Sunday, July 22, 2018

Fideists Ought Not Try to Claim the Political Theology of the American Founding

From Thomas Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, May 8, 1825:
All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & . …
The Declaration of Independence's, that is.

You can read a philosophical muckety muck definition of fideism here. For the sake of this post, see below Francis Schaeffer as he slams Aristotle and Aquinas.


Years ago I think we noted Barry Hankins' book that featured the battle between Schaeffer on the one hand v. Mark Noll and George Marsden on the other. This article by Hankins summarizes the controversy.

As I see it, Noll and Marsden chewed Schaeffer up and spat him out. They ended up adding Nathan Hatch, currently the highest paid college President in America (Wake Forrest), to their cohort and together they wrote the book "The Search For Christian America" which demolished Schaeffer's "Christian America" claim on his own grounds. 

Schaeffer and the three authors apparently share the same theological premise, which is a kind of fideistic form of reformed orthodox Protestant Christianity. Schaeffer's fideism was the weakest part of his "Christian America" argument. The three academic authors nailed him on it.

From the above linked article:
Like Noll, Marsden again tried to educate Schaeffer as to what Christian scholars do. The first goal is to be accurate, not to fashion a story that is useful for an agenda, however just that agenda might be, Marsden chided Schaeffer. In a more critical vein, Marsden charged Schaeffer with his own inconsistency, in that throughout his career as a Christian author he had argued that Aquinas and theological liberals were similarly guilty of creating a nature/grace dualism, yet America's founding fathers seemed to get a free pass when they engaged in the same type of thinking. Elaborating on Noll's arguments, Marsden charged that at no time in the history of Christianity had the nature/grace dichotomy that Schaeffer had criticized for two decades been more prevalent than in Britain and her colonies in the eighteenth century. Portraying such thinking as broadly Christian, as long as it was not militantly anti-Christian like the French Revolution, was in Marsden's view precisely what had opened the door for the twentieth century secular revolution that he, Noll, and Schaeffer all lamented.
Gotcha! Right between the eyes.

However, one wonders whether the fideistic premise these interlocutors all apparently share is a necessary tenet, central to the orthodox reformed Protestantism on which grounds they argue. J. Daryl Charles argues below, to the contrary.


Still, even conceding the kind of Protestant theology for which Dr. Charles argues has a proper place in authentic orthodox Protestant Christianity, it's still debatable how well the kind of "nature" appealed to in America's Declaration of Independence mixes with traditional orthodox Christianity.

Thomist Robert Kraynak, for instance, argues said appeal to nature is too "modern" for such. But if one refuses to recognize those appeals to nature for what they are (appeals to reason, not scripture) one ought not be taken seriously.

I think that's a reason why Noll and Marsden spent a great deal of ink remonstrating with Schaeffer. Unlike David Barton, I think they respected Schaeffer in a sense, as a theologian who was very good at his particular craft with which they personally sympathized.

As a historian, not so much.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Robert Kraynak: "Catholicism and the Declaration ..." Part VII, Final.

Last month I ran a series of posts which reproduced the first half of this article by Robert P. Kraynak about Roman Catholicism and the Declaration of Independence, with minor edits (omission of footnotes and a few ellipses [...]) and my sparse commentary.

I stopped somewhere in the middle of page 17 out of 30. This will be my final post on the matter. Those interested in a careful reading can read the entire article. These pages are where the article goes deep into the philosophical weeds to explain why the natural law the Roman Catholic Church endorses is not the same thing as the natural rights encapsulated in the Declaration and the tension between the two. I'm just going to post one short excerpt from the rest of the article.
Applied to the American situation, Thomistic natural law requires one to judge the work of the American founding fathers by the objective hierarchy of ends which God has ordained for man. Here, the decisive question would seem to be whether the natural law doctrine of the Declaration of Independence which guided the Americans contains some of the elements of a true natural law found in original Thomism~ The answer, we now must admit, is that the Declaration contains only a partial or incomplete version of true natural law, because it does not provide sufficiently for the perfection of the rational soul. The Declaration of Independence asserts a right to pursue happiness, but does not provide sufficiently for the higher goods of temporal and eternal happiness, ·leaving them more to personal choice than to corporate responsibility or leaving them to the larger culture which surrounded the Declaration and the Constitution that still contained vital remnants of classical and Christian culture and of the English common law tradition. Yet, if the American founders had been more attentive to preserving these traditional elements, they might have been Tories rather than revolutionaries. Or, since they themselves were gentlemen politicians of quasi-aristocratic character, they might have waged a war of independence on less sweeping principles than natural rights and established a more hierarchical regime than a constitutional republic.

However, a Thomistic approach to politics requires prudence, which counsels statesmen to seek the best approximation of the true hierarchy of goods in the given circumstances. After the American Revolution occurred and the regime was settled in favor of republicanism, Catholic Thomists could be American republicans-they could have acted like Alexander Hamilton, who favored constitutional monarchy while accepting constitutional democracy or republicanism as the only practical option in the circumstances. Within that basic acceptance and loyalty to of the American natural rights republic, Catholic Thomists could hold reservations about the natural rights basis of the regime and hope to move it in a ·more hierarchically ordered and less individualistic and less materialistic direction. ... 
 As I mentioned in an earlier post, Kraynak would later write an entire book on this topic entitled "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy." Those who enjoyed books such as "The Search For Christian America," "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction," and "The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution" will surely enjoy this book.

And I especially recommend Kraynak's book for those who enjoyed Patrick Deneen's current best seller "Why Liberalism Failed" as the two make similar arguments.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Who Were the Founders?

We get a lot about certain "key" Founders, especially John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their copious--and often post-presidential--writings, although much of their stature rests on becoming president after the US government was established by the Constitution, of which neither of them were "Framers." Nor did either actually fight in the Revolution. [Hamilton was a Revolutionary general and was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers; Madison of course is the "Father of the Constitution; and Washington won the war and chaired the Constitutional Convention!]   

With a HT to Mark David Hall, from Daniel Dreisbach of American University, Founders Famous and Forgotten:

Consider the political career of Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721-1793), a largely self-taught man, devout Calvinist, and lifelong public servant. He was one of only two men who signed all three of the great documents of American organic law: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was a member of the five-man committee formed to draft the Declaration of Independence and a member of the committee of thirteen formed to frame the Articles of Confederation. At the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 he delivered more speeches than all but three delegates and was a driving force behind the Great (Connecticut) Compromise. He was a member of the first U.S. House of Representatives (1789-1791) and later of the U.S. Senate (1791-1793), where he played key roles in deliberations on the Bill of Rights and the creation of a national bank. If any man merits the mantle of “founding father,” surely it is Roger Sherman.

Yet few Americans recall, let alone mention, Sherman’s name when enumerating the founding fathers; even among those familiar with his name, most would be hard pressed to describe his role in the founding.


When asked to identify the “founding fathers,” Americans typically respond with a short list of a half dozen or so notables who have achieved iconic status in the American imagination and collective memory. This is true of even serious students of American history. The small fraternity of “famous founders” typically includes (in no particular order) Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. To this short list, individual historians occasionally add a favorite figure or two.
There is, however, a much larger company of statesmen who made salient contributions in thought, word, and deed to the construction of America’s republican institutions. Unfortunately, many among the founding generation, whose contributions and sacrifices were consequential in the creation of a new nation, have slipped into unmerited obscurity, exiles from the elite fraternity of the famous. Why are some individuals, whose well-documented contributions were valued by their peers and celebrated in their time, largely forgotten in our time? Why are a few founders “famous” and others now “forgotten”?


According to a well-worn axiom, history is written by the victors. The reputations of several important founders have been damaged, one suspects, because they were on the losing side of great debates or controversies, especially the bitter debates over the declaration of American independence and ratification of the proposed national constitution. Consider, for example, the Quaker John Dickinson of Delaware and Pennsylvania (serving both states as the elected chief executive), who championed the cause of American liberties in aseries of brilliant “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” (1767-1768), and who was a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress where he drafted the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” (October 1765), a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses where he was the principal draftsman of the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” (6 July 1775), and one of Delaware’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In 1776, however, he spoke eloquently against and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because he thought it premature and intemperate, and his reputation and public career suffered for it, despite commendable subsequent service to the nation. It has been said of George Mason that “His opposition to ratification of the federal Constitution— a document whose shape he helped mightily to craft—started his fall from the national memory.” The public standing of other vocal critics of the proposed Constitution was arguably diminished by their controversial stances in this most important national debate, despite the fact that some later became ardent admirers of the charter. Among the critics were Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Adams, George Clinton, Luther Martin, and John Francis Mercer. Other founders may have similarly fallen from public favor because of their advocacy of positions and causes that later proved unpopular.
The stature of some founders has risen and fallen with the vagaries of subsequent politics. As political parties emerged in the late eighteenth century and carved out well defined identities in the nineteenth century, partisans often appropriated selected founders as precursor spokesmen for, or ideological models of, their party perspectives, or as avowed opponents of some partisan position. The Jacksonian Democrats of the 1820s and succeeding decades, forexample, described themselves as inheritors of the Jeffersonian tradition and demonized Federalist party stalwarts, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams (an especially inviting target because his son, John Quincy Adams, was Andrew Jackson’s immediate foe), and John Marshall, for their opposition to Jeffersonian politics. (The reputations of other prominent Federalists— such as Fisher Ames, John Jay, Rufus King, Gouverneur Morris, and C.C. Pinckney—may have similarly suffered in the wake of their party’s demise and Republican ascendancy at the turn of the century.) Thus, Jefferson’s reputation as a founder flourished and Federalist founders’ reputations floundered as Jacksonianism ascended. The War Between the States and its aftermath prompted a reappraisal of Hamilton’s staunch advocacy of a strong national government, and, in the North at least, Hamilton eclipsed the states-rights Jefferson as a “revered figure in the minds of most Americans.” According to Merrill D. Peterson, “Jefferson’s reputation merely survived the War; Hamilton’s was remade by it.” In summary, political partisans of succeeding generations have promoted or demoted selected founders in the public mind depending on whether a founder’s views and associations advanced or impeded the goals of these latter-day partisans.
Another explanation focuses on certain founders’ unappealing personal traits, quirks or eccentricities, or alleged moral failings. George Mason’s truculent temperament and general aversion to public life almost certainly diminished his profile in the history of the founding era. He was a most reluctant public figure, eschewing the limelight and declining to pursue high office (although reluctantly accepting public office when called). An abrasive, egotistical personality did little to enhance Thomas Paine’s reputation, and pious Americans from his day to the present have reviled him for his heretical views on Christianity. John Adams described the radical pamphleteer as “the lying rascal,” and Teddy Roosevelt denounced him as that “filthy little atheist.”

And so the most influential polemicist of the age, renowned on both sides of the Atlantic, died in relative obscurity in 1809 without a eulogy from his former compatriots in the struggle for American independence. Gouverneur Morris’s well earned reputation as a profligate rake and lecher may have diminished his standing among prudish nineteenth-century Americans. In a very different vein, Aaron Burr’s widely publicized roguish, even “murderous,” and allegedly treasonous conduct has kept him alive in the public memory, but it has also demoted him from the pedestal of a venerated founder.

There is the tragic case of James Wilson, who died in ignominy in 1798 at age 56, fleeing from creditors for failed land speculation. He was buried in an obscure country graveyard in Edenton, North Carolina. Today, Wilson is virtually unknown to the American public, but he was among the most trenchant and influential minds at the Constitutional Convention (making more speeches than any other delegate, save Gouverneur Morris), and he stamped an indelible mark on American legal theory through his influential law lectures and tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court. Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, a member of the first federal Congress, and the indispensable “financier of the Revolution”—a man who by any measure should be remembered as a founding father—similarly borrowed heavily and failed miserably in western land speculation. He languished for three and a half miserable years in a debtors’ prison and his reputation has never recovered.

Finally, there seems to be an inclination among modern scholars to dismiss, discount,or ignore the views of pious founders whose ideas and actions were shaped by deeply held religious convictions. Trained in the rationalist traditions of the academy, some scholars are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with or closed to religiously informed arguments and rhetoric; thus, they dismiss as serious thinkers or otherwise decline to engage founders whose worldview was profoundly religious. Founders steeped in the rationalist traditions of the Enlightenment are more familiar and accessible, and their exploits are advanced in modern scholarship. John Witherspoon’s faith based perspectives may have scared off more than one secular scholar; moreover, his clerical collar may have symbolically entangled church and state too excessively for modern sensibilities. The profiles of Samuel Adams, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Jay, Elias Boudinot, and Isaac Backus, among others, may have been similarly diminished by modern scholars on account of their profoundly religious identities and perspectives.

Read the whole thing.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

American Creation Awarded

Fellow AC blogger Ray Soller sent us the following link, which recognized American Creation as one of the 50 best history blogs to follow in 2018 (#18 to be specific).  Congrats to everyone associated with AC and here's hoping we can keep our fair little corner of the Internet going for many years to come!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Birthday, America

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Happy Second of July

Happy Independence Day to all "American Creation" readers.

Those of you who know your history understand that it was 242 years ago TODAY that the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously (with 1 colony abstaining) to approve Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee's motion, which declared "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

The Pennsylvania Evening Post and The Pennsylvania Gazette both heralded the news that the Congress declared independence on July 2. And Massachusetts delegate John Adams famously wrote his wife the next day, predicting that the "the second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America." He prophesied that the Second of July "will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival."

So... Happy Second of July, my fellow "American Creation" writers and all of our readers!