Benjamin Franklin on the “Church at Notre Dame”

gettyimages-89856554-612x612Franklin talks about his visit to the “church of Notre Dame” in this September 14, 1767 letter to Mary “Polly” Stevenson.

The Civilities we every where receive give us the strongest Impressions of the French Politeness. It seems to be a Point settled here universally that Strangers are to be treated with Respect, and one has just the same Deference shewn one here by being a Stranger as in England by being a Lady. The Custom House Officers at Port St. Denis, as we enter’d Paris, were about to seize 2 Doz. of excellent Bourdeaux Wine given us at Boulogne, and which we brought with us; but as soon as they found we were Strangers, it was immediately remitted on that Account. At the Church of Notre Dame, when we went to see a magnificent Illumination with Figures &c. for the deceas’d Dauphiness, we found an immense Croud who were kept out by Guards; but the Officer being told that we were Strangers from England, he immediately admitted us, accompanied and show’d us every thing. Why don’t we practise this Urbanity to Frenchmen? Why should they be allow’d to out-do us in any thing?

The Author’s Corner with Brian Regal

51HcjrS6VnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Brian Regal is associate professor of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at Kean University. This interview is based on his new book co-authored with Frank Esposito, The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Secret History of the Jersey Devil?

BR: Following Hurricane Sandy we lost power for over a week. When it came back on, I had a lot of TV watching to catch up on. One of the first things I saw was a show on monsters that was doing a segment on the Jersey Devil. It recycled all the old unsubstantiated clichés and nonsense about witches and bat wings. I began looking into the literature on the subject and realized it too was all crap. No one had ever bothered to do a scholarly investigation into the myth or its origins. It made me mad how lazy and slipshod so much of cryptozoological writing was (anger is one of the underappreciated catalysts to historical writing). I told all this to my Kean University colleague, and former teacher, Dr. Frank J. Esposito, a scholar of New Jersey and Native American history. We immediately decided we should write something together on the legend. That is how this book was born. We wanted to do something that had rarely been done before: approach a monster legend from a historical rather than a sociological or folklorist or biological angle. We went and found a large number of primary sources that had never been tapped or never used for what we used them for. I wanted to write something that might one day be thought of as a compelling narrative and that was sympathetic to the lead character, and maybe even a little poetic with a nice turn of phrase or two (I understand someone else will make that determination).

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Secret History of the Jersey Devil?

BR: The story of the Jersey Devil is not one of a monster born of a witch mother. It’s the story of religious strife, bare-knuckled political in-fighting, and cultural scapegoating.

JF: Why do we need to read The Secret History of the Jersey Devil?

BR: No one really needs this: it’s not insulin. It would, however, be of interest to anyone interested in some of the little discussed cultural events that had a major, but unappreciated impact upon American history. If you are interested in where political monsters come from, the treatment of outspoken women, religious intolerance, and the origins of what we today call ‘Fake News’ than you should read it. The story centers on the life of Daniel Leeds, a man largely forgotten today, but who, had he lived a generation later, we might have called a Founding Father. A man who tried to bring the Scientific Revolution to North America; who became the first author in New Jersey and one of the first censored authors in America; and who helped invent the political attack literature that has become a part of modern society. We also placed the origins of the legend within western monster lore and how other such myths contributed to it.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

BR: When I was a kid I wanted to be Jonny Quest. He travelled the world having adventures, he was smart, and he wore a cool, black t-shirt. I wanted to be Jonny, but as an historian. My guidance counselor, however, told me “kids like you don’t go to college” (My father was a construction worker and my mother was a waitress). So, I joined the army after high school. I volunteered for service in the armored cavalry and travelled the world on Uncle Sam’s dime. I kept reading and dreaming and later was fortunate enough to encounter people who helped me get into college and who supported my plans, and I began to think I might just be able to be an historian and a writer after all. I was especially fascinated by the history of science and the relationship between professional scholars and amateur investigators, particularly in the realm of the paranormal and monster studies, and realized there had not been that much done on this topic. I hope that if I ever do meet Jonny, he’ll understand.

JF: What is your next project?

BR: I am currently working on a history of amateur archaeology examining the various legends and myths about who ‘really’ discovered America. I am looking at stories about a Welsh Prince, Vikings, Chinese explorers, African adventurers, and others, and how these stories are largely the result of political and cultural wants and needs rather than any actual archaeological or historical realities, and that are tied to their historical times. It is tentatively titled Waiting for Columbus.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

Printers, Information, and the American Revolution


Early in my career I was very interested in the communication of information in early America.  One of the first pieces I ever published was an essay on the way letters were used to spread the First Great Awakening in New England.  One of my favorite reads in graduate school was Richard D. Brown’s Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America.  I remember how thrilled I was when Brown agreed to chair a panel I put together for one of the early Omohundro Institute conferences in Worcester. I continued to explore the spread of information into the New Jersey countryside in my Stony Brook doctoral dissertation and some of this research found its way into my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

So needless to say, I have been taking a walk down memory lane reading the recent series at Age of Revolutions blog on information networks.

The latest installment is Joe Adelman’s piece on printers.  Here is a taste of ” ‘Meer Mechanics’ No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age”:

The men and women who physically produced the texts lauded as key to the American Revolution rarely get their due. Their absence from the story of print and the American Revolution is not by accident, nor is it because scholars have a nefarious agenda to ignore the role of printers. On the contrary, it’s exactly how most, if not all, American colonial printers portrayed themselves and their careers. In so doing, they drew on a long tradition exemplified by Benjamin Franklin’s “Apology for Printers,” published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1731. Franklin declared that he and the Gazette were merely conveyances for the opinions of others, and that his only editorial judgment was to stay within the legal bounds of libel, opened a space for him to publish political essays and news items without claiming responsibility for them. In Franklin’s case, that decision was intentional. That characterization, it turns out, obscures the work printers were doing in their shops and along postal routes. 

Prior to the past ten years, most scholars dismissed printers as manual laborers — men and women who set type and pulled the press, but did not intervene to shape the content of the texts they brought to life. The scholarship of Robert Darnton, however, invites us to think carefully about the full range of people who contributed to printed works: authors and readers, to be sure, but also the intermediaries who brought printed materials to light, including printers, publishers, wholesalers, post riders, and others.  Though his archival research focused on the ancien régime and revolutionary France, Darnton’s methodological interventions have encouraged scholars working on other regions (including British colonial North America, for example) to consider how the processes of production, circulation, and consumption have shaped not only texts but also historical events. Scholars in the past decade have paid more attention to printers and their activities, most notably with the publication of work by Robert Parkinson, Russ Castronovo, and others.  But more broadly it remains a truism that printers were not active participants in the intellectual production of news and arguments about the Revolution.

Read the rest here.

Ben Franklin’s Faith

FranklinIf you are following our #ChristianAmerica? tweetstorm this weekend @johnfea1 ( a tweet every 30 minutes!), you know that we have not said much yet about Ben Franklin. Stay tuned. We will have a lot to say about him tomorrow.

In the meantime, check out Thomas Kidd‘s recent piece at The Washington Post: “How Benjamin Franklin, a deist, became the founding father of a unique kind of American faith.”

Here is a taste:

Franklin adhered to a religion that we might call doctrineless, moralized Christianity. This kind of faith suggests that what we believe about God is not as important as living a life of love and significance. Franklin grew up in a devout Puritan family in colonial Boston, but by his teen years the bookish boy began to doubt key aspects of his parents’ Calvinist faith. Abandoning Christianity altogether, however, was not a realistic option for someone as immersed as Franklin in the Bible’s precepts and the habits of faith.

Although Franklin did at times toy with some radical anti-Christian beliefs, he settled on the conviction that Christianity was useful because of the way it fostered virtue. Franklin wearied of how colonial Americans incessantly fought about theological minutiae. But he still believed that Christianity represented a preeminent resource for benevolence and charity, qualities he considered essential to any worthwhile religion.

Read the rest here.

Kidd has just published a religious biography of Franklin.  Some of you may recall his recent visit to The Author’s Corner to discuss it.

Liberty Counsel and Conservatives on the Texas School Board Continue to Base Public Policy on False Historical Claims

Christian NAtionFact-checker extraordinaire Warren Throckmorton calls our attention to yet another example of politicians and cultural warriors using fake history to justify public policy proposals that have the potential of affecting millions of people. In this case, the perpetrators are the Liberty Counsel (Mat Staver) and the conservatives on the Texas School Board (defenders of prayer in schools).

This is an easy one.

I am sorry Mat Staver, but you are wrong.  Members of the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 did not hold a prayer meeting that lasted “several hours.”  Benjamin Franklin called for prayer, but his call was rejected.

Here is what actually happened on Thursday, June 28, 1787:

Franklin’s proposal:

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.–Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move–that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service–

And the response:

Mr. Hamilton & several others expressed their apprehensions that however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of the convention, it might at this late day, 1. bring on it some disagreeable animadversions. & 2. lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissentions within the convention, had suggested this measure. It was answered by Docr. F. Mr. Sherman & others, that the past omission of a duty could not justify a further omission–that the rejection of such a proposition would expose the Convention to more unpleasant animadversions than the adoption of it: and that the alarm out of doors that might be excited for the state of things within. would at least be as likely to do good as ill.

Mr. Williamson, observed that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds.

Mr. Randolph proposed in order to give a favorable aspect to ye. measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence,–& thenceforward prayers be used in ye Convention every morning. Dr. Frankn. 2ded. this motion After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter by adjourng. the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion.

Again–no multi-hour prayer meeting took place.  The motion was tabled. I discuss this incident on p.152 of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

This is Racism

Here is Chris Cuomo’s interview this morning with Iowa congressman Steve King:

Here is a transcript of the last minute or so:

CUOMO: There are a lot of people teaching hatred in their families who are white, Irish, Italian, who are Muslim. A lot of people preach hate. There’s hate in a lot of different groups. I get you have Muslim extremism that there’s a concern in this country about it. But I asked you something else. These people are either all equal or they are not in your view. A Muslim American, an Italian American, German American like you and your blood, your roots. They are either all equal or they are not in your mind. What is the answer? 

KING: I’d say they’re all created in the image of God and they’re equal in his eyes. If they’re citizens of the United States they’re equal in the eyes of the law. Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will. That’s just a statistical fact. 

CUOMO: It’s not as a function of race. It’s a function of opportunity and education. You’re not more likely as a Muslim American to contribute to American society. It’s about your education and your opportunity, not what your blood is. 

KING: Chris? 

CUOMO: Yes. 

KING: It’s the culture, not the blood. If you can go anywhere in the world and adopt these babies and put them into households that were already assimilated in America, those babies will grow up as American as any other baby with as much patriotism and love of country as any other baby. 

It’s not about race. It’s never been about race. In fact the struggles across this planet, we describe them as race, they’re not race. They’re culture based. It’s a clash of culture, not the race. Sometimes that race is used as an identifier. 

This idea that some cultures and races are inferior to others and are thus incapable of making meaningful contributions to American society has a long history in the United States.

Here is Ben Franklin in 1751 writing about the influx of Germans in Pennsylvania:

Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties…In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.

Here is King again. This time he is promoting something similar to the racial hierarchies that motivated the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act:

I noticed that King did not include Southern Europeans in his definition of “Western Civilization.”  Yup.  My ancestors have been there.



Why doesn’t King just take his remarks to their logical conclusion by naming those groups that will be less “productive” members of American society.

Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?


This flag was designed in 1775 by Christopher Gadsden, South Carolina planter and delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress.  The rattlesnake, as best as I can tell, was used as a symbol for the British colonies as early as 1754 when Benjamin Franklin published his famous cartoon “Join or Die.”

Join or Die.php

The Gadsden flag is an iconic symbol of the American Revolution.  As a historian of 18th-century America I have had one hanging in my home office for years. (Although it is now partially covered by books and Springsteen memorabilia).

Dont Tread

A couple of additional facts about the flag are necessary.  First, Gadsden was a South Carolina slave holder.  Second, this flag has recently been used by libertarian and Tea Party groups to protest what they see as government overreach into the lives of ordinary Americans.

And now there are some claiming that because Gadsden was a slave holder the flag is racist and thus offensive.  According to this Washington Post article by Eugene Volokh, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has receive a complaint from a person who felt that “the Agency subjected him to discrimination on the basis of race (African American) and in reprisal for prior EEOC activity when, starting in the fall of 2013, a coworker repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase ‘Don’t Tread on Me.'”

Read the entire complaint in Volokh’s piece.

I think it is time for some historical perspective here.

Enter J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste of his post, “Investigating the Meaning of the Gadsden Flag“:

…some people commenting on those stories assume that a federal authority has ruled that the Gadsden Flag and associated “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan are racist because of their roots in the slave society of Revolutionary America. That shows they didn’t read the ruling or Volokh’s column.

The anonymous employee who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did make that claim:

Complainant stated that he found the cap to be racially offensive to African Americans because the flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a “slave trader & owner of slaves.”

The historic claims are correct. In 1774 more than ninety men, women, and children were enslaved on Gadsden’s two rice plantations. He paid Customs duties on the cargo of at least two slave ships, in 1755 and 1762.

Furthermore, Gadsden’s South Carolina was a society built on slavery. At the time of the Revolution, historians estimate that more than half of its human population was enslaved. Because the British military freed and evacuated so many people, that fraction went down by the 1790 census, but South Carolina still had a larger percentage of its population in bondage than any other state. By the early 1800s through the Civil War, the state’s population was once again mostly enslaved.

However, the E.E.O.C. rejected the claim that the Gadsden Flag is offensive because of its historical origin:

After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military.

In doing so, the E.E.O.C. also confirmed that “the modern Tea Party political movement” expresses “various non-racial sentiments” through the flag, which looks like a tacit rejection of the complaint’s suggestion that the Tea Party is an expression of “white resentment against blacks.”

The potential problem with the Gadsden flag, the E.E.O.C. ruling said, lies not in its past but in the way it’s being used today:

However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts. For example, in June 2014, assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas, Nevada shooting spree.

One hopes that fans of the Gadsden Flag loudly decried how those terrorists used it.

Read the entire post here.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 1

MetaxasOver the last decade Eric Metaxas, a writer, biographer, Yale graduate, and cultural commentator, has become a popular spokesperson for conservative evangelicalism.

Metaxas is best known for his wildly popular, but deeply flawed, biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The book not only sold a lot of copies, but launched a speaking tour in which Metaxas was able to showcase his entertaining style of public lecturing. He now hosts a daily radio show–the perfect outlet for his blend of comedy and conservative political commentary.

The blurbs on his current book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, are glowing.  Robert George, the Princeton law professor who is arguably the most important conservative intellectual working today, calls Metaxas “one of our nation’s most brilliant and morally serious public intellectuals.”  Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager says that every American should read If You Can Keep It and should then “reread it aloud to their children and grandchildren.”  Gregory Thornbury, the president of The King’s College, an evangelical college in New York City, writes that Metaxas has done “a great service to this country.”  This is high praise from some important people.  When I read these blurbs I concluded that this must be a book that should be taken seriously.  So I asked Viking Books for a review copy and I read it.

Metaxas is an evangelical rock star.  On the day Viking sent me a review copy of If You Can Keep it was ranked #4 on  The book’s launch was filmed for C-SPAN. During the Q&A following Metaxas’s talk, one woman in the audience urged him to run for President of the United States. Recently a history teacher told me about a parent who was urging him to adopt Metaxas’s book in his Advanced Placement United States history class. If You Can Keep It is getting a lot of attention.

The title of the book comes from a popular story associated with Ben Franklin and his role at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.  Reportedly, when Franklin walked out of the Constitution Convention he was met by Elizabeth Powel, a women of prominence in colonial Philadelphia.  She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged..  Franklin responded, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

Over the years Franklin’s words have been a mantra for those concerned about the fate of the American republic.  His statement suggests that a republic is something that must be “kept.” Government by the people can be fragile.  Unless the people are diligent in preserving the republic it will ultimately fail.  Franklin was aware of this.  So were all the other founders.  As students of the past the founders knew that republics had not fared very well in the history of Western civilization.

But how should the American republic be preserved? Metaxas’s book offers some answers. He argues, as many have done in the past, that the republic is in trouble.  But it can be revived again if people follow his formula, which he claims to have drawn from the lessons of American history.

According to Metaxas, in order for the republic to survive Americans must defend religious freedom, cultivate virtue informed by the teachings of the Bible and Christianity, do a better job of venerating the founding fathers and other American “heroes,” demand that their leaders have moral character, reclaim America as a “city on a hill” and an exceptional nation inspired by God with a moral and Christian mandate to spread love to other nations around the world, and learn to love their country again by celebrating the stories and other cultural manifestations of American patriotism.

Metaxas’s concern for his country is admirable.  If You Can Keep It raises important questions.  What kind of republic did the founders want to create?  What role does history play in the preservation of the American republic today?  How should we understand patriotism in a world that includes a growing number of critics who are disillusioned with some of the directions our country has taken?

Again, these are all good questions.  Unfortunately, Metaxas does a very poor job of using American history to answer them.  This book is filled with historical errors of both fact and interpretation.  It also has serious theological problems, particularly in the way it conflates American history and the kingdom of God.  Frankly, this book is an intellectual mess.  Metaxas’s entire argument about the current state of the American republic is based on an incredibly weak and faulty historical and theological foundation.  It is an example of how not to use the past to make an argument in the present and serves as yet another example of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “scandal of the evangelical mind.”

Over the course of the next several days I will offer my thoughts on this book here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned for additional posts.


Ben Franklin: Revolutionary or London Intellectual?

a647a-benjamin-franklinThe answer is both.

Over at the website of Smithsonian Magazine, George Goodwin, the author of the brand new book Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of an American Founder, argues that Franklin was an intellectual in the British Atlantic world before he became an American revolutionary.

Here is a taste:

…It was only then, at the age of nearly 70, that he discarded his loyalty to the British state and became a fierce advocate of American independence.

Yet even as an American patriot, Franklin once again returned to Philadelphia with British enlightenment values that influenced his fellow Founding Fathers. Having arrived in London with two slaves, Franklin now supported calls for abolition. Though he did not convince Thomas Jefferson on that matter, he did on others. Jefferson’s choice of portraits for his entrance hall at Monticello is instructive. In the most prominent position are three of Franklin’s own British influences: Bacon, Newton and Locke. There is also a fourth. It is of Benjamin Franklin.

As for Franklin himself, he never quite gave up his Atlanticist dream, even after independence was secured. But now it was to be on a different basis. In 1784, he half-jokingly, if in strictest confidence, wrote to his long-time British friend William Strahan with this suggestion: “You still have one resource left and not a bad one since it may re-unite the Empire … if you have not Sense and Virtue enough left to govern yourselves, even dissolve your present old crazy Constitution, and send Members to Congress.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Faith of Bernie Sanders

In case you missed it, last night Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Bernie Sanders about his religious faith.  Here is Bernie’s answer:

Here is what I tweeted last night in response to Cooper’s question and Sanders’s answer:

Click here to see Bernie’s faith on display after someone passed out at one of his rallies:

Over at The New Republic, writer Elizabeth Bruenig described Sanders’s religious beliefs as “moralistic therapeutic deism, a phrase coined by sociologist Christian Smith to describe the religious sensibilities of American teenagers.  Here is a taste of her post:

Moralistic therapeutic deism is a fairly new sociological term used to describe the spiritual sensibilities of people who believe that there’s a god, sort of, and that the point of this nebulous supernatural force is to encourage people to better themselves morally and get along with others. Sometimes there are vaguely karmic leanings, like the idea that good people have good afterlives, but it’s more of a category of spiritual notions than any well-defined set of commitments or beliefs. 

It’s a more common persuasion than one might expect, and it seems to fit Bernie’s spiritual feelings pretty well.

I think it is fair, and not too problematic, to say that Ben Franklin’s religious beliefs were something akin to moralistic therapeutic deism.  Sanders comes pretty close to this as well. Deists, however, at least believe in a creator God.  I am not sure Sanders does.

As I have written here before, we may see another Election of 1800 

The Founding Fathers and Muslims

Juan Cole, the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan, reminds us that the founding fathers had Islam in mind when they talked about religious freedom.

Here is a taste of his piece at HNN:

…Ben Franklin, the founding father of many important institutions in Philadelphia, a key diplomat and a framer of the US Constitution, wrote in his Autobiography concerning a non-denominational place of public preaching he helped found “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Here is the whole quote:
‘And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air, subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was no sooner propos’d, and persons appointed to receive contributions, but sufficient sums were soon receiv’d to procure the ground and erect the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy broad, about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could have been expected. Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service. ‘
Not only did Ben Franklin not want to ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he wanted to invite them!
Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1777 Draft of a Bill for Religious Freedom:
‘ that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right . . . ‘ 
As I observed on another occasion, it was Jefferson’s more bigoted opponents in the Virginia legislature who brought up the specter of Muslims and atheists being elected to it in the world Jefferson was trying to create. He was undeterred by such considerations, which should tell us something.
British social philosopher John Locke was extremely influential on the Founding Generation, and on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. John Locke had already advocated civil rights for non-Christians, including Muslims, in his Letter on Toleration:
‘ Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors [believers], all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing. ‘ 
Here is Jefferson again: “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”
– Thomas Jefferson, note in Destutt de Tracy, “Political Economy,” 1816.
Or: “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.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82
Read the rest here.  I made a similar argument in this lecture.  (I come on at about the 20:00 minute mark).

Quote of the Day

From Ben Franklin’s Autobiography:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

San Bernardino Wrap-Up

What a great couple of days.  I always enjoy working with teachers, but the group from San Bernardino has been awesome. Leslie Smith and Gil Diaz have a wonderful group of teachers to work with on the county’s Teaching American History Grant.  I even met one teacher whose nephew attends Messiah College and another one whose daughter is considering Messiah. Small world.

I spent the morning lecturing on the Enlightenment in America.  I did my best to humanize the Enlightenment by introducing the stories of Benjamin Franklin and Philip Vickers Fithian and their “way of improvement.”  I then discussed the ways in which the Enlightenment influenced colonial religion, politics, science, and education.  We had about 30 minutes left for Q&A and I answered questions related to everything from church and state to John Locke to how the Enlightenment penetrated New England Puritanism.  Following the session I signed close to 100 copies of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and got to talk to a lot of dedicated teachers such as Susan, Claudia, Carlos, Don, and Barb, to name only a few.

I wish the San Bernardino group well as they take their journey through American history and I hope that their paths might cross again someday soon.  Thanks again to Leslie Smith and her staff (thanks for the ride to the hotel, Trina) for their hospitality.

The Revival of the Rattlesnake

This weekend the Messiah College History Department will be holding its annual welcome picnic.  (We will be at Lower Allen Park upper pavilion from 11:00-2:00pm on Saturday if anyone wants to stop by.  If we are not under the pavilion look for us in the field playing cricket).  In honor of the occasion, I will probably break out my “Join or Die” t-shirt.  This shirt was designed by the leadership of the 2004-2005 Messiah College History Club.  I am not sure if the “Join or Die” image of the colonial rattlesnake managed to attract new members to the club, but I thought it was clever.  (Some of my more pacifist colleagues were not particularly amused).

This year as I put on my t-shirt I will recall the very informative posts at Boston 1775 on the history of that rebellious rattlesnake.  Yesterday, J.L. Bell discussed how the image was first used to support Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 plan, first proposed publicly at the Albany Congress, to unite the colonies against the threat of the French and the Indians.

Today, Bell shows how the 1754 rattlesnake image was appropriated by American patriots during the Revolution.

A Companion to Benjamin Franklin

The folks at Wiley-Blackwell have just informed me that their A Companion to Benjamin Franklin, edited by the ever-prolific David Waldstreicher, is now available.  The Companion provides a comprehensive survey of the life, work and legacy of Franklin and includes contributions by several leading Franklin scholars. It also includes an article on Franklin’s religion by a not so prominent Franklin scholar.  (Needless to say, I am flattered to be included in this esteemed group!). 

I encourage you to invest in a copy for your personal library or, if you can’t afford it, get your school, college/university, or public library to buy a copy.  Waldstreicher’s volume now reigns supreme as the definitive reference book on Poor Richard.

Here is the table of contents:

Introduction: David Waldstreicher.
Part I: Biography.
1 The Boston Years, 1706-23: Nian-Sheng Huang.

2 The Philadelphia Years, 1723-57: George W. Boudreau.

3 The Making of a Patriot, 1757-75: Sheila L. Skemp.

4 Franklin Furioso, 1775-90: Jonathan R. Dull.
Part II: Franklin and Eighteenth Century America
 5. Franklin and Colonial Society: Konstantin Dierks.

6. Franklin and Pennsylvania Politics: Alan Tully.

7. Franklin and Religion: John Fea.

8. Franklin and the Coming of the American Revolution: Benjamin L. Carp.

9. Franklin and Native Americans: Timothy J. Shannon .

10. “The Complexion of my Country”: Benjamin Franklin and the Problem of Racial Diversity: Nicholas Guyatt.

11. Benjamin Franklin, Capitalism, and Slavery: David Waldstreicher.

12. Benjamin Franklin and Women: Susan E. Klepp
Part III: Franklin the Writer and Thinker.
 13. “The Manners and Situation of a Rising People”: Reading Franklin’s Autobiography: Ormond Seavey.

14. Poor Richard’s Almanac: William Pencak.

15. Franklin and Journalism: David Paul Nord.

16. Benjamin Franklin, the Science of Flow, and the Legacy of the Enlightenment: Laura Rigal.

17. Benjamin Franklin, Associations and Civil Society: Albrecht Koschnik.

18. Empire and Nation: Eliga Gould.

19. Franklin’s Pictorial Representations of British America: Lester C. Olson.
Part IV: Franklin and the Categories of Inquiry
 20. American Literature and American Studies: Edward Cahill.

21. Benjamin Franklin’s Material Cultures: Megan Walsh.

22. Franklin and Political Theory: Jerry Weinberger.

23. Benjamin Franklin and International Relations: Leonard Sadosky.

24. Memory and Popular Culture: Andrew Schocket.

Patriot News Op-Ed: How Religious Were the Founding Fathers?

One of my Patheos columns was recently picked up by the Harrisburg Patriot-News.  While I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the comments I receive on op-ed pieces, I do think the comments on this particular piece illustrate two things:

1.  There is a lot of misinformation out there on the subject of religion and the founders.

2.  It is hard to make a nuanced argument about this topic in 800 words.

Get the full argument here.

Review of Houston, Benjamin Franklin & the Politics of Improvement

Here is my review of Alan Houston’s Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement (Yale UP, 2008). It originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of the American Historical Review.

Was Benjamin Franklin a Lockean liberal or classical republican? Neither, argues Alan Houston. Rather, Franklin’s political and social thought is best understood by the concept of “improvement.” Originally an agricultural term, Houston argues that during the seventeenth century improvement was “extended to include a host of social and political reforms aimed at growth, development, or perfection” (p. 12). Indeed, Franklin employed the term constantly as a means of understanding the civilizing process. In this outstanding contribution to eighteenth-century studies, Houston shows how Franklin’s views on commerce, sociability, population growth, political union, and slavery were all tied to the idea of improvement.

Franklin’s understanding of improvement was most closely linked to commerce. Trade required the cultivation of human relationships based on personal need and interest. Economic development, in Franklin’s way of thinking, always led to sociability and mutual trust, resulting in a more civil society. In other words, there was no tension in Franklin’s thought between commerce and the virtue of society, a dichotomy that has long been a staple of classical republican thinking. But neither was Franklin a self-interested liberal. Houston’s analysis rescues Poor Richard from Weberian attempts to explain him as a man who cared only about accumulating wealth.

Houston argues convincingly that Franklin’s understanding of commerce explains his never-ending practice of forming voluntary associations. Rather than concentrating on some of the more well-known of Franklin’s associations such as the Junto or the Library Company, Houston describes his 1747 attempt to develop a volunteer militia in Philadelphia in response to the threat of pirate activity in the Delaware Bay. Franklin’s vision for this militia, known as the “Association,” was democratic in nature. It rejected the social hierarchies often associated with classical republican life, but it also required sociability and community among the tradesmen who participated in it.

Franklin believed that a growing population was essential to the development of any society. Such growth led to the increase of trade and wealth and, ultimately, human happiness. Yet, as Houston amply shows, Franklin’s“political arithmetic” also had a nativist flavor. Franklin had serious doubts over whether German immigrants could assimilate into the culture of the British colonies. Furthermore, Houston’s ahistorical attempt to discuss Franklin as foreshadowing Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection seems out of place, although it does raise some interesting questions.

Franklin, of course, is perhaps best known as a promoter of American independence. Houston reveals that Franklin was always thinking about the notion of political “union.” Whether it was his promotion of internal improvements, his proposals for colonial unity at the Albany Congress, or his arguments on the floor of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin believed that “without Union, improvement was not possible” (p. 222). His view of political union, like his belief in associational life, was driven by his commitment to democratic ideals. Franklin, for example, supported a strong federal government for the United States, but he demanded that government always be rooted in the voice of the people. His belief in a strong union embodied in the people was evident most clearly in his promotion of Pennsylvania’s controversial unicameral state legislature. Houston portrays Franklin as quintessentially
modern. He reiterates the point that Franklin had no use for the class structure inherent within a society ordered by the moral and social ideals of classical republicanism. Like commerce, society improved and the common good was strengthened through a sense of community defined by individual wants and needs.

Slavery, of course, did not fit very well with Franklin’s view of improvement. He believed that slavery was an institution left over from a previous stage of civilization. It was not until the end of his life that he decided to do something about slavery, but when Franklin finally did get involved in abolitionist causes he did so, according to Houston, based upon his longstanding commitment to societal improvement through commercialism. Slavery was an economically inefficient institution because it did not allow individuals to associate freely with one another in the kind of voluntary communities that were conducive to a civil society.

Houston’s book will be successful in convincing American political historians that the practice of pigeonholing the American founders into “republican” and “liberal” categories needs to stop. He has done early American historians a great service by offering a new approach to Franklin’s thought that is grounded in both his words and deeds. This clearly written and carefully argued interpretation of Franklin in his times provides us with a level of thoughtful reflection largely absent from the host of Franklin biographies that appeared during the recent sesquicentennial celebration of his birth.

Live Blogging Gordon Wood–Part 2

12:00–Wood starts out discussing how many of the Founder Fathers who lived into nineteenth century were not particularly pleased with the democratic turn that the Republic took.

Wood makes the comparison between the Founding Fathers’ mistrust of the people and the current disdain of populism among academics today. (He mentions Hofstadter’s work on populism and the current Tea Party movement.

12:05: If 1776 did not happen, Wood suggests, the United States would be a lot like Canada today. Canada is much more “community minded” and Americans are a lot more “individualistic.”

12:08: The discussion turns to Wood’s work on Benjamin Franklin. Wood notes, correctly, that Franklin did not become a model of American capitalism until the 19th century.

This C-Span host’s questions are all over the place. He is jumping from the early republic to Franklin, and now just asked a question about the power of Parliament. Wood is just taking it all in stride–answering whatever question is posed.

Wood notes that about 20% of the colonists were Loyalists. This number is below the well-known estimate of John Adams who thought that about 33% were Loyalists.

Wood compares the colonies on the eve of the Revolution to the European Union today. When those spoke of their “country” they meant “Virginia” or “Massachusetts,” not the United States of America.

Was Ben Franklin a Big Fat Idiot?

The New York Times Sunday Book Review is running a very funny piece by Joe Queenan about the pithy sayings in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Here is a taste:

True, the almanac does contain a number of insights into the human condition that have never been surpassed for their perspicacity, conciseness and utility. Fish and visitors really do stink after three days. To err is human; to repent really is divine. He who makes haste does in fact make waste. And I learned through bitter experience that when pride climbed into my coach, shame had a tendency to clamber in right behind it. All in all, I could not agree more with Franklin’s observation that well done is better than well said.

But a while back I realized that not all the wit and wisdom contained in Poor Richard’s Almanac was equally witty or equally wise. It happened like this: Feeling that my life had lost direction over the years, that I had strayed too far from the path of the righteous, I decided last winter to go back and take a Poor Richard refresher course, in the hope of reconfiguring my moral and ethical infrastructure. In doing so, I was stunned to discover how many of Franklin’s axioms failed the acid test of validity and usefulness…

Sadly, as I wended my way through the pages, I discovered a number of maxims whose inclusion in this otherwise sagacious compendium befuddled me. Some seemed dated. Others seemed like a bit of a stretch. But a surprising number made no sense whatsoever. For example, why would anyone think that “hunger is the best pickle”? Why would the eye of a master do more work than his hand? And why would the Devil wipe his breech with poor folks’ pride?

Paging disconsolately through the almanac, I was floored by the number of supposedly canny old sayings whose meaning completely escaped me. If the mastiff is gentle, why would you even think of biting him by the lip? Why would the wise man walk, not run, when escaping from fire, a woman or an enemy? I’d run. Why would it be better to eat salt with the philosophers of Greece than sugar with the courtiers of Italy? And what was the scientific basis for the conclusion that monkeys, warm with envious spite, their most obliging friends would bite? Was Franklin simply making this stuff up?