the hour.
And while I remain somewhat uncertain as to the actual role that the Levellers played in history, I am of the opinion that both camps probably contain more than just a kernel of truth. Is modern Leveller historiography influenced by "presentism?" I'm sure it is. But does that simple fact therefore eliminate the prospect that the Levellers were a legitimate and influential movement? I doubt it. Finding the balance is now, in my opinion, where the discussion should lead.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Levellers: A Forgotten or Distorted History? Part I

If there is a historical tale begging to be made into a blockbuster Hollywood movie it is the story of John Lilburne and "The Levellers." Just try to picture it: you take the likes of a Russell Crow type, caught up in an epic love story with a woman almost 30 years his junior, throw them into the convoluted world of 17th century England with a script chalked full of tales of political oppression, heroic resistance, civil war and an early and tragic death and what do you have? A surefire Oscar come February!

Yes, the story of John Lilburne is desperately needing to be told. But since Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, etc. are unlikely to read this fair blog and alas, will not learn of their next big blockbuster, I will try to pick up the pieces and do what I can to shed light on the conflicting histories surrounding this somewhat obscure portion of British history.

Part I: John Lilburne, The Levellers, and the Fight for Equality

Born in the early years of the 17th century, John Lilburne was destined to crash head on with the political and religious oppression that was plaguing England. A devout Puritan, Lilburne grew to dislike the hierarchy of not only the Anglican Church but the English crown. As a result of his disdain for authority, Lilburne was introduced to a fellow agitator named John Bastwick, a Puritan activist who actively attacked the bishops of the Anglican Church. A sample from Bastwick's A Letany:
Howsoever they [Anglican Bishops] glory in the name of the church and stile themselves with that dignity, excluding all others from that title...they are so far from being the Church as they are not so much as rubbish of that glorious fabricke: for they persecute, destroy and ruine that true Church of Christ and afflict and weary his members continually: and for that end they have their sworne servants through the kingdome to give them information, against both Minister and people that are of a more godly and strict life, and that desire in the purity of his Ordinance to serve ye Lord.
Long story short, Lilburne came to fully embrace Bastwick's passionate assault on Anglican Bishops. In consequence, Lilburne took to regularly smuggling anti-Anglican literature from Holland; a practice that eventually landed Lilburne in jail. It was during his trial that Lilburne demanded certain "freeman" rights, which he believed had been withheld from all English citizens. As a result, Lilburne was allegedly flogged, beaten, gagged and drug from a horse. The events surrounding Lilburne's trial and beating became well-known throughout England, which eventually led to Lilburn receiving the nickname, "Freeman John."

A few years after his release, Lilburne joined up with the likes of Oliver Cromwell and the Robert Devereux. However, Lillburne soon grew impatient with the new Cromwell Administration, believing that he had failed to make the reforms necessary for a free people. Together with other reformers, Lilburne embraced the "Levellers" movement, which set out to bring about constitutional changes that would list specific rights guaranteed to the people. In their manifesto, The Agreement of the People (1647) the Levellers petitioned for:
An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace...upon grounds of common right.
In addition, the Agreement of the People lists several key rights, all of which are to be guaranteed by law, and which many historians argue served as precursors to the American Bill of Rights that followed:
That the power of this, and all future Representatives of this Nation, is inferior only to theirs who choose them, and doth extend, without the consent or concurrence of any other person or persons, to the enacting, altering, and repealing of laws, to the erecting and abolishing of offices and courts, to the appointing, removing, and calling to account magistrates and officers of all degrees, to the making war and peace, to the treating with foreign States, and, generally, to whatsoever is not expressly or impliedly reserved by the represented to themselves: Which are as followeth.

1. That matters of religion and the ways of God's worship are not at all entrusted by us to any human power, because therein we cannot remit or exceed a tittle of what our consciences dictate to be the mind of God without wilful sin: nevertheless the public way of instructing the nation (so it be not compulsive) is referred to their discretion.

2. That the matter of impresting and constraining any of us to serve in the wars is against our freedom; and therefore we do not allow it in our Representatives; the rather, because money (the sinews of war), being always at their disposal, they can never want numbers of men apt enough to engage in any just cause.

3. That after the dissolution of this present Parliament, no person be at any time questioned for anything said or done in reference to the late public differences, otherwise than in execution of the judgments of the present Representatives or House of Commons.

4. That in all laws made or to be made every person may be bound alike, and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected.

5. That as the laws ought to be equal, so they must be good, and not evidently destructive to the safety and well-being of the people.

These things we declare to be our native rights, and therefore are agreed and resolved to maintain them with our utmost possibilities against all opposition whatsoever; being compelled thereunto not only by the examples of our ancestors, whose blood was often spent in vain for the recovery of their freedoms, Buffering themselves through fraudulent accommodations to be still deluded of the fruit of their victories, but also by our own woeful experience, who, having long expected and dearly earned the establishment of these certain rules of government, are yet made to depend for the settlement of our peace and freedom upon him that intended our bondage and brought a cruel war upon us.
In addition to Agreement of the People Leveller supporters like Lilburne and Richard Overton authored countless letters and pamphlets of petition against the Cromwell government, which they saw as being every bit the oppressor as the crown. As Lilburne states in a Sept. 11, 1648 petition:
Insomuch as we who upon these grounds have laid out ourselves every way to the uttermost of our abilities — and all others throughout the land, soldiers and others who have done the like in defence of our supreme authority and in opposition to the king — cannot but deem ourselves in the most dangerous condition of all others: left without all plea of indemnity for what we have done, as already many have found by the loss of their lives and liberties either for things done or said against the king, the law of the land frequently taking place and precedency against and before your authority, which we esteemed supreme, and against which no law ought to be pleaded. Nor can we possibly conceive how any that in any ways assisted you can be exempt from the guilt of murders and robbers by the present laws in force if you persist to disclaim the supreme authority, though their own consciences do acquit them as having opposed none but manifest tyrants, oppressors and their adherents.
For many historians, the story of John Lilburne and the Levellers is a clear-cut stepping stone that later inspired the likes of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and -- perhaps indirectly -- the Founding Fathers. The petitions of the Levellers, specifically the Agreement of the People are often seen as vital precursors to later documents such as the Declaration of Rights and the Bill of Rights. For these historians, the legacy of the Levellers is a treasure that has unfortunately been obscured over time.

But is the story behind the Levellers that of an unknown, obscure and forgotten legacy of heroism that foreshadowed the later events of the American Revolution? Or is the Leveller saga, like so many "historical" Hollywood films, more the stuff of smoke and mirrors than actual substance? In part II of my series on the Levellers (which will be posted tomorrow) I will present some of the contrary arguments that attempt to uncover the true agenda behind the history of the Levellers.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gregg Frazer Recommends Book

Dr. Frazer sent me this note along for my readers:

“The Liberty Fund, Inc. has just published a book that is a really valuable resource for readers of this blog. It is a huge collection (712 pages) of primary documents on religious liberty and church and state from the colonial and founding eras edited by Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall. It is entitled The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding. It includes a number of previously unavailable, rare, and hard to find primary documents. Whatever one’s position on religion and the founding, this extensive collection of primary sources will be a valuable resource. For those who don’t know Dreisbach, he is perhaps THE foremost expert on religion and the founding and has a very balanced view. I heartily recommend this for those who rely on primary sources.”

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mormonism & "Judeo-Christianity"

Here's one other important note I mentioned in the Kenneth Anderson thread about Mormons and religious tests. It relates to the concept of "Judeo-Christianity." Many in the "Mormons are not 'Christians'" crowd interchangeably use the terms "Christianity" and "Judeo-Christianity." And they also tend NOT to approach Jews, with whom they likewise disagree theologically with the same invective against those doctrines of the Jewish people with which they disagree.

Anderson explains this dynamic in the comments section:

[T]he opinion surveys in which large percentages of Evangelicals rejected Romney on account of his religion had no problem with a Jewish practitioner - meaning here, not simply a Jew ethnically or culturally, but as a matter of religious practice and affiliation. That was fine. Mormonism was regarded as specifically offensive because it was either pagan, polytheistic, or heretical in the specific sense of spreading false doctrine in the name of the faith. It was not the case that they required a person of their religious beliefs. Mormonism was specifically out of bounds as a faith that actively led people astray because it claimed to be Christian but was actually something deceptive. Not just false, but deceptive.

And I noted in a subsequent comment how an analogous dynamic existed during the American Founding:


Your comment about "deception" is important. I often hear evangelicals interchange "Christian" with "Judeo-Christian" in terms of "foundations" in which they support. Many of these are the same folks whose support for Israel and the "Jewish people" has something to do with end times prophecy. Note, I'm not an "anti-zionist" (I tend to support Israel as well); I'm just making an observation. When I press them for "definitions," "Judeo-Christianity" usually means orthodox Christianity where Jews get to tag along for fun or for some *other* special reason.

I think this again relates to the Founding. From John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, they more likely defended their understanding of the "true religion" in which they supported under the auspices of "Christianity" and not some anti-Christian Deism (ala Thomas Paine). But their understanding of "Christianity" was unitarian, and tended to be naturalistic, rationalistic, and generic in its moralization of the Christian faith (i.e., if you were a good person and acted like Jesus -- the world's greatest moral teacher -- you were a "Christian" regardless of your views on original sin, Trinity, Atonement, etc.).

It wasn't exactly Mormonism; but the same "deception" issue was involved. By the time unitarians Richard Price and Joseph Priestley (whose influence on the "key Founders" cannot be emphasized enough) began to speak out, the "orthodox" critics responded with the same "this isn't Christianity, it's a false system that calls itself 'Christianity'" to them as they today do with the Mormons.

For that and a number of other reasons I think Mormons (and other "outsider" religious groups) should feel an affinity for the American Founding.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ken Anderson on the Mormons/Christians Controversy as it relates to American Public Office

That title speaks for itself.

You can read his post and his links to his thoughtful thesis here.

On a related note, I made a number of comments on that thread (scroll down). See for instance, this comment where I explained the difference between "unitarian" and "Unitarian":


I write with the lower case u for a very important reason. Many "unitarians" from the America's Founding era were NOT members of churches that called themselves "Unitarian" in an official denominational sense.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson, the militant unitarian he, never joined a "Unitarian" Church. John Adams, as well, was a "unitarian" since 1750 and claimed his church had a unitarian minister since that time.

However, his "Congregational Church," at that time (1750), was still formally affiliated with a trinitarian creed (and had many trinitarian church members; back then the unitarian preachers tended to keep the unitarian and trinitarian members together by simply refusing to discuss orthodox trinitarian doctrine).

I'm not sure of the exact date that Adams' Congregational Church officially became "Unitarian," but I think it was sometime in the early 19th Century (around the time when Harvard officially became Unitarian).

One thing that makes this (when "unitarianism" becomes "Unitarianism") hard to determine exactly is that U/unitarians are loath to recognize formalities as a matter of theological doctrine!

It's interesting to note, though, that J. Adams' Congregational Church had had a unitarian preacher since 1750, the date Adams claimed he had converted to unitarianism.

Irving Kristol

Other than criticizing the excesses of Great Society lefty liberalism, I didn't appreciate much the neoconservative politics of the late Irving Kristol. The Strauss influenced neocons have been, in my opinion, pretty disappointing as policy wonks. However I am a big fan of their work on the political philosophy of the American Founding.

The dialog between the East Coast and West Coast Straussians is very important in this regard. I think the truth of the American Founding is somewhere in between what the two camps argue. Kristol was part of the Eastern camp that saw the Founding as atheistic/materialistic/hedonistic through John Locke's esoteric plans.

Here West Coast Straussian Harry Jaffa recounts his dispute with Kristol:

Here is how Irving Kristol refers to the "moral truths" of the Declaration to which John Paul is a witness.

To perceive the true purposes of the American Revolution it is wise to ignore some of the more grandiloquent declamations of the moment (7).

That "all men are created equal" is of course the most grandiloquent of the aforesaid declamations. Kristol has a habit of asking us wisely to ignore whatever he does not like. In the same essay he refers to Tom Paine as "an English radical who never really understood America [and] is especially worth ignoring."

But Tom Paine gave the decisive impetus to independence in the winter and spring of 1776. Early in the year, General Washington toasted the King's health in his officers' mess, until he encountered the "sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning" of Common Sense. What finally turned George Washington to independence is what Kristol asks us to ignore. It is also worth mentioning that this man who is said never to have understood America, carried a musket in the battle of Trenton.

In 1976, Tom Paine was Kristol's surrogate for Thomas Jefferson. Recently, however, Kristol has lost all restraint in belittling, not only Jefferson, but the entire Founding. The authors of the Constitution, he now says,

were for the most part not particularly interested in religion. I am not aware that any of them wrote anything worth reading on religion, especially Jefferson, who wrote nothing worth reading on religion or almost anything else.

For more context on Kristol's rant, one must understand that the East Coast Straussians of which he was one viewed the American Founding -- or least its natural rights rhetoric -- as flawed. They defend the constitutionalism of the founding, strictly construed, and grounded in a slow moving tradition, sans the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Native American Influence on the Constitution

Today is Constitution Day. On this date we commemorate the Constitutional Convention signing this new governing document and beginning the process of making it the law of the land.

Here at American Creation, we have long debated the influences that motivated the Founding Fathers to draft the American Constitution. Everyone from John Locke to Rousseau, Montesquieu to the Holy Bible have been discussed at some length. And while these influences were undoubtedly important, to the formation of the Constitution, there is at least the possibility of a more local influence at play.

Recent scholarship on the history of the American Constitution has uncovered some interesting insights into the role that various Native American tribes may have had on the formation of the Constitution. James Mann, one of the leading writers on this topic, has stated the following with regards to this provocative Constitution/Native American connection:
So vivid were these examples of democratic self-government [from colonial Indian history] that some historians and activists have argued that the [Indians'] Great Law of Peace directly inspired the American Constitution. Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible. With its grant of authority to the federal government to supersede state law, its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law. But in a larger sense the claim is correct. The framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would become the United States, were pervaded by Indian images of liberty.
And from the book, The Iroquois Constitution:
During the bi-centennial year of The Constitution of the United States, a number of books were written concerning the origin of that long-revered document. One of these, "The Genius of the People," alleged that after the many weeks of debate a committee led in part by South Carolina's John Rutledge, sat to discuss the wide range of disputations amongst the delegates...This Committee of Detail was having trouble deciding just how to formalize the many items of discussion into one document that would satisfy one and all. Rutledge proposed they model the new government they were forming into something along the lines of the Iroquois League of which he had observed in Albany. While there were many desirable, as well as undesirable, models from ancient and modern histories in Europe and what we know now as the Middle East, only the Iroquois had a system that seemed to meet most of the demands espoused by the many parties to the debates. The Genius of the People alleged that the Iroquois had a Constitution which began: "We the people, to form a union..."
Skeptics of course point out that the overwhelming majority of written material from the Founders present at the Constitutional Convention contains nothing of their debates regarding the Iroquois Indians. In addition, there are no records or written documents from the Iroquois Confederacy that could substantiate any claim as to their similarities with the government established in the Constitution. With that said, keep in mind two things: first the surviving written record of the Constitutional Convention is relatively small -- most of which is found in the writings of James Madison. The delegates agreed to keep it as such in order to protect the "legacies" of the various participants. Second, the Iroquois Confederacy was predominantly illiterate, meaning that a search for a written historical document would prove futile. However, if oral history is taken into account, some scholars of the Iroquois argue that the confederation they established has a very close resemblance to the Constitution.

Now, I am not saying that I agree with this Native American/Constitution theory. While it is quite an interesting proposal I personally believe that the evidence to support it is circumstantial at best. However, circumstantial evidence and oral history should not simply be discarded entirely. Native American involvement with the affairs of British colonials was vast to say the least. As a result, the exchange of goods, supplies and KNOWLEDGE would have been a natural occurrence.

Either way, this makes for a nice diversion from the traditional Bible-thumping, Locke-quoting, Montesquieu-loving, Eurocentric history that is almost the exclusive sources of any discussion on the origins of the U.S. Constitution.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Where the People Rule

September 17 is designated as national Constitution Day, when citizens old and young are encouraged to study our nation’s founding charter. Most know the famous preamble:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

What a wonderful opening phrase, “We the People.” Conventional wisdom in that day held that government was established from the top down. Some men were born to rule, others to obey. That was known as the divine right of kings. But in the newly established United States, government was not mandated by heaven. Legitimacy flowed from the bottom up, from the consent of the governed.

That’s why the Constitution doesn’t mention a deity anywhere in the text. The framers in Philadelphia weren’t clergymen but lawyers by and large. Thirty-four of the fifty-five present were either attorneys or judges. They were more comfortable with the language of contracts than with theological discussion. And government, they believed, was based on a social contract–a voluntary association of individuals joining together by mutual consent. Legislation didn’t spring from a holy book, therefore, but from the People instituting their own laws. So John Adams asserted that the framers “never had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven,” calling ours instead “the first example of government erected on the simple principles of nature.”

The Constitution they drafted was criticized at state ratifying conventions for leaving out the Almighty. The only place where faith is mentioned, in fact, is in Article Six, where it is specified there should be no religious tests for public office. Some tried to modify this language–to insert a provision that only candidates sufficiently orthodox could stand for election. That was the practice still in effect in Britain, for example, where only Anglicans were entitled to the full privileges of voting, serving in Parliament, or attending state universities at Cambridge and Oxford. The King was head of the Church, as well as head of State. But America took another path.

So on Constitution Day, those of all faiths—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists–can celebrate the genius of our founding document, where all are equal citizens, regardless of their personal beliefs, and where “We the People” rule.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Catholic liturgical patriotism in the early Republic

One of the important religious developments in the early American Republic involved the rapid embrace of Catholics by many of the Founding Fathers. While many of the Founders remained personally hostile to Roman Catholicism -- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson certainly spring to mind -- in the public square the federal government and most state governments observed an even-handed and tolerant attitude towards the formerly despised religion. Part of this embrace was fueled by French support for Americans during the Revolution, part was fueled by the outstanding efforts of Catholic patriots to support the Cause during the war, and part was fueled by the idea of non-establishment that took root after the ratification of the current Constitution and the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

In addition to this embrace of Catholics, there was an embrace by Catholics of the new Republic. Freed from the legal disabilities and overt persecution that many Catholics had experienced in colonial America, the (then) tiny Catholic Church in America quickly adopted a very positive and patriotic attitude towards the new government. Nowhere can this embrace of robust patriotism be seen better than in the life and work of John Carroll (1735-1815), the first Roman Catholic bishop appointed in the United States. In 1791, while Carroll was Bishop of Baltimore (effectively the bishop of the entire United States as the diocese at that time constituted the entire country), he composed this prayer, which he ordered prayed in all parishes throughout the diocese after each Mass on Sundays:

We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.
While not technically a formal part of the Catholic liturgy in the United States, its repition by each congregation after Sunday Mass resulted in it being a critical part of the Sunday worship experience of Catholics throughout the country. This prayer helped to both express and reinforce the patriotic feelings of Catholics in the new Republic. This in turn helped to cement a commitment to patriotism within the Catholic Church in America, a strong patriotism that helped to countered slanderous allegations of dual loyalty hurled at Catholics by nativists and other anti-Catholics all the way up to the election of JFK to the presidency.

Gordon Wood on the Founders and Judeo-Christianity

Gordon Wood, one of the most renowned historians of early America, weighs in on the role that "Judeo-Christian thought" had on the formation of the American republic:

Wood, who is primarily known for his ground-breaking book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993) appropriately notes that many of the founders were not "emotionally" religious. However, Wood also points out that most ordinary Americans were, in the 18th century, very religious, and as society became more democratic, the religiosity of the populace became more prevalent in American society.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Barry Shain on the Founding's Conception of Liberty

(Many thanks to regular commenter and longtime friend-of-the-blog Phil Johnson [Pinky] for his contributions from historian Barry Shain's The Myth of American Individualism. Click to google-preview it for yourself, and props to Pinky for typing out key passages.)

The first thing one needs to know about Barry Alan Shain's The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought is what he means by "Protestant." He does NOT mean Pat Robertson.

So let's cool our jets and hear him out.

What Shain does mean is that American Christians in the Founding era [90+% of the population] were almost all Protestants. But what does that mean?

It means they largely rejected any and all central theological authority, be it the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, or any other establishment. If your pastor pissed you off, you either kicked him out or started a new church down the road. That's American Protestantism in a nutshell, and there were dozens of varieties of Protestantism that arose in the Founding era, and there are perhaps hundreds now.

Very Protestant, and very American.

A man [or woman] had the Bible, and they made of it what they would or could, and God help the clergyman who got in the way. If anything, the Founding generation and their ancestors fled Europe's clergy and their politics as much as they fled Europe itself.

No surprise, then, we ended up with the First Amendment, and that's largely what Dr. Shain means by "Protestant"---decidedly not Roman Catholic, but other Protestants too are kindly invited---keep your hands off my religious conscience!

Do you believe Jesus is God?
---I dunno. The Messiah, probably. You know, special.

That Jesus died for our sins?
---Mebbe. But mebbe he died for ALL men's sins. The Bible's a little unclear on whether there's definitely a Hell. My mother didn't believe in God much, but I'd still like to see her in heaven, y'know? Hate to think of Mom burning in Hell.

Is Christ present in the Eucharist?
---I have no idea. Tastes weird to me.

Is the Bible true?
---Sure. But people might have messed it up. People are people. And when it comes to interpreting the Bible, Rev. Smith is an idiot like Rev. Mayhew says---as if Romans 13 says I have to believe Charles II was some sort of saint, and now I have to obey King George III, who's a total bastard.

Look, the wife takes care of religion for the both of us, and I got a field to plow. Whatever. Just Don't Tread on Me, OK?

It went down sorta like that.

So with that necessary preface, what the hell is Barry Shain talking about? What was "liberty" as the Founding era saw it?

Page 277 of the book isn't available in the Google book preview. What were the odds? In the Founding days they used to call it Providence, that Brother Pinky took the time to type out the exact key graf for us:
"By the 19th century, at least some of the confusion surrounding the meaning of civil liberty had been resolved, as civil and political liberty were no longer readily confused. Noah Webster explained that 'political liberty is sometimes used as synonymous with civil liberty. But it more properly designates the liberty of a nation.'

Civil Liberty properly described 'the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interests of the society, state, or nation.' And regarding the two meanings of civil liberty that were distinct from political liberty, Webster continued in the middle of the 19th century to use the communal understanding of civil liberty.

This is evident because he defined civil liberty as the residue of the individual's natural liberty that remained after the society's needs were met as determined by the political community.

This is the traditional sense of the term. The more modern alternative held that civil liberty defined a set of individual privileges and exemptions (radicalized prescriptive liberties) from corporate intrusion--in effect, a private space into which the corporate body could not legitimately intrude."

...and that's difference between the Founding era and a lot of the talk in ours.

Perhaps 2009's understanding of "liberty" is better than the Founding era's, perhaps not. But there's a bigass difference. And until can we appreciate what the difference is, well...

Well, this blog is about learning how to tell the difference. The rest is up to each of us according to his or her own conscience, but first things first. You gotta know where you've been before you can tell if the grass might be greener somewheres else.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Steven Waldman on "Judeo-Christian Heritage"

I missed this when it first came out. Read it here. It's good. A taste:
I want to unpack this phrase Judeo-Christian heritage, which is both empty and wrong.

Sure, we were deeply influenced by some Biblical principles. The idea that we had immutable rights to liberty -- that couldn't be taken away by a King or a parliament -- came from a religious conception of man as created in God's image. Those rights were, therefore, "endowed by our Creator."

But the construction of our government was also influenced by Rome, and yet we don't talk about being influenced by the Zeusian-Ceasarian heritage. Locke and Montesquieu influence the Founders views greatly yet we don't applaud our Anglo-French Heritage. Obviously some folks focus on the Christian influences in the hope that it can ward off either pure religious pluralism, secularism or excessive separation of church and state.

Nonetheless, let's go further and posit that of the many influences on our nation, religion was one of the most important.

But "Judeo-Christian"? Nuh uh. First of all, the Judeos were not really at the table. As of the Constitution's ratification, most American states didn't allow Jews to hold office.

Second, the religious tradition that influenced the American founding was not Christianity in general but Protestantism in particular -- often in fervent opposition to Catholicism....

If we're going to talk about the important religious influences of the Founding Era we should be referring to our "Protestant heritage," which was quite significant, not our Judeo-Christian heritage....

I think this is more or less correct. We could speak of a broadly defined "Judeo-Christian" or narrowly defined "Protestant Christian" component to the Founding. There was also an Enlightenment component, a Whig component, a Greco-Roman component, an Anglo-Saxon component and so on.

Even the term "Protestant Christian" heritage can mislead. Some folks hear that as the nation was comprised by a vast majority of "born again" Calvinistic reformed Protestants. Nope. Sure there were plenty of them. There were also plenty of nominal Christians who were unchurched and more likely to be in taverns on Saturday nights than churches on Sunday mornings. "Protestant Christian" as a heritage is more important in a cultural, identificatory and minimalistic sense; most folks of that era -- probably around 98% -- thought of themselves as "Protestant Christians" and this includes the uber-orthodox Timothy Dwight as well as Thomas Jefferson who rejected every single tenet of Christian orthodoxy. Both of them could be united under a minimalistic "Protestant Christian" identity. John Adams, a self defined lifelong "Unitarian," bitterly rejected and often mocked doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and eternal damnation, but was culturally in line with the Puritans of Massachusetts -- his heritage. That's about as far as I am willing to endorse Barry Shain's "Protestant Christian America" thesis.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Jefferson and Madison on Constitutional Interpretation

Some controversy has arisen in our comments section, charging "Machiavellianism" in the federalist and "textual" approaches to judicial philosophy. The names of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison came up. And so, let go to the horses' mouths:

“The true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best, that the States are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign affairs...”

“On every question of construction [of the Constitution] let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”


Which is OK, but I like Madison even better:

"It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived from the supreme authority in each State -- the authority of the people themselves. The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution will not be a national but a federal act."

"As a guide in expounding and applying the provisions of the Constitution, the debates and incidental decisions of the Convention can have no authoritative character. However desirable it be that they should be preserved as a gratification to the laudable curiosity felt by every people to trace the origin and progress of their political Institutions, & as a source perhaps of some lights on the Science of Govt. the legitimate meaning of the Instrument must be derived from the text itself; or if a key is to be sought elsewhere, it must be not in the opinions or intentions of the Body which planned & proposed the Constitution, but in the sense attached to it by the people in their respective State Conventions where it recd. all the authority which it possesses."

Machiavellianism has nothing atall to do with it. In fact, it's those who substitute their interpretations of the Constitution over its meaning when it was ratified who are guilty of it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Romans 13, Rebellion and Incest:

I'm glad I caught your attention with that title.

I've long followed the debate on whether Romans 13 -- a passage in the Bible where St. Paul sounds like he commands unlimited submission to any government -- ever permits rebellion/revolution or is an absolute categorical norm. If absolute, all revolt is forbidden, even to Hitler or Stalin. That's quite an unpalatable outcome. But so what? The fundamentalist (the Bible is the inerrant infallible Word of God) fatalistic mentality is supposed to be immune from such a "reductio ad absurdum." Yes, submitting to Hitler or Stalin seems bad; however the notion that the overwhelming majority of folks spend eternity in Hell because they didn't accept Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior is worse.

The same kind of reasoning that leads believers to explain away such an absolute interpretation of Romans 13 (because of the undesirable outcome) just as well leads other believers to reject the idea that folks who don't accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior, 2nd person in the Trinity who made an infinite Atonement (i.e., the overwhelming majority of humanity who ever lived, including arguably the majority of self professed "Christians") spend eternity in Hell. Indeed, the pro-revolt theologians of the American Founding era tended disproportionately to believe in theological universalism (and unitarianism) for that very reason, i.e., "we cannot accept a result so absurd, regardless of what the Bible on its surface seems to teach." Look for a more "reasoned" interpretation. This is America's Founding political theology 101. This is why evangelicals and fundamentalists especially should reject the idea of a "Christian Nation."

I have seen folks try to argue the Bible (Sola Scriptura) permits rebellion; but such citations of verses and chapters of scripture do not convince. There simply is NO POSITIVE RIGHT to rebel (that is try to overthrow, not simply disobey) EVER to be found in the text of the Bible alone, if one properly understands the context of said passages. However, if one looked "outside" the Bible to "nature" via man's reason and "found" a right to revolt and then went back and put various verses and chapters of scripture into "context," while holding the right to rebel as an a-biblical a-priori, one could make a "reasoned" case for a God given right to rebel against tyrants. This is what the pro-revolt preachers of the American Founding did. Sola Scriptura, however, just won't do it.

Some have tried; for instance see Joe Farah's attempt and failure to make a "biblical case" for rebellion. He might as well try to make a biblical case for incest. Essentially what the pro-revolt evangelical theologians do is look to stories in the Bible where characters seem to or supposedly rebel against authority. The problem is, the Bible is full of characters -- characters who loved God and vice-versa -- who do sinful things. Simply noting a biblical character did X (i.e., rebelled against authority, committed polygamy, incest or even MURDER) does not mean the Bible approves of X.

What brings this specific example, incest, to mind is the debate Frank Zappa had with John Lofton. In short, Lofton supported censorship of rock music, in part because it advocated such evil things as "incest." Zappa replied that if we are going to ban discussion of incest why not ban the Bible because look at what Lot did after Sodom and Gomorrah. Lofton replied that such passages were not about "advocacy" of incest. (And I'm not sure the rock lyrics that Lofton wants to censor were about advocacy of incest either.)

So the biblical examples that figures like Joe Farah use to argue for "righteous rebellion" against government, inevitably yield one of two outcomes: 1) they are not talking about rebellion; Moses didn't rebel against Pharaoh -- he and his people just left and God did the rest of the work. Or 2) the context of the Bible DOES NOT suggest God approves the rebellion against authority. I.e., it's Lot committing incest with his daughters. Yes the characters may have done X; but the context doesn't suggest that God approved of the sinful act of resisting authority any more than God approved of the incest Lot had with his daughters.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Mary Thompson Writes

A short while ago, I posted a list of Books and Pamphlets on Religion and Philosophy in George Washington’s Library from Mount Vernon's website. The list was compiled by Mount Vernon researcher Mary V. Thompson and corresponds with a book she has written on GW's religion.

I am remiss to say that I haven't yet read her book, published in 2008, but I note that it is on my reading list. It is published by University of Virginia Press and endorsed by Frank E. Grizzard, one of the most fair and knowledgeable GW scholars, especially as regards GW's religion.

The thesis of Thompson's book rightly challenges the idea that GW was a "strict deist" (an idea too often posited by the secular historical academy) but also doesn't overly stress Washington's "orthodoxy" and rejects (or at least doesn't endorse) the idea that GW was a "born again Christian" who believed the Bible the inerrant, infallible word of God (i.e., an evangelical Christian). In this sense, Thompson's thesis is not unlike Michael (and Jana) Novak's.

Anyway, Ms. Thompson emailed me regarding how to access other files on Mount Vernon's website. There is much more than what I reproduced in my original post!

These various lists, she informs me, are works in progress and will be updated as new material is found.

Dear Jon,

Thank you for putting the link to the list of Washington’s books on religion and philosophy on your blog. I don’t know if you found the other materials relating to religion on our website, but, in case you didn’t… They can be accessed by getting on the Mount Vernon website (, clicking on “Learn” in the middle of the page; then clicking on “Collections” in the middle of the page; and finally clicking on “Staff Research” on the left-hand side of the page (then just scroll down the page).

You must be swamped with the start of a new semester!


Swamped I am indeed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Right to Die?

The right to die is again in the news. This coming Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court will consider the case of Robert Baxter, who, afflicted with incurable lymphocytic leukemia, claimed that a doctor’s refusal to help him die abrogated his rights under the state’s constitution.

But what about the federal constitution, or the Declaration of Independence? Do rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” imply an individual’s power to exit life on his own terms, and in her own time? What did the Founders think about assisted suicide, or ending one’s own life in the face of incurable illness?

Our nation’s founding generation often drew their ethics from classical rather than Christian sources. Many especially admired the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca. So John Adams admonished himself in his diary to “Study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral Writers.” A listing of Washington’s library from his Mount Vernon estate shows a copy of Seneca’s Morals, published in London in 1746, among the collection.

In those moral essays, Seneca advised that “mere living is not a good, but living well.” A wise man ought to be prepared to end his own existence whenever it grew unduly burdensome. “He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.”

Some goods were superior to survival, Seneca held, and some evils worse than death. He tells the story of a young Spartan taken into captivity. When ordered by his master to perform an undignified act—fetching a chamber pot—the boy cried “I will not be a slave!” and dashed his own brains against the wall. The illustration was likely to appeal to patriots ready to lay down lives on the altar of freedom. “Life, if courage to die is lacking, is slavery,” according to the Stoic teacher.

Clearly, though, bashing your own brains out was an unpleasant way to exit. Seneca preferred less painful means. He tells another story of a contemporary philosopher, Tullius Marcellinius who “fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about dying.”. After distributing his meager belongings to his circle of friends, Marcellinius then stopped eating. “For three days he fasted and had a tent put up in his very bedroom. Then a tub was brought in; he lay in it for a long time, and, as the hot water was continually poured over him, he gradually passed away, not without a feeling of pleasure, as he himself remarked.”

That was the sort of gentle finale Thomas Jefferson probably had in mind when he wrote to Dr. Samuel Brown in 1813 about a lethal concoction of the herb Datura Stromonium, or jimson weed, which he praised as bringing on death “as quietly as sleep,” without the least distress. “It seems far preferable to the Venesection of the Romans, the Hemlock of the Greeks, and the Opium of the Turks. I have never been able to learn what the preparation is, other than a strong concentration of its lethiferous principle. Could such a medicament be restrained to self-administration, it ought not to be kept secret. There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief, e.g., the inveterate cancer.”

Jefferson had already reached the Biblically allotted three-score and ten at that point. Strategies for the end game were beginning to occupy his thoughts. That same year, at the age of seventy-seven, John Adams wrote to the physician Benjamin Rush, in a letter penned under the persona of his horse “Hobby.” Wouldn’t it be a kindness to the old man to simply stumble one day, “Hobby” wondered, and end a tottering life like Adams’ quickly?

Nine years later, at an even more advanced age, Jefferson wrote to his friend in Braintree, “When all our faculties have left, or are leaving us, one by one, sight, hearing, memory, every avenue of pleasing sensation is closed, and athumy, debility and malaise left in their places, when the friends of our youth are all gone, and a generation is risen around us whom we know not, is death an evil?

One suspects they both endorsed Seneca’s answer: “The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as be can.”

Jefferson's "Syllabus", "Philosophy" and "Life & Morals"

by Jared Farley
I just returned from a trip to Virginia to explore Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home), Ashlawn-Highland (James Monroe’s home), and Montpelier (James Madison’s home). While at Monticello’s gift shop I spotted a thin monograph entitled “Jefferson and Religion” by Eugene R. Sheridan with an introduction by famed religion scholar Martin E. Marty. It is published by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation as part of the Monticello Monograph Series. Sheridan was the former senior associate editor of the Jefferson Paper Project at the University of Virginia.

In short, I purchased this volume on Saturday afternoon and have already finished reading through it twice! I highly recommend everyone who is serious about understanding Jefferson’s religious faith secure a copy for themselves (it is available on The value of the work is that Sheridan organizes everything around the clearest description I have ever encountered about Jefferson’s actives and purposes surrounding his creation of his famed “Syllabus” (1803), “The Philosophy of Jesus” (1804), and “The Life and Morals of Jesus” (1819/1820?). I have always struggled attempting to understand what Jefferson's purpose was with these documents and Sheridan (I think) has lifted the fog for me.

Generally, I place value upon a book if it meets two criteria. First, based upon what I know from my previous reading, does the author seem to know what he/she is talking about? Sheridan clearly meets this standard. He wonderfully laces his description of Jefferson’s faith journey with the most appropriate extracts from his personal correspondences and writings. Secondly, what did I learn from the work? By this standard, Sheridan again exceeds my expectations, specifically concerning Jefferson's "Philosophy".

I humbly admit that I was more confused and uninformed about Jefferson’s “Syllabus”, “Philosophy”, and “Life & Morals” than what I realized before reading this monograph. In fact, I did not completely understand that these are in fact three separate, distinct works. Let me describe each of them below.

Jefferson composed his “Syllabus” in 1803 after having read and been “inspired” by Dr. Joseph Priestley’s pamphlet “Socrates and Jesus Compared” (1803). Of course, Dr. Priestley was the English Unitarian minister whose two-volume “An History of the Corruptions of Christianity” (1793) had moved Jefferson into his “unitarian conversion” during the 1790s, and away from the more nature-based deism of his young adulthood. What stimulated Jefferson was Priestley’s use of the comparative method to show the value of Jesus’ system of morality in comparison to the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. Jefferson quickly wrote to Priestley asking him to consider expanding this “pamphlet” into a more extensive work comparing Jesus’ philosophy to not only Socrates, but to many of the other philosophers of antiquity (“the leading Epicurean and Stoic philosophers”) as well as the Jews. Jefferson thought that only then would it be possible to truly show the genius of Jesus’ teaching and his role as a great and historic moral reformer. Thus, Jefferson composed his “Syllabus” as a kind of general outline of what he thought would be important for Dr. Priestley to include in this proposed volume.
[It is often incorrectly thought that Jefferson composed his "Syllabus" for Dr. Benjamin Rush, but that is only partially true. What many do not understand is that the document Jefferson sent to Rush was simply a second draft of a letter he had sent to Dr. Priestley two weeks earlier providing him an outline of the type of comparisons he would like to see in Dr. Priestley's upcoming book. If you miss that connection to Dr. Priestley, you miss probably one of the most important reasons for Jefferson composing his "Syllabus" and you also miss an important clue as to the purpose behind Jefferson's "Philosophy" from 1804. (see pages 35-37 in Sheridan's work). If you read Jefferson's "Syllabus" carefully, you will notice a couple places where it becomes obvious that this document is not simply a statement of his faith, but it is rather providing suggestions for a larger project.]

However, Jefferson had two other purposes in composing his “Syllabus”. First, his views on religion had come under public attack during the 1800 presidential election by his Federalist opponents. While he refused to publicly address these attacks as a matter of principal (for he believed that an individual’s faith should remain completely a private matter and by addressing the issue he would provide their charges additional publicity), he did want to assure his close friends and family members that he was not as unorthodox in his views as other elites in the United States, like Thomas Paine, or some of the French revolutionaries and philosophers. Therefore, when his “Syllabus” was completed Jefferson sent it to 8 individuals (his friends Dr. Benjamin Rush and Priestley, his daughters- Martha Jefferson Randolph and Mary Jefferson Eppes, and several members of his Cabinet, including his Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, his Attorney General Levi Lincoln, his Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and his Postmaster General Gideon Granger).

But secondly, Jefferson also wanted Priestley’s work (hopefully based upon his “Syllabus”) to be distributed to the general public “in order to foster the social harmony he cherished as one of the bulwarks of the American republic” (p. 34). The election of 1800 had stirred considerable partisan and religious passions across the new nation and Jefferson was concerned that the social fabric of the young country was coming undone. One of the biggest divisive elements separating the Federalist supporters from his Democratic-Republican supporters were doctrinal views about the Christian religion. His hope for Priestley's work would be that it might help ferment a new type of Christianity in the nation…a Christianity not based upon doctrines or dogmas, which were often irrational and divisive, but upon the general moral teachings of Jesus, upon which almost all American Christians could agree.

Within the pages of his “Syllabus”, Jefferson reduced the teachings of Jesus to three major points. First, Jesus believed in monotheism, as did his fellow Jews. Next, “he preached a system of morality that was far superior to those of the ancients and the Jews,” in that rather than focusing on irrational and legalistic rules, Jesus preached “The Golden Rule” which required followers to be charitable to others and treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. And finally, Jesus taught about the existence of an afterlife “in order to encourage virtuous conduct in the here and now” (p. 38).

However, Jefferson soon realized that his “Syllabus” was incomplete and if Priestley’s work was ever to truly serve the purpose of unifying the nation under a more rational and general Christianity, it needed to include “an introductory section consisting of the moral teachings expressed in the ipsima verba of the great reformer himself” (p. 43). Thus, when Jefferson set out to create/compose his “Philosophy” in 1804, his intention was that it would serve as another rough draft for Dr. Priestley to use in his upcoming volume comparing the moral philosophy of Jesus to the ancient philosophers and Jews. The important point being, Jefferson intended his “Philosophy” to be publicly distributed and widely read to foster and promote his version of a primitive and rationalistic Christianity (although through the name and hand of Dr. Priestley….Jefferson was acting as Priestley’s anonymous research assistant!). And this is a very important point; Jefferson realized he was collaborating with Dr. Priestley on this project and if his "Philosophy" was to be incorporated into Priestley's volume it would have to be satisfactory to both Jefferson, Priestley and their larger American readership! In other words, Jefferson's "Philosophy" is not necessarily a direct statement of his theology!
So while Jefferson's "Philosophy" ended up being on of the books he used in his private devotions, the project that produced that work did not start out with that as its intention!

Another important point concerning Jefferson’s “Philosophy” which is often overlooked is that he did not rely exclusively upon his own authority in composing this volume from the New Testament. Jefferson used Dr. Priestley’s “A Harmony of the Evangelists in English” (1780) and “A Harmony of the Evangelists in Greek” (1777) to help guide him in making decisions about what to include and what to exclude in composing/crafting his volume. Therefore, Jefferson apparently did not think he was undertaking this task solely upon his own individual authority (reason). He was using the writing of the famed Unitarian theologian to help guide him.

Jefferson quickly set out to compose/construct his “Philosophy” by ordering four copies of the New Testament on January 20, 1804 (two in English, and one in both Greek and Latin). He received these volumes on February 4, 1804. Apparently, once he received the volumes he decided to reduce the scope of the project (probably because he was serving as president at the time and pressed for time), but he quickly cut and pasted the two English copies into a new 46 page work he titled “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions” (p. 44). [A very important point which Sheridan notes, is that the word “Indians” here is a code word for his Federalist and orthodox attackers. Sending his “Philosophy” to Native Americans simply does not fit with the rest of the events and evidence in the story and there is no record he ever attempted to have the “Philosophy” distributed to Native Americans.] Jefferson worked so rapidly on this project that he had the finished project to the printer and had the finished volume bounded by March 10, 1804 (p. 44).
What Sheridan apparently was unable to determine was exactly when Jefferson found out that Dr. Priestley had died on February 6, 1804. Did Jefferson complete his “Philosophy” despite Dr. Priestley’s death, or was he simply unaware that Priestley had died until his effort was almost complete? Remember, Jefferson wrote that he completed this entire project in only a few evenings at the White House. Did he entertain the thought of still including his “Philosophy” with Priestley’s work that would eventually be published posthumously? Nobody knows the answers to these questions.

Only the handwritten title page and the table of contents of “Philosophy” have survived. However, scholars do have the English volumes from which Jefferson extracted his “Philosophy”, so we do have a pretty good understanding of what passages from the New Testament were included in this work. [Side note, the Greek and Latin volumes of the New Testament that Jefferson ordered, but did not end up using for his "Philosophy" in 1803, ended up being the very volumes he ended up using for "Life and Morals" fifteen years later.]

Near the end of 1804, Priestley’s comparative analysis of classical and Christian morality was posthumously published under the title “The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy, Compared with those of Revelation”. However, Jefferson was greatly disappointed by Priestley’s last work. Perhaps because Priestley was nearing his demise, his writing style and conclusions were not crisp and lucid as his earlier scholarly works had been. Because of this, and because Priestley was unable to act upon Jefferson’s suggestion to include an introduction along the lines of his “Philosophy”, Jefferson did not believe “Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy” would ever be widely read or understood by the general public nor advance primitive and rational Christianity in the United States.

For a brief period in 1816, Jefferson thought he had discovered a new unitarian theologian to adequately complete the project that he and Dr. Priestley had started in 1804, a Dutchman named F. A. Van der Kemp. Van der Kemp was a friend of John Adams, who was living in upstate New York after having immigrated to the U.S.. When Adams and Jefferson renewed their friendship following Jefferson’s retirement from the White House, Jefferson had sent Adams a copy of his “Syllabus” and a detailed description of his “Philosophy”. In 1813, Adams allowed Van der Kemp to read the “Syllabus”, although he refused to allow the Dutchman to copy it as to not violate Jefferson's trust. However, reading Jefferson's "Syllabus" sparked an interest in Van der Kemp who subsequently wrote to Jefferson in March 1816 “not only ask[ing] for a copy of the “Syllabus” to use in connection with a life of Jesus he planned to write, but also requested permission to publish the document, without attribution, in a Unitarian journal in England to promote a discussion of Jesus’ true merits.” (p. 56).

In a sign of good faith, Jefferson agreed to both requests to help formulate a friendship with this religious scholar. Van der Kemp did manage to arrange for publication of the “Syllabus” in the October 1816 issue of the “Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature” (a low-circulation English Unitarian periodical), however the editor of the publication provided a little more information about the source of the document than what Jefferson felt comfortable having publicly known (the publisher wrote that the “Syllabus” came from a "prominent American statesmen"). But Van der Kemp did not end up pursuing a grander investigation into the historical Jesus and his moral teachings as he had promised Jefferson in exchange for permission to publish his “Syllabus”.

The motivation for Jefferson for composing/constructing his “The Life and Morals of Jesus” (sometime around 1819-1820) some fifteen years after his construction of “Philosophy” was much more personal in nature than the earlier volume. Jefferson always regretted not finishing a multi-lingual compendium of Jesus’ moral teachings (with the Greek and Latin columns) which would include not only Jesus’ moral philosophy, but also his teachings and activities. Jefferson composed his work explicitly for his own personal devotionals and based it upon his own theology about Jesus. “He never mentioned this collection of Gospels verses in his surviving correspondence, nor did he even reveal its existence to the members of his own family. Only after his death did they become aware of it.” (p. 63). This volume is probably closer in style and organization to what Jefferson originally wanted to sent to Dr. Priestley in 1804, but he also probably felt more comfortable making it closely match his own personal theology because he was fairly sure he was not composing it for wider distribution, or for Dr. Priestley eyes and approval. It is this volume that is widely known as the “Jefferson Bible”, has survived, and is stored as a complete volume at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
In conclusion, the main points of all this are as follows:
  • Jefferson, in part, created his "Syllabus" as an outline to assist Dr. Priestley's writing of a book Jefferson suggested he undertake.
  • A second purpose of Jefferson's "Syllabus" and Priestley's book was to help the cause of primitive Christianity in the United States (Remember what is happening in New England at this point between the theologically liberal Unitarians and more orthodox Congregationalists.)
  • A third purpose of Jefferson's "Syllabus" was to provide some family and friends in his inner circle a better understanding of his version of Christianity.
  • In similar fashion, Jefferson created his "Philosophy" as a draft to be utilized by Dr. Priestley in his upcoming book comparing the moral philosophy of Jesus with those of the ancient philosophers and Jews. It is unknown if Jefferson found out about Rev. Priestley's death prior to composing his "Philosophy" and if that had any impact concerning the composition of that work, which was finished before and professionally bounded on March 10, 1804.
  • Jefferson was planning on utilizing Dr. Priestley's "Harmonies" in composing his "Philosophy", so it may not have entirely been Jefferson's original work or a direct statement of his theology. (Again, we don't know if Jefferson's plans changed, or if the text of "Philosophy" changed once Jefferson found out about Priestley's death.)
  • If Jefferson stuck to his original plans concerning "Philosophy", then that work is a mixture of Jefferson and Priestley's views and not simply Jefferson's. Plus, it was intended to serve as an introduction for Priestley's upcoming book, so it had to be acceptable to the general American reading audience.
  • If Jefferson stuck to his original plans concerning "Philosophy", then his "Life and Morals" might be a better indicator of his theological views since: 1) He had more time to work on it; 2) He was not writing in conjunction with someone else; 3) He never intended "Life and Morals" to be published under his name or anyone else's, and therefore, could be more honest.

If anyone wants me to expand on any of the points above, just ask. Sheridan's monograph has pretty good annotated endnotes and I can probably tell you why he has come to the conclusions he had arrived at. Additionally, it would be great if someone reading this knows of some evidence concerning when Jefferson discovered that Dr. Priestley had died...please post a comment if you do!

Here is a link to an online text version of Jefferson's "Syllabus":
Here is a link to an online text version of Jefferson's "Life & Morals":