Sunday, October 31, 2010

Doug Indeap's Note To Matt Barber

He informed me of it here. I'm reproducing it because it's a very good comment:


History plainly is not your long suit. To claim your notion of “reality” is “indisputable fact” on which “[t]he historical record is unequivocal” is to reveal how little you know of what you speak.

For example, you make much of John Adams’s observation that the Constitution was made for a moral and religious people, yet make no mention of his signing (and the Senate’s unanimous ratification) of the Treaty of Tripoli, which declared in pertinent part that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Perhaps that historical record is a might more equivocal than your passion enables you to see. As a lawyer, you will appreciate too, I trust, that the Constitution provides that treaties, apart from the Constitution itself, are the highest law of the land. Appeals, no matter how often repeated, to unofficial, informal comments by some founders do not, indeed cannot, trump the declaration of the United States in a treaty that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

To go so far as to brand those seeing things differently than you as “un-American” and “anti-American” reveals only your odd notion of what it means to be American. You appear much keener on championing your religion than your country.

While many founders were Christian of one sort or another, care should be taken not to make too much of individual founder’s religious beliefs. In assessing the nature of our government, the religiosity of the various founders, while informative, is largely beside the point. Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that plainly establishes a secular government in the sense that it is based on the power of the people (not a deity) and says nothing substantive of god(s) or religion except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.

When you next presume to lecture others about American history, you would do well to drop the quotation you attribute to Patrick Henry. It’s fake.

Where I think the Religious Left is more Biblical

I'm not going to reproduce the whole thing here, but this post I did deals with some issues that may relate to American Creation's purpose.


... Arguably Christianity had to "find" a way to reconcile itself with usury in order to usher in the modern world of material comfort. Arguably whenever Bible believers use their credit card, get paid interest on a cash bond or in a bank, they do a Thomas Jefferson and cut out those verses of the Bible which suggest it's sin. (Or do Bible believers repeatedly confess this as a sin?)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Who Are the Righteous?

This post does not intend to be another "David Barton sucks" post. Rather it seriously asks what some of his more vocal critics have not: Who are the "righteous"?

In the most recent voter video Wallbuilders produces, Barton harps on Proverbs 14:34, "Righteousness exalts a nation," and asserts the Bible (and "coincidentally," America's Founders) teaches you need to get "the righteous" in power to enact "righteous" policy. Or else (you know).

I think I know what Barton means by "righteousness" -- his socially conservative fundamentalist understanding of what the Bible teaches that is amenable to what other religious conservatives (whether Jewish, Mormon, Roman Catholic, etc.) would, in large, support. (Abortion, same sex marriage, etc.)

But who are the "righteous"? Folks who support "right" policies whether they be Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim or Atheist?

Or folks actually OF the "right" religion? And is it the case that you have to be of "the right religion" to govern effectively?

My biggest problem with Barton to date is his lack of clarity pertaining to these terms. And some of his (1) religiously conservative Christian (2) followers (I am neither) seem to be coming around. They see Barton in political-theological communion with the Mormon Glenn Beck, praying together, seemingly, to the same Providence? With the implicit suggestion that the "God" of the Declaration of Independence is One, non-descript enough that Christians, Mormons and who knows else equally can claim Him because of His non-descriptiveness? (Perhaps believers like Barton should believe the god of the DOI is a he not a He).

When Barton says the "righteous" should rule, I don't hear him saying someone who supports righteous policy as opposed to someone who is a "Christian" like him. Not that he rejects the votes of non-Christians who support his preferred policies. No, they can come along for the ride. But the "righteous" are the "regenerate." I don't want to put words in his mouth. He can clarify. That reading (as others) seems very plausible, to me.

Indeed, Barton uses the term "Christian" in a narrow enough sense to suggest he doesn't see President Obama or Speaker Pelosi as "Christians" even though they say they are. What about Glenn Beck? Where is the basis for the idea that if you are a socially conservative heretic, cult member (according to evangelical thought) you get to be "righteous" but if you are a political liberal, you are not even if you claim to be a "Christian"?

Please explain. That's all I ask.

I'll end with Roger Williams, no theological liberal, but a fanatical fundamentalist of the Baptist tradition. Yet, he understood religion & politics dramatically differently than did his fellow fundamentalists, the Puritans of Massachusetts.

Williams certainly wanted righteous policy, but made it clear that one's personal religious convictions had absolutely NOTHING to do with one's "fitness" to be a governor. And for that reason, he did away with religious tests in Rhode Island that he founded and, for the first time in Christendom (at least as it relates to America's lineage), formed a government that did not covenant with the Triune God.

As he put it, when he noted (in a novel revolutionary sense) that the UNREGENERATE and PAGANS were just as QUALIFIED to govern as "real Christians":

All lawful magistrates in the world...have, and can have not more power, than fundamentally lies in the bodies of fountains themselves, which power, might, or authority, is not religious, Christian, etc., but natural, human and civil. And hence, it is true, that Christian captain, Christian merchant, physician, lawyer, pilot, father, master, and (so, consequently,) magistrate, etc., is no more a captain, merchant, physician, lawyer, pilot, father, master, magistrate, etc., than a captain, merchant, etc., of any other conscience or religion... A pagan or anti-Christian pilot may be as skillful to carry the ship to its desired port as any Christian mariner or pilot in the world, and may perform that work with as much safety and speed....

America's Founders, it should be noted, followed Williams in this regard (see Art. VI, Cl. 3 of the US Constitution). Does Barton?

Email To Dave Welch


You write:

"If we give any credence to the architects of the structure, it is clear that they believed both design and Designer of our constitutional republic were 'self-evident.' They believed that the bedrock upon which rested its posterity is found in – and only in – the pages of Holy Scripture."

I've read the Constitution, notes on the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist Papers and they DO NOT ASSERT THIS. Certainly the Bible was *a* source of inspiration for the Founding Fathers (and even the Donald S. Lutz, et al., study shows the Bible was at its LEAST import when the Federalists WROTE and RATIFIED the Constitution). There were other sources of inspiration as well, in particular the noble paganism of republican Rome. The Founders adopted those surnames NOT Hebraic or biblical ones.

Likewise YOU may be able to connect separation of powers to the Bible. But the Founders DID NOT cite the Bible for the proposition, but rather, as you note, Montesquieu.


Jon Rowe

Friday, October 29, 2010

Vote Democratic-Republican"

This is great. Hat tip: Dr. J. Fea:

Email to J. Matt Barber

Barber is a culture warrior and evangelical associated with among other places Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. He wrote an article for WorldNetDaily entitled Time To Reunite Church And State.

I wrote:


I didn't get thru your whole article (yet). [I since have.] I stopped reading after the Patrick Henry quote which is phony.

Likewise, when you write [America's Founding Fathers] were "overwhelmingly Christian," I have to wonder what you mean by Christian. Understanding themselves as "Christians"? Well yes, and that's how President Obama and the Democrats in Congress today understand their religious identity. But meeting your strict test for what it means to be "Christian"? It's simply not provable that the overwhelming majority were Christians in this sense. I doubt they were.


Jon Rowe

This is the offending passage from Barber's article:

John Adams, our second U.S. president, famously observed: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

The U.S. Constitution, indeed our entire republican form of government, was crafted by deeply pious men who were overwhelmingly Christian. It was fashioned within the context and framework of the Judeo-Christian zeitgeist of the time and was further intended to function in harmony with a Judeo-Christian worldview – period. Though leftists may deny this reality, it remains indisputable fact. The historical record is unequivocal.

Patrick Henry said this: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!"

Barber then goes on to note how Obama and the Democrats are godless, irreligious, secularists. To the contrary, as I have noted before there is more evidence that Obama is a "Christian" in some kind of minimal traditional sense than there is for George Washington or James Madison. The minimum that Obama would meet is believing Jesus a divine, resurrected Savior. On other issues like the nature of the afterlife and the infallibility of the Bible's text, Obama is obviously not that traditional (and again, little to no evidence shows GW or JM were either). Presidents Madison, Washington and Obama all considered, or likely considered themselves "Christians."

But I know, folks like Barber will say Obama is lying.

On the Henry quotation, it's not just proven "unconfirmed" (as David Barton has admitted) but also extremely out of character for not only Henry, but also most other Founders. The idea that the United States is a "great nation" smacks of the post-Lincoln era. Even most (all?) Federalists of the Founding era referred to the United States in a plural sense -- the United States "are" not "is."

Henry opposed the US Constitution because it began, "we the people" as opposed to "we, the states."

I know Henry wasn't always so militantly anti-Federalist. But he never got close to terming the US One__Great__Nation, something that would make him want to puke. And as noted, neither did the Federalists.

"If you're having church problems then don't blame God, son. I've got 95 theses but the Pope ain't one"

October 31st isn't noteworthy for Halloween alone:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Quote of the Day

In a discussion about Locke and the Constitution, a pal of mine dropped this delicious bit of quotable wisdom:

"Liberalism need not file faith under superstition and irrationality. Liberalism was not originally meant to provide freedom from religion, any more than it was originally meant to provide us freedom from trans fat."---Dan Foley

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Tea Party and the Constitution: A Rebuttal

[A few days ago, American Creation posted "The Tea Party and the Constitution" by Joseph Moore, via friend-of-the-blog John Fea's The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Michael Makovi, an American student in Jerusalem, offered this rebuttal there, which we are pleased to reprint here in longer form, with his permission.---TVD]

by Michael Makovi
Guest Blogger

I. General Historical and Ideological Context

Joseph Moore's argument is that the Constitution was meant to limit populist movements like the Tea Party, and that the Tea Party has more in common with the Anti-Federalists than with the Federalists:

"The Constitution was written to constrain movements like the Tea Party. Ironic, then, that Tea Partiers espouse such a religious reverence for it. ... The paradox of this crusader's zeal for the Founding Fathers is that the Tea Party more closely resembles the groups that opposed the Constitution than those who wrote it in 1787. ... The Constitution was written to protect government from movements like the Tea Party. It was written to ensure the power of the federal government to direct economic policy. It was written to keep control away from angry men with guns. It was, in short, everything Tea Party advocates like Beck and Michael Savage think it was not."

Moore concludes that the Tea Party is voicing historically-legitimate views (those of the Anti-Federalists), but is confused, in that it's relating itself, wrongly, to the Constitution:

"Ironically, the Tea Partiers have embodied what their most sacred text opposed. This does not delegitimize them.They stand in a meaningful tradition even as they misunderstand it. They have channeled the old angst of Anti-Federalism, good and bad, into the present by combining Jeffersonian fear of government with anger for anger's sake. Their zeal is both tremendous and historic."

However, I think Moore needs to view this whole matter in greater historical perspective. Yes, the Tea Party might very well be more like the Anti-Federalists than like the Federalists, but if we compare them both together with other political philosophies, then we see they are both of the same classical liberal, constitutionalist, limited government school. The Anti-Federalists and the Federalists were both two different opposing factions of the same general school of thought. Had Moore studied these two factions against the backdrop of the entire history of the classical liberal and federal traditions, he would have seen how similar the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists really were.

In fact, most of the differences between the two come down to mere tactics; i.e., they differed not on the theory, but on how to enshrine that theory in practice. It is one thing to believe in limited government and social contract, but it is something else to determine how to put those into effect, and the Anti-Federalists and Federalists mostly disagreed merely on practice, not on theory.

And whatever theoretical differences they did have, were relatively minor when put into a greater perspective. The Federalists, like the Anti-Federalists, also feared that a strong government would take away their freedoms. After all, that is exactly why the American Revolution was fought. The Federalists may not have been as libertarian as the Anti-Federalists, but they weren't Tories!

We cannot have such a myopic and narrow view of history. The American Revolution cannot be viewed in isolation. It must be viewed alongside the Dutch, English, and French Revolutions, and viewed as the sequel to the first two that it truly was. The cartoon "An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America" depicts John Calvin and Algernon Sidney as being partners of John Locke, while John Adams said John Ponet's work contained "all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by [Algernon] Sidney and Locke". John Adams additionally recommended the anonymous Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. I'm sure we all know who Calvin was, while John Ponet was a Protestant Christian during the persecutions of Protestants by Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos was a Huguenot tract, and Sidney was a partner of Milton and Cromwell. In other words, the American Revolution was part of the general Reformed Christian movement of federalism and limited government that was behind the Dutch and English revolutions, and we must study it as part of that movement, not in isolation. And this Reformed Christian movement was closely related to the Whig and classical liberal tradition. After all, Locke's father fought under Cromwell, and Locke was familiar with Puritan and Congregationalist trends in England, and the two traditions remained very closely allied to each other. Analyzing Francis Schaeffer's claim that John Locke relied on Samuel Rutherford, Robert Arnold concluded that while there is no evidence that Locke utilized Rutherford, that nevertheless, Locke certainly relied on those who were part of Rutherford's same Reformed Christian school of thought, such as Milton. Indeed, let us also note that the Mayflower Compact displays a mature social contract theory decades before Locke was even born. Locke may be the most famous exponent of social contract theory, but he was not the first.

II. The Bill of Rights

And we should not mischaracterize the Bill of Rights, as I believe Moore does:

"The original Constitution did not include the rights to free speech, religious choice, bearing arms, due process, or trial by jury. ... Along the way the Anti-Federalists browbeat ten notable concessions called the Bill of Rights out of Washington and 'the establishment.'"

Is it really reasonable for us to imagine that the Federalists had no concern whatsoever for limited government and the securing of basic rights? Even if the Constitution said nothing, what about the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right (1628), and the English Bill of Rights (1689), not to mention the Declaration of Independence? After all, the Declaration of Rights of 1765 asserted

That his majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies, are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects, within the kingdom of Great Britain.

Similarly, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances of 1774 claimed,

"That the inhabitants of the English Colonies in North America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following Rights."

So even if the Constitution says nothing, the Magna Carta (or rather, the Whig hagiography that grew up around it) ought to suffice. More importantly, when the Anti-Federalists asked for a Bill of Rights, the Federalists did not respond that men lack rights to freedom of speech, to bear arms, and such. Rather, they responded that a Bill of Rights would imply that any rights not listed were not to be protected. In other words, it was a legal/exegetical/hermeneutical dispute, not an ideological one. The Federalists had no disagreements with the substance of the Bill of Rights as demanded by the Anti-Federalists, but were afraid that explicitly listing those rights would disparage those rights not listed. The Federalists, as much as the Anti-Federalists, were part of the classical liberal tradition, and believed that all men are created by God, and as such, have the rights to speak freely and bear arms, and that the government is created by social contract and has only those powers delegated by the people.

III. Economic Policy

It may very well be, as Moore says, that the Constitution

"was written to ensure the power of the federal government to direct economic policy."

But even Federalists would be aghast at how the Commerce and General Welfare Clauses have been interpreted. Given the fundamentally illiberal government we have today, the differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists pale in comparison. Even a Federalist would say that the Commerce Clause was meant to prevent trade wars among states and that the General Welfare Clause was meant to protect the general welfare as opposed to parochial, sectarian welfare of select factions. If anything, the Federalists would be more upset than the Anti-Federalists! After all, the Anti-Federalists could always say, "I told you so. This is why I wanted us to stick to the Articles." But the Federalist had just spent so much time carefully crafting the Constitution, only for the New Deal court to come along and declare that the Commerce and General Welfare Clauses were carte blanches, and that the whole rest of the Constitution was literally useless and meaningless. So much toil and sweat and ink, for naught!

In the comments to Moore's original posting at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I value Paul M.'s observations about Keynesianism and Shays's Rebellion. But he makes the same mistake as Moore when he says,

It is very ironic that the Tea Party movement has embraced a document designed as a check on individual liberties and local and state autonomy. ... Isn't it amazing that the scope of the federal government has become so extensive as to make the Constitution a check on federal authority rather than the expansion it was originally intended to be?

IV. Mindset, Worldview, and Intention of the Tea Party

Moore goes on to say

"They collapse evangelical views on the Bible (as written by divinely inspired men and therefore inerrant) into conservative views of the Constitution (same, same). When faced with problems, Glenn Beck proclaimed to a group of kids this summer, "The answer is always 'restore the Constitution.'" In August, a Greensboro crowd carrying weapons met for a "Restore the Constitution" rally. they have turned 'don't tread on me' into 'don't tread on the Constitution.'"

But I believe that the Tea Party's advocacy of loyalty to the Constitution is not so much a religious worship of the Constitution per se, as much as it is instead that:

  1. The Constitution is what we already have. Anyone concerned with the rule-of-law and federalism (meaning "covenantalism", i.e. social contract) is going to advocate loyalty to the Constitution not only because of its intrinsic value and goodness, but simply because it is what is already on the law-books; the libertarian will demand observance of the Constitution not only because it is intrinsically good, but simply because the rule-of-law demands it. Even if the Anti-Federalist would say the Constitution is evil, it is at least lawful evil.

2. The Constitution enshrines principles greater than itself. The Constitution is a specific instance of federalism (social contract), and so anyone who supports federalism in general - i.e. classical liberals and libertarians - is going to see the Constitution as a good approximation of what they seek. It does not mean the Constitution is perfect, but it is among the closest things to perfection in today's world. It provides a good starting point, and once we reinstate it as the lawful king that it ought to be, then we can talk about improving on it. Those who advocate adherence to the Constitution are likely planning on moving past the Constitution, towards a more completely libertarian government, but they rightly see the Constitution as a step in that direction.

So when Tea Partiers advocate adherence to the Constitution, they do this instead of advocating for the Articles of Confederation because (respectively):
  • ...the Constitution merely happens to be on the books, but were the Articles on the books, they'd advocate for it instead.

  • ...the Articles and the Constitution are both relatively similar. Both are enshrining basically the same principles, and so a classical liberal or libertarian can advocate adherence to the Constitution when really, what he means to advocate is adherence to the entire classical liberal-type canon, including not only the Constitution, but also the Articles, common law, the Magna Carta, John Locke, etc. etc. The Constitution is merely a shorthand. Indeed, see what is included in the Patriot's Edition of the 1599 Geneva Bible; the Constitution is joined by other documents as well, such as the Mayflower Compact, the Magna Carta, and the Articles of Confederation.

  • To summarize my argument, I believe Moore takes too narrow a view of history when he says the Tea Party is like the Anti-Federalists and thus should be opposed to the Constitution. I believe that he has overstated the differences between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists, and the Articles and the Constitution, because his chosen time-span of history is too small.

    [Michael Makovi is an Orthodox Jewish student studying in Jerusalem, and is originally from Silver Spring, MD. Mr. Makovi's focus is on political philosophy, with a special interest in Reformed Christian sources of libertarianism. His personal blog is here.]

    Michael Gerson on Christian Nationalism



    .... America is not a Christian country and has never been, for historical, theological and philosophic reasons.

    First, the Constitution was designed for religious diversity because the Founders were religiously diverse. The 18th century was a time not of quiet piety but of religious controversy. It was a high tide of American Unitarianism, a direct challenge to Christian orthodoxy. Thomas Jefferson's deism flirted with atheism -- a God so distant that He didn't even require his own existence. As journalist Jon Meacham points out, the Founders were less orthodox than the generation that preceded them, as well as the one that followed them. Their commitment to disestablishment, in some cases, accommodated their own heterodoxy.

    Second, American religious communities were often strong supporters of disestablishment. Dissenting Protestants had a long history of resentment for the established English church. Others -- Catholics and Quakers -- were minorities suspicious of majority religious rule. Christians generally saw state intrusion as a threat to their theological integrity and worldly power as a diversion from their mission. They supported disestablishment for the sake of the church. And their political independence contributed to their religious vitality.

    Saturday, October 23, 2010

    A quote from the indispensable man himself on the necessity of religion and morality in civic life

    "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.  The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them.  A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity."

    - George Washington (1732-1799), Farewell Address, September 19, 1796, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, ed. by James H. Huston (Princeton:  2005), pg. 193.

    Friday, October 22, 2010

    Quote of the day: America should not be an enemy to "the religion of the Gospel"

    "Our country should be preserved from the dreadful evil of becoming enemies to the religion of the Gospel, which I have no doubt, but would be the introduction of the dissolution of government and the bonds of civil society."

    - Elias Boudinot (1740-1821), American founding father, President of the Continental Congress, and U.S. congressman, from The Age of Revelation (Philadelphia:  Asbury Dickins, 1801), pg. xxii., quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, ed. by James H. Hutson (Princeton:  2005), pg. 191.

    Philip Hamburger's Weakest Argument Against SOCAS

    Note: I like Hamburger's book. I think it deserves much of the praise it got and that he is a top notch scholar. However that doesn't make it immune from criticism or serious error.

    Jim Lindgren, no religious fanatic he (a self described atheist), and another top notch scholar (in my opinion; he wouldn't be blogging at Volokh if he weren't) has a post which peddles the weakest aspect of Philip Hamburger's work.

    The following is an email I sent Prof. Lindgren. (I don’t expect a reply because I’ve sent him a few other emails over the years to which he didn’t reply):


    In a general sense, I like Hamburger’s book and endorse the idea that “SOCAS” doesn’t properly vet constitutional religious rights, especially those that incorporate against state and local govts. I also think the research Hamburger et al. did with regards to the KKK and their anti-Catholic bias and endorsement of the separation principle is interesting.

    However, to try to bring that up in an argument over the proper way to interpret the Constitution is weak. It’s the genetic fallacy/poisoning the well. And no, the evidence does not show Justice Black’s (or Rutledge’s) “Klan” mentality led them to decide the way they did in Everson.


    Jon Rowe

    Ed Brayton did a post on the matter a few years ago which raises a similar point.

    I also noted on this First Things thread, this argument isn't just "poisoning the well"/the genetic fallacy, it's also a non-sequitur. That is, even IF Black was an anti-Roman Catholic bigot when Everson was decided, it doesn’t follow that he would deny Roman Catholics their religious rights.

    John Adams was an anti-Catholic bigot, but, nonetheless believed in respecting the religious rights of Roman Catholics.

    “I do not like the late Resurrection of the Jesuits. They have a General, now in Russia, in correspondence with the Jesuits in the U.S. who are more numerous than every body knows. Shall We not have Swarms of them here. In as many shapes and disguises as ever a King of Gypsies, Bamfield More Carew himself, assumed? In the shape of Printers, Editors, Writers School masters etc. I have lately read Pascalls Letters over again, and four Volumes of the History of the Jesuits. If ever any Congregation of Men could merit, eternal Perdition on Earth and in Hell, According to these Historians, though like Pascal true Catholicks, it is this Company of Loiola [Ignatius Loyola -- Ed.]. Our System however of Religious Liberty must afford them an Assylum. But if they do not put the Purity of our Elections to a severe Tryal, it will be a Wonder.”

    - John Adams (1735-1826), Letter to Thomas Jefferson, May 6, 1816, quoted in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, James H. Hutson, editor (Princeton University Press: 2005), 44-45.

    Thursday, October 21, 2010

    The Declaration--Nonsense Upon Stilts?

    The natural rights tradition of our Founding Fathers came under attack shortly after our country’s founding. In the English-speaking nations the foremost critic was Jeremy Bentham, who called natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.” Bentham founded the Utilitarian school of social thought, with its ethical criteria of maximizing aggregate happiness. Together with Pragmatism, these two consequentialist schools of ethics would dominate the next two centuries of American social thought. But Bentham has nothing to do with America’s Creation … or so I thought.

    I was browsing the excellent collection of books on the American Revolution in the Jefferson Library--that’s Jefferson Township, New Jersey--when in an unusual collection of essays, I found Bentham’s critique of the Declaration of Independence, written on behalf of the British government. Long before the excesses of the French Revolution, Bentham had already engaged in a frontal assault on the very notion of natural rights. Here is what he has to say in John Lind's book, An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress (London, 1776), p119-132:

    “They are about ‘to assume,’ as they tell us, ‘among the powers of the earth, that equal and separate station to which”—they have lately discovered—'the laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God entitle them.' What difference these acute legislators suppose between the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, is more than I can take upon me to determine, or even to guess. If to what they now demand they were entitled by any law of God, they had only to produce that law, all controversy was at an end. Instead of this, what do they produce? What they call self-evident truths. 'All men,' they tell us, 'are created equal.' This surely is a new discovery; now, for the first time, we learn, that a child, at the moment of his birth, has the same quantity of natural power as the parent, the same quantity of political power as the magistrate.

    The rights of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'—by which, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness—they 'hold to be unalienable.' This they 'hold to be among truths self-evident.' At the same time, to secure these rights, they are content that Government should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expense of one or other of those rights.—that, consequently, in as many instance as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.”
    It is interesting how he rejects Locke’s concept of owning one’s own life in favor of a different idea: successfully enjoying life—a turn that suggests the emergence of utilitarianism. One might say there are two views of equality: equality of ends vs. equality of process. As a utilitarian, Bentham would come to view the ends, in the aggregate, as the criteria of good government. If his misrepresentation of the doctrine of natural rights isn’t clear, read the following:
    “… that of enjoying liberty, and pursuing happiness;--that is,--if they mean anything,--pursuing it wherever a man thinks he can see it, and by whatever means he thinks he can attain it:--That is, that all penal laws—those made by their selves among others—which affect life or liberty, are contrary to the law of God, and the unalienable rights of mankind:--That is, that thieves are not to be restrained from theft, murderers from murder, rebels from rebellion.”
    Need I comment?

    Christine O'Donnell, the First Amendment, and the "Separation of Church and State"

    Much has been made across the blogosphere about Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's (correct) assertion that the First Amendment does not actually contain the phrase "separation of church and state."  While much of the anti-Tea Party wing of the media and interwebs crowd was quick to pounce on O'Donnell's assertion, the simple fact of the matter is that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not come from the First Amendment at all, which reads as follows:
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
    So, as we see, O'Donnell was quite right.  The phrase "separation of church and state" is nowhere to be found in the First Amendment.  What is found in the text is a strong federalist approach to the question of religious establishment -- namely that Congress should not intervene to either set up a national religious establishment or tear down then-existing state establishments of religion.   That congressional prohibition was later extended to the states via the 14th Amendment incorporation doctrine.  But the actual texts of both the First or 14th Amendments do not employ the phrase "separation of church and state."

    So, where does the phrase come from?  As readers of this blog know, the phrase is not found in the Constitution or in the writing of any of the Founders at the time of the enactment or ratification of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.  The phrase comes from a letter written in 1802 by then-President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association.  The full text of the letter is available at the Library of Congress website, but here is the relevant language:
    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
    Jefferson's use of the phrase "wall of separation between Church & State," written well after the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is a key moment in the development of the idea that the First Amendment's guarantees of religious liberty and non-establishment entail the notion of separation between religion and government.  It is no fluke that Jefferson stated this idea to a letter to a congregation of Baptists, the Baptist movement being one of the prime originators within free church Protestantism of the idea of separating the religious and political spheres.

    But that doesn't explain how Jefferson's phrase and ideology ended up getting introduced into the jurisprudence interpreting and applying the First Amendment to church-state issues.  That story is told over at the always interesting Volokh Conspiracy law blog.  Spoiler:  the KKK was involved!

    Update:  in response to the comment thread on this point, blogger extraordinaire and University of Wisconsin constitutional law professor Ann Althouse looks at the precise language used in the O'Donnell-Coons debate and comes to the conclusion that Coons was making a "blatant misstatement of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."  She thinks O'Donnell's got the better of the debate on this point.  

    Althouse has more commentary on the debate and the terminology used by O'Donnell and Coons here.   As Althouse points out, O'Donnell was making a point about the actual text of the Constitution, a point that she got right.  Coons was making a point about the interpretation of that text.  And how did we get to that interpretation of the text?  That's what the Volokh Conspiracy post that I link to above helps us to understand.

    Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    The Tea Party and the Constitution

    Dr. John Fea, historian, author and long-time friend of American Creation, has posted an interesting article on the Tea Party movement. The article is written by Joseph Moore, a graduate student in American history at UNC-Greensboro. Mr. Moore writes:
    The Constitution was written to constrain movements like the Tea Party. Ironic, then, that Tea Partiers espouse such a religious reverence for it. They collapse evangelical views on the Bible (as written by divinely inspired men and therefore inerrant) into conservative views of the Constitution (same, same). When faced with problems, Glenn Beck proclaimed to a group of kids this summer, "The answer is always 'restore the Constitution.'" In August, a Greensboro crowd carrying weapons met for a "Restore the Constitution" rally. they have turned 'don't tread on me' into 'don't tread on the Constitution.'

    The paradox of this crusader's zeal for the Founding Fathers is that the Tea Party more closely resembles the groups that opposed the Constitution than those who wrote it in 1787. The world was different then, but not so different.

    Our Constitution was a reaction to a great recession. America couldn't even pay the interest on the national debt taken out to finance the Revolution. Cheap imported goods flooded the market, diving American workers out of a living. These patriotic people, many of them war veterans, had financed their homes with loans. With no one buying American anymore, regular people couldn't pay their mortgages, and banks foreclosed on homes across the nation.

    In Massachusetts, a war veteran named Daniel Shays espoused something like the modern sentiment, 'we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.' Shays and other farmers took up arms, took to the streets, and became the faces of a movement sweeping the country. In the spirit of American patriotism, they demanded that state lawmakers pass legislation protecting hardworking people against bankers and taxes. Thomas Jefferson noted approvingly, "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing."

    Thomas Jefferson was in Paris when he said that. George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were not. Those Founding Fathers called for a new government to stave off groups like Shays'. The document they created, the Constitution, put distance between the people and their government. Politicians, not the people, chose Senators. Not one private citizen voted for George Washington to be president. The original Constitution did not include the rights to free speech, religious choice, bearing arms, due process, or trial by jury. "We the People of the United States" was added in the final day of editing- to save space.

    Enter the Anti-Federalists. They were panicked that the new government would enable "the rich to oppress and ruin the poor." This annoyed Washington, who privately remarked that the protesters gave "the tone" of being "obnoxious," and that it was best that citizens should not have opportunity to "peak behind the curtain" of US government.

    What frustrated our first President were the Anti-Federalists; emotional appeal and their conspiracy theories about strong central government colluding to take away people's freedoms. "This government, " one opponent prophesied, "will set out a moderate aristocracy."

    The Anti-Federalists lost, mostly because in the midst of economic crisis a strong national government made the best sense. Along the way the Anti-Federalists browbeat ten notable concessions called the Bill of Rights out of Washington and 'the establishment.' We woe them our thanks. But that cannot change irrefutable historical facts:

    The Constitution was written to protect government from movements like the Tea Party. It was written to ensure the power of the federal government to direct economic policy. It was written to Keep control away from angry men with guns. It was, in short, everything Tea Party advocates like Beck and Michale Savage think it was not.

    Ironically, the Tea Partiers have embodied what their most sacred text opposed. This does not delegitimize them.They stand in a meaningful tradition even as they misunderstand it. They have channeled the old angst of Anti-Federalism, good and bad, into the present by combining Jeffersonian fear of government with anger for anger's sake. Their zeal is both tremendous and historic.

    Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the political moderation the Tea Party hates and the Founding Fathers loved is now represented not by politicians, but by comedians. One week before the mid-term elections, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart will hold his "Rally To Restore Sanity" on the National Mall. The restoration of sanity was what the Constitution was originally about.
    And though I am not a fan or an apologist of the Tea Party movement, I believe that Mr. Moore's summation is a bit too superficial.

    But what say you?

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    What Did the Founding Fathers Learn From Cicero?

    The thesis of Carl J. Richard's provocative new book, Why We’re All Romans, wouldn’t have been a surprise to those educated in colonial colleges. The liberal arts curriculum of our founding fathers was dominated by Roman literature and letters. Fluent knowledge of Latin was an admission requirement and necessary to understand the lectures—which were all in Latin. A study of the founder’s education gives us a glimpse into a worldview that is almost foreign to the modern reader.

    Caroline Winterer, in The Culture of Classicism, describes the importance of classical languages and culture in early American college education. The emphasis on Latin literature was part of colonial higher education from the founding of our first college, Harvard, in 1636. In addition to Latin, students were expected to translate “the New Testament (which they referred to as the ‘Greek Testament’”. “A century later the language curriculum had hardly changed, an example of the intellectual constancy that characterized American college education ...” By 1776 there were nine colleges “remarkably uniform in their classical curriculum.”

    Colonial colleges were founded by different religious denominations and at first completely staffed by the ministry to prepare students for the ministry. By 1750 40% of the graduates still went into the ministry. What is remarkable is the degree that Latin-based classical humanism was found to be in concord with the religious purpose of the institution. The hostility today that we often see between secular Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions was virtually absent in our colonial period.

    We tend to think of Greece first when we think of the glory of classical civilization but the colonials looked to Rome—Republican Rome. The change came in the beginning of the 19th century when European trends (and Hegel’s influence) downplayed Rome in favor of Greece. Carl J. Richard is right about Rome’s influence … when we talk about our founding fathers.

    Of all the Roman writers, Cicero was the most respected and revered. “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight” wrote John Adams (1778). A young Thomas Jefferson studied Latin under Rev. James Maury. “In terms of classical authors, Maury saved his highest praise for Cicero, whom he called ‘Reason’s great Highpriest and Interpreter.’ Jefferson would share this opinion” [p38] Maury had Jefferson read De Officiis. [p34] Years later Jefferson would recommend Cicero’s ethical works to his nephew, Peter Carr.

    We think of Cicero first and foremost as an orator and statesman but his treatises on ethical philosophy were virtually textbooks on the subjects in the Latin-based classical education. First and foremost of these was Cicero’s De Officiis, often translated as On Duty or On Moral Obligation. It was universally read through out Western Christendom. In Konigsberg, before one steps into Orthodox Russia, a young Immanuel Kant studied Cicero’s De Officiis in his sixth year of grammar school about the same time Samuel Adams was learning to read his copy.

    This humanistic liberal arts education originated in the 14th century. Petrarch championed the study of Cicero as an alternative to Scholastic learning. He saw Cicero as applicable to civic affairs while scientific Scholastic studies appeared to be “merely academic.” As a devout Christian and loyal church member he could say “You would fancy sometimes … it is not a Pagan philosopher but a Christian apostle who is speaking.” Indeed, St. Ambrose’s De Officiis is modeled after Cicero’s. Of surviving hand-copied books, Cicero’s De Officiis is the second most numerous of Latin texts. It was also the second Latin text to be published with the advent of the printing press.

    Cicero has disappeared from the college curriculum. His works are rarely studied in philosophy and only appear as a footnote on Roman history. His ideas are alien to the modern mind. We still read John Locke and the Bible, but I maintain the ethnical and political thoughts of a Latin-based liberal arts tradition that spanned five centuries is also crucial for understanding the mindset of colonial America. The importance of this book on the classical humanist education and its near complete omission from 20th century cannon shows a radical shift in ethical thought.

    I hope I’ve conveyed the importance if Cicero’s ethical writings on 18th century thought. But I’m afraid the task isn’t that easy. There still the nagging question: what exactly did the Founding Fathers learn from reading Cicero? What can Cicero’s works tell us about the Founding generation?

    Sunday, October 17, 2010

    Davis on America's Theocratic Planting

    As opposed to its non-theocratic "Founding."

    From historian Kenneth Davis. Quote:

    From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation."

    Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan.

    This is a theme I've long explored. For instance, in my recent post entitled, Would the Puritans Have Executed John Adams For His Religious Heresy?

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    Quote of the day: religious tolerance doesn't mean religous acceptance

    "I do not like the late Resurrection of the Jesuits.  They have a General, now in Russia, in correspondence with the Jesuits in the U.S. who are more numerous than every body knows.  Shall We not have Swarms of them here.  In as many shapes and disguises as ever a King of Gypsies, Bamfield More Carew himself, assumed?  In the shape of Printers, Editors, Writers School masters etc.  I have lately read Pascalls Letters over again, and four Volumes of the History of the Jesuits.  If ever any Congregation of Men could merit, eternal Perdition on Earth and in Hell, According to these Historians, though like Pascal true Catholicks, it is this Company of Loiola [Ignatius Loyola -- Ed.].  Our System however of Religious Liberty must afford them an Assylum.  But if they do not put the Purity of our Elections to a severe Tryal, it will be a Wonder."

    - John Adams (1735-1826), Letter to Thomas Jefferson, May 6, 1816, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, James H. Hutson, editor (Princeton University Press:  2005), 44-45.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010

    Quote of the day: morals, religion and a republic

    "Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore, who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure, which denounces against the wicked, the eternal misery, and insures to the good eternal happiness, are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments."

    - Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), Founding Father and only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, letter to Charles Carroll, Jr., November 4, 1800, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, James H. Huston, editor (Princeton:  2005), pg. 191.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    Ron Chernow on Washington as organizational genius

    Well, I've been reading Ron Chernow's new biography of Washington, too, but I had to go plunk down my own money at Costco to buy a copy!  (But who's bitter?)  Chernow's book is a delightful and detailed overview of Washington's life and several careers, a worthy follow-up to Chernow's excellent biography of the under-appreciated Alexander Hamilton.  Taking a page from Jon's approach, I'm not going to review the whole book here.  Instead, I want to focus my attention on a single chapter that I think displays some of Chernow's real insights into Washington's leadership, namely, chapter 49, dealing with Washington's organization of the executive branch just after the first presidental election under the current Constitution.

    As Chernow points out, Washington's task in organizing the executive branch was daunting.  In 1789 he had to hire nearly a 1000 people to fill the variety of posts that the new federal government necessitated.  Washington, always concerned about appearances and public morality, made a strong stand against nepotism and favoritism in assigning most of the jobs.  For the top jobs in his administration -- the cabinet -- Washington did rely on people that he knew well, but they were all people that he was convinced were competent and qualified for their jobs.  His judgment wasn't always correct -- his secretary of war, Henry Knox, while held in close regard by Washington, was not, as Chernow puts it, "an original policy thinker."  He was overshadowed the other members of the cabinet -- Hamilton, Jefferson and Edmund Randolph. 

    Two appointments at the beginning of Washington's administration stand out as the ultimate oil and water match:  Alexander Hamilton as treasury secretary and Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state.  Hamilton was Washington's second choice for the job, but as Chernow details, he was the perfect lieutenant for Washington, executing his office with an attention to detail and a vision that he had honed over years of studying finance.  Hamilton, as Chernow notes, acted as Washington's "unofficial prime minister," developing the administration's legislative agenda to take advantage of Washington's honeymoon period with Congress.

    Jefferson, like Hamilton, was a second choice for the position at secretary of state.  Washington's first choice, John Jay, turned down the job, preferring to be appointed the first chief justice of the new federal Supreme Court.  Chernow details how Washington chose Jefferson and how Jefferson's ambivalent approach to the new constitutional government, along with his tendency towards passive-aggressive communication (what Chernow characterizes as "indirect, sometimes devious methods of dealing with disagreements") caused tensions to build in their relationship.  "Jefferson started out venerating Washington," as Chernow writes, but he would eventually become "far more critical."  Jefferson, born a Virginia aristocrat, an owner of slaves, and a politician himself, "was dismayed by the political atmosphere in New York," the nation's temporary capital city.  Smelling aristocracy everywhere, Jefferson resented the royal aura that surrounded Washington, and he was increasing concerned over Hamilton's growing power throughout the government.  Thus the seeds for the break up of the cabinet later in Washington's administration were set early.

    Chernow does an especially good job highlighting Washington's attention to the federal judiciary.  As a lawyer, I found this part of Chernow's discussion in this chapter particularly interesting.  Washington took his responsibility to appoint judges quite seriously, and he staffed the federal judiciary with a great deal of care.  Washington went so far as to insist that the judiciary, as Chernow quotes him, "must be considered as the keystone of our political fabric."  While the Court was not nearly as august an institution at its beginning as it would later become under Chief Justice Marshall, Washington took pains to see that the Court was properly staffed and lead under the able hand of his colleague John Jay.

    As befits someone who has written about business history as well as political history, Chernow spends time detailing Washington's strengths as the executive in charge of administering the government under the then-new Constitution.  His leadership of the cabinet was characterized by open discussion with the department heads.  He was insistent on the maintenance of records, even going so far as to require that all letters be recorded in triplicate.  He was critical of others, but also critical of himself, demanding high standards for those who worked in his administration.  Slow to come to decisions, he was perceptive and resolute once a decision was made.  In the view of Jefferson, nobody else had better judgment.  While not one to be either warm or effusive, Washington also never fell into the trap of adulation that would have trapped any other politician, as Chernow observes, in "idolatry."  While Washington could be "cunning," he possess "no low scheming."  He kept his promises, didn't scheme, and he respected the public that had placed him in office.  Chernow recounts how, when asked how to function well in politics, Washington replied with the old saying that honesty was "the best policy."

    To wrap up my review, I'll note that Chernow tells two stories that give the reader some particular insight about Washington as a leader.  First, it turns out that Washington had a critical role in the ratification of the Bill of Rights.  During his first term Washington was initially hostile to the idea of a Bill of Rights, he came around to supporting Madison's idea of amending the Constitution.  Eventually, Washington's support for Madison's amendments won the day for the Bill of Rights, eventually leading not only to their incorporation in the Constitution, but for North Carolina and Rhode Island to be incorporated into the Union. Washington was flexible enough to revisit issues and change his approach when prudence dictated a different course for the good of the country. 

    Second, that Washington, prior to meeting Jefferson in the latter's role as secretary of state, spent the morning in prayer at St. Paul's Chapel in New York.  While this is a minor point in Chernow's narrative, it is a telling point about Washington's religiosity.  While Washington may well have been an unconventional believer as far as Anglicans at the time went, there is little question that he was a pious man.  While it may be that, like Lincoln after him, Washington's sense of religious faith deepened as he assumed the difficult burden of being the nation's chief magistrate, it is nonetheless true that on key moments, like prior to his meeting with Jefferson, Washington evidenced himself to be a man of prayer.

    Ron Chernow on GW & Religion

    I was sent an advance copy to review for American Creation, Ron Chernow's 800 plus page, "Washington: A Life."

    I thank the publishers for this.

    We are part of an online book tour.

    I constrain my review to Chapter 12, "Providence," because that's where I'm most interested and useful.

    Chernow begins by noting GW's formal and nominal affiliation with the Anglican (later Episcopalian) Church, but that "mysteries have surrounded George Washington's religious beliefs." He relays the Ashbel Green affair and Thomas Jefferson's interpretation of it (click on my links to see what I'm talking about).

    That leads readers to wonder, ... hmm, maybe GW was a traditional Christian of the Anglican bent; but maybe, like a lot of today's politicians and church attendees, he was something more nominal.

    To support the "nominal" thesis, Chernow relates that GW's church attendance was irregular, that he never took communion, that he prayed while standing, (as opposed to the Anglican custom of kneeling) and that his public and private God words were invariably generic, not specifically orthodox Trinitarian.

    Chernow rightly understands that GW believed in an active Providence, but was not identifiably or provably someone who believed Jesus Christ was God in the flesh or the Bible the inerrant infallible Word of God.

    Chernow also properly notes the active Providence in which GW believed was not consistent with most understandings of "Deism," that, indeed, GW's God "evince[d] a keen interest in North American politics." (In short, GW's God was a Whig, not a Tory.)

    Importantly, Chernow mentions that although most of GW's contemporaries would have categorized him as a "sincere" and "devout" Christian, he was religiously shy, and displayed no religious zeal on matters of Hellfire or damnation. (Hence GW was, if anything, NOT an evangelical or "born again" Christian.) I would have gone further and explored the probability that Washington disbelieved in eternal damnation (as opposed to temporary punishments in the afterlife) given his support for the Universalist Church.

    Chernow also identifies GW's religious non-sectarianism and ecumenicism and, Enlightenment rejection of "religious fanaticism." Here Chernow includes one of my favorite quotations of Washington's, given to the Swedenborgians, a group whose beliefs today and when Washington wrote that note, the "orthodox" term (like the Mormons) "heretical" and "cultic."

    "We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth & reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition,..."

    [Washington wrote that quotation in the context of assuring the Swedenborgs that they possessed the full rights under the US Constitution's guarantee of religious rights.]

    Finally, Chernow notes Washington's oft-cited "Farewell Address" where GW connects the importance of "religion" (generally speaking, not necessarily "Christianity") as the foundation for republican morality.

    I see Chernow's chapter on Washington's religion fair, informed and generally correct. He properly avoided the politicized historical-culture war, false dichotomy categorization of GW as either a "secular Deist" or "devout (orthodox) Christian."

    Quote of the day: religion and national morality

    "Can we in prudence suppose that national morality can be maintained in exclusion of religious principles?  Does it not require the aid of a generally received and divinely authoritative Religion?"

    - Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), draft of Washington's Farewell Address, 1796, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, James H. Hutson, editor (Princeton University Press:  2005), pg.147.

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Happy Canadian Thanksgiving Day!

    A little early, but I understand it gets colder there quicker!  Our neighbors to the North in Canada are celebrating their Thanksgiving Holiday today.  So, happy Thanksgiving to any of our readers who are Canadian or who are attached to that wonderful country in some way. 

    Myself, I have ancestors on both sides who lived at one time or another in Canada, so I am quite fond of the country and proud of its traditions.  Probably the second greatest country on earth!

    The Founders: the very human products of a Golden Age

    The Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the United States government can bestow on a scholar in the humanities.  The recipients read like a who's-who of American literature, and while the Lecture itself is rarely a work of substantive scholarship, it often serves as a clarifying statement of a presenting scholar's approach to his or her subject matter.  Two Jefferson lectures in particular touch on themes discussed in his blog, Forrest McDonald's 1987 lecture, The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers, and David McCollough's 2003 lecture, The Course of Human Events.

    In his lecture McDonald, one of the foremost conservative scholars of our nation's early history, describes the Founders as inhabitants of a "Golden Age," and laments that we are unlikely to see their kind again.  The unique circumstances of our founding period cannot be replicated, and the combination of culture, education, social conditions and the economic situation of the late colonial and early republican periods ensure that the quality of leadership and the depth of foresight present in the founding generation is unlikely to reoccur. 

    McCollough, known best for his best-selling biography of John Adams, approaches the Founders and their times more specifically, as individual human beings, and as such, in their humanness, the Founders have a more universal applicability.  The lessons we can draw from them are not lessons from divinities, but lessons from human beings like ourselves.  As McCollough puts it:
    One might also say that history is not about the past. If you think about it, no one ever lived in the past. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and their contemporaries didn't walk about saying, "Isn't this fascinating living in the past! Aren't we picturesque in our funny clothes!" They lived in the present. The difference is it was their present, not ours. They were caught up in the living moment exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn out than we have. 

    Nor were they gods. Indeed, to see them as gods or god-like is to do disservice to their memories. Gods, after all, don't deserve a lot of credit because they can do whatever they wish. 

    Those we call the Founders were living men. None was perfect. Each had his human flaws and failings, his weaknesses. They made mistakes, let others down, let themselves down.
    Because the Founders were human, because they had hobbies and interests and loves, because they were capable of great things and great failures, they are within the scope of being able to teach us through their example.  McCollough discusses how different the Founders' ideal of happiness is from the modern materialistic vision.  How they were motivated by simple love of country and personal courage to attempt what appeared impossible at the time.   They left us not with unobtainable dreams but with a vision for our country that was grounded in the idea of individual liberty under law.  The Founders left us not to look upon them with amazement and awe, but to complete the work that they began but were unable to finish completely.  Again to quote McCollough:
    But while it is essential to remember them as individual mortal beings no more perfect in every way than are we, and that they themselves knew this better than anyone, it is also essential to understand that they knew their own great achievements to be imperfect and incomplete. 

    The American experiment was from its start an unfulfilled promise. There was much work to be done. There were glaring flaws to correct, unfinished business to attend to, improvements and necessary adjustments to devise in order to keep pace with the onrush of growth and change and expanding opportunities. 

    Those brave, high-minded people of earlier times gave us stars to steer by -- a government of laws not of men, equal justice before the law, the importance of the individual, the ideal of equality, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and expression, and the love of learning.
    As much as I hate to disagree with Forrest McDonald, McCollough's vision of the Founders and our relationship to them is much closer to the mark.  Our Founders -- not just the famous names but the ordinary people who made our revolution and our early republic work -- were indeed the products, as each generation of people are, of human conditions that were unique.  But they were not unique as to be beyond imitation or replication.

    Our Founders left us with one of the richest legacies in human history, a canon of thought and of practice in republican virtue unparalleled in the human story between Athens and London.   But they did not mean for it to be a closed canon.  They meant for it to be built upon, to be improved.  And at our best moments in our history, our leaders have reminded us of this fact, of the changes that need to be made to fulfill the Founder's vision even more closely. 

    Was America during the founding period a golden age?  Yes, indeed it was.  But the gold of that age can be burnished to shine every more brightly, it can be refined to glimmer with ever-greater purity.  It is easy to look back upon the Founders and tremble at their greatness.  But what we should really be trembling at is their hopes for us and what we would accomplish.  The challenge of our day is to look back on their example and then live forward by the stars the left, as McCollough puts it, for us to steer by.

    Quote of the day: on the Bible and Republicanism

    "The Bible contains the most profound Philosophy, the most perfect Morality, and the most refined Policy, that ever was conceived upon earth.  It is the most Republican Book in the World, and therefore I will still revere it."

    - John Adams (1735-1826), Letter to Benjamin Rush, February 2, 1807, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, James H. Hutson, editor (Princeton University Press:  2005), pg. 23.

    On the enduring relevance of Magna Carta

    Two short articles are posted over at the First Principles website regarding the essential role of Magna Carta in creating the legal and political climate that would eventually lead to American independence and the American constitutional tradition:
    Most of the many articles of the Great Charter have lost their significance with the passing of the feudal age. But a fundamental principle of Magna Carta, though not expressed in so many words in that document itself, endures to our day. This principle entered into the developing common law of the thirteenth century, and appeared in later royal charters and statutes. It became the rock upon which the English constitution was built. It is the principle of the supremacy of law: the idea that an enduring law exists, which all men must obey. The king himself is one of those men under the law. Along with this principle ran a corollary principle—that if the king breaks the law, and invades the rights of his vassals, then barons and the people may deprive him of his powers.
    The American Revolution and the American Constitution have their roots in the deep constitutional traditions of England.  The more we understand that, the better our appreciation and understanding of our own Constitution. 

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    Quote of the day: on federalism and the separation of church and state

    "In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government.  I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies."

    - Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, James H. Hutson, editor (Princeton University Press:  2005), pg. 62.

    Conservatism and the American tradition

    That's the topic Patrick J. Deneen's post over at Front Porch Republic:  Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?  Deneen analyzes American political culture from the time of the Founding forward and concludes that while there is a conservative element in American politics, that conservative element is rooted strongly in the liberal tradition.  As Deneen puts it after describing some of what he sees as a basic tenets of American conservatism:
    [E]very characteristic that I’ve listed is actually a species of liberalism. I don’t mean that they are liberal in the way that we typically use the word to describe people like Nancy Pelosi or Michael Dukakis; rather, I mean liberal in its classical conception, that political philosophy that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its deepest origins in the Social Contract theory of Thomas Hobbes, further refined by John Locke, amended by Adam Smith and Montesquieu, and put into effect by our Founders, especially in those two founding documents The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To be clear – there is a species of conservatism within this tradition, to be sure – about which I’ll say more – but at the outset it needs to be acknowledged that we are speaking here of the difference between conservative liberals and progressive liberals, and not typically non- or anti-liberal conservatives and liberals per se.
    Deneen's point is well taken.  Unlike European conservativism, which developed out of the altar and throne alliances that were the principal political fruit of the Reformation, American conservativism evolved within a cultural and political milieu that strongly emphasized natural individual rights as they were developed during the British Enlightenment, along with some critical French thinkers like Montesquieu who reflected on the British political tradition.  This explains, for example, how someone as central to the modern American conservative tradition like Ronald Reagan could cite Thomas Paine so much (more than any other Founder, as historian John Patrick Diggins discusses in his biography of Reagan).  Modern American conservatism is not a refutation of the broader liberal tradition as much as it is a strand within that tradition.  This is one of the things that makes American conservatives stand out from their Tory counterparts in Canada and the UK, and from their Christian Democratic counterparts in countries like Germany and Italy. 

    Deneen makes another point in his post, which is to identify traditional, non-liberal conservatism with the anti-federalist movement during the debate over the Constitution.  According to Deneen, it is the anti-federalists, with their aversion to centralized government and the mechanisms for national action located within the then-novel Constitution, who represent the conservative spirit in the early American context.  Modern American conservatives, Deneen contends, defend a Constitution that leads inexorably towards the kind of big-government activism that they claim to eschew.  As Deneen puts it at the close of his article:
    It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.
    Deneen's thesis on this point is one worthy of some considerable discussion.  To start that discussion, I think that Deneen overlooks a critical component of conservative thought, namely that conservatism is an inherently non-ideological movement.  This understanding of conservatism, developed by theorists like the American writer Russell Kirk and the British writer Michael Oakeshott, views conservatism as primarily an approach to polity concerned about preserving custom, tradition and usage in the face of unnecessary change.  It is about depending upon the tried and the true, upon the consensus of community and culture, upon the established patterns of family, religion and voluntary associations.  While conservatism has certain common principles and practices, it still varies greatly from country to country, from time to time, from place to place.  Italian conservatism and Chinese conservatism and Chilean conservatism and Yankee conservatism should and do vary greatly.  As both Kirk and Oakeshott consistently emphasized, there is no single conservative ideology upon which to build a political program.  It varies.  Conservatism can be thought of more as a disposition than a doctrine, more of a way of approaching the world than a specific agenda that is uniform across time and space. 

    From that perspective, Kirk approached the Constitution as a fundamentally conservative document, as an attempt to preserve the best elements of the English legal and political tradition, adapted to the culture and context of America, as possible, while allowing for the prudential and necessary increase in the powers of the federal government that were necessary to preserve the nation from the disaster that was brewing under our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation.  Kirk himself wrote a splendid book on the conservative nature of our Constitution, Rights and Duties.

    As for the anti-federalists as conservatives, Kirk himself did not think of them as such.  Kirk had little time for the anti-federalists, viewing them as representing a radical tradition within American public life.  Like Jefferson, they were ideological fundamentalists, unable to understand that the science of statesmanship was the study, as Burke put it, of necessary change.  This means that politics cannot remain unchanging -- reform is part of the life of the body politic.  However reform should only be undertaken when necessary, not simply because revolutions, as Jefferson once said, help to "clear the atmosphere."  For Kirk, the conservatives of the early American Republic were the Federalists, particularly John Adams, and the National Republicans lead by John Randolph of Roanoake.  He wrote at length about both men in his masterwork about the conservative intellectual tradition, The Conservative Mind.

    Adams and Randolph embodied, to Kirk, the kind of cautious statesmanship, attached to principle but not to ideology, that exemplifies the conservative approach to government.  Ideologues like the anti-federalists simply did not qualify. And I think that Kirk's judgment on this point was fundamentally sound.

    Saturday, October 9, 2010

    Quote of the day: on church establishments and tests for office

    "If Christian Preachers had continued to teach as Christ & his Apostles did, without Salaries, and as the Quakers do, I imagine Tests would never have existed:  For I think they were invented not so much to secure Religion itself, as the Emoluments of it.  When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support so that its Professors are oblig'd to call for the help of the Civil Power, 'tis a Sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

    - Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Letter to Richard Price, October 9, 1780, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, James H. Hutson, editor (Princeton University Press:  2005), pg. 155.

    Book review: The Citizen's Constitution by Seth Lipsky

    Some of the most insightful books are written by outsiders, by people with no particular training or formal position regarding the subject matter of their study.  These outsiders bring a fresh perspective and while they may not have a tutored eye, their lack of formal training allows them to perceive things that those within the guild of scholars often miss.  One such outsider is journalist Seth Lipsky.  An accomplished editor and reporter, Lipsky's annotated guide to the United States Constitution is brimming with historical insight and contemporary wit.  It is well worth a read.

    Lipsky's approach to his commentary is to provide a preface explaining his general method and then to walk the reader through the text of the Constitution itself, methodically explaining its various provisions.  Lipsky provides detailed, line by line exposition on both the main text of the Constitution and the Amendments.  His review of the Bill of Rights is worth the price of the book itself, but his telling comments on the main text of the Constitution serve as the real eye-opener.  Oftentimes the Constitution's articles, the original components of the Constitution prior to the enactment of the Amendments,  are overlooked.  In law school the articles are often relegated to a very boring course that focusing on the Constitution's structural scheme of government, while the contemporary and interesting policy-oriented discussions are saved for the courses on criminal procedure, the Bill of Rights, and civil rights.

    Lipsky eschews this approach to the articles of the Constitution, mining the historical record to demonstrate not only the critical importance of the Constitution's articles to the Founding generation, but also the contemporary importance of those articles as well.  The main text of the Constitution shines in Lipsky's commentary as a relevant and vital component not simply to the structure of American government but to the scheme of liberty conceived of by the Framers.

    And Lipsky is very interested in providing context to the Constitution by looking at the writings of those Framers and defenders of the Constitution who wrote during the Founding period.  Quotations from The Federalist are provided, not as proof-texts but as vehicles to understand the concerns that lead to the adoption of specific provisions within the Constitution.  Washington, Jefferson and Marshall all make appearances within Lipsky's text as well.

    What is particularly refreshing about Lipsky's approach is that he doesn't simply quote those who supported the Constitution, he also includes discussion of those Americans who opposed the ratification of the Constitution.  Lipsky spends time to introduce the reader to the arguments of the anti-federalists and to explain their concerns about the governmental centralization that they feared lurked in the Constitution's text.   His presentation of the anti-federalists' arguments concerning the Necessary and Proper Clause is one of the finest overviews of the basic anti-federalist position that I have ever read.  And it is contained in two moderately-sized paragraphs.  Once the reader is finished with Lipsky's commentary, he or she will have a grasp of the basic arguments of both sides in the ratification debate.

    Lipsky's guide isn't just a history book..  Although he provides copious historical references and examples in his commentary, Lipsky also ties in the rich constitutional jurisprudence that has developed since the ratification of the Constitution, providing focused discussions of key cases on a multitude of issues, including such important Supreme Court decisions as Barron v. Baltimore, Dred Scot, Gideon v. Wainright, Mormon Church v. United States, Plessey v. Fergusson, Hamdan, and D.C. v. Heller. Lipsky's readings of the relevant jurisprudence is almost always concise and thought-provoking.  For example, his discussion of Dred Scot immediately zeroes in on the core of Chief Justice Taney's analysis of Scot's standing to sue for his freedom in the federal courts.  His understanding of the evolutionary development within lines of case law shines in his presentation on the Fourth Amendment's search and seizure requirements, demonstrating a sophistication in just two pages of commentary that is lacking in most law school casebooks. 

    There are a number of guides and commentaries available to our Constitution.  However, none of them have the combination of brevity and thoroughness that Lipsky's guide provides.  It is a delightful text, one that can please both the professional scholar or lawyer while at the same time appealing to the common citizen who wants to know more about the fundamental charter that empowers and governs our general government.  Seth Lipsky has done yeoman's service in providing such a delightful and rich overview of our Constitution.  Get a copy and keep it close by on the bookshelf.  You will find yourself turning to it time and time again.