How to Think About Anti-Federalists

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Sam Adams: Anti-Federalist

Today is Constitution Day.  Over at American Studier blog, Ben Railton turns his attention to the opponents of the Constitution–the Anti-Federalists.  Railton offers three helpful suggestions for framing the Anti-Federalist opposition.  They are:

  1. Revolutionary Radicals (Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry)
  2. Advocates for Rights (George Mason)
  3. Future Democratic-Republicans  (Unless I am reading him wrong, Railton suggests that Jefferson was at the Constitutional Convention.  He was not).

See how Railton unpacks these categories here.

Samuel Adams: “Psalm-Singer” and “Curer of Bacon”

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Boston 1775 explains:

In his “Sagittarius” letters of 1774, the Scottish printer John Mein referred to:

the very honest Samuel Adams, Clerk, Psalm-singer, Purlonier, and Curer of Bacon.

Mein was clearly being derogatory, but what exactly did he mean?

To start with, Adams was clerk of the Massachusetts General Court.

As I wrote in this article at the Journal of the American Revolution, Adams was known for psalm-singing, and indeed for recruiting Sons of Liberty at psalm-singing lessons. Loyalists like Mein really harped on that.

“Purlonier” was the printer’s typographically challenged way of spelling “purloiner.” That undoubtedly referred to Adams’s controversial tenure as one of Boston’s tax-collectors from 1756 to 1764. He didn’t supply the town with all the money the law said it was owed. Mein insinuated that Adams kept those funds for himself. But he probably never collected them in the first place, cementing his popularity.

Which brings us to “Curer of Bacon.” What does that mean? A family biography treats that as an allusion to the malthouse business that Adams inherited from his father and couldn’t keep up. But what exactly is the connection between a malthouse and bacon?

Read the rest here.

Bernie Sanders, the Founders, and Faith at Religion News Service

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in San Diego

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in San Diego, California on March 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FEA-COLUMN, originally transmitted on March 23, 2016.

Religion News Service is running my essay on Bernie Sanders’s religion under the title “In Bernie Sanders’ deeply religious message, an echo of the Founding Fathers.”

Here is a taste:

(RNS) Bernie Sanders’ political revolution rolled on Tuesday night with crushing victories over Hillary Clinton in Utah and Idaho. While it will be difficult for the Vermont senator to catch Clinton in the delegate race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination (Sanders lost to Clinton in Arizona on Tuesday), he continues to preach a political message that is resonating with large numbers of voters.

It is a message that is deeply religious.

Over the last several months, reporters have asked Sanders to explain his religious beliefs. Here is how he responded to such a question from CNN’s Chris Cuomo during a recent town hall meeting:

“Every great religion in the world — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism — essentially comes down to ‘do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.’ And what I have believed in my whole life (is) that we are in this together. … The truth is, at some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt.  And when my kids hurt, you hurt.”

Sanders’ approach to faith and our life together in this world is different from what we are hearing from nearly all the people who are still running for president.

The Republican candidates talk about faith in terms of self-interest. They quote the Declaration of Independence to remind their followers that rights come from the Creator and thus must be protected.

Until very recently, Hillary Clinton rarely framed her political message, or her talking points about growing up Methodist, in terms of the common good.

Sanders’ comments about faith echo three distinctly American voices.

Read the rest here.

NOTE:  This piece also appears today at the Salt Lake City Tribune and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

The Religion of Bernie Sanders

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On last Tuesday’s Democratic town meeting in Columbia, South Carolina, CNN moderator Chris Cuomo asked Bernie Sanders to explain his religious beliefs.  

Here is how the Vermont Senator responded:

Every great religion in the world–Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism–essentially comes down to ‘do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.’ And what I have believed in my whole life[is] that we are in this together….the truth is at some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt.  And when my kids hurt, you hurt.

Sanders’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, have been well-documented in this primary season. And his approach to faith and our life together in this world is different from what we are hearing from nearly all the people who are still running for president.

The Republican candidates talk about faith in terms of rights and self-interest. They quote the Declaration of Independence to remind their followers that rights come from the Creator and thus must be protected. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the Gospel from the political philosophy of John Locke.

Until very recently, Hillary Clinton rarely framed her political message, or her talking points about growing-up Methodist, in terms of the common good.  Now she is talking about making America “whole” again and loving one another.

Bernie’s comments about faith echo three distinctly American voices. 

First, he sounds a lot like Barack Obama.

On June 25, 2015, the day the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, Obama invoked a message similar to what Sanders has been saying on the campaign trail:

That’s when America soars -– when we look out for one another.  When we take care of each other.  When we root for one another’s success.  When we strive to do better and to be better than the generation that came before us, and try to build something better for generations to come.  That’s why we do what we do.  That’s the whole point of public service.

Sanders also echoes the American socialists who came before him.  According to historian Nick Salvatore, Eugene Debs, a five-time presidential candidate and the 2oth-century’s most prominent socialist, believed that big corporations were hurting American democracy because their leaders were motivated by self-interest, rather than a commitment to the economic well-being of all citizens.  The problem with the country, Debs and his fellow socialists argued, was that citizens did not understand, to quote Sanders, that “we are in this together.”

By emphasizing community alongside individual rights, Obama and Debs tapped into a longstanding American tradition.  It is a tradition that drives the Sanders campaign today. It is a way of thinking about society that does not come from Denmark or Sweden, but from our Founding Fathers.

The founders of the United States knew from their study of history that a republic is only successful when its members are willing to take care of one another.  This requires individuals to temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good. 

Sometimes the Founders’ language of citizenship sounds foreign, if not dangerous, to a twenty-first century culture that is drunk with liberty.  For example, the Boston patriot Samuel Adams said that a citizen “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”  In 1776, an unnamed Pennsylvania revolutionary proclaimed that “no man is a true republican…that will not give up his single voice to that of the public.”

If Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, were alive today he would probably be labeled a socialist.  Here is what Rush had to say about the purpose of education in a republic: 

Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it. 

Americans could “amass wealth,” Rush argued, as long as it was used to “increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.” Rush wanted to “convert men into republican machines.” His vision for a thriving republic would be rejected in twenty-first century America, but it should remind us that citizenship requires obligation and sacrifice to the larger society. It requires exercising the Golden Rule.

Bernie may not believe in God, but he certainly believes in the potential of human beings to create a more just and democratic society.  He should stop talking about Scandinavian nations and start letting people know that his vision is a decidedly American one.

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.