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

Barton Quote

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:

David Barton Can’t Let Go Of This John Adams Quote

This appeared on Barton’s Facebook page today:

Barton Quote

Sounds pretty good if your a Christian nationalist.  But let’s take a deeper look at this quote.

I have excerpted the pertinent parts of the letter below.  Warren Throckmorton, who wrote about this letter yesterday on his blog, has highlighted those passages that Barton quotes in the above meme.

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.”* Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. 

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. 

Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

A few comments:

  1. This is a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson dated 28 June 1813. I do not own this document. I read it at Founders Online, a National Archives database of the writings of the Founding Fathers.  Don’t be fooled by David Barton when he tells you that he has some special insight into the nation’s founding because he owns original documents.  Most of what he owns is accessible to anyone via this database. I found the document in less than a minute.  You can too.  I encourage you to match Barton’s selective use of quotes with the actual documents in the database.
  2. Barton is always complaining that so-called “liberal” historians use ellipses to leave out parts of documents that mention God or religion.  Notice the quote in the above meme.  Then read the actual letter.  It seems to me that the material left out by Barton’s ellipses goes a long way toward helping us understand what John Adams really meant here.  It looks like “liberal” historians are not the only ones who have this problem.
  3.  In the first paragraph, Adams is describing the religious affiliations of the men present at the Continental Congress.  Notice that the list includes “deists” and “atheists” along with more traditional Christian denominations.
  4.  In the second and third paragraphs, Adams notes that the group who met in Philadelphia was so religiously diverse that the only ideas holding them together were the “general principles of Christianity.”  What does he mean by this phrase?  It is hard to tell at first glance.  But if there were indeed “deists” and “atheists” in the room, these “general principles” must have been understood by Adams as a system of belief that was far less orthodox than the Christianity of the ancient creeds.  An “atheist” might be able to find common ground around a Christian moral code (say, for example, the Sermon on the Mount), but could not affirm the existence of God. A “deist” would have rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and, in some cases, God’s providence in human affairs, but he could certainly unite behind a moral code based on the teachings of Jesus. (I titled my chapter on the highly unorthodox Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus”). So let’s return to our original question.  What did Adams mean when he said the Continental Congress was held together by “the general principles of Christianity?” If we take the beliefs of the “atheists” and the “deists” (and, I might add, the “universalists, “Socinians,” and “Preistleyans”)  seriously, the “general principles of Christianity” was a phrase Adams used to describe a very vague moral code that all of these men–the orthodox and the unorthodox–could affirm.
  5. The third paragraph also affirms that these men were united by the “general principles of English and American liberty.”  This tells us that in addition to some very basic moral principles compatible with the ethical teachings of Christianity, the founders shared a common belief in liberty.  This should not surprise anyone.  A belief in liberty was part of their English heritage.  No English heritage of liberty, no American Revolution.  As I tell my classes, the English taught the colonists how to rebel.
  6. The fourth paragraph tells us that Adams believes that these “general principles” of Christianity and liberty could be easily affirmed by a host of secular writers, including Hume and Voltaire, two of the Enlightenment’s staunchest critics of organized Christianity. These “general principles of Christianity” must have been pretty watered-down if Hume and Voltaire could affirm them.  Again, the reference here is to a vague morality, not the particular teachings of orthodox Christianity.

In the end, if we look at the parts of the letter Barton does not mention in his meme we would get a very different view of the role of Christianity in the American founding than the Christian nationalist message he wants to convey to his Facebook followers.  This is cherry-picking at its finest.

(Thanks to Warren Throckmorton for the inspiration to write this post).

Is “Hamilton” the New “1776?”

Yes.

Watch this clip.  It will be stuck in your head all day:

Matthew Rozsa agrees with the title of this post.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Salon:

It’s a great story, one that both I and many of my close friends ritualistically watch every 4th of July. Yet what about “1776” makes it so resonant? Why does this movie stand out when countless other patriotically themed motion pictures fade into the background?

It’s instructive to first look at another recent musical about our Founding Fathers, “Hamilton.” While it doesn’t pass a lot of tests when it comes to historical accuracy, “Hamilton” works so well because it brilliantly resurrects the philosophical debates that were at the core of America’s founding during the ratification of the Constitution and the administration of President George Washington.

“1776” does the same thing, only with a different moment from American history. It picks apart the debates that occurred between, on the one side, Adams and other revolutionaries who believed America needed to break free from the British Empire, and, on the other, the motley of factions who, for various reasons, felt we should remain loyal to Great Britain.

Read the entire piece here.

Was the Declaration of Independence a “Plea for Help?”

bd05c-declarationofindependence

This is the title of Ishaan Tharoor‘s Washington Post interview with historian Larrie Ferrerio, author of the recent Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.  (Check out my review of this book at Education and Culture).

The idea of the Declaration of Independence as a “plea for help” will not sit well with many Americans today, especially on the Fourth  of July, but this does not make it any less true.  I explored this issue a bit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction?.  Here is an excerpt:

Most would agree that the Declaration of Independence was not a theological or religious documents, but neither was it designed predominantly to teach Americans and the world about human rights.  Americans have become so taken by the second paragraph of the document that they miss the purpose of the Declaration as understood by the Continental Congress, its team of authors, and its chief writer, Thomas Jefferson.  In the context of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was just what it claimed to be–a “declaration” of “independence” from England and an assertion of American sovereignty in the world.Revised

Historian David Armitage has argued convincingly that the Declaration of Independence was written primarily as a document asserting American political sovereignty in the hopes that the newly created United States would secure a place in the international community of nations.  In fact, Armitage asserts, the Declaration was discussed abroad more than it was at home.  This meant that the Declaration was “decidedly un-revolutionary.  It would affirm the maxims of European statecraft, not affront them.”  To put this differently, the “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights” of the Declaration’s second paragraph would not have been particularly new or groundbreaking in the context of the eighteenth-century British world.  These were ideals that all members of the British Empire values regardless of whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution.  The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Second Continental Congress who endorsed and signed it did not believe that they were advancing, as historian Pauline Maier has put it, “a classic statement of American political principles.”  This was a foreign policy document.

The writers of the Declaration viewed the document this way.  In an 1825 letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained his motivation behind writing it:

“when forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our jurisdiction.  This was the object of the Declaration of Independence.  Not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of…but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

John Adams, writing five years after he signed it, called the Declaration “that memorable Act by which [the United States] assumed an equal Station among the nation.”  Adams’s son, John Quincy, though not a participant in the Continental Congress, described the Declaration as “merely an occasional state paper. It was a solemn exposition to the world of the causes which had compelled the people of a small portion of the British empire, to cast off their allegiance and renounce the protection of the British king: and to resolve their social connection with the British people.”  There is little in these statements to suggest that the Declaration of Independence was anything other than an announcement to the world that the former British colonies were now free and independent states and thus deserved a place in the international order of nations.”

Here is Ferreiro:

We typically look at the Declaration of Independence as a document written to King George III by the American people, stating why we wanted to become an independent nation. That’s what we tell each other when we celebrate the Fourth of July.

Brothers in ArmsBut when you look at what happened in 1776, it was clear George III had already got the memo that the Americans wanted to be independent. And when you look at the writing of the Founding Fathers, they make it very clear that they knew they could not fight Britain by themselves. They knew that the only countries that had the motivation and the military and naval capabilities to defeat Britain were France and Spain. And the only way they could join on the Americans’ side was if they knew this was not simply a battle of colonists with their mother country to get a better deal. They only would come to our aid if they saw that we were fighting as a sovereign, independent nation against a common adversary.

The Declaration was specifically written for that purpose, and both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said this — they were quite clear in their writings. Thomas Jefferson took those ideas and made a document for the ages, a truly enlightened document that read out many of the ideas of the time on what constitutes the rights of the state and the people. But at the core it was a cry for help. The first considered action by Congress after the Declaration was approved was to put it on a ship so it could reach the courts of France and Spain.

Read the rest of the interview here.

The Election of 1800 and Today

larson-posterYesterday the Messiah College History Department hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson for a lecture titled “The Election of 1800 and the Birth of Partisan Presidential Politics.”  The lecture stemmed from Larson’s 2007 book A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign.

I will not offer a blow-by-blow account of the lecture here.  Those interested should read Larson’s book.  It is fast-moving and accessible.

But as Larson lectured to a room packed with undergraduates, faculty, and community members, I was once again struck by the many similarities (and differences) between the Election of 1800 and the Election of 2016.

Here is how I introduced Larson’s lecture:

Was 2016 the most contentious election in American history?  It seems that every election we hear the same things: “Political polarization has never been worse.”  “The rancor and divisiveness is unprecedented.”  But when historians hear words like “never been worse” or “unprecedented,” our natural inclination is skepticism.  As Americans we can so easily become enslaved by the narcissism of the present that we start to believe that what is happening today is the “best,” the “worst,” or the “most hard fought” of ALL TIME.

We can have an honest debate about whether the 2016 election was the most divisive election in American history. But any such debate MUST take into the consideration the Election of 1800.  This was an election of cantankerous politicking.  It was the first United States presidential election that saw the peaceful transition of power from one political party to another.  And it had a controversial ending that makes last night’s announcement of “Best Picture” pale in comparison.

We are privileged today to have Ed Larson with us to help us sort it all out. 

As Larson gave us a blow-by-blow account of this controversial election he focused his remarks around the three themes.  As he sees it, the Election of 1800 was a contest over:

  1. National Security.  Adams and the Federalists claimed that they could protect the United States from the outside interference of armed French radicals and the threat of the French navy in the Caribbean.
  2. Immigration.  The Federalists had just passed the Alien Act which made immigration into the United States difficult. It allowed the government to turn away immigrants and refugees out of fear that some of them (radicals) might try to overthrow the republic.
  3. Religion.  The Federalist painted Jefferson as an atheist.  Jefferson painted Adams as a religious hypocrite who favored a state church.

Sound familiar?  Perhaps we might even add a fourth point–freedom of the press or freedom of speech.  The Sedition Act made anti-Federalist/anti-Adams rhetoric punishable by law.

As I tweeted following the lecture:

The Greatest Cabinet of All Time?

cabinet

On two different occasions today Donald Trump said that he has the smartest cabinet (in terms of IQ) of “any cabinet ever assembled.”  Of course there is no way to prove this.  But “ever assembled” is a historical statement.  So let’s compare Trump’s nominees (none of them, I might add, have been confirmed yet) with two other presidential cabinets:

President George Washington had  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, and Henry Knox in his cabinet.

President Abraham Lincoln had the so called “Team of Rivals”: Salmon Chase, William Seward, Simon Cameron, and Edwin Stanton.

Of course we could name other cabinets as well, but I imagine that the names will be less familiar to our readers.

I’ll let you decide if Trump’s statement about his cabinet is correct.

To give Trump the benefit of the doubt, I think he made his comments about the cabinet in jest. Having said that, Trump’s statement that he has assembled one of the greatest cabinets in American history reminds me of what Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson said in a recent column: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”

More Historical Context on the Electoral College

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The work of historians in helping ordinary Americans make sense of the electoral college has been stellar.  We have already called attention to pieces by Kevin Gannon and Robert Tracy McKenzie.  Today I want to recommend Andrew Shankman‘s Historical News Network essay, “What Were the Founders Thinking When They Created the Electoral College?

Andy reminds us that if the original framers of the Constitution (and the Electoral College) had their way Donald Trump would be President and Hillary Clinton would be Vice President.

Here is a taste:

Created by the Constitution, the original Electoral College worked like this: each state appointed electors equal to its number of senators (2) plus representatives, apportioned at a ratio of 1 for every 30,000 residents. Each elector cast two votes for president and at least one of those votes had to be for someone outside the elector’s state. If someone received the most votes and a majority, he became president. The second highest vote-getter became vice president. If no one received a majority, the decision went to the House of Representatives, which could choose the president from among the top five vote-getters, and had to make the highest vote-getter vice president if they chose not to make him president. To us these original procedures may sound insane, this year they would make majority vote-getter Donald Trump president and Hillary Clinton vice president.

So, what were the Founders thinking? The Founders were inspired by the classical republics of Greece and Rome and believed they had collapsed when they stopped seeking the public good as their citizens divided into parties to pursue their own interests. For the Founders the public good emerged from a coherent set of values, and understanding how to achieve it required a deep knowledge of the classics, of natural law, common law, and the law of nations, and of the new science of political economy that arose during the Enlightenment. Above all, one had to possess disinterested virtue–putting aside personal interests for the sake of the public good. The Founders thought that most citizens were not capable of fully comprehending the public good. For the United States to succeed, the small group of great and talented men who could would have to guide them. Believing in a unifying singular public good, the Founders saw no value in political parties. Parties existed to promote competing interests, which was contrary to the public good. Citizens either embraced the public good or they behaved selfishly and badly.

Only by starting with these assumptions did the Electoral College make sense. After George Washington’s presidency, the Founders assumed their Electoral College would routinely place the decision of who would be president with the House of Representatives. They reasoned that the small group capable of comprehending the public good was evenly distributed geographically. A reasonable number of them would stand for election. Each would be equally qualified virtuous gentlemen. Without political parties to inflame passions and mobilize voters into a few large groups, only rarely would a candidate gain majority support in the Electoral College. The Electoral College would helpfully sort out five from the larger group of the equally qualified, but usually would do little more than that.

Yet almost immediately after ratification of the Constitution, reality obliterated the Founders’ plan….

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Luke Mayville

johnadamsandthefearofoligarchyLuke Mayville is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy?

LM: As a graduate student reading texts in the tradition of Western political philosophy by writers like Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli, I was struck by the extent to which such writers paid such careful attention to the problem of “oligarchy”—or political domination by social and economic elites. This was striking given my own preconceived idea that major writers in the Western tradition prior to Marx were not especially interested in issues of class and inequality.

I was particularly intrigued by the way these philosophers tried to manage the problem of oligarchy by establishing “mixed” institutions that would balance the power of social-economic elites (“the few”) with the power of ordinary citizens (“the many”). A fear years into my graduate studies I learned that John Adams was a powerful purveyor of this tradition of thought. Even as the classical distinction between “the few” and “the many” was quickly fading during his lifetime, Adams continued to insist on a class-based understanding of society and politics. My hunch that Adams had something interesting to say about elites and the power of wealth was confirmed when I discovered that C. Wright Mills, the great 20th-century sociologist and author of the The Power Elite, once invoked John Adams as a founding-era predecessor with a shrewd understanding of elite power.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy?

LM: The argument of the book is that the danger of oligarchy was a central concern for Adams. Furthermore, over the course of his prolific writing career he articulated theories about wealth and power that remain relevant today.

JF: Why do we need to read John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy?

LM: We are accustomed to the idea that our Founding Fathers thought deeply about timeless issues such as religious liberty, constitutional checks and balances, and the danger of majority tyranny. Less well known is the extent to which they reflected on economic inequality and its effects on our political life.

In the writings of John Adams, we find both sustained reflection on inequality and also a unique explanation of the immense political power of wealth. According to Adams, wealth is powerful not merely because it buys votes or purchases influence in other ways, but also because citizens in commercial societies such as ours admire the rich and follow them out of a peculiar kind of sympathy. Perhaps Adams can help us explain how billionaires sometimes command influence in our politics without spending a dime.

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

LM: My training is in political science, not history, and so at heart I am a student of political theory first and an American historian second. That said, I began focusing on the ideas of Americans when I first learned, early in graduate school, the extent to which the American experience is rich in political thought—that even as they were immersed in debates and struggles of their own times, Americans from John Adams to W.E.B. Du Bois to Reinhold Niebuhr have grappled with enduring questions of political philosophy. I was fortunate as a graduate student to study with political science and political theory professors who took American ideas very seriously.

JF: What is your next project?

LM: As I mentioned before, I first became interested in John Adams when I came to understand him as an inheritor of an old tradition of thinking about politics—a tradition that can be called classical republican—that understood the danger of oligarchy to be among the chief problems of political life and of constitutional design.

As I move away from my recent project on John Adams, I am interested in zooming out and exploring the broader classical republican tradition of writing on oligarchy. My hunch—supported by scholarship by John McCormick, David Lay Williams, Gordon Arlen, and others—is that republican writers from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Harrington had insights about wealth and power that have not been fully appreciated by contemporary analysts and critics of inequality.

JF: Thanks, Luke!

We are Getting Close to the Election of 1800

Back in the day POTUS elections were about competing ideas.  Right?

Not really.

Today Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump a racist.  Trump responded by calling Clinton a bigot.

We are getting close to the rhetoric of the campaign of 1800, although it is worth noting that little of the language in this video came directly from the mouth of the candidates–John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Was John Adams a Christian?

a8345-adamsIn light of the recent Twitter debate between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby on the religion of Thomas Jefferson, I thought I would call your attention to a blog post from my friend Matthew Hunter.

I don’t know if Hunter was aware of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate when he wrote this, but his post about John Adams clearly comes down on the Haselby side.  Adams may have thought he was a Christian, but his rejection of the Christian doctrine of the trinity makes it difficult to label him as one.  Adams may have said he was a Christian, but he was not.

So how do we interpret Adams’s religion? Do we take Adams’s word for it?  Or do we interpret Adams’s faith in light of the history of Christian orthodoxy?  As I said several times in the midst of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate, the former is a a historical issue and the latter is a theological issue.  This does not mean that these two ways of understanding of the world cannot speak to one another.  In fact, some interdisciplinary thinkers like Hunter might argue that they should be speaking to one another.

In the end, Hunter is correct about at least one thing.  When we  point out that Adams’s beliefs were unorthodox we set the record straight for the Christian nationalists who want to use the second president’s supposed Christian beliefs to promote a political agenda in the present.  John Adams may have been a Christian, but I am guessing that David Barton would not want to have him on the elder board of his church.

Here is a taste of Hunter’s post:

This is a hard post to write, because suggesting any sort of gulf that favors the scholarly view is going to be tainted with a certain elitism that smacks of the sort of gulf represented above, where a semi-divine historical person presides over the terrestrial mess of mortals. There are things that they know that mere mortals cannot know. And you know that scholars are not semi-divine. Nevertheless, a gulf exists. I write this as someone whose academic training was a blend of history, social sciences and theology, so I am not strictly “a historian,” though the American founding does factor into my work.

The gulf I have in mind was brought back to the forefront of my mind when Susan Lim, a reputable Christian historian at Biola recently wrote an article about religion and the Founding Fathers for Christianity Today. Lim wrote,

“Washington’s successor, John Adams, was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian. As David McCullough recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Adams regularly boasted of his Puritan ancestry, sometimes bordered on legalism (he often refused to travel on the Sabbath), and occasionally cast stones against those he deemed less spiritual than himself. For example, Adams made it a point to highlight Jefferson’s nontraditional religious convictions when they both vied for the presidency.”

This surprised me, because I believed it was fairly well established that Adams was basically a U/unitarian (did not believe in the Trinity) unlike the Puritans, though he may have remained in Puritan Congregationalist churches. I wrote the following email to Susan (actually, I emailed “Dr. Lim” who graciously told me to call her Susan):

“I have no doubt that Adams was a man of faith and may have valued his Puritan heritage, but it seems to me that we have it pretty decisively in his own words that he was a Unitarian and (perhaps a bit more ambiguously) that he also had serious reservations about the incarnation. I appreciate the fact that there is some disagreement on this, but it mostly seems to come from American Filiopietists with political agendas.  I’m not sure how you say that he was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian.” I guess I can sort of spin this in a way, but I think it is liable to mislead many readers.”

Susan responded: “No doubt, the term “Puritan” is a messy one.  I shy away from it in my research.  I used it here because I assume that the majority of the readers aren’t academics, and the term “Congregational” won’t resonate with as many readers.  Puritanism has come to mean so many things to so many people; and as I’m sure you know, many of the social constructs of Puritanism were made in the 19th C (largely through fiction) to comment on Victorian society (by using Puritans as actors).  Or, as Mencken wrote, that Puritanism is thought of as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.  Of course we know that this obviously doesn’t do the Puritans justice.  What I meant was that John Adams hailed from a Puritan/Congregational family, and remained committed to his Congregational church.  Yes, that church (along with many other  Congregationalist churches) moved towards Unitarianism by the mid-18th C, but I didn’t want to go into the development of Congregationalism (or Puritanism, if you will) here.”

Note that if this is true, Adams was in the advance guard of a group of Puritan Congregationalists who rejected the the doctrine of the Trinity that had defined Christian Orthodoxy for around 1400 years. At the time, many/most U/unitarians did consider themselves Christians and their services of worship would have resembled Trinitarian Puritans’ services a great deal. Susan Lim is a knowledgeable scholar. She also possesses the virtue of inclusion in her approach to John Adams and Christianity (something many contemporary Christians could learn from). I don’t believe she was trying to fool anyone. However, I still think this way of writing about things plays into the hands of those who have a political agenda and are also much sloppier in their characterizations of the faith of the founders. 

Read the rest here.

Gordon Wood on John Adams

AdamsOver at the website of The Library of America (the real LOA, not the Randall Stephens version), historian Gordon Wood discusses the life of John Adams.  Wood is the editor of John Adams: Writings from the New Nation, 1784-1826.

In this part of the interview, Wood discusses Adams’s view of “American exceptionalism.”

LOA: It has become a commonplace in American politics today to call the United States an exceptional nation. Would Adams have agreed?

Wood: Jefferson believed that the United States was a chosen nation with a special responsibility to spread democracy around the world. More than any other figure in our history Jefferson is responsible for the idea of American exceptionalism. Adams could not have disagreed more. Deeply versed in history, he said over and over that America had no special providence, no special role in history, that Americans were no different from other peoples, that the United States was just as susceptible to viciousness and corruption as any other nation. In this regard, at least, Jefferson’s vision has clearly won the day.

Read the entire interview here.

Chief Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Was a Lame-Duck Appointment

MarshallOver at the blog of Oxford University Press, historian R.B. Bernstein reminds us that John Marshall, the man who many consider to be the most influential Supreme Court Justice in American history, was a so-called “lame-duck” appointment.

Here is a taste:

Those who argue that lame-duck presidents should not nominate justices to the Supreme Court have forgotten or ignored the most consequential appointment in the Court’s — and the nation’s — history: President John Adams’s 1801 appointment of John Marshall as the nation’s fourth Chief Justice.

The vacancy in the Chief Justiceship did not arise until after the 1800 presidential election, in which Adams lost his bid for a second term, and the disputed tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr persisted into 1801. Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, whom Adams had sent to France to negotiate a treaty to bring an end to the 1798-1800 “quasi-war” between France and the United States, sent the treaty that he had negotiated to President Adams – accompanied by his letter of resignation from the Court….

The Ellsworth resignation complicated President Adams’s life far beyond what he could have foreseen. Adams faced a multi-level crisis in American politics — how to respond to the seeming failure of all efforts to break the deadlock in the House of Representatives between Jefferson and Burr for the presidency; how to deal with the Federalist-dominated Congress’s efforts to reform the federal judiciary, both to make it more efficient and effective and to create many new judicial posts for Federalists; and whom to choose to replace Ellsworth.

Many Federalists called on Adams to name a die-hard High Federalist, in particular advocating the nomination of Justice William Paterson, a man whom Adams distrusted as an ally of such High Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and not a friend or supporter of the President. Adams also faced suggestions that he promote another Associate Justice, William Cushing, to the chief justiceship – even though Cushing had turned down such a promotion back in 1795, after the resignation of the first Chief Justice, John Jay, to become governor of New York. Some Senators even proposed that Adams name himself the new Chief Justice, an idea that the president rejected with scorn. Adams instead chose to name Jay to his old job, and the Senate confirmed the appointment. Though Jay seemed an ideal choice, liked by both factions of Federalists and a holder of the position from 1789 to 1795, nobody had asked Jay whether he wanted to return to the Court. On receipt of the news of his nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senate, Jay wrote to Adams thanking him for the honor but frostily rejected his reappointment, on the grounds that the federal judiciary was neglected, undervalued, and frustrating for those serving on it, and declaring his absolute refusal of reappointment.

In turn vexed by the choices before him, Adams turned to Marshall, his Secretary of State. Marshall was a loyal supporter of President Adams, a Virginia Federalist, an excellent attorney, and a widely-praised diplomat; in addition, Marshall had served Adams well as Secretary of State for a year when Adams decided to nominate him for the Chief Justiceship. Adams nominated Marshall with only weeks remaining in his presidency. Though the Federalist Senate at first was reluctant to agree, preferring a High Federalist like Justice Paterson, they knew that Adams would not nominate him (something that Adams had already told Marshall with considerable heat). The Senators realized that rejecting Marshall would create a deadlock that would leave the vacancy on the Court to be filled by Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr. Such a prospect was too dangerous for them to accept, and they confirmed Marshall.

John Marshall served 34 years as Chief Justice and left an extraordinary mark on the nation’s history and on American constitutional development. His judicial opinions on such matters as judicial review, federalism, national supremacy, and interstate commerce form the spine of American constitutional law. Nearly two centuries later, we live in the constitutional world that John Adams and John Marshall helped to create, a world that is now the nation’s heritage. And the Marshall precedent cuts against claims by leading figures in today’s Republican Party that no lame-duck President should make an appointment to the nation’s highest court.

Read the entire post here.

If Bernie Gets the Nomination We Could Have the Election of 1800 All Over Again

BernieAs we enter the final weekend before the Iowa caucuses and with the February 9th New Hampshire primary fast approaching, Bernie Sanders has given himself a legitimate shot at the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.  He is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in the Hawkeye state and enjoys a comfortable lead in New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, over on the GOP side, two strong evangelical candidates—Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—are doing battle with a New York businessman who has won the endorsement of several leading evangelicals and claims that he will keep Christianity in this country “safe” from the intrusion of Muslims and secularists.

If Sanders wins the nomination, the general election could become a political war pitting belief against unbelief.

Bernie Sanders has never been hostile to Christianity.  When he spoke last year at Liberty University he tried to find common ground with the conservative evangelical student body.  But he has also been open about the fact that he is not “actively involved with organized religion.”

When asked by the Washington Post if he believes in God, Sanders answered: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways.  To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of organized religion.

If Sanders faces Cruz, Rubio, or Donald Trump in the general election, it is likely that Sanders’s faith, or lack thereof, will become a major issue in the campaign.  Of course the GOP candidate will try to exploit the Vermont Senator’s progressive “big-government” views, but this critique will become even more powerful when the Republican nominee starts calling Sanders a godless socialist.

If the religious culture wars spill into presidential politics in this way, it would not be the first time such a thing has happened in American history.  In the election of 1800 the nation saw similar attacks made against a skeptical presidential candidate.  His name was Thomas Jefferson.

In 1800 the incumbent president, John Adams, represented the Federalists, a political faction with particular strength in New England.  Federalist strongholds such as Connecticut and Massachusetts had a long tradition of government-sponsored Christianity. The Federalists in New England worked closely with the Congregationalist clergy in order to ensure that the region would remain Christian in character and be governed by Christian political leaders.

Jefferson was the Vice-President of the United States.  Adams defeated him in the presidential election of 1796, but the margin of victory was slim.  As the population of the United States began to spread out beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the religious sentiments of the country turned against state-sponsored churches, Jefferson would attract more and more Americans.

But Jefferson’s religious beliefs would present a problem for him in the Federalist-dominated northeast.  Jefferson was not a Christian.  He was skeptical about doctrines such as the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the divine inspiration of the Bible.  He was not the kind of godly president that many New England Federalists thought should be leading a Christian nation.

The attacks on Jefferson’s supposed godlessness were fierce.  William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister from New York, was representative of these attacks.  He wrote that he was forced to oppose Jefferson’s candidacy because of the Vice-President’s “disbelief of the Holy Scriptures…his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.”

Linn feared that the United States, under Jefferson’s rule, would become a “nation of Atheists.”  He made clear that “no professed deists, be his talents and acquirements what they may, ought to be promoted to this place [the presidency] by the suffrages of a Christian nation.”  He went so far as to argue that the act of “calling a deist to the first office must be construed into no less than rebellion against God.”

Linn was fully aware that there was “nothing in the constitution to restrict our choice” of a president with religious beliefs akin to Jefferson’s, but he warned his readers that if they elected “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation,” it would be “an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation.”

Jefferson, of course, won the presidential election of 1800 and the republic survived.  But if Sanders squares off against today’s defenders of a Christian America it is quite likely that history may just repeat itself.

Abigail Adams and Alexander Hamilton

Abigail_Adams_by_Gilbert_StuartUnlike many Americans who visit to Broadway today, John and Abigail Adams were not fans of Alexander Hamilton.  In 1806 John called Hamilton the “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler.”  Abigail also had some choice words for the Secretary of the Treasury.

Here is a taste of Amanda Norton’s post at the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society:

…The next few years did nothing to improve Abigail’s opinion. Hamilton was widely believed to have unsuccessfully meddled in the 1796 Election, attempting to keep Thomas Jefferson out of the vice presidency, even, or perhaps, especially, if it meant sacrificing John Adams’ candidacy. Hearing of Hamilton’s interference in December 1796, Abigail wrote, “I have often said to you, H——n is a Man ambitious as Julius Ceasar, a subtle intriguer. his abilities would make him Dangerous if he was to espouse a wrong side. his thirst for Fame is insatiable. I have ever kept My Eye upon him.”

The revelation of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds in 1797 was a breaking point for Abigail, leading to some of her most vitriolic comments. As the Quasi-War with France was building and the United States formed a new army, Abigail could not understand those who wanted Hamilton to be commander-in-chief. “That man would in my mind become a second Buonaparty if he was possessd of equal power,” she wrote to her cousin in July 1798. By January 1799, Abigail was increasingly heated. Learning that her son Thomas Boylston Adams who had been in Europe was to return to the United States on board the ship Alexander Hamilton, Abigail sneered, “I dont like even the Name of the ship in which he is to embark” and in letters written to John on 12 and 13 January, she railed against Hamilton. Abigail firmly believed that Hamilton’s failure to uphold his private marriage vow inevitably made any public vow he made suspect. In a Biblical allusion to King David, she warned that with Hamilton in charge of the army, “Every Uriah must tremble for his Bathsheba.”

Read the entire post here.

 

David Barton: The Founding Fathers Were Not Anti-Catholic

Here is David Barton’s thoughts on this topic at today’s Wallbuilders Live radio show:

This is one of the things that people don’t get…they say that the founding fathers were anti-Catholic. No they weren’t, they were pro-republican form of government.  Until American Catholics were able to prove that they were republican in their thinking–and that’s what Charles Carroll did, that’s what Thomas Fitzsimmons did, Daniel Carroll, several signers, they were the Catholics who came along and said ‘look, where not like the Catholics in Europe, we really like people-centered government, we like republican forms of government….”

The founding fathers weren’t anti-Catholic in that sense, they were pro-republican form of government until Catholics could show that they supported that form of government over monarchy, then that was a problem.

Barton is right.  Many of the founding fathers did not trust Catholics because they did not believe that Catholics could be good republican citizens.  I would call this anti-Catholicism.

But I see what Barton is doing here.  He is suggesting that the founders’ opposition to Catholicism was political, not religious.  (As if the founders believed that these could be separated).

Really?

Tell that to John Adams:  in 1765 he wrote:

..the most refined, sublime, extensive, and astonishing constitution of policy, that ever was conceived by the mind of man,w as framed by the Romish clergy for the aggrandisement of their own order.  All the epithets I have here given to the Romish policy are just: and will be allowed to be so, when it is considered, that they even persuaded mankind to believe, faithfully and undoubtedly, that GOD almighty had instrusted them with the keys of heaven; whose gates they might open and close a pleasure–with a power of dispensation over all the rules and obligations of morality–with authority to license all sorts of sins and crimes–with a power of deposing princes, and absolving subjects from allegiance–with a power of procuring or witholding the rain of heaven and the beams of the sun–with the management of earthquakes, pestilence and famine.  Nay with the mysterious, awful, incomprehensible power of creating out of bread and wine, the flesh and blood of God himself.  All these opinions, they were enabled to spread and rivet among the people, by reducing their minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity; and by infusing into them a religious horror of letters and knowledge.  –Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” August 12, 1765.

I could keep quoting.  See my discussion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

The Pope is Catholic

This morning Fox News is running my piece “Pope Francis is Neither Liberal Nor Conservative, A Democract or a Republican.  He is a Catholic.” 

Those of you who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home closely have read many of the ideas in this piece in various posts and tweets throughout the past week.

Here is a taste:

It was all so surreal.
Thursday a Catholic Pope entered the chamber of the House of Representatives and gave a speech to a joint meeting of Congress urging those in attendance to apply Catholic social teaching to the affairs of the nation.
For most 18th and 19th century Americans the prospect of a person landing on the moon would have been more believable.
And not only did the pope speak, but he was flanked by a Vice-President and Speaker of the House who shared his faith. The presence of Joe Biden and John Boehner proves that the United States has come a long way in accepting Catholics.
The historical irony cannot be overlooked.  Think, for example, about the first Vice-President to occupy Biden’s chair in the House.  John Adams, the son of New England Puritans, was no fan of Catholics, especially Jesuits, the order of Pope Francis.  In 1814, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote, “If ever any Congregation of Men could merit, eternal Perdition on Earth and Hell…it is the company of Loyola.”
Read the rest here.

Are You Doing Research on John and Abigail Adams?

J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 just brought my attention to a conference called “Abigail and John: 250 Years Together”  The conference will take place on October 25 to mark the 250th wedding anniversary of this revolutionary-era couple.  Here is the call for papers:

The conference organizers have issued a invitation to scholars to propose individual papers or complete panels. Those can cover “all aspects of the life and union of these two extraordinary individuals and their world,” though organizers ask for proposals to be keyed to one of these general topics:

  • Adams Family Lives
  • Courtship and Commitments in Colonial Massachusetts
  • Home and Hearth in Colonial Massachusetts

If you wish to propose a paper or session, e-mail a 300-500-word abstract to Michelle Marchetti Coughlin by 16 May. Presenters will be notified in June. Papers will have to be completed in time to be circulated to attendees before the conference, which will take place at or near the Abigail Adams Birthplace in Weymouth.