Friday, September 30, 2011

One Reason Why Scholars Think Washington Was a Deist

I think what I write next needs to be stressed in the study of George Washington's personal religious beliefs.

After reading virtually everything George Washington said and wrote on religion, I conclude GW believed in an active personal Providence.

However, Washington was also imbibed in Greco-Romanism, particularly Stoicism. I'm still trying to get a handle on what the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers -- the ones who didn't believe in mythology (Zeus, Hercules, etc.) -- believed religiously. As far as I can tell, they believed in some kind of impersonal deistic-Providence.

Again, Washington (of all the Founders, especially) drank deeply from that well. So we see quotations where GW refers to Providence in an impersonal sense, calling Providence "It" and "She" at times, sounding like a deist. (You'll have to trust me he did this; I'll provide the quotations elsewhere if requested.) I think he was being sincere when talking about Providence this way. He was just sounding like the neo-Stoic he was.

However, elsewhere (over and over again) he refers to Providence as an active personal God, and seemed to believe in a warm universal theism.

If one focused only on those letters where GW invoked the neo-Stoic impersonal Providence I understand why one would (inaptly in my opinion) conclude him a "deist." (You still have to put his impersonal Providence talk together with his warm theism talk.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gen. Charles Lee's Oath

Over at his excellent blog Boston 1775, J.L. Bell has a post highlighting General Charles Lee's loyalty oath, which he created to essentially divide those loyal to the American cause from those who were not:

I ——— here, in the presence of Almighty God, as I hope for ease, honour, and comfort in this world, and happiness in the world to come, most earnestly, devoutly and religiously swear that I will neither directly or indirectly assist the wicked instruments of ministerial tyranny and villany commonly called the King’s troops and navy, by furnishing them with provisions and refreshments of any kind, unless authorized by the Continental Congress or Legislature at present established in this particular Colony of Rhode Island.

I do also swear, by the Tremendous and Almighty God, that I will neither directly or indirectly convey any intelligence, nor give any advice to the aforesaid enemies described; and that I pledge myself, if I should by any accident get knowledge of such treasons, to inform immediately the Committee of Safety; and as it is justly allowed that when the rights and sacred liberties of a nation or community are invaded, neutrality is not less base and criminal than open and avowed hostility:

I do further swear and pledge myself, as I hope for eternal salvation, that I will, whenever called upon by tho voice of the Continental Congress, or by that of the Legislature of this particular Colony under their authority, take arms and subject myself to military discipline in defence of the common rights and liberties of America. So help me God.
I've never really been all that interested in oaths. To me they are mere weapons of mass distraction that don't really amout to a whole lot either way. But I know that they have been a topic of great interest here at American Creation (especially for our resident oath guru, Ray Soller), so I thought Mr. Bell's article deserved some attention here. Here is what he had to say about Charles Lee's oath:

Of course, the problem with a coerced loyalty oath is that you don’t need to administer it to people who are already loyal while administering it to people who are enemies or neutrals simply makes them feel coerced and more likely to abjure the oath once they get free of the coercion.

And then there’s the question of whether any New Englanders respected a lecture from Lee about what they should “devoutly and religiously swear.” He was admired for many qualities this early in the war, but great piety was not among them.

Less than twelve months after Lee visited Rhode Island, the British military took over the island that includes Newport. That royal authorities held that territory against American assaults until 1779.

State of Nature?

The phrase “state of nature” is common to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. They differ in their view of man in such a state. In Locke’s case, the phrase shouldn’t be seen as synonymous with the primate state as it is with Hobbes and Rousseau. For Locke, it has more to do with what I call “the situation.” Two individuals (or groups of people) that have no governing institution in common are in a state of nature. Canada and the United States are currently in a “state of nature” since there is no common government that jointly rules over both regions. The Founding Fathers used the phrase in this sense when they referred to independence as creating a “state of nature” between Britain and America.

The “state of nature” can be peaceful, as it has been between Canada and the United States for centuries. It can also be a rights-respecting regime as our rights are just as secure in both countries. While Locke holds that rights are valid by our nature, he clearly has no illusions that they are secured in a primitive state. He sees the creation of a government as important to protecting natural rights. Jefferson will echo his thoughts when he writes “to secure these rights governments is instituted among men.”

Rousseau sees the primitive state as idyllic and civilization as corrupting. Hobbes sees the primitive state as inherently brutal requiring men to enter civilization by giving their government a blank-check. Locke sees no need to surrender one's fundamental rights in order to benefit from civilization. One surrenders the enforcement function to the government.

Locke's view of man and morality shows many influences. There is a passage in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding that I find interesting and perhaps revealing:

That men should keep their compacts is certainly a great and undeniable rule in morality. But yet, if a Christian, who has the view of happiness and misery in another life, be asked why a man must keep his word, he will give this as a reason:- Because God, who has the power of eternal life and death, requires it of us. But if a Hobbist be asked why? he will answer:- Because the public requires it, and the Leviathan will punish you if you do not. And if one of the old philosophers had been asked, he would have answered:- Because it was dishonest, below the dignity of a man, and opposite to virtue, the highest perfection of human nature, to do otherwise.

Which view is Locke’s? Further reading of the Essay confirms it is clearly the Christian view as he sees the rewards in the next life as important to the hedonic calculus that makes men moral. Which view inspired the Founding Fathers?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Forster and Gregg on Locke

I try to stay up on when Locke experts debate what he was really getting at. Here, at The Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg argues Locke breaks with the classical-Christian understanding of the natural law.

A taste:

Locke himself supported King James II’s overthrow in the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the subsequent passing of the Bill of Rights in 1689. There were many reasons for James II’s removal from the throne, but we should not pretend that his eviction was based on some type of contract violation. It proceeded from the refusal by significant segments of Britain’s political elites to accept his political authority any longer.

Which brings me to another point that I think demonstrates the problems of social contract theory: political authority in itself does not require a contract or some form of transmission process for its legitimacy.

Contra Locke, the rational foundation for civil government is not, in fact, consent. As Aquinas wrote, “it is natural for man, more than any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group” [emphasis added].


Another reason for the prevalence of social contract theories is that they often allow us to rationalize philosophically and legally the emergence of new sets of political arrangements. A number of authors, for example, have speculated that Locke’s social compact arguments, with their particular emphasis on consent, flow from his desire to legitimize the particular political order instituted in Britain by and after the Glorious Revolution.

One weakness of such interpretations is that Locke appears to have worked out the basic principles of his political theory some years before 1688. Hence Locke’s treatises deserve to be treated, as Copleston writes, as more than just another Whig pamphlet. Nevertheless, it’s not clear that Locke’s political theory—either before or after 1688—can be entirely separated from his opposition to the Stuart dynasty, his disputation of the divine right of kings (which obviously opposes any notion of consent from the governed), and his personal beliefs as a longtime Whig.

Of course, nobody can completely escape the influence of context when developing his or her ideas, but this does not mean Locke could not have formulated a more robust account of political order to explain why James II needed to be removed from power. Pre-existing classical natural law arguments about the legitimacy of removing rulers who become tyrants would have been perfectly adequate.


... In Locke’s view, we do not obey our rulers because a concern for human flourishing, justice, and the common good tells us that it is reasonable to do so. Instead, we obey because our rulers have a superior will. “Law’s formal definition,” Locke wrote, “is the declaration of a superior will.” How different this is from Aquinas’s understanding of law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community.”

In the end, this difference may well reflect varying conceptions of God. The notion of divine wisdom (logos) is integral to the classical natural law understanding of why the commands of God create concrete responsibilities in conscience for human beings.

By contrast, Locke joins some of his contemporaries, such as Grotius and Pufendorf, in explaining this obligation in terms of a God who exercises raw, perhaps even willful, power. “For who will deny,” Locke writes, “that clay is subject to the potter’s will and that the pot can be destroyed by the same hand that shaped it.”

Here is Greg Forster's response defending Locke's authenticity in the classical-Christian tradition.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book-oath Shows Up at a Boston Court

An "Insult to Catholics" - Circa 1875

The following piece is taken from an article, The Bible in American History, American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. 3 - January 1878 - No.9:

In courts of justice a Protestant Bible is almost always used for putting the oath to witnesses. To make the insult to Catholics the greater a black cross is generally made on one side, and this side tendered to any one known or suspected to be a Catholic. In many States any one can at his option swear with the uplifted hand in the presence of the ever-living God, and this Catholics should generally adopt. Sometimes, however, the bench will be filled by one, as overbearing as ignorant, who will insist on a Catholic's swearing on the parody [i.e. a Protestant Bible society translation] lying
on the desk. Such a case occurred a few years ago, in Boston, where a Catholic witness was committed for contempt of court by a judge who probably was ignorant of the fact that the early New England settlers carefully avoided swearing on the Bible as a superstition and swore "by the great and dreadful name of the ever-living God," kissing and touching no book, not even their prized Geneva Bible.

The Catholic stood exactly on the practice of the early Puritans, and the judge who condemned him committed himself more completely than he did the American citizen whose rights he invaded.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Founding Fathers and the Death Penalty

Yesterday, the State of Georgia executed convicted murderer, Troy Davis after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his request for a stay on his execution. And though I don't know all the specifics of his case, I know that it was supposedly somewhat controversial.

Now, whether Mr. Davis is guilty of the murder or not is not the purpose of this post, nor is it my intention to debate the death penalty here today. But yesterday's execution did make me wonder what (if anything) our Founding Fathers thought of capital punishment. Of course, we all recognize that 18th century America (and the world at large) was far different in terms of how punishment for criminals was carried out. Everything from whippings, beatings, beheadings, being placed in the stocks, etc. were seen as standard operating procedure for much of colonial America. We also know that General George Washington and many of his fellow army commanders regularly carried out executions of soldiers for a variety of offenses that many today would be horrified to see carried out.

And then there's the good ol' 8th Amendment. Perhaps more so than any other clause in the Constitution, the 8th Amendment's protection against "cruel and unusual punishment" is more clearly affected by societal change than any other amendment in the Constitution. After all, the very nature of the phrase "cruel and unusual" appeals to evolving societal standards. What we consider to be "cruel" or "unusual" today was seen as routine and just to our forefathers.

And to be 100% certain, it is not the role of the historian to pass judgement on what a society deemed to be acceptable/unacceptable. By no means do I wish to sound as though we of the modern era are somehow too sophisticated for the "savagery" of our less-than-civil ancestors. Instead, it is our role to simply understand the meat and potatoes of why people of the past did what they did, objectively and free from prejudice.

To accomplish this, I offer three unique takes on the death penalty from three different founders. Of course, these three voices hardly sum up the sentiments of an entire continent but I do believe they help to illustrate the conflict which some colonial Americans faced with regards to the death penalty.

First up is Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to his friend Edward Pendleton, Jefferson clearly reveals his "black or white" personality. Being the passionate idealist that he was, Jefferson rarely saw or embraced the "grey area" of any argument, and his sentiments regarding the death penalty pretty much fall in line with how Jefferson saw the world.

The fantastical idea of virtue and the public good being a sufficient security to the state against the commission of crimes, which you say you have heard insisted on by some, I assure you was never mine. It is only the sanguinary hue of our penal laws which I meant to object to. Punishments I know are necessary, and I would provide them, strict and inflexible, but proportioned to the crime. Death might be inflicted for murder and perhaps for treason if you would take out of the description of treason all crimes which are not such in their nature. Rape, buggery &c. punish by castration. All other crimes by working on high roads, rivers, gallies &c. a certain time proportioned to the offence. But as this would be no punishment or change of condition to slaves (me miserum!) let them be sent to other countries. By these means we should be freed from the wickedness of the latter, and the former would be living monuments of public vengeance. Laws thus proportionate and mild should never be dispensed with. Let mercy be the character of the law-giver, but let the judge be a mere machine. The mercies of the law will be dispensed equally and impartially to every description of men; those of the judge, or of the executive power, will be the eccentric impulses of whimsical, capricious designing man. (Thomas Jefferson to Edward Pendleton, August 26, 1776).
In contrast, Jefferson's friend Benjamin Rush adopted a far more forgiving approach to the punishment of criminals. For Rush, there was ZERO justification for the taking of another's life, regardless of the severity of the crime committed. In an essay on punishing murder by death, Rush writes:

I. Every man possesses an absolute power over his own liberty and property, but not over his own life. When he becomes a member of political society, he commits the disposal of his liberty and property to his fellow citizens; but as he has no right to dispose of his life, he cannot commit the power over it to any body of men. To take away life, therefore, for any crime, is a violation of the first political compact.

II. The punishment of murder by death, is contrary to reason, and to the order and happiness of society.

III. The punishment of murder by death, is contrary to divine revelation. A religion which commands us to forgive and even to do good to our enemies, can never authorise the punishment of murder by death. "Vengeance is mine," said the Lord; "I will repay." It is to no purpose to say here, that this vengeance is taken out of the hands of an individual, and directed against the criminal by the hand of government. It is equally an usurpation of the prerogative of heaven, whether it be inflicted by a single person, or by a whole community.
***I simply referenced Rush's 3 main bullets. I recommend reading his entire essay which can be found on the link above.***
And then there's James Wilson's views on capital punishment. For Wilson, the death penalty is fine and dandy, but unlikely due to the fact that (in his mind) juries will reluctantly hand out severe punishments due to the human nature to want to forgive. As a result, Wilson recommended mild punishments for all crimes in the belief that criminals would be deterred due to the fact that juries would be more likely to convict. As he stated to a Grand Jury in 1791:

We are told by some writers, that the number of crimes is unquestionably diminished by the severity of punishments. If we inspect the greatest part of the criminal codes; their unwieldy bulk and their ensanguined hue will force us to acknowledge, that this opinion may plead, in its favour, a very high antiquity, and a very extensive reception. On accurate and unbiassed examination, however, it will appear to be an opinion unfounded and pernicious, inconsistent with the principles of our nature, and, by a necessary consequence, with those of wise and good government.

So far as any sentiment of generous sympathy is suffered, by a merciless code, to remain among the citizens, their abhorrence of crimes is, by the barbarous exhibitions of human agony, sunk in their commiseration of criminals. These barbarous exhibitions are productive of another bad effect--a latent and gradual, but a powerful, because a natural, aversion to the laws. Can laws, which are a natural and a just object of aversion, receive a cheerful obedience, or secure a regular and uniform execution? The expectation is forbidden by some of the strongest principles in the human frame. Such laws, while they excite the compassion of society for those who suffer, rouse its indignation against those who are active in the steps preparatory to their sufferings.

We may easily conjecture the result of those combined emotions, operating vigorously in concert. The criminal will, probably, be dismissed without prosecution by those whom he has injured. If prosecuted and tried, the jury will probably find, or think they find, some decent ground, on which they may be justified, or at least excused, in giving a verdict of acquittal. If convicted, the judges will, with avidity, receive and support every, the nicest exception to the proceedings against him; and, if all other things should fail, will have recourse to the last expedient within their reach for exempting him from rigorous punishment--that of recommending him to the mercy of the pardoning power. In this manner, the acerbity of punishment deadens the execution of the law.

The criminal, pardoned, repeats the crime, under the expectation that the impunity also will be repeated. The habits of vice and depravity are gradually formed within him. Those habits acquire, by exercise, continued accessions of strength and inveteracy. In the progress of his career, he is led to engage in some desperate attempt. From one desperate attempt he boldly proceeds to another, till, at last, he necessarily becomes the victim of that preposterous rigour, which repeated impunity had taught him to despise, because it had persuaded him that he might always escape.

When, on the other hand, punishments are moderate and mild, every one will, from a sense of interest and of duty, take his proper part in detecting, in exposing, in trying, and in passing sentence on crimes. The consequence will be, that criminals will seldom elude the vigilance, or baffle the energy, of publick justice.
So were the founders as divided on the issue of the death penalty as we are today? Perhaps. At least some of our founders felt uneasy or even morally motivated at the thought of capital punishment. But again, those were different times. For example, the Crimes Act of 1790 mandated execution for treason and required the mutilation of the corpse. Public flogging were a weekly occurrence and even charges of counterfeit could end in one's execution. As evidenced in the U.S. Coinage Act of 1792:

Section 19. And be it further enacted, That if any of the
gold or silver coins which shall be struck or coined at the said mint shall be
debased or made worse as to the proportion of the fine gold or fine silver
therein contained, or shall be of less weight or value than the same out to be
pursuant to the directions of this act, through the default or with the
connivance of any of the officers or persons who shall be employed at the said
mint, for the purpose of profit or gain, or otherwise with a fraudulent intent,
and if any of the said officers or persons shall embezzle any of the metals
which shall at any time be committed to their charge for the purpose of being
coined, or any of the coins which shall be struck or coined at the said mint,
every such officer or person who shall commit any or either of the said
offenses, shall be deemed guilty of felony, and shall suffer death.
Different strokes for different folks I suppose.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Throckmorton on David Barton: Did Early Presidents Sign Documents “In the Year of Our Lord Christ?”

Here. A taste:

Adams, Madison and every other President signed these forms on behalf of countless vessels sailing into foreign waters. That Presidents signed their names to form letters with language required by treaty is simply not an indicator of some special recognition of Christ. Although the Americans were not antagonistic to including this diplomatic language in their treaties, they were not breaking new religious or political ground. As I noted in the prior post, other nations, including France and Holland, used this language long before the United States did as a new nation.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jefferson & Fear of Public Speaking

From Sam Harris here. A taste:

It is widely believed that Thomas Jefferson was terrified of public speaking. John Adams once said of him, “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” During his eight years in the White House, Jefferson seems to have limited his speechmaking to two inaugural addresses, which he simply read out loud “in so low a tone that few heard it.”

I remember how relieved I was to learn this. To know that it was possible to succeed in life while avoiding the podium was very consoling—for about five minutes. The truth is that not even Jefferson could follow in his own footsteps today. It is now inconceivable that a person could become president of the United States through the power of his writing alone. To refuse to speak in public is to refuse a career in politics—and many other careers as well.

Perhaps I imagine a connection that doesn't really exist, but I observe extremely intelligent folks -- especially the "verbally articulate" -- as likelier to struggle with anxiety and depression issues. If you dig deeper in the record you'll see this applies to among others Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln.

I struggle with fear of public speaking. But what do you mean, am I not a college professor? Isn't that all I do? In my mind, no. When I lecture to my students, it isn't public speaking. And time flies by and I have great fun. But when I am being evaluated or asked to speak in front of my peers, it is public speaking and time crawls. I've had some agonizing experiences.

But I recognize this is a total irrational illusion in my mind. And something in the ideal that should be transcended. And for the most part all anger and anxiety is irrational and illusory. If you don't need to run to save your life or to physically strike at something that threatens the physical safety of you and yours, anger or anxiety as an emotional reaction to a perceived threat is fundamentally irrational.

But internalizing that Truth is easier said than done.

Why Study History?

Nescire autem quid antequam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum.

"Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.”
―--Marcus Tullius Cicero

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Warren Throckmorton on David Barton and Unitarianism

WT has been doing some great work analyzing and commenting on Barton's theories. See his latest.

He quotes Barton:

We have the same thing when you look at Quakers. You see Quakers were founded by William Penn in Pennsylvania. I’ll lay you odds there’s no chance that William Penn would be a Quaker today, even in the denomination he founded, he would not be a part of. We look at it the way it is today and say it must have been the way they were back then.

And the example of that is what happens when you look at Universalist Unitarians; certainly not a denomination that conforms to biblical truth in any way but as it turns out, we have a number of Founding Fathers who were Unitarians. So we say, oh wait, there’s no way the Founding Fathers could have been Christians; they were Unitarians. Well, unless you know what a Unitarian was in 1784 and what happened to Unitarians in 1819 and 1838 and unless you recognize they used to be a very evangelical Christian denomination, we look at what they are today and say the Founding Fathers were Unitarians, and say, there’s no way they were Christians. That’s modernism; that’s not accurate; that’s not true.

As Throckmorton notes, Penn didn't found Quakerism, George Fox did.

This is a comment I left there:

The idea that Unitarians (of the Founding era) can’t be Christians is not modernism; it’s orthodoxy.

Founding era Unitarianism (I term it “unitarianism” and leave the “u” uncapitalized because the unitarianism of the Founding era — mid to late 18th Century — usually wasn’t an official denomination, but a theology) defined itself by disbelieving in the Trinity. They identified and understood themselves to be “Christians.” It was the orthodox of that era and of today who claim, no, you must believe in the Trinity to be a “mere Christian” (as CS Lewis would term it).

I think the kernel of Truth in Barton’s claim might be the unitarians of the Founding era weren’t quite like today’s UUs. They were quite theistic, devout and very often biblical.

In this sense, they may be more like today’s Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Non-Trinitarians, but nonetheless very devout and theistic. Though the Founding era unitarians were also very rationalistic, “enlightened” and “liberal” for their day.

Though I am starting to see some consistency in Barton’s understanding of Christian minimums. If non-Trinitarians like Mormons can qualify as “Christians,” so too can many if not most of the Founding era unitarian Christians.

Friday, September 16, 2011

WWBFD: Defamation and Liberty

Our Jonathan Rowe reports that frequent AC subject David Barton is suing several people for defamation, for attempting to link him to white supremacists.

Commenter Phil Johnson asks:

How would [The Founders] have dealt with the insult on which Barton is basing his claims in this suite he is taking to court?

As usual, Ben Franklin supplies the needed wisdom:

"... I have been at a loss to imagine any that may not be construed an infringement of the sacred liberty of the press. At length, however, I think I have found one that, instead of diminishing general liberty, shall augment it; which is, by restoring to the people a species of liberty, of which they have been deprived by our laws, I mean the liberty of the cudgel.

"In the rude state of society prior to the existence of laws, if one man gave another ill language, the affronted person would return it by a box on the ear, and, if repeated, by a good drubbing; and this without offending against any law. But now the right of making such returns is denied, and they are punished as breaches of the peace; while the right of abusing seems to remain in full force, the laws made against it being rendered ineffectual by the liberty of the press.

"My proposal then is, to leave the liberty of the press untouched, to be exercised in its full extent, force, and vigor; but to permit the liberty of the cudgel to go with it pari passu. Thus, my fellow-citizens, if an impudent writer attacks your reputation, dearer to you perhaps than your life, and puts his name to the charge, you may go to him as openly and break his head. If he conceals himself behind the printer, and you can nevertheless discover who he is, you may in like manner way-lay him in the night, attack him behind, and give him a good drubbing."

Conflicting Notions of Liberty & the Right to Do Wrong

The post from David Post on Justice Thomas got me thinking more deeply about liberty rights and the American Founding. As a libertarian I tend to resolve conflicts in favor of political liberty as a default position.

The case Brown vs Entertainment Merchants Assn involved on the one hand the liberty of video game producers to market violent products even to those underaged v. the right (liberty?) of parents to raise their children with “absolute authority” and “total parental control over children’s lives”.

It's not easy to draw the line on where liberty ends and license begins. One standard I absolutely reject -- and I think the Founders rejected to -- is that we have no right to what is "wrong" in an objective sense (understanding that reasonable folks will disagree over what in fact IS wrong in an objective sense). Such a standard truly makes liberty meaningless or "hollow shells" (to use TVD's term in the comments).

The Founding Fathers believed men had an unalienable right to worship as they pleased which necessarily gives men an unalienable right to break the first half of the Ten Commandments and many other parts of the Bible (a very demanding book on moral issues).

But even extending beyond the narrow "rights of conscience" issue. Take Justice Thomas' standard on rights of parents. Absent thorny issues like when parents' near absolute authority conflicts with others' freedom of speech, I tend to agree with Thomas. Parents almost own their minor children, yet have the responsibilities to provide for them. Short of beatings which go beyond reasonable corporal punishment (I don't defend corporal punishment as good policy; but I don't think it's illegal to spank your kids) or neglect of necessaries, parents can do whatever the Hell they want with and to their kids. But that doesn't make what they do necessarily moral. It just means parents have a right to do what may be wrong. The Westboro Baptist Church or kids who are brainwashed into the KKK are two reductio ad absurdum examples. Or the humiliating emotional abuse to which many parents subject their children. I think for instance the emotional abuse that DJ AM's father subjected him to was gravely immoral and strongly contributed to his suicide. (I don't attribute causation as I believe all adults are ultimately responsible over the choices they make as adults.)

But I would see this as part of a parents' right to do wrong that comes with the almost absolute authority over their minor children of which Justice Thomas speaks. And this right to do wrong is part of a natural liberty right as America's Founders understood it. Again, the line draws at no beatings beyond reasonable corporal punishment and providing for necessaries.

We can't have government bureaucracies enforcing standards like "you can't emotionally abuse your children or we will fine you or take your kids away." But emotional abuse of your children is gravely immoral. I think any meaningful conception political liberty, ultimately, conflicts with the Nanny State of the Left and the Granny State of the Right. Maybe I'm wrong. But make no mistake giving people the right to self control and liberty over their own lives necessarily means giving them a right to do wrong and make mistakes.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

David Barton Files Lawsuit

Against critics of his. Read about it here.

Barton, it seems is fighting his enemies on both the Left and Right. He was just dropped by his Christian radio network because of his ties to Glenn Beck, specifically his defense of Beck's Mormon Christianity. Warren Throckmorton gives the details.

Finally, for Barton's side on his defense of Glenn Beck's Mormon Christianity, see his Facebook note.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

David Post on Justice Thomas' Originalism

Prof. Post was one of my favorite professors at Temple Law. At Volokh, he notes what strikes many as problems with the kind of originalism Justice Thomas articulates:

In support of this latter proposition—which, more or less, ends the constitutional inquiry for Justice Thomas—he relies, inter alia, on Wadsworth’s “The Well-Ordered Family” of 1712, Cotton Mather’s “A Family Well-Ordered” (1699), “The History of Genesis” (1708), Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” (1692), Burgh’s “Thoughts on Education” (1749), along with a number of more recent scholarly studies focused on child-rearing practices during the Founding period.

That is originalism on steroids, and, to my eye, rather poignantly illustrates the weakness of the approach. I understand, and am sympathetic to, the notion that the meaning of a constitutional provision should be informed by the meaning given to it by those who drafted and ratified it. But can that really mean that we will look to the child-rearing principles of Cotton Mather and John Locke to define, for all time, the scope of the constitutional protection for free speech? Even assuming that Justice Thomas (or anyone else) can reconstruct the sociology of the eighteenth century to definitively support the notion that parents possessed “absolute authority” over their children, and that “total parental control over children’s lives” was the governing societal norm—what then? The question in this case is not “do parents have absolute authority over their children?” The question in the case is, rather, “how does what the state did here relate to (a) the authority of parents over their children, (b) the power of the state to protect the well-being of children, and (c) the constitutional protection for ‘the freedom of speech’?” That’s a hard question in 2011, and it would have been a hard question in 1791, because it involves categorization: Is this, actually, a case about the authority of parents over their children? Or is it a case about the extent of the state’s power to protect minors? The scope of the First Amendment rights of video game manufacturers? Or the scope of the First Amendment rights of minors? ....

I'd like to see Prof. Post get more involved in the, "what kind of originalism is valid originalism" dialog among with others Randy Barnett, Akhil Amar, and Lawrence Sollum.

Witherspoon, Edwards, and Natural Law at Princeton

At the ISI blog here. The first two paragraphs:

By the end of John Witherspoon’s first year as president of Princeton University (then, the College of New Jersey) in 1769, a small group of tutors, including the late president’s son – Jonathan Edwards Jr. – had resigned their positions at the college. Their leave had been amicable in spite of their philosophical differences with the new president. Though tolerant of the tutors’ idealism, Witherspoon had arrived in the colonies promoting Scottish realism and that brand of moral philosophy advocated by Francis Hutcheson and argued against by his predecessor at Princeton, Jonathan Edwards. The philosophical shift superintended by Witherspoon would have a profound impact on the future of the institution: natural philosophy – science – would be introduced into the curriculum; an empirical, “common sense” approach would replace the theistic-centered methodology of the old regime; the college would increasingly come to be seen as a “nursery of statesmen” rather than a seminary. In the ensuing years, Witherspoon himself would become active in politics as a member of the Continental Congress and signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

Despite the progress of the college during his tenure, I will argue in what follows that there was an inherent conflict between Witherspoon’s Scottish Enlightenment philosophy on the one hand and his Calvinist Presbyterian orthodoxy on the other. Such incoherence did not characterize the thought of Jonathan Edwards. Witherspoon was an epistemological optimist: he advocated an empirical approach to the study of ethics, believing “a time may come when men, treating moral philosophy as Newton and his successors have done natural, may arrive at greater precision. It is always safer in our reasonings to trace facts upwards than to reason downwards upon metaphysical principles.” In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon teaches that “the principles of duty and obligation must be drawn from the nature of man,” though he concedes that “there is nothing certain or valuable in moral philosophy, but what is perfectly coincident with scripture” (Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon 1802: 3.470, 380, 471).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The colonials were better readers than modern Americans

That's the topic of this post over at Freakonomics: Were Colonial Americans More Literate than Americans Today? The answer is yes, perhaps not quantatively, but qualitatively. The people who could read were far better readers than we are, as the post notes. I attribute this to the more rigorous standards of basic education (the study of Latin and Greek tend to enable people to follow complex synatax more effectively in English, plus the study of those languages boosts English vocabulary when it comes to complex words which are often derrived from Latin and Greek roots). The near uniform exposure of colonials to that jewel of the English language, the King James translation of the Bible, didn't hurt either. 

Apiarianism: The Useful Function That Enlightenment Served For the American Founding & Religion

Time once again to revisit "The Synthesis" of ideologies that was the American Founding. The vast majority of expert scholars of whatever ideological background agree with Harvard's Bernard Bailyn that the American Founding synthesized Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian (biblical), Common Law, Whig, and Enlightenment. There is debate as to whether these disparate strands are compatible with one another. But in the minds of the American Founders, they were. To the extent that they may not have been, the Founders, using their reason, made them "fit" even if they had to "revise" to achieve those results.

This quotation of Jefferson on Christianity comes to mind:

"Were I to be the founder of a new sect, I would call them Apiarians, and, after the example of the bee, advise them to extract the honey of every sect."

-- To Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.

When it came to "religion" a great deal of what these "rational Christians" believed in or admired, was already dispersed throughout Christendom. Indeed, they tended to have an affinity for the "primitive Christianity" of the earliest era before it got corrupted by Trinitarian creedalism. Doctrines for which they tended to have affinities like Arianism, Socinianism, Universalism predated the Enlightenment.

But during the Enlightenment, it all started to come together. For instance, we have noted, on resisting tyrannical government, Calvinists (though not Calvin himself) and before them medieval scholastics, argued something similar to the Lockean Enlightenment theories of resistance which America's Founders adopted.

But, while I can't speak for medieval scholastics whose views on the matter I need further to research, I do know that on religious liberty -- what America's Founders thought the most unalienable of rights -- the Calvinists, including the "resisters" were horrible, as bad as Calvin himself.

This is what Samuel Rutherford said of Roger Williams' emerging views of liberty of conscience:

"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."—Samuel Rutherfurd, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience. (1649).

Yet, Roger Williams and the Quakers did innovate on ideas of religious liberty and separation of church and state. And they were not at all in the tradition of Calvinist Christianity. (Williams at one point seemed to be a Calvinist, but quickly moved towards a unique religious sect unto himself). I have no idea how Roger Williams and the Quakers theorized, in principle on how to deal with tyrannical magistrates. Though in practice it was, if you don't want to be civilly punished, get the f--k out of our territory and found your own colony, which they did.

Locke seemed to have most of what America's Founders were looking for on both the issues of resistance and religious liberty; though America's Founders self-consciously extended religious liberty further than Locke did.

But those pre-Lockean sources that had what America's Founders were looking for, had only bits and pieces. Arianism here; Socinianism there. Universalism here; natural law there. Resisting the magistrate here; religious liberty and separation of church and state there.

The Founders operated as Apiarians, to use Jefferson's term, took from the various sects what they found useful and put it all together into a whole package during their Enlightenment times.

More on George Washington's Enlightenment Parlance

George Washington was, as Peter Henriques noted, one of if not the finest product of the American Enlightenment.

As noted in this post, Immanuel Kant seemed the first thinker to self consciously understand they were living in an era of Enlightenment.

Yet George Washington, writing TO THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE, Mount Vernon, 15 August, 1786, did seem to realize they lived in an "enlightened" and "liberal" age:

But let me ask you, my dear Marquis, in such an enlightened, in such a liberal age, how is it possible that the great maritime powers of Europe should submit to pay an annual tribute to the little piratical states of Barbary? Would to Heaven we had a navy able to reform those enemies to mankind, or crush them into non-existence.

Washington too had problems with militant Islamic forces of his day. Yet -- good Enlightenment religionist he -- Washington did not therefore write off Islam entirely. To the contrary, Washington's letter to the Emperor of Morocco, dated March 31, 1791 indicates he thought Islam a true religion that worshipped the same God that Jews and Christians did.

Francis Schaeffer Buzz

I largely ignored the dialog on Francis Schaeffer that recently occurred. Andrew Sullivan recaps:

One of the more engaging discourses I read while I was sick was the exchange between Ryan Lizza and Ross Douthat on exactly how radical the Christianist writer Francis Schaeffer is. Schaeffer had a huge influence on Michele Bachmann, and his work is clearly part of the thriving Christianist/GOP subculture. Ross's first post in defense of this radical is here. Ryan's riposte is here. Ross concludes here.

Buried in all this
is an interesting quotation by Schaeffer on the American Founding and Romans 13 issues:

"When any office commands that which is contrary to the Word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and they are not to be obeyed. And that includes the state ... Rutherford offered suggestions concerning illegitimate acts of the state. A ruler, he wrote, should not be deposed merely because he commits a single breach of the compact he has with the people. Only when the magistrate acts in such a way that the governing structure of the country is being destroyed—that is, when he is attacking the fundamental structure of society—is he to be relieved of his power and authority.

That is exactly what we are facing today. The whole structure of our society is being attacked and destroyed. It is being given an entirely opposite base which gives exactly opposite results. The reversal is much more total and destructive than t
hat which Rutherford or any of the Reformers faced in their day."

A while back we noted Mark Noll among others took Schaeffer to task for his arguable misunderstanding of the American Founding. Schaeffer wrongly credits Samuel Rutherford with the ideas for the American Founding. America's Founders didn't cite Rutherford, but Locke for these propositions. And Locke didn't cite Rutherford either.

[And yes, I know of the tradition of resistance among Calvinists, though not Calvin himself, that almost certainly, in some meaningful way, influenced the American Founding.]

Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in World

Get the details here. Even though this is cool, the vast majority of JSTOR stuff still is not free.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Interesting Lecture From A Biblical Unitarian

Many "key Founders" and the philosophers and divines who influenced them were theological unitarians. They were also devout theists who believed, in some way, revelation (God speaking to man in holy texts). One interesting dynamic I've found is mentioning they were "unitarians" automatically, reflexively connotes today's Unitarian-Universalist Church who aren't quite the same as those classical, Founding era unitarians.

Perhaps this fellow is more in line with those unitarians:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Top 10 Books on Religion and the Founding

One of the keys to having a successful and enjoyable blog is to gain the participation of as many people as possible, in as many different ways imaginable. Fortunately for us at American Creation, we have benefited from a plethora of excellent blog posts over the past few years. In addition, we have also been blessed with a very lively and diverse comments forum (a special thanks to all who make that a success. You know who you are). But these are far from the only way to garner support.

I've been thinking over the past few weeks of how we might get more participation from our readers and contributors. Of course, blogging is a voluntary hobby that is meant to be enjoyed so any "forceful" effort on my part to boost participation is likely to end in failure, which leads me to the following proposal:

I would like to suggest that readers and contributors list their favorite books on the topic of religion and the American founding. If you would, please just take a moment to list your favorite books in the comments section of this post, along with your reason for the selection. I will then select the top 5 or 6 vote-getters and list them in a voting poll on the right-hand side of this blog where readers will be able to cast their vote.

In the end, I am hoping that we can help to introduce blog polls to this site as an additional way to promote participation. In addition to your favorite books, please also feel free to suggest future poll questions.

Anyway, here's hoping that this will catch on. Let the voting begin!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Patriots fighting for liberty instituted a hippie tax

That's what came to mind when I read the following story this morning:  1775 document:  Colonists asked pacifists to pay.  It turns out that the Patriot leaders in one Pennsylvania county asked contientious objectors to pay a fee instead of serving in the colonial militas that where then gearing up to fight the British.  The objectors were provided an exemption from service based on their "religious scruples," but were expected to pay in order to provide for the defense of the broader community.

An interesting piece of history -- and one that doesn't really have anything to do with hippies.  But it does have to do with the perennial question in a society such as ours:  at what point do sincerely held religious beliefs exempt individuals from obeying the rules set up by the broader society?  In the 1775 document, that question arose over military service, but in the modern context, it arises over a host of cultural issues, e.g., sexuality & the family, conscience rights for health care providers, religious expression in the public square, etc.  As our society grows increasingly religiously pluralistic while remaining, for the foreseeable future at least, predominently influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, controversies involving this perennial question will become more common, not less.

The 1775 documents represents a classic American approach to the intersection of religious conscience and public affairs.  The right of the objectors not to serve in the militia was recognized and respected, while at the same time the objectors' participation in the community was affirmed as well.  By encouraging the objectors to pay a fee instead of serving in the military, the 1775 document provides both for the needs of the Patriot cause and for the religious duties of the objectors.  In so doing, it reflects the traditional American concept of according a wide berth for religious expression, while insisting that religious believers' liberty be truly that -- liberty, not license disconnected from duty to the community.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Rodda and Barton on the Black Robe Regiment

David Barton has a new feature at Wallbuilders on the Black Robe Regiment. His arch-nemisis Chris Rodda is set to debunk it. Barton is already responsible for the Baboon statistic that 27 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were "ministers" -- a figure which Rodda properly called out. In reality only one signer -- John Witherspoon -- was a minister.

From what I have researched, even though Barton was wrong on ministers and the Declaration, I do see "ministers" as preaching American Founding/DOI ideas before Jefferson and company wrote the DOI.

Barton quotes Alice Baldwin: "There is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763."

She did say this. And I think her assessment is accurate. But there is more to the story. Gregg Frazer's PhD thesis likewise quotes Baldwin to support HIS thesis: that the political theology of the American Founding was neither Christianity nor Deism, but "theistic rationalism." That those ideas weren't "Christian" but rather something else.

Many of those "New England" clergy referred to were, like Jonathan Mayhew, theological unitarians. And they didn't proof quote the Bible as final trumping authority when asserting the "rights," similar to or the same as those found in the DOI. The Bible was referenced as authority. And so was the book of Nature. These "rational Christian" clergy thought the two needed to work together for ultimate Truth discovery (they were not Sola Scriptura evangelical Protestants).

And as I observe, most of the relevant "rights" came from Nature, not the Bible; though after discovering the rights in Nature, the Bible was then referenced for support. And sometimes those discoveries in Nature (like the right to rebel against tyrants!) were used to interpret or otherwise explain away parts of the Bible that seemed to teach otherwise (like Romans 13).

This was a form of politically and theologically liberal, rationalistic Christianity, if it's accurate to call it "Christian" at all. This nuance is certainly lost on Barton.

Though after the recent news that David Barton thinks Mormons can be Christians, I'm not sure what he endorses as a "test" for "Christianity" or "Christian principles."

Friday, September 2, 2011

Some Thoughts On Online Education

At my non-AC blog here. I link to this because I see academic blogging as part of online education.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Trenchard & Gordon: Liberty proved to be the unalienable Right of all Mankind:

Dated NO. 59. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 30, 1721. A taste:

... Who, following for their guide that everlasting reason, which is the best and only guide in human affairs, carried liberty, and human happiness, the legitimate offspring and work of liberty, to the highest pitch that they were capable of arriving at. But the above absurdity, with many others as monstrous and mischievous, were reserved for the discovery of a few wretched and dreaming Mahometan and Christian monks, who, ignorant of all things, were made, or made themselves, the directors of all things; and bewitching the world with holy lies and unaccountable ravings, dressed up in barbarous words and uncouth phrases, bent all their fairy force against common sense and common liberty and truth, and founded a pernicious, absurd, and visionary empire upon their ruins. Systems without sense, propositions without truth, religion without reason, a rampant church without charity, severity without justice, and government without liberty or mercy, were all the blessed handyworks of these religious mad-men, and godly pedants; who, by pretending to know the other world, cheated and confounded this. Their enmity to common sense, and want of it, were their warrants for governing the sense of all mankind: By lying, they were thought the champions of the truth; and by their fooleries,impieties, and cruelty, were esteemed the favourites and confidants of the God of wisdom, mercy, and peace.

David Barton on how Glenn Beck's Mormonism Doesn't Disqualify His Christianity