Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

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For their fear of a president like Donald Trump

For creating three branches of government

For opposing gerrymandering

For trying to protect the country from the tyranny of the majority

For instituting a way to amend the Constitution in order to protect the states

For growing weed

For being “living men” and fallible humans

For separating church and state

For protecting intellectual property

For owning slaves

For opposing a bipartisan political system

For opposing the idea of secession

For standing up against a tyrannical government that is not unlike the one today that is trying to end DACA

For believing that we are all created equal

For committing crimes of slavery and genocide

For promoting literacy

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

What the Founding Fathers Read

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I just learned about Greg Specter‘s Duquesne University course titled What the Founders Read at the Pedagogy & American Literature Studies blog.  It looks great.  Here is a taste of his post on the course:

This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course…

In light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.

I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.

Read the entire post here.

More on the Bust of Richard Stockton

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Last week we published a post on Stockton University‘s decision to remove a bust of Richard Stockton from its library.  Stockton was a New Jersey revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The bust will be replaced with a more thorough exhibit that will apparently deal with Stockton as a slave holder.   Read our post here.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell offers his own thoughts on the remove of the Stockton bust.

Here is a taste:

This month brought news that Stockton University in New Jersey has removed a bust of Richard Stockton (shown above) from its library. The reason was not, however, because his iconic status in the state rests on a shaky legend of stoic suffering at the hands of the enemy.

Rather, the university removed the bust because Stockton owned slaves. Those people are documented in his will, in which the judge said his widow Annis could free them if she chose. (I’ve found no evidence she did so. Their son Richard owned slaves as an adult, as did their daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush—even though he advocated for an end to slavery.)

As a public university, and one founded to provide more opportunities for students who don’t have advantages in our society, Stockton University has good reason not to glorify someone who participated in slave-owning even while championing liberty for gentlemen like himself.

At the same time, I don’t see how removing Stockton’s bust will fix that contradiction when the institution is still, you know, named Stockton University.

The school started in the 1970s as South Jersey State College and evolved through Stockton State College, Richard Stockton State College, and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey before becoming Stockton University in 2015. Has the Stockton name developed enough of its own legacy to leave the judge behind? Does Stockton’s documented interest in higher education (as a trustee of Princeton College) make him a good namesake for a university despite his other behavior?

Good questions.

Read the entire post here.

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked:

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For owning slaves

For creating a Supreme Court that would exercise “judgement” and not “its will.”

For “casting the die” in the “direction of equality.”

For establishing civilian control of the military.

For writing the Second Amendment

For opposing slavery

For inspiring conservatives

For “knowing what they were doing” when they wrote the First Amendment

For inspiring gun toting and Bible thumping

For teaching us to live with our differences

For being biblically literate

For opposing hate

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

 

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

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My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

Today The Founding Fathers Were Invoked:

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For their differences with the Confederate founders

For protecting us against theocracy

For the fact that there are statues memorializing them

For defending small government

For setting an example of equality that our current POTUS ignores

For their views on slavery and the Constitution

For upholding “equality for everybody,” including the LGBT community

For apparently inspiring Colin Kaepernick

For their eating habits

For seeding white supremacy

For their opposition to political partisanship

For being Godly

For their imperfection

For protecting us against the “devils in our nature.”

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

 

Monuments Present a “conflict that cannot be resolved”

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Should we rename this monument?

David Bell, a historian of revolutionary France who teaches at Princeton, offers some solid perspective on the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments.  He focuses particularly on Donald Trump’s remarks comparing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Here is a taste:

In the end, if we are to have any confidence in our own moral standards, we must believe that these standards are universally applicable, across time and space. And so, we must be ready to criticize figures in the past for attitudes and practices we consider abhorrent. If our moral standards are to have any meaning, then they don’t simply apply because we believe in them. They apply because they are right.

Yes, we also need to acknowledge that an overly rigid application of this principle would soon leave us with very little history to honor and celebrate, because few, if any, prominent figures of the past lived up to the moral standards of 21st-century Americans. Taken to the extreme, it would, indeed, mean tearing down the Washington Monument, and perhaps even the Lincoln Memorial.

But countries need their history. They need heroes and leaders to venerate, to inspire new generations, and to act as a source of unity. National unity can be a very fragile thing, as Americans today know all too well. Revolutionary movements have sometimes tried to consign their national pasts to the dustbin of history and to start over. The French revolutionaries famously introduced a new calendar, numbering the years from the birth of the French republic in 1792 and condemning nearly all of what came before as darkness, feudalism and superstition, unworthy of veneration. It didn’t work. Such attempts at erasure go against the deeply human need to feel a connection with the past.

The conflict, then, is one between two principles. On one hand, we should not honor people who did things and held beliefs that were morally objectionable. On the other, we need a common history we can take pride in as a nation. It is a conflict that cannot be resolved with cheap sound bites of the sort uttered by the president and his backers this week. They can be resolved only with careful, reasoned judgments, backed up by logic and evidence.

When it comes to particular figures in the past, such judgments involve, above all, looking carefully at their entire historical record. In the case of Washington, it involves weighing his role as a slave owner against his role as a heroic commander in chief, as an immensely popular political leader who resisted the temptation to become anything more than a republican chief executive, and who brought the country together around the new Constitution. Calhoun, by contrast, devoted his political career above all to the defense of slavery. The distinction between the two is not difficult to make.

Lee’s case is clear-cut. Whatever admirable personal qualities he may have had, he was also a man who took up arms against his country in defense of an evil institution. In my view, he doesn’t deserve to be honored in any fashion.

Read the entire piece here.  This is one the best short pieces I have read on this issue.

 

Today The Founding Fathers Were Invoked:

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For their agreement with John Locke about property rights

For believing in a Creator-God

For their opposition to political parties

For apportioning political power based on population

For the hypocrisy of their slave ownership

For their commitment to a “constitutional democracy” and not a “centralized bureaucracy”

For pledging their “lives, their land and their sacred honor”

For building checks and balances into the Constitution

For “cobbling together” our “federal union”

For their intelligence and education

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked:

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For their belief in a creator

For “setting up” the idea of sending bills to conference

For their “warnings” to future generations

For their love of craft beer

For their fear of demagogues

For their ability to rise to prominence from humble means

For their passion for service to the American people.  (This was Trump last night in West Virginia).

For setting up a system of checks and balances

For their “button-up” style

For their inability to see the “explosion of money in politics.”

For instituting the president’s power of pardon

For their connection to Philadelphia

For their decision to keep religion “away” from politics.

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

The Freemasons and Christian America

FreeMasonryI have done and continue to do a lot of talks on my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  One of my favorite parts of every lecture is the question and answer period.  At nearly every presentation someone will ask me a version of these two questions:

  • Doesn’t the Treaty of Tripoli make it clear, once and for all, that we were not founded as a Christian nation?
  • What does the fact that many founding fathers were Masons tell us about whether or not they believed they were founding a Christian nation?

I write about the Treaty of Tripoli at the beginning of the book, but I say nothing about the Masons.  If there is a third edition of the book, I think I will need to add something about the founding fathers and their relationship to Freemasonry.

Over at JSTOR, Peter Feurerherd has a short piece on Masons in America.  It is a nice starting point on this topic.

Here is a taste:

The United States Masons (also known as Freemasons) originated in England and became a popular association for leading colonials after the first American lodge was founded in New Jersey in 1730. Masonic brothers pledged to support one another and provide sanctuary if needed. The fraternity embodied European Enlightenment ideals of liberty, autonomy, and God as envisioned by Deist philosophers as a Creator who largely left humanity alone.

Those theological views created friction with established Christian churches, particularly Catholics and Lutherans. While the Masons captured the allegiance of much of the early Republic’s elite, the group did fall under widespread suspicion. The William Morgan affair of 1826—when a former Mason broke ranks and promised to  expose the group’s secrets—threatened its demise. Morgan was abducted and presumed killed by Masons, and the scandal proved a low point in the public image of the fraternal order.

The anti-Mason backlash grew. Abolitionists like John Brown railed against the often pro-slavery Masons. Prominent figures including John Quincy Adams, a former president and former Mason, and publisher Horace Greeley joined in the widespread castigation. Future president Millard Fillmore called Masonic orders nothing better than “organized treason.” In 1832, an anti-Masonic party ran a one-issue candidate for president. He captured Vermont’s electoral votes.

Feuerherd’s post draws heavily from two scholarly articles:

More Founding Fathers

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We tried this experiment last week.  Let’s try it again.

In the last 24 hours, the so-called “Founding Fathers” of the United States were invoked

For their use of Madeira wine

For not being circumcised

For opposing filibusters

For separating church and state

For limiting the freedom of police

For their apparent opposition to the 16th amendment

For their apparent opposition to the 17th amendment

For their commitment to checks and balances

For their belief in the exercise of personal will and reliance upon God

For their belief in a two-party system

For their support of diversity in the military

For their support of “Constitutional Carry

For their support of healthcare

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

In the Last 7 Days the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

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For their commitment to the separation of church and state

For their concerns about the abuse of power

For their belief in a free press

For their support of term limits

For their support of a minimum wage

For their defense of the right to bear arms

For their opposition to corporations

For their belief in self-government

For their dreams

For instituting a system of checks and balances

For their opposition to tyranny

Their hatred of the poor

For their support of health care

For their fear of big government

For their knowledge of the Bible

For their belief that members of Congress should represent the wants of their constituencies

For their defense of free speech

For their criticism of vast quantities of wealth

For the belief in free trade

For supporting whistleblowers

For their love of beer

For their working-class backgrounds

For their belief in an amendment process

For their appeal to a Judeo-Christian God

For laying the foundation for a diverse country

Yes, we need good history!

The founders “worried incessantly” about “irrational actors in a government premised on rationality”

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Sarah Swedberg teaches history at Colorado Mesa University.  In her recent post at Nursing Clio she explores the views of the founding fathers on emotional stability and instability.

Here is a taste:

In this country, anxieties about the mental stability or instability of our leaders can be traced back to the earliest years of the republic. The founding generation worried incessantly about the possibility of irrational actors in a government premised on rationality. In opposition to ratification of the Constitution, George Clinton fretted that it would be difficult to guard against the “unbridled ambition of a bad man, or afford security against negligence, cruelty, or any other defect of mind….”

As the United States emerged from the American Revolution, Americans agonized about the possible failure of their experiments in government. The new systems that arose during and after the war emphasized the social compact, linking the individual and government explicitly. As the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution stated: “The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all should be governed by certain laws for the common good.”

More:

In 1789, in the First Congress, as members of the U.S. House of Representatives sought to understand the nature of the checks and balances within their new government, Congressmen debated whether the President should have the power to remove Department heads from office. Insanity played no small part in this debate. Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts asked: “Suppose, sir, a man becomes insane by the visitation of God, and is likely to run our affairs; are the hands of government to be confined from warding off the evil?”

While Sedgwick wanted the President to be able to act quickly, Congressman James Jackson of Georgia disagreed. He took the argument further, stating that it was possible that the President might suffer from “an absolute fit of lunacy,” and continued that “although it was improbable that the majority of both houses of Congress may be in that situation, yet is by no means impossible.”

Read the entire piece here.

More on David Barton’s Use of That John Adams Quote

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Yesterday we did a lengthy post showing how Christian Right activist David Barton manipulated a John Adams quote to make it sound like Adams supported the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Barton is up to his old tricks here.  He is being deliberately deceptive. He seems to have no problem manipulating the past in this way to promote his agenda.

After I published my post, Southern Methodist University historian Kate Carte Engel took to twitter to give her take on Adams, Christianity, and the American founding.

Here it is:

Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.

The Author’s Corner With Tom Cutterham

CutterhamTom Cutterham is a lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. This interview is based on his new book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic  (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: When I started out as a graduate student in 2010 I wanted to write a book that showed just how very wrong Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were about the founders’ conception of the state. Then I realised Max Edling had already written that book. But while I’d been reading through what Congressmen and pamphleteers were writing in the 1780s I became more and more interested not just in their explicitly political ideas, but in the ways they expressed anxieties about status and stability. The founding really was a revolution in favour of government, but what they wanted government to do, and what they wanted government to protect, were really not the things that I’d expected — so that’s what I wrote my thesis on, and that’s what became the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: It argues that a hodge-podge of revolutionary elites formed themselves into something resembling a national ruling class over the course of the 1780s, largely as a result of their collective need to respond to what they saw as dangerously levelling and “licentious” democratic movements. On a slightly more meta level, it also tries to show how important political and moral concepts like “justice” itself are shaped by forms of (and struggles for) institutional and discursive power — so you can’t really understand ideas without social relations, or vice versa.

JF: Why do we need to read Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: So, so often I see accounts of the American Revolution skip merrily from Yorktown to Philadelphia, 1781 to 1787, with narry a glance at the years in between. Hamilton the musical does it in a few verses of one song. I hope people will read Gentlemen Revolutionaries and at the very least, get a sense of just how crucial the 1780s were. I also hope it will change the way they think about the process of revolution and the founding, both as a social and cultural epoch and as a series of political events. For one thing, Gentlemen Revolutionaries aims to force people to stop taking debates about the Constitution as the be-all and end-all of political struggle in that period. Of course, you also need to read the book for Noah Webster being a whiny brat, Joel Barlow helping to write a surreal anti-democratic poem, and a mini-revolution in Rhode Island that pretty much no-one ever talks about.

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

TC: I wanted to be a historian before I wanted to be an American historian. The latter part came towards the end of my undergraduate degree when I was studying the “Age of Jefferson” with Peter Thompson, who became my graduate advisor. Apart from my lamentable inability to learn ancient Greek, which meant I couldn’t be the historian of Alexander’s conquests that I kind of had my eye on being, I think the political context of both the War on Terror, and the global financial crisis (which peaked right in the middle of my undergraduate course) had the effect of always keeping my eyes on the United States as basically the epicentre of world events. That’s how it seemed to me at the time, so trying to understand the United States and its global impact was what I wanted to do as a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I’m writing a book about the age of bourgeois revolutions in the Atlantic world, which also happens to centre on the remarkable, transatlantic lives of Angelica Schuyler and her husband John Church. Since I began the research in the summer of 2014, Angelica has achieved a much bigger profile! But her life is so much more than her relationship with Alexander Hamilton: it took her to a Paris on the threshold of its own revolution, into the circles of radical reformist politics in London, and back to New York in time to see the age of Federalist dominance come crashing down. In Gentlemen Revolutionaries, I tried to give a sense of character and spirit in the people I wrote about, but this new project is an opportunity to do that in a much more sustained way. It’s about using individual lives to uncover massive structures and processes. Ultimately, the historical is always personal.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

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.

Would the Founding Fathers Be Happy With Our Nation Today?

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Fox News recently asked registered voters if the Founding Fathers, if they were alive today, would be happy with the state of the nation they created? 79% of respondents answered “No.” (They would not be happy).

First, allow me to play the role of educated, elite, college professor. This poll implies that Americans know what the Founding Fathers actually thought and believed about the republic they created in 1776.

Second, the poll asks people to put the Founders in a time capsule and ask them to come to the 21st century to cast judgment on a society that would be mostly foreign to them.  I imagine (but what I do I know, I am a historian) that they would like some of it and hate some of it.

Third, we do know that the Founding Fathers thought that an informed citizenry was absolutely essential to the survival of the republic.  So I am guessing they would wonder about the usefulness of such a poll.

And I am sure they might say something about Donald Trump. 🙂