American Slavery and American Freedom at Princeton University

Tree at princeton

Samuel Finley planted this sycamore after the 1766 repeal of the Stamp Act

As some of you know, I was at Princeton University last week for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History summer seminar on colonial America.

Each year the teachers take a tour of colonial-era Princeton.  One of our stops is the Maclean House (aka The President’s House), the home of the earliest presidents of the College of New Jersey at Princeton.  Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, and several others lived here.

McLean House

The President’s House at Princeton University: a view from Nassau Street

According to Princeton lore, Samuel Finley, the president of the college, planted two sycamore trees in the front yard of the house to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766.  They still stand today. (See pics above).

Did Finley’s slaves plant these trees?

Here is a 1764 sketch of the campus with Nassau Hall on the left and the president’s house on the right:

Nassau 18th

In May 2019, the Princeton & Slavery Project complicated the story of this house and its relationship to American liberty. Visitors will now get a better glimpse of the close relationship between slavery and freedom at Princeton by viewing this plaque:

Plaque at Princeton

Plaque placed at the President’s House by the Princeton & Slavery Project in May 2019


President’s House with the plaque


Day 3 of the 2018 Princeton Seminar

Princeton 2018 Wed. 3

Teachers hard at work on lesson planning

Day 3 is in the books!  (For posts on Day 1 and 2 click here).

We covered a lot of content today.  I spent the morning lecturing on the seventeenth-century Chesapeake.  After lunch, we started on the Puritans and Massachusetts Bay.  Nate continues to spend the afternoons working with teachers on their colonial-era lesson plans.

Tonight we took an informal tour of Princeton’s Presbyterian Cemetery where we visited the graves of Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, John Withersoon, Aaron Burr Jr., Grover Cleveland (and his daughter “Baby Ruth”), B.B. Warfield, and others.   We also ran into the eminent early American religious historian Thomas Kidd.  Tommy is in town leading a Witherspoon Institute seminar on religion and the founding era.

Princeton 2018 Wed. 2

Telling the Princeton Seminar teachers about the work of Thomas Kidd

Participant Matt Lakemacher gets the award for the best tweet from the cemetery:

After the cemetery visit, several of us walked over to Morven, the eighteenth-century home of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  We also stopped at the Princeton Battle Monument.

It is these informal moments with the teachers that I enjoy most about the Princeton Seminar.

Here are some pics:

Princeton 2018 Wed. 5

An impromptu lesson on the first six Princeton presidents

Princeton 2018 Wed. 4

Princeton 2018 Wed. 6

Princeton 2018 Wed. 7

Princeton 2018 Wed. 8We are in Philadelphia today.  Stay tuned for a report.

Princeton Seminar 2017: Day 3


The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Colonial Era” teachers seminar (aka the “Princeton Seminar“) is rolling along.

This morning in the lecture hall we finished our discussion of colonial Virginia. I made the connection between mercantilism and tobacco culture and challenged the teachers to consider the social and cultural influence of tobacco on race, social structure, gender, and labor in the seventeenth century colony. We ended this lecture with an examination of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Midway through the morning session we turned to colonial New England.  We did a lot of background work today.   My lecture developed along these lines:

  • The settlers of New England were Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Calvinist Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were English Calvinist Protestant Christians

We then discussed Winthrop’s idea of a “City Upon a Hill” and how Puritan theology influenced politics and regional identity in Massachusetts Bay.  On Thursday, when we return to New England, I am hoping to say a few words about social life in the region, drawing heavily from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives.

The teachers spent the afternoon with master teacher Nate McAlister.  He continues to work with the teachers on their lesson plans and the use of primary documents.

After dinner we all headed over to the Princeton Cemetery.  I gave a very brief lecture at the graves of the early Princeton presidents–Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon.  For some reason the grave of Aaron Burr Jr. got more attention than it has in years past. 🙂

We will be in Philadelphia tomorrow with George Boudreau!


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 Gideon Mailer

John Witherspoon.jpgGideon Mailer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This interview is based on his new book, John Witherspooon’s American Revolution:  Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States  (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

GM: Since my undergraduate days, I have always been interested in the links between Anglo-Scottish unionism and the formation of American religious, intellectual, and constitutional identity. I first came across Witherspoon in undergraduate work on religion in colonial America. I had just been working on New England religious foundations for a previous module. I had read much about the “Puritan Origins of the American Self” (I was a big Bercovitch fan!). Yet I found out that the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence was a Scottish Presbyterian; not a New England Congregationalist or a Virginia Anglican.

Fast-forward a decade, to a four-year postdoctoral research fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and an Assistant Professorship at University of Minnesota, Duluth: Witherspoon continued to provide a rich case study to explore the wider intellectual, religious, and constitutional framework of the American Revolution. After all, he fought on behalf of Britain against Jacobite rebels in 1745, yet only a few decades later supported the American revolutionary cause against that same British state.

As I soon realized, a lot of what we have come to call “The American Enlightenment” – the consolidation of rational thought and a growing trust in individual moral perception – has been linked to Witherspoon’s influence after his arrival in America. Having left Scotland, he is said to have brought aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment to America. Yet I was intrigued by the associated paradox: how could an evangelical theologian, focused on sin and damnation, have inspired Enlightenment ideals in America? And how could a religious proponent of Anglo-Scottish unionism help to inspire American revolutionary ideology?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

GM: The book questions whether the United States could have been founded according to Enlightenment principles – notions of innate sympathy, rationality, and ethical discernment – even while those principles accompanied the onset of rebellion and the chaotic disintegration of an empire. Tracing the wider meaning of Witherspoon’s move from Scotland to America, the book uncovers the broader constitutional and civic contexts that framed Witherspoon’s use of moral sense reasoning, but which also afforded him an opportunity to critique its role in religious and political discourse.

JF: Why do we need to read John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

The book is useful, I hope, in its attempt to integrate the political and religious influences of the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England on subsequent American history. It traces the tension between the Scottish Enlightenment and Protestant evangelicalism and the place of that tension in the developing philosophies of American independence and American constitutionalism. That America’s founding incorporated potentially contradictory philosophical ideas is important to note – and perhaps explains a lot about subsequent history! More broadly, the book contributes to an expanding field on the role of Presbyterianism in the political theology of the American Revolution and the subsequent founding.

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

GM: I was one of the last cohort to study for the old style “A-Levels” at school in the UK. By sheer luck, one of our teachers was able to offer a module in colonial American history. Most A-Level history students in the UK, at that time, studied the Tudors and Stuarts, Victorian Britain, and 20th century World History. I was lucky to study American history. I was attracted to the field, thinking it would provide an escape from kings, queens, and capricious European dynastic alliances. I was a little naïve, therefore; but wanted to become an Americanist since then.

JF: What is your next project?

GM: The project is tentatively titled The Character of Freedom: Slavery and the Scottish Enlightenment. It builds on research I have begun to synthesize. It assesses the relationship between American moral philosophy (particularly as inspired by Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Presbyterian thought) and slavery from the colonial era, through the American Revolution, and into the antebellum period.

JF: Thanks, Gideon! 

Some Quick Thoughts on Trump and Evangelicals

Trump and BIbleIn 1620, the Puritan John Winthrop said that Massachusetts Bay Colony was a “City on a Hill.”  The Puritans who came to New England believed that they were a new Israel–God’s chosen people.  This sense of Christian exceptionalism, as my friend John Wilsey has recently shown, has been around for a long time.  The so-called “greatness” of America has been inextricably linked in the minds of many Christians to the blessing of God.

In 1776, John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, preached a sermon entitled The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men.  In this sermon the Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton argued that the American Revolution was a just cause because God is always on the side of liberty.  The British colonies were fighting for liberty. The King and Parliament were acting in a tyrannical fashion.  Based on this logic, Witherspoon believed God was on the side of the American Revolution.

In the early nineteenth century evangelical Christians, the products of the so-called “Second Great Awakening,” formed dozens of reform movements to Christianize the nation.  These evangelical reformers believed that God had a special destiny for the United States.  If they could Christianize the culture they might even usher in the second coming of Jesus Christ.  The fate of the gospel and the fate of the nation were tightly bound.

During the Civil War both the North and South connected their visions for America with divine Providence.  At the turn of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson tried to make the world safe for democracy and did so with a sense of Christian zeal.  During the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower baptized American prosperity and the free-market with a dose of Christian nationalism.  “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was placed on paper money during this decade because Americans wanted to distinguish the “greatness” of their country from the so-called “godless Communists.”   And in the 1970s and 1980s these historic efforts to link God and country were enhanced by the evangelicals and fundamentalists who founded the Christian Right.

This quick and dirty sketch reveals that “God and country” idealism has been around, in one form or another, since the 17th century.  When Christianity is not protected, celebrated, and even privileged America ceases to be great.  When people believe that the American economy is not strong, or when newcomers do not seem to assimilate as quickly as natives would like to see them assimilate, then it is a sign that God is disciplining the nation.  When this happens, a revival of Christianity and patriotism (which have often been code words for nativism) is necessary to “make America great again.” 

Over the last several months I have spent a lot of time talking with evangelicals who support Donald Trump or are leaning toward Trump.  I do not question their religious faith.  They are people who read their Bibles and pray.  Some go to church and some do not, but they do take their relationship with God seriously.

They also take their identity as patriots seriously.  If we understand American religious history and the longstanding connection between Christianity and nationalism, the fact that so many evangelicals are supporting Trump should not surprise us.

Trump may be crude and offer very little in terms of policy, but by trying to “make America great again” he has embarked, in the minds of many evangelicals, on a divine mission.

Princeton Seminar: Day One

In the Nassau Presbyterian Church Cemetery

Day One of the Gilder-Lehrman Summer Seminar on the “13 Colonies” at Princeton University is in the books. 

Actually, we began on Sunday night with a great buffet dinner.  After the feast we wandered around the Princeton campus and got ourselves oriented. We paused for a moment at the John Witherspoon statue and then I spent a little time talking about the colonial and revolutionary history of Nassau Hall.  (The students are very familiar with 18th-century Princeton from reading my The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America). 

I was with the students for three sessions.  In my opening lecture I tried to challenge the students to think about colonial America on its own terms rather than as a precursor to the American Revolution.  We talked about some of the problems with “Whig” history. 
We also spent a lot of time in this session discussing historical thinking.

The second and third sessions focused on the colonial Chesapeake.  We discussed mercantilism, the “Jamestown deathtrap,” tobacco, indentured servanthood, Bacon’s Rebellion, and slavery.

My partner in crime this week is Nate McAlister, a middle school teacher in Kansas and the 2010 Gilder-Lehrman National Teacher of the Year.  Nate spent the afternoon with the teachers and helped them with their lessons plans.  (Each participant must produce a lesson plan based on a primary source and it is due at the end of the week).  I can’t imagine doing this seminar without Nate.  He is an outstanding coordinator.

After dinner in a Princeton dining hall we headed to the Nassau Presbyterian Church Cemetery.  It was such a pleasure and honor to talk about Jonathan Edwards, Aaron Burr Sr., Aaron Burr Jr., Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon as we all stood over their gravestones.  After a very short lecture at these gravestones the teachers all went their separate ways in the cemetery.  I wandered around a bit and found the gravestones of Grover Cleveland, B.B. Warfield, and Varnum Lansing Collins.

It was a long day that ended in the Tap Room at the Nassau Inn and a great conversation with Nate and a couple of teachers that covered everything from the Gettysburg Address to environmental history and the First Amendment to Good News for Modern Man.

It should be a fun week. Follow along on Twitter at @princetonseminr

"Early Evangelicalism: A Reader"

I finally made it to my Messiah College mailbox today after some time on vacation and was pleased to find a copy of Jonathan Yeager’s Early Evangelicalism: A Reader (Oxford, 2013).  Yeager has put together a wonderful collection of eighteenth-century sources related to the rise of evangelicalism in the Atlantic world.   Scholars who are teaching courses in American evangelicalism or religious history will find this book invaluable.  It is the only book of its kind.

The book includes documents written by Isaac Watts, Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Jonathan Dickinson, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Howell Harris, Charles Wesley, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Finley, Hannah Heaton, Nathan Cole, William McCulloch, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, James Robe, Thomas Prince, Susanna Anthony, Thomas Gillespie, Philip Doddridge, John Cennick, David Brainerd, Benjamin Ingham, Joseph Bellamy, Hugh Kennedy, John Witherspoon, Jonathan Edwards, Sarah Prince Gill, John Maclaurin, Sarah Osborn, James Hervey, Esther Edwards Burr, Samuel Davies, Anne Steele, Eleazar Wheelock, Henry Venn, John Newton, William Romaine, John Erskine, Mary Fletcher, John William Fletcher, William Williams, Samson Occom, Isaac Backus, Phillis Wheatley, Samuel Hopkins, John Newton, John Ryland Jr., Henry Alline, Andrew Fuller, Charles Nisbet, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, Olaudah Equiano, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, William Carey, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Richard Allen, Charles Simeon, William Wilberforce, Lemuel Hanyes, and Jedidah Morse.

Yeager offers short introductions to each document and a more extensive introduction to the entire volume.

I am already thinking about how I will use this book.  Yeager’s collection is so comprehensive that he might convince scholars to design entire courses around the book rather than trying to fit reader into already existing courses.

Project Reading

I just finished Varnum Lansing Collins’s President Witherspoon, a two-volume biography of John Witherspoon published in 1925. It remains the best biography of Witherspoon out there.  No other study is as comprehensive.  Jeffry Morrison’s John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (2007) focuses almost entirely on Witherspoon’s political thought in the context of the Revolution (see my review of it here) and L. Gordon Tait’s The Piety of John Witherspoon is more concerned with his religious life.  Collins has written the only book I know that chronicles Witherspoon’s life from beginning to end–from Scotland to Princeton.

When I read these old biographies I focus more on facts and evidence than I do on interpretation.  Collins obviously likes Witherspoon, and the biography has several hagiographical moments, but works such as this remain valuable in my attempts at mastering the general flow of Witherspoon’s life and imagining how I am going to piece these stories into my larger study.  Because President Witherspoon is so meticulously researched and loaded with reprints of primary sources, I have been able to develop a long list of documents I will need to consult down the road.

Project Reading (and Writing)

First, I was encouraged by Joseph Adelman’s post yesterday at The Junto.  It looks like someone is actually interested in my attempt to chronicle some of the reading I am doing for my project on Presbyterians and American Revolution.  Thanks, Joseph.

I hope that these “project reading” reports will serve as a nice way of motivating me in my work.

I have failed to mention so far that a lot of the reading I have been doing these past few weeks has been connected to the preparation of a book proposal.  I am playing with two titles right now.  One is “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.”  The other is ” ‘Yet to be Decided Quote’: Presbyterians in a Revolutionary Age.”

My choice of a working title will depend on how I frame the book.  Will I be writing a new history of the American Revolution in the mid-Atlantic that takes the role of radical Presbyterians seriously?  Or will I be writing a history of Presbyterians in the eighteenth century and how they intersected with the American Revolution?  The answer to these questions will come to me as I continue to read in primary and secondary material.

I have already written a preliminary book proposal with a preliminary chapter outline.  My “project reading” over the last week or two has really been centered on the sample chapter–a vital part of any proposal.  Most scholars assume that the sample chapter submitted with the full proposal should be a finished and polished chapter, a piece of prose that will appear close to “as is” (with minor copy-editing) in the finished book.  Indeed, this is how I approached the assignment for both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Such an approach will probably suffice for most university presses.

But I am going to try something a bit different this time around, especially after reading Susan Rabiner and Aldred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get it PublishedHere is what they say about a book proposal’s “sample chapter”: 

A sample chapter is not really a chapter at all. It looks and smells like a chapter, in that it usually runs about a chapter’s length and has a beginning, middle, and end.  But like no chapter in your final book, it succeeds by cannibalizing other chapters, stealing the best material in the book and presenting it in such a way as to showcase the dramatic potential of the book or the power of the argument, or the richness of the topic.

Rather than calling this a “sample chapter,” Rabiner and Fortunato prefer to call it a writing sample.”

Since the College of New Jersey at Princeton, and what Mark Noll has called “the Princeton Circle,” plays such a prominent part in the book I hope to write, I decided to focus my “writing sample” on Princeton and John Witherspoon. I may not end up with an entire chapter in the book devoted to Princeton and Witherspoon, but for the writing sample I have chosen to “cannibalize” from material that will be dispersed throughout several chapters.

I got up early yesterday morning and started writing. This is what I’ve got so far:


“Nassau Hall.  May she again flourish and continue the nursery of statesmen, as she has been of warriors.”

            Independent Gazetteer, May 3, 1783

           Things were beginning to look a lot brighter for John Witherspoon.  The president of the College of New Jersey was presiding over a gathering of dignitaries, including William Livingston, the revolutionary governor of the state, who had come to Princeton in late April 1783 to commemorate American independence.  As Witherspoon looked at the candles illuminating Nassau Hall, the college’s main building, and listened to a local infantry company fire cannons in celebration, he must have been hopeful.  Nassau Hall was damaged but still standing after the Battle of Princeton.  Students had returned in 1778 (originally sharing the building with an army hospital) and repairs were almost complete.  Most importantly, independence had been won.  When he came to Princeton from Paisley, Scotland in 1768 Witherspoon knew very little about the colonies’ grievances against England.  He had arrived to bring leadership to a fledgling college and unite a divided American Presbyterian church.  He could not have imagined toasting independence with some of the mid-Atlantic’s most prominent revolutionaries at a school he had transformed into a “seminary of sedition.”  

But what if Witherspoon never came to Princeton?  What if he had done the safe thing and settled for the security of his Paisley parish over this small crossroads village in central New Jersey?  Commemorations like the one that took place in Princeton on that Spring afternoon in 1783 can be times of contemplation, times to reflect on what might have been.  As Witherspoon thought about his brief but tumultuous sojourn in America he probably also remembered that he almost didn’t come.


Project Reading

My reading over the Christmas Holiday included two books on Presbyterians and the founding of the College of New Jersey.

I reread the first several chapters of Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker’ Princeton, 1746-1896 (1946).  This is a very useful mid-twentieth-century institutional history, but it was made even better by John Murrin‘s 1996 introduction to the paperback edition.  Murrin’s essay reminded me that I need to reread the diary of Esther Edwards Burr (Ned Landsman had me read it in graduate school), look at a few essays from the 1970s on Princeton and the American Revolution (including one by Murrin himself), and review the first two volumes of Princetonians:A Biographical Dictionary.

I also reread the letters in L.H. Butterfield’s John Witherspoon Comes to America.  This thin volume contains correspondence between Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, Richard Stockton and others during the period of negotiation that eventually led to Witherspoon accepting the presidency of the College of New Jersey.  In the process I realized that Witherspoon’s wife almost kept him from coming to Princeton.  She did not want to leave Paisley, Scotland for New Jersey and feared that her husband would die in America, leaving her all alone in a “foreign land.”  Eventually, thanks to the gentle touch of Benjamin Rush, who was studying medicine in Edinburgh at the time, Elizabeth consented and the Witherspoons made the journey to Princeton.

I was quite taken by the role that Witherspoon’s friends in Scotland played in this decision.  Many of these esteemed Presbyterian ministers not only urged Witherspoon to take the job in Princeton, but accused him of allowing his wife to stand in the way of God’s call on his life.  Their letters on this front are pretty harsh on Elizabeth. 

I think this story, if told well, might make for some good reading.

Witherspoon vs. Edwards on Moral Philosophy

As Joseph DiLuzio argues at the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Studies Center, Jonathan Edwards and John Witherspoon, two of the leading figures of 18th century American Calvinism, parted ways on the issue of moral philosophy.  His argument echoes much of what Mark Noll argued in America’s God and Princeton and the Republic, what Ned Landsman argued in From Colonials to Provincials, and what I argued in The Way of Improvement Leads Home and briefly in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a taste:

Despite the progress of the college during his tenure, I will argue in what follows that there was an inherent conflict between Witherspoon’s Scottish Enlightenment philosophy on the one hand and his Calvinist Presbyterian orthodoxy on the other.  Such incoherence did not characterize the thought of Jonathan Edwards.  Witherspoon was an epistemological optimist: he advocated an empirical approach to the study of ethics, believing “a time may come when men, treating moral philosophy as Newton and his successors have done natural, may arrive at greater precision.  It is always safer in our reasonings to trace facts upwards than to reason downwards upon metaphysical principles.”  In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon teaches that “the principles of duty and obligation must be drawn from the nature of man,” though he concedes that “there is nothing certain or valuable in moral philosophy, but what is perfectly coincident with scripture” (Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon 1802: 3.470, 380, 471).

 In practice, Witherspoon ignored the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, which states that original sin corrupts every aspect of the unregenerate person’s being – mind, body, and soul.  (It does not, as is popularly assumed, mean that the unregenerate person is necessarily as evil as he could be.)  Even those who have been saved by grace continue to be plagued by sin as God progressively sanctifies them.  As Paul writes to the Ephesians of his own formerly unregenerate state, “[we] were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). 

None of this is to say that the study of the (natural) moral sense is inherently incompatible with the tenets of Reformed theology.  Indeed, Jonathan Edwards promoted the study of the moral sense.  He claimed that all humans share a “natural conscience” that “should approve and condemn the same things that are approved and condemned by a spiritual sense” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 1974: 1.134, italics mine).  What distinguished the moral philosophies of Edwards and Witherspoon was their respective confidence in natural man’s ability to reason properly.  Edwards did not share Witherspoon’s optimism, and in this, he followed in the tradition of Augustine and ultimately of Paul.  In his letter to the Romans, the apostle admits that what can be known about Godis plain to all but that the ungodly suppress the truth by their unrighteousness: because of their disobedience, the unregenerate have become “futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:18-21).   

HT: Jonathan Rowe     

Not All Presbyterians Were Radical Whigs in April 1776

This morning I was reading the memoirs of Elias Boudinot (1740-1821), a Presbyterian lawyer from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, the president of the Continental Congress (1782-83), and the first president of the American Bible Society (1816).

Boudinot was a strong supporter of the American cause, but in the months leading up to July 4, 1776 he was a bit more conservative than some of his fellow Presbyterian Whigs. Boudinot thought that John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, was moving far too quickly toward independence in some of his speeches and political activities.

In April 1776, Boudinot attended a meeting of the Board of Trustrees of the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian school in Princeton that Witherspoon had transformed into a bastion of American patriotism. After a routine day of business, Boudinot found it odd that Witherspoon did not show up for the second day of meetings.  What college president skips out on a meeting of his own Board of Trustees?  There must have been something more important to tend to.  And there was.

Witherspoon had left the Trustees meeting to give a speech to a gathering of New Jersey county representatives who had answered an anonymous call in a New York newspaper to come to New Brunswick for the purpose of discussing a “matter which greatly concerned the province.” As the delegates learned upon their arrival to New Brunswick, it was Witherspoon himself who had called this meeting for the purpose of “declaring a separation from Great Brittain.”

Meanwhile, on his return to Elizabethtown following the College of New Jersey Trustees meeting, Boudinot and his traveling companion, William Peartree Smith, stopped at New Brunswick to feed their horses. They soon learned that Witherspoon was not only the driving force behind the delegates meeting, but he was also planning a speech later that afternoon to try to convince the delegates to support independence.  Concerned that Witherspoon’s ideas were too radical, and perhaps wondering what kind of revolutionary fire Witherspoon was going to try to ignite among the gathering of delegates, Boudinot and Smith decided to make a stop at the meeting before heading to Woodbridge for dinner.  Here is his description of what happened that afternoon in New Brunswick:

We accordingly attended the Meeting in the Afternoon when Dr. W rose and in a very able and elegant speech of one hour and an half endeavoured to convince the audience & the Committee of the absurdity of opposing the extravagant demands of Great Brittain, while we were professing a perfect allegiance to her Authority and supporting her courts of Justice.  The Character of the speaker, his great Influence among the people, his known attachment to the liberties of the People, and the artful manner in which he represented the whole subject, as worthy their attention, had an effect, on the assembly that astonished me.

Boudinot was obviously impressed by Witherspoon’s rhetorical skills, but he was also angered by the Princeton president’s political scheming.

I never felt myself in a more mortifying Situation.  The anonymous publication; The Meeting of the Trustees of the College but the Day before made up wholly of Presbyterians; Their President leaving them to attend the meeting & avowing himself the Author of it; The Doctor known to be at the head of the Presbyterian Interest; and Mr Smith & Myself both Presbyterians, arriving at New Brunswick in the morning, as if intending to go forward & then staying an attending the meeting, altogether looked so like a preconcerted Scheme, to accomplish the End, that I was at my wit’s end, to know how to extricate myself from so disagreeable a situation, especially as the measure was totally ag[ainst] my Judgment.

I am still trying to decipher what Boudinot is saying here, especially related to his remark that the Princeton board meeting was scheduled a day before the New Brunswick meeting and the former meeting was “made up wholly of Presbyterians.”  Does this means tha Boudinot believed that Witherspoon scheduled the New Brunswick meeting at the time he did precisely because he knew there would be a large number of Presbyterian patriots down the road in Princeton who might come to New Brunswick to support his political ends?

Whatever the case, Boudinot would not allow Witherspoon to dominate the New Brunswick meeting. When the opportunity arose, he gave a thirty-minute extemporaneous speech opposing Witherspoon’s plea for independence.  Boudinot claimed that Witherspoon’s plan:

…was neither founded in Wisdom, Prudence, nor Economy; That we had a chosen Continental Congress, to whom we had resigned the Consideration of our public affairs; That they, coming from every part of the Union, would best represent all the Colonies not thus united.  They would know the true Situation of our Country with regard to finances, Union & the prospects we had of a happy reconciliation with the Mother Country…”

Of course Boudinot could not have been more wrong about the Continental Congress. Two months later its members would take the radical step of breaking with England. And it would be Witherspoon, representing the New Jersey delegation, who would end up signing the Declaration of Independence.

But on this particular day, Boudinot was victorious. After his dissenting remarks, Witherspoon responded and a debate between the two Presbyterians ensued on the floor of the meeting.  When Boudinot sensed that he had the upper hand and had won over the delegates with his rhetoric, he called for a vote on independence. Witherspoon was not happy:

The Doctor was a good deal out of humoor & contended warmly against a vote, but a large Majority of the Meeting insisted on a Vote, which, being taken, out of 35 Members, there were but 3 or 4 who Voted for the Doctors proposition, the rest rejecting it with great warmth.  Thus ended this first attempt to try to the pulse of the People of New Jersey on the Subject of Independence….”

Stay tuned for more stuff like this when and if I ever complete my manuscript: “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.”  I am hoping to make some good headway this summer.

Did Philip Vickers Fithian Know James Madison?

Yesterday, March 16, was the anniversary of James Madison’s birthday. (He was born in 1751). Steve Waldman has a nice reflection in the Wall Street Journal on Madison’s commitment to religious freedom. Waldman admits on his blog that the op-ed is part of his efforts to promote the paperback edition of his excellent, Founding Faith. (See my review of it here).

I will take Waldman’s lead and use Madison’s birthday to help promote (shamelessly) the paperback version of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Madison and Fithian attended the College of New Jersey at Princeton together. Madison was in the class of 1771. Fithian was in the class of 1772. They were both students of John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. Madison was the president of the Whig debating society in 1771 and Fithian was the secretary. They both teamed up against the rival Clio Society, whose membership included Aaron Burr.

When I first embarked on this Fithian project I expected that Madison would have much to say about his classmate from southern New Jersey. I thought Fithian would have even more to say about Madison. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to find that Madison never mentions Fithian in any of his private papers and Fithian never mentions Madison. Yet both of them wrote all the time about their other Princeton classmates.

You will have to read the book to see my attempt to explain this. The fact that Fithian never mentions Madison is still one of the great mysteries of his story.

New Course: Religion and the American Founding

I am currently working on the syllabus for “Religion and the American Founding” (HIS 399), a new upper-division history elective I will be teaching at Messiah College this spring. The course will focus on the question of whether or not the American founders set out to establish a Christian nation. I decided to teach this course at this time because I have been working on a book, tentatively titled, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Primer for Christians,” which should appear in 2011 with Westminster/John Knox Press. The book will be targeted toward students, Christian ministers, laypersons, people of faith, and anyone else who continues to be confused by this topic. I am hoping that regular interaction with a group of 20 or so undergraduates from a variety of church traditions will help me think through exactly what I want to say in this book.

I have assigned the following texts for the course:

Nicholas Guyott, Providence and the Invention of the United States
Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory
David Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers
Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, The Search for Christian America
Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington
Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution

My VERY tentative outline looks something like this:

Week One: The Idea of a Christian Nation in American History
Reading : Guyott

Week Two: The Contemporary Defenders of Christian America
Reading: Marshall and Manuel; my chapter; and something by David Barton

Week Three: Defining our Terms: “Christian,” “Founded,” “Nation.”
Reading: Not sure yet.

Week Four: How to Think Historically
Reading: Chapter in Noll, et. al; chapter in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts; and the introduction to Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past.

Week Five: Did George Washington Pray at Valley Forge?
Reading: Weems

Week Six: The Religious Beliefs of the Major Founders: Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison
Reading: Holmes; Noll, Hatch, Marsden; and primary documents.

Week Seven: The Evangelical Founders: Witherspoon, Jay, Adams, Henry
Reading: Holmes; Noll, Hatch, Marsden; and primary documents

Week Eight: A Just War?
Reading: Noll, Hatch, Marsden; perhaps Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon on Romans 13; still searching for something else.

Week Nine: Nature’s God: Is the Declaration of Independence a Christian Document?
Reading: Still working on something suitable to go with the Declaration itself.

Week Ten: Religion and the Critical Period
Reading: Still working on something suitable. I will probably use some of the state Constitutions as primary documents.

Week Eleven: “A Godless Constitution?”
Reading: Kramnick and Moore

Week Twelve: Student paper presentations.

I do not begin the course until February 1st, so I still have time to get everything in order. If anyone out there has some suggestions for short readings–both of a primary or secondary nature–feel free to comment here or contact me off-line. Any suggestions would be helpful since this is the first time I have taught this course. Thanks.

Once I start teaching I will try to keep readers up to date on how things are going.


A Religious Biography of Samuel Adams

A few years ago I reviewed John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, Jeffry H. Morrison’s introduction to Witherspoon’s political and moral thought. (BTW, Morrison has new book coming out on the political philosophy of George Washington. I look forward to reading it). One of the things I noted in the review was the difficulty involved in writing a magisterial biography of Witherspoon since most of his personal papers were destroyed, either by Witherspoon himself or during the British assault on the College of New Jersey in the aftermath of the Battle of Princeton.

The same might be said for Samuel Adams. In a June 5, 1817 letter to William Tudor, John Adams described his cousin’s habit of destroying letters:

For fifty years, his pen, his tongue, his activity, were constantly exerted for his country without fee or reward. During that time, he was an almost incessant writer. But where are his writings? Who can collect them? And, if collected, who will ever read them? The letters he wrote and received, where are they? I have seen him, at Mrs. Yard’s in Philadelphia, when he was about to leave Congress, cut up with his scissors whole bundles of letters into atoms that could never be reunited, and throw them out of the window, to be scattered by the winds. This was in summer, when he had no fire; in winter he threw whole handfuls into the fire. As we were on terms of perfect intimacy, I have joked him, perhaps rudely, upon his anxious caution. His answer was, “Whatever becomes of me, my friends shall never suffer by my negligence.”

Because Samuel did not want his friends to suffer his negligence, a biography of him similar to that of David McCullough on John Adams, or Ronald Chernow on Alexander Hamilton, or Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin–the kind of biographies that influenced Ira Stoll’s Samuel Adams, A Life–is difficult to pull off. This is a book about a political life. As a result, we do not learn much about Samuel’s marriage, his family, his inner character flaws, his friendships, or his tastes in entertainment.

Yet, despite these difficulties, Stoll has produced a very readable and fast-moving study of the man who Edmund Morgan claims did more than any other American to bring on the revolutionary crisis. History buffs, particularly those with a passion for “Founders Chic,” will love this book. Stoll manages to place Samuel Adams back into the pantheon of American revolutionaries and suggests, quite compellingly I might add, that he was more important to the patriot cause than his cousin John.

Stoll centers his biographical narrative around three themes: Samuel the defender of New England’s early history, Samuel the republican critic of wealth and luxury (especially as it related to his love-hate relationship with John Hancock), and, most prominently, Samuel the man of deep evangelical faith. Let me say a few words about the latter.

This book reads like a religious biography of Samuel Adams. His religion permeated every dimension of his life, including his response to the American Revolution. One would be hard pressed to find a Samuel Adams quote about God, Providence, or Jesus Christ that does not appear in this book, even if the inclusion of such quotes detract from the narrative or do not relate directly to the particular topic at hand. On one hand, the proliferation of these quotes reveals Samuel’s propensity to spiritualize almost any issue he came up against. On the other hand, the way these quotes are used in the narrative gives the impression that Stoll may have an agenda beyond just telling the story of Samuel’s life. At times the book reads like one of those spiritual quotation books popular among the defenders of the notion that America was founded as a “Christian nation.”

Stoll’s book reminds me that we still need a scholarly (but readable) religious biography of Samuel Adams–one that delves deeply into the Puritan, evangelical, and republican values that shaped his public life. (I have not read William Fowler’s Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan, but perhaps it does offer a more nuanced view of Samuel’s faith). Samuel Adams, A Life offers a nice readable introduction to a revolutionary hero, but it left me wanting more. Having said that, it will make a nice Christmas gift for the history enthusiast in your life.

Intellectual Influence in American History

The first chapter of Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past is a 1981 New York Review of Books review of Garry Wills’s Explaining America: The Federalist. Wills drew a lot criticism in scholarly circles for his previous book, Inventing America, in which he argued that the Declaration of Independence was informed more by Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to Scottish moral philosophy (particularly in the form of Glasgow moral philosophy professor Francis Hutcheson) than it was by Lockean or social contract ideas. In Explaining America, Wills continued his argument that the founders were “influenced” by Scottish sentimentalist ideals, only this time it was David Hume and his influence on the Federalist Papers.

In his review, Wood is less concerned with whether Wills is correct about Hume’s impact on the writers of the The Federalist than he is about exploring the question of whether or not an eighteenth-century political thinker like Jefferson or, in this case, Hamilton or Madison, could have been influenced directly by just one writer. Wood writes: Wills can hardly be blamed for casting his books according to intellectual “influences,” for much of our intellectual history has been written in these terms: ideas emanating from great thinkers are more or less poured into the empty vessels that apparently are the minds of more ordinary people. But in a complicated culture at least, this is not the way ideas operate at all. In other words, it is possible to have “ideas without having read any great thinkers,” as studies of working class consciousness, for example, have shown. Wood goes on to note that “Many ideas are so much a part of the general culture that specifying a particular textual influence is impossible.”

While I agree with Wood that we need to be very careful about making direct connections between great thinkers and their influence on ordinary people, I also think, from my work on Philip Vickers Fithian, that this kind of influence happens more than Wood is willing to admit

One hand, Fithian’s intellectual commitments support Wood’s thesis. As I argue in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, he was not influenced by simply one thinker, but by a mix or confluence of Christian, republican, and Scottish moral sense writers. In fact, these ideas converged in his thinking to such an extent that it would be irresponsible to try to parse his diary entries for the purpose of finding his so-called “influences.”

Yet, it is also clear that an ordinary farmer and Princeton student such as Fithian would have certainly been influenced by his college mentor, John Witherspoon. Fithian’s writings about morals , politics, and religion so reflect Witherspoon’s teachings that it would be foolish not to suggest that his thoughts were deeply informed–almost entirely– by this distinguished college president. This, of course, may be the difference between being influenced by a particular text and being influenced directly by a real person of letters with whom one has daily face to face contact. (Of course, Witherspoon himself had “influences” that are hard to pin down as well).

Whatever the case, after reading Wood’s essay I will certainly be more cautious when I write about the intellectual influences on the thought of a particular historical actor. This was a helpful chapter.