Did Benjamin Rush Believe That the U.S. Constitution Was Ordained by God?

benjaminrushIt certainly seems that way.

As Spencer McBride, the author of the newly released Pulpit & Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary Americawrites in a recent post at The Junto blog:

Rush was a Philadelphia physician, an eager student of the Enlightenment, and—during the late 1880s, at least—a devout Christian. He had signed the Declaration of Independence as a member of the Continental Congress, but left public office in 1778 to pay full attention to his medical practice. His election to the Pennsylvania ratifying convention marked his reentry into the political arena. Convention minutes recorded Rush asserting that he “as much believed the hand of God was employed in this work [of drafting the Constitution], as that God had divided the Red Sea to give passage to the children of Israel or had fulminated the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai!” To Rush, “the unanimity of the [Constitutional] Convention, the general approbation of the Constitution by all classes of people, and the zeal which appeared everywhere… from New Hampshire to Georgia,” were “reasons to believe that the adoption of the government was agreeable to the will of Heaven.” He argued that “the Vox Populi” was the “Vox Dei;” that in a republican government, God manifested his will through the people. As the convention’s secretary summarized the speech, Rush was expounding upon a “new species of divine right.”

But McBride suggest that it is more complicated than this.  He continues:

As for the ideological context of Rush’s metaphysical language, we have seen that biblical references were prevalent in American political culture at this time. But because of Rush’s religious devoutness, it is possible to view his rhetorical style as possessing a greater level of biblical literalism than we would assume in the writings of men such as Thomas Jefferson, who used biblical allusions in a far more conventional way. When Rush used religious language in his letters and speeches, it was often as a way for him to mesh his religious beliefs with his scientific and philosophical studies. He recorded many of his meditations on this subject in his commonplace book. In one such instance, he wrote that “The affairs of men are governed alternately by and contrary to their wills, to teach us both to use our Reason and to rely upon Providence in all our undertakings.” On another occasion, he wrote that “God reveals some truths to our senses and to our first perceptions,” but that “many errors are [also] conveyed into the mind through both, which are to be corrected only by reason.” As an example of such a multifarious path to knowledge, Rush explained that without astronomical inquiry and investigation, mankind might still believe that the sun revolved around the earth. For Rush, men and women did not need to choose between enlightened reason and revealed religion. As paths to knowledge, they were complementary and codependent. Accordingly, Rush sought to make sense of the Revolutionary events shaping his life by Christianizing the Enlightenment and enlightening Christianity.

It was likely in this vein of thought that Rush professed his strong approval for the Constitution. Though his use of biblical language aligned with earlier American precedents for appropriating religion for ostensibly political ends, the ideological implications of Rush’s claims went beyond mere political propaganda. It had been over a century since the divine right of kings had been a viable political theory in the British Atlantic. Constitutional thought in England, and subsequently America, had been largely shaped by the liberalism of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and others who maintained that civil society originated by social compact and not by divine appointment. By 1788, these ideas were prevalent—even commonplace—in American society. But the idea that some form of divine intervention influenced state formation had not yet vanished entirely. Rush had not been in the Constitutional Convention, but owing to his experience as a former member of Congress, he found it incredible that the framers had agreed on a system of government despite the many competing interests of the states they represented. When Rush ascribed the near unanimity of the delegates to divine intervention, he was suggesting that God still intervened in the formation of civil governments, but that such intervention occurred in more enlightened, republican ways. It was, in a sense, the divine right of republics.

Read the entire post here.

One thought on “Did Benjamin Rush Believe That the U.S. Constitution Was Ordained by God?

  1. I read the full article at the Junto site and left this comment:
    Good article. I wonder how the author could have known that Rush, who died in 1813, was “during the late 1880s, at least—a devout Christian”. 🙂

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