Saturday, November 27, 2010

Is the DOI a “Christian” Document?

That's the title to my latest post at LoOG.

I referenced the following article by Peter Lawler at Postmodern Conservative.

Here is a comment I left at that blog:

... I would add J. Adams in with Jefferson and Franklin. Adams may have been culturally more Calvinistic than the other two, but theologically he was at home with Jefferson and Franklin.

And the the latter two were not "deistic," but seemed to believe in a God every bit as "theistic" as John Adams'. The "Deists" of the day (Paine, et al.) did dig the term "Nature's God," so that point is valid. The DOI attempts to unite Deists, Unitarians and orthodox Christians, each of whom hold certain theological positions that contradict the other.

Those are the perils of America's Founding civil religion and trying to claim it for yourself. There is a little bit of it for everyone, and a little bit for no one.

Friday, November 26, 2010

George Washington's religious pluralism

"Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception."

- George Washington (1732-1799), American Founding Father, Letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, Aug. 15, 1787, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, edited by Jaqmes H. Hutson (Princeton:  2005), pg. 193.

[Cross-posted over at my own blog, Ordered Liberty.]

Monday, November 22, 2010

How very Jeffersonian!

There's a movement afoot to amend the federal Constitution to permit 2/3rds of the states to nullify federal legislation.  Here's the story.  It doesn't appear that the amendment would allow the states to revoke federal judicial rulings as well.  Looks like the Jeffersonian idea of nullification and interposition has been updated and put back into circulation...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?

Forget about the answer---
there are problems with the question
by Tom Van Dyke

Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?

Lord knows our American Creation blog has spent so much cyberink about "Christian." Do you have to buy into the whole deal, like Jesus is God, died for our sins? Many did, but not all, by any means.

Do you have to go to Holy Communion, like George Washington mostly didn't? Many didn't, not even most.

Or could you be a "Unitarian Christian," like John and Abigail Adams [if not perhaps John Locke himself], and you still believed that the Bible was Divine Writ and Jesus was the Messiah, just not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity?

And as they ask today of a sect that followed after the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s, Are Mormons Christian?

God only knows.

Or to be more precise, only God knows, to paraphrase John Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration," because as he elegantly divined, no human being knows, that much we know for sure. Not governments, not clergymen, not even [!] historians.

This settled the question even for strict Calvinists like Samuel Adams, as he wrote in 1772's The Rights of the Colonists.

Do you know? Me neither. Only God knows, if there is one. The Founders agreed that there is a God. One God, as a matter of fact. So, they decided to leave the rest up to Him, and that was a wise choice, per the wise Mr. Locke.


So let's move on, then---what is a "nation"?

Its borders? Its government? The sum of its laws?

Or is it something greater [or less]? Its people, its culture, its ethos? After all, France was still France whether under Louis XVI, the Directory, or Napoleon. [Or under Hitler or Sarkozy, for that matter. It was still France.]

Well, let's park this one at the curb. But with the engine running, as it touches on both "nation" and "America."


Which brings us to "Founded." What the hell does that mean?

Plymouth Rock? The ratification of our Godless Constitution? The Bill of Rights that came some months later, the promised payoff to the anti-Federalists?

As my pal Alexandrian at his blog asks about America's Birthday:

Choose one (or more if you can’t choose):

17 September 1774 when the Continental Congress promotes the forming of local militias,

9 February 1775 when Massachusetts was declared in rebellion by George III,

19 April 1775 when organized fighting began,

10 May 1775 when Congress declares a “state of defense,”

15 May 1775 when Washington was named Commander in Chief of the Army,

6 July 1775 when Congress approved the Declaration of Taking up Arms,

23 August 1775 when the King issued the Proclamation of Rebellion and Sedition,

12 April 1776-July when 90 state and local Declarations of Independence were issued starting with NC,

15 May 1776 when the Continental Congress declared that the “Crown should be totally suppressed.”

11 June 1776 when Congress formed a committee of 11 and instructed them to draft a declaration,

2 July 1776 when Congress formally votes independence,

4 July 1776 when the document stating the reasons for that vote was approved,

2 August 1776 when many say the document was actually signed though others disagree,

3 Sept 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed,

14 January 1784 when Congress ratified the treaty,

21 June 1788 when NH is the 9th state to ratify the Constitution,


4 March 1789 when the new government under the Constitution begins.

[Oh, I left out stuff such as the Articles of Confederation because there already were too many dates to choose from.---Alexandrian]


"America." "Founded." "Christian." "Nation."

So little time, so many words. Terms.

Words and terms are supposed to make communication easier. Sometimes they just get in the way.

America, are you now or have you ever been founded as a Christian nation?

AMERICA: Yes. No. Sort of. Can you rephrase the question?

Quote of the day: on the link between works and faith

"In one thing we agree that he who feareth God, and worketh righteousness shall be accepted of him and his Faith cannot be wrong whose life is in the right."

- Abigail Adams (1744-1818), American Founding Mother, Letter to Catherine Adams, April 15, 1818, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton:  2005), pg. 90.


I wanted to write a follow up to Mr. Ridgely's post about meaning of terms as it relates to the Christian Nation controversy. When I first began this inquiry about seven years ago, I assumed -- wrongly -- that most America's Founders were strict deists and would not have considered themselves Christians.

I found out they were more theistic and many of these "deists" -- notably Thomas Jefferson -- thought of themselves as "Christians" in some sense. But also that many rejected (either explicitly or implicitly with their silence) orthodox Trinitarian minimums that CS Lewis would say make up "mere Christianity." Therefore, they weren't "Christians."

I used that as the normative definition of "Christianity" while not being much of a believer myself because it helped refute the "Christian America" thesis.

I began to rethink whether I, as a non-believer, should be personally terming someone not a Christian when they called themselves one, after a number of dialogs with interlocutors. One of them was Eric Alan Isaacson a prominent attorney and Unitarian-Universalist. He wrote to me:

Hi Jonathan,

I’m troubled by those who insist that only people who believe in one way can be “true Christians.” If Mormons consider themselves followers of Jesus, that’s good enough for me to regard them as Christians. If Trinitarian Evangelicals regard themselves as followers of Jesus, I’ll consider them Christians too — even though, so far as I can tell, Jesus never claimed to be God.

If someone like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley honored Jesus and endeavored to follow his teachings, they should not be denied the name “Christian” merely because others who claim that name have embraced any number of extra-biblical doctrines.

I’ve heard Catholics occasionally say that theirs is the only “true church,” suggesting perhaps that Protestants are not truly Christians. I’ve heard Protestant preachers denounce the Pope as the Anti-Christ, insisting that Catholics can’t be true Christians because they follow the Pope rather than Christ.

I must confess, such attitudes offend my sensibilities.

And yet, I find you, an open-minded and liberal chap, adopting the same stance, and suggesting that Unitarians and Mormons can’t be Christians.

I am reminded, quite frankly, of how New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 1868 the Dover, New Hampshire, First Unitarian Society of Christians’ chosen minister — the Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbot — was insufficiently “Christian” to serve the Congregation that had called him. Justice Jonathan Everett Sargent’s opinion for the court quoted passages from Abbot’s sermons, to show that the minister was too open-minded to serve his congregation.

The Rev. Abbot, after all, had once preached:

“Whoever has been so fired in his own spirit by the overwhelming thought of the Divine Being as to kindle the flames in the hearts of his fellow men, whether Confucius, or Zoroaster, or Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed, has proved himself to be a prophet of the living God; and thus every great historic religion dates from a genuine inspiration by the Eternal Spirit.”

In another sermon, Rev. Abbot even declared:

“America is every whit as sacred as Judea. God is as near to you and to me, as ever he was to Moses, to Jesus, or to Paul. Wherever a human soul is born into the love of truth and high virtue, there is the ‘Holy Land.’ Wherever a human soul has uttered its sincere and brave faith in the Divine, and thus bequeathed to us the legacy of inspired words, there is the ‘Holy Bible.’”

“If Protestantism would include Mr. Abbot in this case,” Justice Sargent opined for New Hampshire’s highest court, “it would of course include Thomas Jefferson, and by the same rule also Thomas Paine, whom Gov. Plumer of New Hampshire called ‘that outrageous blasphemer,’ that ‘infamous blasphemer,’ ‘that miscreant Paine,’ whose ‘Age of Reason’ Plumer had read ‘with unqualified disapprobation of its tone and temper, its course vulgarity, and its unfair appeals to the passions and prejudices of his readers.’”

Hale v. Everett, 53 N.H. 9, 16 Am. Rep. 82, 1868 N.H. LEXIS 47 (1868). See Charles B. Kinney, Jr., Church & State: The Struggle for Separation in New Hampshire, 1630-1900 113 (New York: Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1955) (“One of the more celebrated cases in New Hampshire jurisprudence is that of Hale versus Everett.”); Carl H. Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 1385, 1534 n.541 (“As late as 1868, the state supreme court decided that a Unitarian minister would not be allowed to use the town meeting house because of his heterodoxy, and in spite of being called and settled by a majority of the community.”).

You might suppose that being run out of the pulpit would sour the Rev. Abbot in his attitudes toward those who thought themselves more orthodox than he was. You would be wrong. Abbot went on to edit The Index, and on his retirement from that position in 1880 addressed those who gathered in his honor: “I know we are here Unitarians and Non-Unitarians, and I rejoice to stand with Christians, with Catholic and Protestant Christians alike, for justice and purity; and I will always do so. These things are more important than our little differences of theological opinion.” Farewell Dinner to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, on Retiring from the Editorship of “The Index” 14 (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1880) (remarks of Rev. Abbot, June 24, 1880).

It may be noted that Frederick Douglass praised Rev. Abbot for doing “much to break the fetters of religious superstition, for which he is entitled to gratitude.” Farewell Dinner, supra, at p. 48 (letter of June 15, 1880, from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. M.J. Savage).

I think it a tremendous mistake, Jonathan, for you to side with the likes of Justice Sargent, who think they are entitled to determine who can, and who cannot, be called a true “Christian.” In truth, Justice Sargent may have been somewhat more liberal in his attitudes than you are – for he and the New Hampshire Supreme Court at least accepted the notion that one can be a genuine Unitarian Christian, even as they ruled that Rev. Abbot was far too unorthodox even to preach in a Unitarian church.

Peace be with you!

Eric Alan Isaacson

So, for personal reasons, if someone calls themselves "Christian" whether they are the Pope, Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, President Obama, Bishop Spong, a Mormon or even an atheist who considers himself "Christian," they are one.

But not everyone views things that way. The Christian Nationalists certainly don't. That's why we need clarity and working definitions. We need "ifs." For instance, pay attention to historian Paul F. Boller's "if" when summarizing George Washington's faith:

[I]f to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense.

-- George Washington & Religion, p. 90.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tom Kidd on Elections, Baptists, Jefferson, and A Very Big Cheese

From a solid piece at Patheos by Thomas S. Kidd, a Baylor history prof:

But what of evangelical Tea Party candidates? They didn’t fare quite as well as some had expected.


On balance, the election of 2010 reveals Americans’ discomfort with evangelical candidates who wear their faith on their sleeve, or even worse, use evangelical lingo on the campaign trail.


This was a distinction that evangelical Christians would have readily understood at the time of America’s founding. Baptists and Methodists were just emerging as a major religious force on the American landscape in 1776, and they could not necessarily expect candidates to share their faith. In some situations, this led them to cooperate with some very unusual allies, especially the nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, a notorious skeptic that one Federalist opponent called a “howling atheist.”

Jefferson was no atheist, but he did not believe in Jesus’ divinity or resurrection, either. Nevertheless, Jefferson depended heavily on evangelical support in his political career, from the passage of his 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, to his election as president in 1800. He made common cause with evangelicals in order to disestablish America’s official state denominations, many of which had badly persecuted dissenting evangelicals like the Baptists. This was the essential cause of religious liberty in Revolutionary America. Thus, Jefferson wrote his famous “wall of separation between church and state” letter in 1802 to a group of evangelical Baptists in Connecticut.

Jefferson sent that letter on New Year’s Day of 1802, a time Jefferson chose to symbolize his steadfast alliance with his evangelical friends. On New Year’s, Jefferson publicly received a prodigious gift from Baptist evangelist John Leland, a 1200-pound block of cheese, a gift from the admiring Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts (which, like Connecticut, still had an official tax-supported church). The newspapers called it the “mammoth cheese.” Then, that Sunday, Leland preached before a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives chambers, with Jefferson in attendance. Jefferson’s presence at Leland’s sermon indicates that he never understood separation of church and state to mean outright secularism, or government hostility to religion. He and the Baptists believed in real religious liberty, yet they honored America’s religious vitality. The Baptists had found their great political champion in Jefferson, who was both a heretic and a true friend of religious freedom.

Like the man says, read the whole thing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Washington's Pagan Providence

If George Washington’s religion could be reduced to a single word, that word would be “Providence.” He seldom used the term “God” in his public pronouncements, preferring other epithets for his divinity like the Beneficent Being, the Almighty, the Grand Architect of the Universe and All-Wise Disposer of Events. But when referring to the divine, his favorite term was “Providence.” It recurs again and again, in varied disguises. Sometimes Washington’s “Providence” seem to be a guiding presence in history, at times a personal protector against harm, at other times simply a synonym for Fate or Fortune.

But where did his usage originate? Surprisingly, the word “providence” occurs only once in the King James Bible (the translation that would have been most familiar to Washington from church services), and then not in a very flattering context. It appears in Chapter 24, Verse 2 of the Book of Acts, where a prosecutor named Tertullus praises the “providence” and wise administration of a Roman-appointed governor, who is presiding over the trial of the apostle Paul. Naturally, Washington owned a copy of the Bible, although probate records list his personal volume as an edition of Brown’s Bible, an illustrated study Bible produced by the Scottish divine John Brown in 1778 which included various marginal references comparing scripture passages and offering details of geography and other lore of the Holy Land. Surely this is an unlikely source to inspire Washington’s peculiar passion for a “providential”deity.

On the other hand, probate records also show that Washington’s library included a volume of Seneca’s Morals, which opens with a full essay titled “On Providence.” There the philosopher reflects that “Fate guides us, and it was settled at the first hour of birth what length of time remains for each. Cause is linked with cause, and all public and private issues are directed.” The good man will not resist what cannot be prevented, Seneca advises, finding consolation in the observation that “together with the universe we are swept along; whatever it is that has ordained us so to live, so to die, by the same necessity it binds also the gods. One unchangeable course bears along the affairs of men and gods alike,” a force that governs not only human affairs but also the “swift revolution of the heavens, being ruled by eternal law.” This sounds very much like the later Washington, who wrote to Sally Fairfax that “There is a Destiny, which has the Sovereign control of our Action, not to be resisted through the strongest efforts of Human Nature.”

Like Washington, who was a disinherited son and outsider in English colonial society, Seneca was a Spanish colonist living under Roman rule, a patriot who was tried and found guilty of conspiring against the tyrant Nero, a role model for young George. In the face of hardship and overwhelming odds, and in keeping with his Stoic outlook, Seneca counseled patience, inner fortitude and self-possession: life lessons that would guide the American throughout his own rise to greatness.

On the face of the evidence, Washington’s “Providence” owed less to Biblical or explicitly Christian sources than to Stoic philosophy. Indeed, Washington never employed Christological terms like “Savior” or “Redeemer” as names for the divine. His Providence was a noble but primarily pagan deity.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Comparing the Faiths of Presidents Washington and Obama

I posted to my new blog here.

A taste:

I think I wrote my review in harsh terms because Lillback uses the same polemical rhetoric to attack historian Paul F. Boller (and others) when I see Lillback engaging in many of the same scholarly overreaches for which he attacks Boller. It’s kinda strange. I’ve seen Lillback speak publicly (never live) and he usually comes off as a “nice guy.” But in GWSF he comes off as mean when discussing Boller and other historians.

But what Lillback easily proves (where many modern historians go wrong) is that GW was not a “Deist” as strictly defined (one who believes in an absentee landlord God). GW was a theist, believing in a warm, active personal Providence. (I think I understand why some scholars think of GW as a strict Deist; some of his letters do seem to refer to an impersonal Providence; but others clearly don’t.) To prove this, Lillback can simply quote Washington over and over again.

Besides showing that Washington was more “religious” than scholars have argued, he also shows GW was more “religion friendly,” and many of the folks to whom GW was friendly were orthodox Trinitarian Christians. (The problem is GW seemed “friendly” to just about EVERY religion, except Tory Christianity and that which did not produce virtue.)

But Lillback fails to show, at least from the horse’s mouth, that GW was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. We can study all 20,000 pages of GW’s known recorded utterances (public addresses, private letters). If one puts the words “Jesus Christ” in its search engine we get only ONE result, in an address written by one of GW’s aides, but given under GW’s imprimatur.

My co-blogger at American Creation, Brad Hart, using Lillback’s own research lists the God words GW used in prayer. Orthodox language is conspicuously absent.

To make the case FOR GW’s “mere Christianity” Lillback makes a number of leaps, speculative and for which there are other reasons to doubt, to impute orthodox Trinitarian dogma into GW’s more generic religious talk. (Again, I detail this more in my linked to review.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Madison's wisdom on pluralism, federalism and liberty

One of the key building blocks of American liberty is the diversity and pluralism that have existed within our country since the colonial period.   It was precisely the coalescing of the various colonies into a single American nation that solidified that pluralism, as no single colony had sufficient weight to dominate the entirety of the country.  Thus New England remained separate from the South, Pennsylvania from Virginia, South Carolina from its neighbors in Georgia and North Carolina.  The fragmented cultures, demographics and economies of the various colonies, later states, prevented the country from taking on one particular characteristic.  As a consequence, there were a variety of religious, economic, political and social interests throughout America at the time of the Founding, and it was this diversity that spurred on the growth of liberty.  Since no single state, demographic group, religion or economic interest could control the whole, it was in the interest of each differing segment of the country to support freedom for all.

This point was emphasized brilliantly by James Madison in one of his most notable contributions to The Federalist, Essay # 51, dated February 6, 1788.  Written to console the fears of those who thought that the proposed Constitution would create a federal leviathan that would stamp down religious and political rights, Madison emphasized that the true defense of liberty in the United States came not from paper guarantees but on the vibrant and varied interests within the country, interests that emphasize not the centralization of power but rather auger for the pursuit of the common good through the policy of federalism.  As Madison put it so well:
In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased.  Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradually induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful. It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.
Federalism, in Madison's presentation, thus forms one -- and perhaps the principal -- guarantees of liberty in the American Republic.  And federalism in Madison's view in The Federalist #51 means a balanced government, with proper powers vested in a general government as well as proper powers retained by the states to deal with properly local issues.  Madison was no radical, particularly when he was writing The Federalist essays with fellow Founders Alexander Hamilton & John Jay.  His defense of "the federal principle," the idea of both a powerful general government and robust local governments, was then and remains today an almost perfect expression of that unique American ideal of the pluralism of interest guaranteeing liberty within the construct of a constitutional order that was itself divided between general and particular structures, between national and state governments.

Quote of the day: morality at the center of faith

"No point of Faith is so plain, as that Morality is our Duty; for all Sides agree to that.  A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian."

- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Dialogue between Two Presbyterians, April. 10, 1735, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, ed. by James H. Hutson (Princeton:  2005), pg. 147.

Heresy and Tolerance in the American Founding

Per Jonathan Rowe's post at his new groupblog, I'll spirit my reply over here to AC:

One clever reader of mine reacted with the question: Was America founded, in a political-theological sense, on a “Christian heresy?”

The proliferation of Protestant sects made a true orthodoxy impossible. For as Locke writes:

“It will be answered, undoubtedly, that it is the orthodox church which has the right of authority over the erroneous or heretical. This is, in great and specious words, to say just nothing at all. For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error. So that the controversy between these churches about the truth of their doctrines and the purity of their worship is on both sides equal; nor is there any judge, either at Constantinople or elsewhere upon earth, by whose sentence it can be determined.”

Our colleague King of Ireland commented:

I think sotierology is a red herring here.

Perhaps John Locke’s most elegant argument in the storied A Letter Concerning Toleration is that government can’t get you into heaven.

“We have already proved that the care of souls does not belong to the magistrate. Not a magisterial care, I mean (if I may so call it), which consists in prescribing by laws and compelling by punishments. But a charitable care, which consists in teaching, admonishing, and persuading, cannot be denied unto any man. The care, therefore, of every man’s soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself. But what if he neglect the care of his soul?

I answer: What if he neglect the care of his health or of his estate, which things are nearlier related to the government of the magistrate than the other? Will the magistrate provide by an express law that such a one shall not become poor or sick? Laws provide, as much as is possible, that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud and violence of others; they do not guard them from the negligence or ill-husbandry of the possessors themselves. No man can be forced to be rich or healthful whether he will or no. Nay, God Himself will not save men against their wills.”

[Unlike the Roman model, where one could become divine by vote of the Senate.]

Another commenter:

I cringe when I hear “the founding fathers” or “the founders” named as a singularity, as if they were of like or similar mind on matters of politics, law, religion, and so forth.

Still, there evolved a consensus, what Avery Dulles called The Deist Minimum, which was more than the cold deism of the God of the Philosophers, more than what the Supreme Court has called “ceremonial deism”:

“Our American republic has therefore had what, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we may call a civil religion. Rousseau enumerates the positive dogmas of such a religion as follows: 'the existence of a mighty, intelligent, beneficent divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, and [Rousseau added] the sanctity of the social contract.'”

[Just how sacrosanct that "social contract" actually is remains a question for another day.]

Mr. Rowe calls his witnesses and expert testimony:

Yet I do know experts (many of them tending to be evangelical Christians themselves) in history like John Fea at Messiah or Gregg Frazer at The Master’s College with whom I see eye to eye. Likewise what I say is confirmed by Mark Noll (of Notre Dame) who is the preeminent evangelical historian of the American Founding.

However, each of these gentlemen has his own "orthodox" bent, and in the case of Mark Noll, his reading of Locke is based on a "Straussian" view of Locke, that he is "modern" and secular.

But there was no sharp bifurcation between philosophy and theology as there is today, between the sacred and the secular: God was [with a few exceptions like Hume] considered a reality. A close reading of Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration shows it's quite theological, some common sense about the growing diversity of Protestantism and a clarification of Christian theology, and not a rejection of it for an "Enlightened" secularism.

It was in this light that men of the Founding era like the orthodox Calvinist Samuel Adams read him.

The Christian Nation Controversy

I explained it, as I see it, over at my new group blog here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


In the spirit of Brad's update I have some breaking news.

If you don't know, I started blogging in 2004 at my personal blog which now serves to archive just about everything I write (yet because it's been around so long and is so currently updated, it gets a lot of hits on its own). I still leave a comment section open over there (I probably shouldn't because I get so much spam). But I direct comments/discussion to my two group blogs.

I had a fairly widely read libertarian themed group blog named Positive Liberty which was eaten up by the technology monster (and when that happened, I was glad I kept my archive at my personal blog). So we rebooted at The One Best Way. Well, like corporations sometimes do, that blog is now merging with The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. I noted this in my introductory post here.

This is a little bit of a change in that PL and TOBW were libertarian themed and not everyone at TLOOG are libertarians. It's more of a "public affairs" blog. As such I will tend to post more current things over there that relate to religion and the American Founding and hope to establish a synergistic relationship between that blog and this one. (Read: When I post some abstruse, footnote oriented stuff here; I may just excerpt and link to it at TLOOG; at PL and TOBW where I had more of a tradition of "turf" I would just post everything I wrote here over there. I'm going to be a little more circumspect at TLOOG; but they still will get a lot.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

100 most influential Americans list is out

And I found it, courtesy of University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse's blog.  And I am happy to see that Alexander Hamilton is listed at #5.  Thomas Jefferson, disappointingly is listed at #3.  From the get go, independent America has been far more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian.  So, I would have reversed that order, with Jefferson at #5 and Hamilton and #3. 

The top two spots are, of course, Lincoln and Washington, although I have to say that I'm perplexed as to why Lincoln is rated #1 and Washington #2.  I would have reversed that order, too.  No disrespect intended to Lincoln -- even more than Hamilton he stands as one of the key implementers of the idea of a unified American nation -- but without Washington, there wouldn't be a United States of America.  We would either be a small Commonwealth country hugging the eastern seaboard or a collection of squabbling little republics united in little more than a free trade zone, menaced constantly by larger European colonial states in the western hemisphere.

Washington is not only the indispensable man when it comes to the Revolution and the creation of our Republic, he is the indispensable man when it comes to our nation's history as a whole.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

In praise of an overlooked Founder, John Dickinson

Over at Front Porch Republic, John Wilson has written a short article on why we should pay more attention to John Dickinson (1732-1808):  Our Lost Founders.  Dickinson, as Wilson points out, was an influential force prior to the Declaration of Independence, known not just in the colonies but by the England as well.  Once independence had been declared, Dickinson was active in the Continental Congress and as a result ended up writing the first draft of our nation's first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation.

Wilson notes that if Dickinson had not had the misfortune to fall ill during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he likely would have had a larger impact on our current Constitution than he had -- although as Wilson points out in an aside, he had plenty of influence as it was, both on the text of the Constitution and on its eventual ratification.  He wrote a series of letters in defense of the Constitution under the pen name Fabius. 

Dickinson was also a committed abolitionist.  Unlike many of the Founders, like Jefferson and Madison, who spoke against slavery while enjoying the benefits of owning human property, Dickinson took decisive personal steps against the institution of chattel slavery.  Not content to merely talk the talk like Jefferson and Madison, Dickinson freed his slaves long before it was fashionable to do so.  As Wilson points out, Dickinson freed his slaves because of his commitment to the principles of the American Revolution -- that the freedom sought by the Americans was incompatible with the institution of chattel slavery.  Dickinson prophetically announced that the refusal of the Framers of the Constitution to address the problem of slavery head-on would cause nothing but trouble for the Republic.  Because the slavery issue was not settled on the side of human freedom, as Wilson summarizes Dickinson's position, the Republic was inevitably going to "have to face the consequences of our lack of courage." 

Aside from his historical importance and principled opposition to slavery, Dickinson also stands as a model of a prudent statesman -- a model well in need of revival in our own times.  As Wilson writes:
Dickinson’s first draft of the Articles included provisions for an impost, which would have given the government an income, and subtle powers for the executive functions of the legislature that together would have made the convention of 1787 unnecessary.  He signed off on the Constitution because he was convinced that a combination of the equality of the states (the Senate was his contribution to that frightful summer) and the “power of the people” would restrain what Hamilton and others hoped would become an English-style government.  He also uttered the wisest and most prudent statement of the entire constitutional debate.  On August 13, 1787, he said, “Experience must be our only guide.  Reason may mislead us.”

John Dickinson lived long enough to know how right he had been.  We need to learn which of our fathers to honor.  Dickinson stands for the right combination of limited government, local loyalties, principled freedom, and the rule of law that republican government requires to survive.  We write biographies of nationalists, and pay too little attention to the men who gave us our liberty.
That quote by Dickinson is one of my favorites short quotes by any of the Founders.  It is a testament to his prudent and small-c conservative approach to politics and constitutional order.  A salutary example for our modern age!

Quote of the day: on the danger of democracy

"A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption and carry desolation in their way."

- Fisher Ames (1758-1808), Founding Father, Congressman and Federalist Party leader.

Interview with Ron Chernow

Ron Chernow, biographer of such founding period noteworthies as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, was recently interviewed by Charlie Rose about his new book on Washington.  The video of the interview may be found here.  Very well worth watching.  And Chernow's book is even better!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Witherspoon at Tusculum

Historical Society of Princeton sponsored a house tour on November 6 that included the country home of John Witherspoon. It remains a private home and has been enlarged by the addition of several wings. Some of the original rooms are only slightly modified. In the picture, to the right of the front door, was Rev. Witherspoon’s library-study, which I estimate to be about 13ft square (similar to mine!)

The guide explained that Rev. Witherspoon called his home Tusculum after Cicero’s country estate. Overall our guide gave an excellent talk on the Witherspoon’s life and country home. When I asked, he gave further details on Witherspoon’s relationship to James Madison. By the way, he noted that the right reverend would have pronounced his name Weatherspoon. Kudos to the Historical Society for providing access to this site and knowledge guides.

Were Most Early American City Dwellers Corrupt and Depraved?

"Many, and probably most, inhabitants of early American cities were corrupt and depraved, and the Founding Fathers knew it." So writes Thaddeus Russell, in his controversial new book A Renegade History of the United States. I recently was sent a copy of Russell's book for review, and am in the process of working my way through it. One of the things that struck me about Russell's research is that it puts many of the Founders' quotes concerning the need for religion and morality in context.

Russell received his PhD in history from Columbia University and now teaches history and American studies at Occidental College. In the spirit of Howard Zinn and Ray Raphael, Russell contends that it was the people on the fringes of society, not the landmark figures remembered in statues, who made America "the land of the free." Russell, however, puts an interesting twist on the "power to the people" ideology found in the Howard Zinn school of thought. Russell focuses not simply on the poor and downtrodden, but on those whose lifestyles were considered sinful or "wretched" by the elites and even by mainstream Americans of their day. Describing colonial America, Russell writes:
"During the War of Independence a culture of pleasure and freedom blossomed in American cities. Non-marital sex, including adultery and relations between whites and blacks, was ubiquitous and rarely punished. Because divorce was unregulated, it was easily and frequently obtained, often by women. Brothels were legal and abundant and prostitutes were rarely prosecuted. Black slaves, Irish indentured servants, Native Americans, and free whites of all classes commingled extensively in saloons and in the streets. Pirates who settled in the port cities brought with them a way of life that embraced both general revelry and homosexuality. On nearly every block in every 18th-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling. Rarely have Americans had more fun. And never have America's leaders been less pleased by it."

Russell amusingly quotes John Adams, who (not in an amusing mindset) wrote to a friend: "Indeed, there is one enemy, who is more formidable than famine, pestilence and the sword. I mean the corruption which is prevalent in so many American hearts, a depravity that is more inconsistent with our republican governments than light is with darkness."

The state of affairs described by Russell sheds light on Adams's quote, often paraded by those on the conservative side in today's culture wars, in which the second President said:
"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

It also sets in context George Washington's seemingly haughty criticisms of "dirty" New Englanders. To twenty-first century readers, Washington comes off as rather elitist at times (and, at times, he was), but Russell's description of city-dwelling New Englanders certainly explains why the cultured, conscientiously moral Washington would be uncomfortable in the presence of at least some of the men who flocked to the Continental Army in 1775 and 1776.

I'm not prepared to give a full, comprehensive review of Russell's book yet, as I'm still wading my through its 400 pages. But it's definitely interesting - dare I say provocative. I think Russell certainly goes too far with some of his points (something that's to be expected by anyone writing from the Howard Zinn perspective). Indeed, some of Russell's claims could be characterized as preposterous. But the book is interesting nevertheless, and some of his research can't be contested.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

American Revolution Blog

So I need to apologize in advance for using this post to promote something other than the Agenda here at American Creation. I hope you will forgive the interruption.

Almost four years ago I was a new graduate student who decided to get involved in blogging. And being that the history of the American Revolution has always been my favorite topic (along with Medieval history) I decided to make a blog dedicated to that era of history. The blog was simple. At first we rarely had deep scholarly discussions, as many of us were green behind the ears and still learning our way. Yet despite those early "infant" years/posts the blog grew to become something special. Perhaps some of our long-time readers still remember this blog.

The American Revolution Blog, which served as a "catch-all" of sorts as we waded our way through the thick waves of history, served to bring several of us in to contact with one another. It was the American Revolution Blog that introduced me to Brian Tubbs, who is one of the finest bloggers I have ever met. In addition, it was the American Revolution Blog that put us in contact with other exceptional bloggers like Jon Rowe, who in turn introduced us to Tom Van Dyke and many of the other contributors/readers of this blog. In essence, the American Revolution Blog has been the grandfather of this blog.

Anyway, due to the success of American Creation we have unfortunately neglected the American Revolution Blog, which went two years with only a handful of posts. But for whatever reason, the blog has maintained a strong readership and was still getting over 100 hits a day. It is for these reasons (along with a sense of nostalgia for my blog roots) that I am happy to announce the RESURRECTION of the American Revolution Blog. Both Brian Tubbs (who also blogs here) and I are dedicated to seeing the American Revolution Blog's resurgence on the web and hope that it will continue to provide educational and enjoyable insight to both the historical expert and the novice. We plan on not only keeping things simple but also making the blog a "catch-all" for all things early American.

With that said, Brian and I are still committed to this blog as well. This shouldn't be seen as a resignation from AC but instead as a renewal of our old blogging roots. AC has been, and will remain, one of the top blogs for the RELIGIOUS history of America's founding. We simply want to expand our personal historical quests, which is what the American Revolution Blog will hopefully provide.

So, it is with great pride that we announce to one and all the RESURRECTION of the American Revolution Blog. We invite the readers of this blog, along with all fans of early American history (expert and novice) to come check us out. We've even given the blog a face lift that we hope you will enjoy! Thank you for your time and we look forward to seeing you all here (and there) in the future!

I Get Hate Mail-Hate Comments

Not very often. In fact, almost never. (Scrupulously avoiding the ad hominem goes a long way here.)

So when I see one, I pay attention. From the following post entitled, Three Misuses of the American Founding & Religion For Political Purposes, commenter Kari writes:

Some of you who doubt the christianity of our forefathers should actually read some historical documents with quotes by them, nearly all of them not only believed in but worshipped Jehovah God and were Christians who definetely [sic] believed in Jesus Christ! I am so tired of everyone trying to change history and say that our forefathers really weren't Christians. IT IS IN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS...READ IT!!! Stop living in denial and read for yourself. Why do you think there were so many references to God and the 10 commandments made by these men. Did Christians falsify things to our advantage? I think not. Our nation used to be a Christian nation, that was the only way that a small group of colonists was able to win their independence from England who was a SUPERPOWER!! These men prayed daily for God to be with them during this endeavor and he was because they worshipped him and believed in his word...our whole nation did.

It is a shame that as Americans our true history is being removed from history books and warped and twisted by heathens who do not believe in God or His divine words. It should be a requirement that all judges(especially supreme court), lawyers and politicians read all of our historical documents that set precendence [sic] in the forming of the laws of our once great country and be forced to follow them.

People like you sicken me for you are warping history to suit yourself!

Well I think this is directed towards me, so I will answer.

1) Kari never touched one point I made; I would appreciate if she told me where in my post I specifically went wrong.

2) If you are "sickened" by what I write, I cannot apologize because because I have done nothing wrong. I have only recited facts and logic (and admittedly my understanding thereof which may be subject to debate). Perhaps the facts of history, not the myths that you were taught by Christian Nationalist history revisionists "sicken" you.

3) Jehovah God, Christians, Jesus Christ, Historical Documents and Ten Commandments.

a) From my meticulous study of the primary sources, I admit a strong majority believed in "Providence" and, as part of "Christendom" thought of themselves as "Christians" in some sense.

b) However -- and she can correct me if I am wrong -- that's not enough to be a "Christian" and believer in "Jehovah" as the "Christian Nationalists" articulate the concept.

c) Alternatively, some friends of mine, very generous in their ecumenicism, argue any kind of connection to belief in an active Providence equals Jehovah worship. For scriptural support, think of Acts 17, where St. Paul encountered seemingly pagan monotheistic Greeks who worshipped the God of the Bible without consciously knowing they did.

The key American Founders (Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, specifically) believed UNCONVERTED Native Americans who worshipped the monotheistic "Great Spirit" believed in the same God Jews and Christians did. I guess Jehovah and the unconverted Natives' "Great Spirit" God are one and the same. Likewise Allah is Jehovah, even if the Muslims, like those Native Americans, get some of the details wrong.

But it's that line of thought -- that Jews, Christians, theological unitarians (Trinity deniers), Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims -- all worship the same God, the true God (Jehovah). I know Mormons and JWs didn't exist during the American Founding. Though the Swedenborgs, who did, make for a good substitute.

I don't see "Kari" as arguing from this corner; correct me if I am wrong.

d) Re the historical documents: You may be able to find some more general God words in the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Federalist Papers. But you don't see "Jehovah" or "Jesus Christ" in them. The US Constitution does use the conventional "In the Year of Our Lord" (i.e., AD on our currency) for dating purposing. Trying to make "God" out of that shows how nominally the US Constitution invokes God. (In other words, if the US Constitution is not "Godless," it is "Godly" in the most nominal sense only.)

e) The Ten Commandments: What are you talking about? Where did George Washington specifically invoke the Ten Commandments? John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both DOUBTED that we had the correct version of the Ten Commandments? What about James Madison? A supposed quotation of his on the Ten Commandments circulated (in large part to the efforts of David Barton who is still trying to live this down) only later to have been debunked.

I think Kari's note is important because it illustrates how corrupt the rot is among the home schooled "Christian Americanists." David Barton et al. may not be so stupid to themselves make such grievous errors. But they give winks and nods to the kind of errors this commenter makes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Please Vote For Us (Or We'll Robocall Your Home to Death)

It's that time of year again, everyone. The History News Network's Cliopatria blogroll is now accepting nominations for the following categories:

Best Group Blog
Best Individual Blog
Best New Blog
Best Post
Best Series of Posts
Best Writer

Needless to say, we'd love to have your support. American Creation has been nominated for Cliopatria awards in the past but we have yet to win one. The category we are hoping to contend for is BEST GROUP BLOG. You can nominate us in that category by clicking here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Election of 1800: A Model of Crazy, Dirty Campaigning

Today is election day! As we are all aware, every two years in this grand nation of ours citizens invoke their right to elect the candidates to office whom they feel best represent their views, hopes and goals for the future. It is a time-honored practice that we as a nation have enjoyed (to differing degrees of course) for more than two centuries.

And as is the case with these election cycles, negative ads have become a staple item on the menu of American political dialogue. Virtually every candidate for almost every office up for grabs in today's election has engaged in some form of "mud-slinging" towards his/her opponent. Whether it takes the form of automated phone calls, mailed letters, television commercials or radio sound bites, this election has, for the most part, been like those of recent history: a dog fight.

With that said, we still see candidates who either deny their personal participation in negative campaign tactics or who claim to soar above such trivial and hostile banter. They claim to be invoking the extinct heritage of long ago, when Americans could somehow set aside their partisan views and focus exclusively on the issues at hand. Oftentimes we see these same individuals calling upon the legacy of America's founding fathers as "evidence" of their innocence. These candidates state they (and their cause) are on the side of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, whose purity and grace transcended political division, giving rise to an era of cooperation and contentment that our generation's political circus is incapable (or unwilling) to rekindle.

And though I am not a fan of today's 24/7 political media blitz and the constant bombardment of campaign ilk every election cycle, I think there is a grave misunderstanding as to the nature and history of American politics. We seem to be under the delusion that this "dog-eat-dog" street brawl style of campaigning is something new. It's not...and not even our blessed, holy, infallible founders were exempt from it.

210 years ago, at the turn of the century, two of the biggest players in the American Revolution exchanged blows over some of the same issues that still occupy us to this day. John Adams, the incumbent who had taken the Federalist reigns from the great George Washington, squared off with his on-again, off-again, on-again Virginia friend, Thomas Jefferson. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, this contest was incredibly fierce and oftentimes took a very negative tone. For example, when the Adams camp learned of Jefferson's desire to thwart the Federalists they accused Jefferson of plotting to destroy the very fabric of society by eliminating god from American life. As one broadside stated:

The attacks didn't stop with mere broadsides. Having discovered some of Jefferson's personal religious declarations that could prove problematic to his campaign, the Adams camp went on the offensive. In his infamous letter to the Reverend William Linn in 1800, Jefferson stated, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Along with this declaration, Jefferson went on to state the following about Christianity:
Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.
Needless to say, such comments proved to be extremely distasteful to the American populace, who actually believed that a Jefferson election might actually lead to:
Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest [being] openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.


Female chastity violated [with] children writing on a pike.
Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind and a threat to our way of life." (Gee, you NEVER hear that kind of stuff about our current leaders!).

To capitalize on these comments, the Adams campaign took swift action. Acting as if they had been handed a gift from the divine, Adams' men pounced Jefferson in the public arena, accusing him of being "an enemy to his country and his God." Steven Waldman, author of the book Founding Faith sites a poem that was used against Jefferson throughout the campaign:
I am the first of men in the ways of evil,
The truest, thriftiest servent of the Devil;
Born, educated, glory to engross
And shine confess'd the Devil's Man of Ross.
Here's three to one I beat even him in pride;
Two whores already in my chariot ride.
(Founding Faith, 170).
But the fight was far from one-sided. To counter the Adams onslaught Jefferson decided to take off the gloves. On one public occasion, Jefferson called Adams, "a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man or the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." (David McCullough, John Adams, Pp. 500). But Jefferson didn't stop there. Taking advantage of President Adams' foolish Alien & Sedition Acts (a law that essentially tried to make it illegal for people to speak or publish anything negative about the president) Jefferson created the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, in which Jefferson claimed that:
The several States composing the US. Of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government…and one of the Amendments to the constitution having also declared, that the powers not delegated to the US. by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people, therefore the act of Congress…are altogether void and of no force.
As election day drew closer, President Adams found himself in a political mess that virtually consumed him. The Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson's clan) had effectively used the Alien & Sedition Acts to brand the President as a tyrant by calling them, "the most abominable and degrading Executive act that could fall from the lips of the first magistrate of an independent people." In an effort to demonstrate just how "tyrannical" the Adams Administration had become, Jefferson called on renowned pamphleteer James Callender, a long-time enemy to the Federalists who had attacked the likes of Alexander Hamilton by exposing his affair with Maria Reynolds to the public. This time, Callender was to turn his sights on the president himself. In his popular pamphlet, The Prospect Before Us, Callender pulled out all the punches by boldly proclaiming that John Adams had become a miniature version of King George III:
The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions. Indeed, the president has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties to culminate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.
The Federalist response to Callender's "treason" was swift. Callender was quickly jailed in Richmond and sentenced by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase to five years in prison. In consequence, Callender quickly became a poster boy of sorts for the Jefferson campaign. Callender's imprisonment illustrated to the common man just how far Adams had gone. In essence, Callender became Jefferson's 19th century version of "Joe the Plumber."

In the end, the Alien & Sedition Acts helped to solidify the popular message of the Democratic-republicans, which in turn led to the election of their beloved Thomas Jefferson(even if he was an evil, godless man whose reign would surely lead to rape, murder, etc.). The popularity of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, combined with the "mud-slinging" efforts of James Callender and Jefferson himself, helped to ensure the demise of the Adams Administration. But the election was close...VERY close. See for yourself:

In the aftermath, Federalist supporters were devastated. Alexander Hamilton (one of Jefferson's biggest rivals) made the claim that a Jefferson presidency would surely usher in an era of violence unprecedented in American history, in which the guillotine of France would replace the civility of American republicanism (Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 429). Former First Lady Abigail Adams wrote to her husband stating, "'What an inconsistency,' said a lady to me today, 'the bells of Christ's Church ringing peals of rejoicing for an infidel president!'"

But somehow America survived. After all, here we are 210 years later. And while many things have changed over those two centuries, other things have stood the test of time...namely our tradition of crazy, over-hyped political partisanship. Yes, some may feel that an Obama presidency is a surefire catalyst for fascist, socialist, Marxist, Stalinist, Nazi, communist totalitarianism, while a Tea Party regime is sure to bring about racist, homophobic, idiotic, psychotic, leadership. But in the end all of this rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. Is there really any difference between the crap we hear today and the crap our beloved founders threw at one another? Not really. The only difference is that we're inundated with more of it today (thanks Fox News and MSNBC).

So the next time you drink the Chicken Little Kool-Aid and freak out over the possibility of the sky falling because the "other team" has won political power, remember that we've been down this propaganda road many times. If we can survive the "HORRIFIC" tyranny of John Adams and the "DISASTROUS" atheism of Thomas Jefferson, I'm pretty sure we'll be ok in the here and now. In conclusion, check out the following videos. They do a wonderful job of capturing some of the fear that surrounded the election of 1800:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Do the Founders Agree On Natural Rights?

What do the Founding Fathers say about natural rights?

"I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe."
From John Adams, A dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765

"Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature."
From Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists, 1772

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

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

'The principal aim of society is to protect individuals, in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature; …' Blackstone. …

I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui."

From Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, 1775

"That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
From George Mason, The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
From Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Are all the founding fathers on the same page? It is clear that they reject the thesis that rights are a human convention. And it’s clear that they attribute rights to a supreme being. But do they agree how and when? The dominant thesis is that rights were created when man was created—as an inherent unalienable part of his being. If this is so, conventions, covenants, and commandments, created after man came into being are not and can not be a source of natural rights—even God’s covenants. Hugo Grotius, to take Hamilton’s recommendation, explains this as follows:

“Natural right is the deictate of right reason, shewing the moral turpitude, or moral necessity, of any act from its agreement or disagreement with a rational nature, and consequently that such an act is either forbidden or commanded by God, the author of nature. The actions, upon which such a dictate is given, are either binding or unlawful in themselves, and therefore necessarily understood to be commanded or forbidden by God. This mark distinguishes natural right, not only from human law, but from the law, which God himself has been pleased to reveal, called, by some, the voluntary divine right, which does not command or forbid things in themselves either binding or unlawful, but makes them unlawful by its prohibition, and binding by its command."

There is God, the author of nature, and God who issues subsequent commands.

"Now the Law of Nature is so unalterable, that it cannot be changed even by God himself. For although the power of God is infinite, yet there are some things, to which it does not extend. Because the things so expressed would have no true meaning, but imply a contradiction. Thus two and two must make four, nor is it possible to be otherwise."

In other words, once man was created, his nature, including his rights, are a metaphysical fact as certain as the law of identity. But what about the covenants in the Bible?

"The very meaning of the words divine voluntary right, shows that it springs from the divine will, by which it is distinguished from natural law, which, it has already been observed, is called divine also. … Now this law was given either to mankind in general, or to one particular people. We find three periods, at which it was given by God to the human race, the first of which was immediately after the creation of man, the second upon the restoration of mankind after the flood, and the third upon that more glorious restoration through Jesus Christ. These three laws undoubtedly bind all men, as soon, as they come to a sufficient knowledge of them."

I'm not raising an epistemological issue—how do we know about rights? It's the metaphysical issue that concerns me. Where in reality are rights? According to Grotius and most of the founders, it is in human nature from the very moment man was created. It is a very part of his being and unalienable. If this is true, neither man's covenants nor God's can change this fact. Did the Founding Fathers all agree?