Monthly Archives: June 2015


I just got back from my second biennial American History Road Trip, and this year’s extravaganza was even bigger and better than the one in 2013 that inaugurated this hoary tradition. It’s a testimony to my advancing years that I hesitated telling you about it. When I was growing up it was considered bad form to inflict others with stories about your vacation—nobody liked the neighbors who invited you over for dessert and then ambushed you with home movies of the Grand Canyon. I didn’t want to be like them. And then I remembered that the 1960s were over. Al Gore invented the internet ages ago, and I make my living trying to connect with students who post updates when they go to the cafeteria. Unless I want to seem hopelessly out of date, I figure I’m practically obligated to give you a detailed account of my travels. But don’t worry: there won’t be any selfies.

Yale's Sterling Memorial Library

Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library

The focal point of the trip was a three-and-a-half-day conference at Yale University on the teaching of nineteenth-century American slave narratives. I had never been to Yale before, and one of the side benefits of the conference was simply the pleasure of strolling around that glorious campus. I did my best Gomer-Pyle-goes-to-the-big-city impression, gawking wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the school’s ivy-covered edifices and its magisterial Sterling Library, a cathedral of learning only slightly smaller than Rhode Island. We ate all our meals together in the dining room of Timothy Dwight Hall, which reminded me more than a little of Hogwarts—lots of wood-paneling, chandeliers, and portraits of scary-looking dead men.

The conference itself was a pleasure. I was joined by twenty-eight other college teachers (specialists in either American history or American literature), who had come from all over the country to take part. Our leader was Yale Professor David Blight, a prolific historian who has written widely on slavery, abolition, and the American Civil War. The days were long and the pace was intense—we discussed six book-length slave narratives and screened two movies—and I had a blast.

John Quincy Adams reporting the outcome of the Amistad Case

John Quincy Adams reporting the outcome of the Amistad Case

The highlight for me was when we spent an afternoon exploring 19th-century documents housed in the manuscripts and rare books collections of the Yale library. Among other documents, I held in my hands a letter from ex-president John Quincy Adams discussing the famous “Amistad” case (perhaps you’ve seen the movie starring Anthony Hopkins), a note from Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to her brother discussing an upcoming antislavery rally, and a letter from John Brown while he was awaiting execution in the aftermath of the Harper’s Ferry raid. For a U. S. historian, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Thanks to the encouragement of my wife (and a small financial award from my college), I was able to bookend the conference with a whirlwind tour of several other historical sites in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. I spent the first night on the road near Rochester, New York (site of Charles Finney’s famous 1831 revival), and was delighted to discover that the motel I had pulled into at random was only minutes from Mount Hope Cemetery, the burial place of both Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, and Susan B. Anthony, the influential nineteenth-century women’s rights activist. I broke up the second day of driving with a side-trip to the site of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention (the first national women’s rights gathering in the U. S.) and got into Lexington, Massachusetts just in time to scope out Minute Man National Historical Park before the sun went down.

I was on the road early the next morning to downtown Boston, and after briefly getting lost and ending up at Logan Airport (I blame my GPS), I hit the Freedom Trail along with, conservatively, a bazillion other sightseers. Highlights included Boston Common, the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, the site of the Boston Massacre, the Paul Revere house, and the Old North Church with its famous steeple (“one if by land and two if by sea”).  From Boston I raced west in time to visit the North Bridge in Concord—where minute men squared off against British regulars on April 19, 1775 in the first real battle of the American Revolution—and then squeezed in two hours walking the “Battle Road” from Concord toward Lexington, following the route of the British Army’s withdrawal back toward the safety of Boston. The next day I had to head to New Haven, but before leaving I spent an hour in a downpour in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery visiting the graves of nineteenth-century writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, all of whom were interred within a few dozen yards of each other.

The North Bridge in Concord, MA, where minute men and British regulars battled on April 19, 1775

The North Bridge in Concord, MA, where minute men and British regulars battled on April 19, 1775

Once the conference was over I drove to the outskirts of Philadelphia and spent the following day at Independence National Historical Park. I toured Independence Hall (where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were conceived), explored Congress Hall (where the House of Representatives and Senate met between 1790 and 1800), visited the Old City Hall (where the U. S. Supreme Court held its sessions), viewed the Liberty Bell, the First Bank of the United States (brain-child of Alexander Hamilton), and the house where Thomas Jefferson crafted the first draft of the Declaration. The next day I hiked all around Valley Forge, site of the Continental Army’s famous ordeal during the winter of 1778, but by dusk I was pulling into Gettysburg, where I spent a final glorious day before heading home and bringing my eleven-day, 2400-mile road trip to a close.

Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge

Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge

I visited all of these sites with my U. S. history classes in mind. Some of them—Lexington and Concord, Valley Forge—I had never visited before. Others I had visited decades ago and scarcely remembered. The last time I toured Independence Hall, for example, I was fifteen years old and on the way home from a national convention of Mu Alpha Theta, a mathematics honor society. (Yes, I was one of the cool kids in high school.) It excites me to think how my visit to these sites can inform and invigorate what I bring to the classroom. Collectively, they underscore two basic truths that are foundational to all sound historical thinking: 1) the past was real, and 2) the past is gone.

In her wonderful little book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, historian Margaret Bendroth observes that it’s all too easy for twenty-first-century Americans to think of figures from the past as “not really real.” Visiting historical sites such as these can be a powerful antidote to this. One of my favorite historical sites in Philadelphia is Franklin Court, an area on Market Street about two blocks from Independence Hall where Benjamin Franklin built a handsome brick home for himself as well as a series of four-story townhomes that he rented to tenants. The shell of one of the latter has been preserved and the original walls now house countless artifacts from an archaeological excavation of the site. If you take the time to look and listen, the buttons, coins, teacups, medicine bottles, combs and pipes whisper to us about the reality of the forgotten lives lived here.

But if these sites persuade us that the past was real, they also remind us that the past is past, i.e., gone for good. History is not the past itself but our memory of the past, and like all forms of memory, it exists only in the present. At their very best, these sites are but shadows. They tantalize us with fleeting glimpses of what was. The present is always palpably there, however–urgent, loud, perpetually threatening to overrun all else.

Do any of you remember the sentimental 1980 movie Somewhere in Time? Most people who’ve seen it think it’s a romance, but it’s actually all about historical epistemology, a meditation on our ability to bring the past to life by eliminating anachronism. (I’m sure this was the director’s intention.) In the movie’s entirely plausible plot, a 1970s playwright (played by Christopher Reeve), falls in love with an early-twentieth century actress (Jane Seymour) whose picture he sees on the wall of an old grand hotel. After learning about the possibility of time travel through self-hypnosis, the writer dresses himself in period clothing, checks into a room in the old hotel, removes everything that would remind him of the present, and somehow makes it back to 1912. There he meets his true love (who readily falls in love with him in return), and it looks like they are going to live happily ever after until he stumbles across a 1979 penny that he had inadvertently left in his coat pocket. This tiny reminder of the present is enough to break the spell, cause the past to vanish, and wrench the heartbroken playwright back into the present.

The point of this labored analogy is simply to assure you that I was never in danger during my trip of forgetting that it was 2015. From the street vendors hawking $6 cheesesteaks outside Independence Hall, to the subway stop a few yards from the site of the Boston Massacre, to the gauntlet of souvenir shops a stone’s throw from the site of the Gettysburg Address, the present was all too evident.  This is frustrating but it is also a gift, inasmuch as it underscores the preciousness of those glimpses we are allowed to see.

And I’ll have to admit–begrudgingly–that there are more mundane benefits to the intrusion of the present: I did come home with an awesome souvenir.

The Sixteenth President of the United States

The Sixteenth President of the United States


(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  I did not write the essay below specifically to respond to David Barton’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in his work The Jefferson Lies, but anyone familiar with his argument in that book will recognize that I disagree with it strongly.)

Were our Founding Fathers devout Christians determined to create a Christian commonwealth grounded on biblical principles?  Or were they secular sons of the Enlightenment who hoped to banish orthodox Christianity from the public square?  This Fourth of July, combatants on both sides of the culture wars will gravitate to one or the other of these extremes as they remember our nation’s birth.  It’s a horrible dichotomy that demands that we choose between two equally untenable positions.

A more defensible position rejects both of these all-or-nothing claims.  As Matthew L. Harris and Thomas S. Kidd observe in their anthology The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in America, “None of the Founders were atheists . . . but none of the most famous Founders were ‘evangelical’ Christians of the sort produced by the Great Awakening, either.”  Many of the Founders were significantly influenced by the Enlightenment, most notably in their frequent willingness to let reason trump revelation when they seemed to be in conflict.  On the other hand, as Harris and Kidd note, “hardly anyone during the revolutionary era doubted that religion, and especially moral virtue, was important to the life of the new American republic.”   Citing such complexity, they conclude that any broad generalization of the Founders as either “secular” or “Christian” is problematic at best.

Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion

Thomas Jefferson was not necessarily a representative Founder in his religious views, but he did embody the complexity that Harris and Kidd point out.  Since we’ll shortly be celebrating the anniversary of his handiwork–the Declaration of Independence–it makes sense to revisit a few samples of his thinking.

First, Jefferson was no atheist.  In fact, he regularly made an argument for God that today we would call an appeal to “intelligent design.”  Here is how Jefferson put it in an 1823 letter to John Adams:

“When we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. . . . So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.”

Jefferson also welcomed the contribution that religious belief might make in promoting virtue among the American people.  Jefferson, like almost all of the Founders, took for granted that a free society could not survive without virtue, and that virtue was unlikely to thrive in the absence of religious conviction.  Or as Jefferson expressed the point in his book Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson praised the civic utility of religion publicly in his first inaugural address in 1801.  In a lengthy paragraph listing the country’s peculiar “blessings,” the new president described the American people as

“enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.”

He want on to observe that his fellow countrymen “acknowledge and adore an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

And yet there was another side to Jefferson’s perspective on religion.  While he admired a “rational” religion that promoted good works and civic virtue, he was contemptuous of much of orthodox Christianity as just so much superstition.  In private correspondence, he referred to evangelical religion with a sneer, as in this 1822 letter to Thomas Cooper, a Unitarian professor that Jefferson was trying to lure to the newly-founded University of Virginia:

“In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women: they have their night meetings, and praying-parties, where attended by their priests, and sometimes a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus in terms as amatory and carnal as their modesty would permit them to use to a more earthly lover.”

Jefferson’s skepticism of the Bible is also well established, notwithstanding David Barton’s tortured efforts to prove otherwise.  In The Jefferson Lies, Barton insisted that Jefferson wholly accepted the gospels while suspecting the reliability of Paul’s epistles, but in reality Jefferson believed that a great deal of the gospels were invention.  As he summarized in an 1820 letter to William Short,

“We find in the writings of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. first a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications. intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”

Jefferson could easily distinguish between these two categories by subjecting them to the test of reason.  “Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” for discerning truth, Jefferson famously counseled his teenaged nephew in 1787.  A great deal of the gospels were unreasonable (the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection, for example), so these had to be discarded.  Perhaps the greatest irrationality of all, however, was the concept of the Trinity.  As he wrote to James Smith:

“[The] paradox that one is three, and three but one is so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, deceives himself. He proves also that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.”

In sum, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was no atheist, nor was he committed to a wholly secular public sphere, but neither did he believe that Jesus was the Christ.   So where does this leave us?  Somewhere, I think, between comfortable but false extremes.


(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.)

Independence Day is only a week away, so I thought I would share a few more thoughts about what it might look like to think Christianly about the American founding.  The degree to which Christian beliefs influenced the creation of the United States is a question that many American Christians find intrinsically important.  I certainly share that view.

As I observed in a previous post, however, we should ask ourselves why it is important to us before we begin to explore the question.  Academic historians will tell you that one key to thinking historically about the past is to learn to practice metacognition–a fancy term for thinking about how we are thinking as we are thinking, i.e., learning to become self-aware of the thought processes that we employ in arriving at conclusions.  This is necessary because, as a marvelous book by Sam Wineburg demonstrates, historical thinking is an “unnatural act.”

As finite human beings, we live in time and space.  We encounter the world, necessarily, from our own limited perspectives.  This means, as Wineburg explains, that we naturally make sense of new things by analogy.  Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new to us (like an unfamiliar behavior or belief from an earlier time or a different place) we reflexively search for an analogue that we are already familiar with, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it.  When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else.

The construction of this analogy is natural, and potentially it’s a valuable first step toward understanding, but it comes with risk.  Once we recognize  something ostensibly familiar in people from the past, we will be tempted simply to label them and move on, to let that first step toward comprehension serve as our final judgment.  When we do that, however, we exaggerate the familiar at the expense of the strange, and we misrepresent the people we are trying to understand.

But when we study the past, our hearts are always involved as well as our brains.  And so I am convinced that one of the keys to thinking Christianly about the past is to practice greater self-awareness of our hearts as we study and explore.  This means, above all, examining our motives: Why are we interested in the topic in the first place?  What do we hope to gain by our efforts?  Are we open to being challenged, even to changing our minds?  Are we seeking to learn from the historical figures we encounter, or is our real intention (whether we’re aware of it or not) to use them to accomplish our own purposes?

As a Christian, I believe that our sin nature leaves its mark on everything we do, even our study of history.  Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to view the past in self-serving, self-justifying ways.  This means that thinking Christianly about the past–guided by love and humility–is every bit as unnatural as thinking historically.  The latter reflects our finiteness; the former results from our fallenness.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that academic historians are immune from this tendency.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But my primary burden is not for academic historians.  As I shared when I started this blog, my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with the church about the relationship between loving God and learning from history.  And so I have a warning to share: be careful of what you read.  When it comes to thinking about the relationship between faith and the American founding, the work by Christian amateurs caught up in the culture wars has been just as biased and, in my opinion, just as damaging as anything that the secular academy has produced.

Why would I say such a thing? I have previously written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr., David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins erred by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  These writers inadvertently backed themselves into a corner that it made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their interpretations of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretations of the American present.  What is worse, in varying degrees these writers conflated the authority of scripture with the force of their own fallible interpretations of American history.

They also modeled what I have labeled the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.  Whether their goal was primarily to motivate the faithful or to do battle with unbelievers, they implicitly thought of history primarily as a source of examples to buttress arguments they were already determined to make.  For all his genuine zeal and good intentions, this is precisely true of David Barton as well.  The problem with the history-as-ammunition approach is that its goal is not really understanding.  It typically emerges from a context of cultural debate, and the goal of debate, as we all know, is to win.

When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, then, amateur Christian historians have too often focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role or didn’t it?  And so, like David Barton, they count references to God and allusions to Scripture and answer the question with a triumphal “yes!”  They then wield this two-dimensional “Christian heritage” as a lever for motivating believers and putting secularists in their place.  In the process, however, they actually discourage  the kind of encounter with the past that can penetrate our hearts in life-changing ways.

What would a different approach look like?  The best way I know to answer this question is with a concrete example.  As I mentioned in my last post, an encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among Christian historians to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  Younger scholars who are doing so include (among many) John Fea of Messiah College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor, and James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).

The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll, formerly of Wheaton College, now at the University of Notre Dame.  Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman.  In the context of the bicentennial of American independence, Noll determined to investigate “the way in which religious convictions and Revolutionary thought interacted in the minds and hearts of American Christians.”  The purpose of the resulting book, Christians in the American Revolution, was less to prove that the United States had a Christian heritage than to discover the response of Christians to the revolution and learn from it.

Christians in the American Revolution

Undertaking an exhaustive reading of colonial sermons, pamphlets, and other primary sources, Noll concluded that the Christian response to the momentous political events of the period had been complex.  In their responses, colonial Christians fell into four broad categories.  Some supported the revolution enthusiastically, convinced that the patriot cause was unequivocally righteous and perfectly consonant with every Christian virtue.  Some supported independence more circumspectly, troubled by perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency in the patriot position.  Others saw loyalty to the Crown as the only truly Christian response, while a final group, believing that Scripture condemns violence, embraced pacifism and supported neither side.

Noll then proceeded to ask two overarching, open-ended questions of the evidence.  The first involved the nature of Christian influence on the struggle for independence, i.e., what did the Church do to and for the Revolution?  Among several influences, Noll found that countless colonial ministers openly espoused the cause of independence from the pulpit.  They defined freedom as the divine ideal, equated oppression with the Antichrist, assured their flocks that God was on the side of the patriots, and effectively presented the Revolution as a holy crusade, a spiritual struggle between good and evil.

Had Noll only been interested in establishing that the American Revolution had a Christian dimension, he could have stopped right there.  Readers interested only in proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation would have found a treasure trove of useful quotes indicating that American colonists routinely thought of the conflict with Britain in religious terms.  And yet Noll didn’t stop there.  Instead, he asked a second, probing, uncomfortable question that Christian culture warriors have too often passed over, i.e., what did the Revolution do to and for the Church?

Again, the answer is multifaceted, but much of what Noll found was troubling.  To begin with, looking broadly at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it appears that the Revolutionary era was a period of declining Christian influence on the culture.  In broader historical context, Christians’ widespread support for the Revolution was actually an example of the increasing degree to which “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” rather than the other way round.  Even more troubling, Noll found evidence to suggest that revolutionary fervor had sometimes undermined Christian integrity, as Christians too commonly forgot that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone.  Noll’s summary thoughts on this point bear repeating in detail, so I will leave you with the final extended quote as food for thought:

In addressing the question of what the Revolution did to the church, it is necessary to consider whether Christian integrity was not swamped in the tide of Revolutionary feeling.  From a twentieth-century perspective it appears as if all sense of proportion was lost, particularly where no doubts were countenanced about the righteousness of the Patriot cause.  Where presbyteries could exclude ministers from fellowship because of failure to evince ardent Patriotism, where the “cause of America” could be described repeatedly and with limitless variation as “the cause of Christ,” and where the colonists so blithely saw themselves standing in the place of Israel as God’s chosen people, the question must arise whether the Revolution did not occasion a momentary moral collapse in the churches.  Those ministers and lay believers who allowed the supposed justice of the Patriot cause and displays of Patriotic devotion to replace standards of divine justice and the fruit of the Spirit as the controlling determinants of thought and behavior betrayed basic principles of the Christian faith–that absolute loyalty belongs only to God, and that unwarranted self-righteousness is as evil as open and scandalous sin.


(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  The books that I recommend below were all ones that I included in my course on the American Revolution this past semester.  They are wonderfully accessible for anyone interested in the American founding.)

In his wonderful book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, Steven Garber observes that  “history is mostly . . . very ordinary people in very ordinary places.” Garber’s reminder prompts me to share some books with you that offer insight into the way that common Americans responded to and were changed by the American Revolution. The Fourth of July will soon be upon us, and the anniversary of American independence will prompt many of us to reflect on the origins of the United States. We will zero in on the values of the first “Greatest Generation,” and we’ll debate the nature of the beliefs that propelled them and the vision that sustained them. I think that’s a good thing. But we’ll undoubtedly focus our attention primarily on the same small cast of characters, the extraordinary leaders who would eventually get their pictures on our folding money. And they were extraordinary men—brilliant, visionary, and courageous.

Yet understanding what the American Revolution meant in the lives of everyday people is important as well. When we focus exclusively on the leading statesmen—Adams, Jefferson, Franklin & Co.—the Revolution has a way of becoming a debate among philosophers over abstract propositions. I am not denigrating for a moment the power of their ideas or the importance of the questions that drove them. We need to return regularly to both and enter into the conversation of which these remarkable thinkers were a part.

But I am suggesting that we lose something by not broadening our focus. Most obviously, by concentrating so exclusively on the leading Founders, we close our eyes to 99 percent of those who contributed to the cause of American independence. How can we claim to know what the Revolution stood for, if we have no idea what the vast majority of Americans thought it was about? If we don’t know why they supported it (if they did)? If we’re unsure how they contributed to its outcome? If we have no clue how it changed their lives?

I think we miss something else as well. Readers of this blog will know that I think one of the most important reasons to study the past is to gain wisdom. At its best, the study of history can be a marvelous vehicle for moral reflection. For those who have eyes to see, the past has much to reveal to us about the present and much to teach us about how to meet the future. In this regard, focusing on the lives of extraordinary leaders is a two-edged sword. We may marvel at their extraordinary character or accomplishments, but precisely because they are so extraordinary, we may find it hard to relate to them. My suspicion is that we are more likely to admire them than to be challenged or convicted by them. This, then, is another reason why it is so important to recapture the perspective of common folk. Few of us will ever be called to lead armies or frame new governments, but we may be able to relate to—and learn from—the many mundane moral decisions that our anonymous ancestors have faced before us.

So here are three books that I have long appreciated for their ability to take us into the world of everyday Americans during the era of the American Revolution. They’re each fairly short, readily available, and relatively inexpensive. They’re also each very different. They rest on different kinds of sources, offer different understandings, and model different ways that historians try to glean insight into the world of common people in ages past.

The first is The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, by Alfred Young. In the first half of the book, Young painstakingly recreates the life of a poor Boston shoemaker named George Robert Twelves Hewes. (Some name, huh?) Hewes was born in Massachusetts in 1742 and lived his life in obscurity until the 1830s, when through an unusual chain of events it was discovered that he was one of the last living participants in the Boston Tea Party. Young describes Hewes as “a nobody who briefly became a somebody in the Revolution and, for a moment near the end of his life, a hero.” Two lesser known contemporary writers quickly penned biographies of the aged patriot, who was invited to Boston in 1835 and treated as a celebrity. Young draws from both accounts—supplemented by as much corroborating evidence as he can find from other historical sources—to ask three primary questions: What was Hewes’ role in the Revolution? What did he think about it? How did it affect his life?

shoemaker and the tea partyRobert Hewes was among the poorest of the poor. Born the youngest of nine children, his father died when he was seven and his mother passed away when he was fourteen. That same year he was apprenticed to a shoemaker (an occupation very low in status and income) because no one in his family could come up with the fee necessary to indenture him to a more lucrative trade. He later married the illiterate daughter of a church sexton and fathered fifteen children, none of whom had the means to care for him after his wife of seventy years passed away.

Hewes lacked the necessary property to be eligible to vote as the Revolution approached, but the arrival of British troops in Boston in 1768 made him keenly interested in politics nonetheless. Hewes told neither of his biographers much about his reasons for supporting the patriot cause, but his involvement in the Tea Party in December 1773 hints at the way that the transatlantic struggle with the Mother Country could draw common Americans from the periphery to the center of local politics. For Hewes, the coming of the American Revolution meant, first and foremost, the opportunity to assert his worth as an equal member of the town. As Young concludes, “Between 1768 and 1773, the shoemaker became a citizen.”

Hewes’ large family and minimal means shaped the contours of his service in the Revolutionary cause after the rupture with Britain. Unable to be away from his family for extended periods, he served numerous short stints as both a private in the militia and as a crew member on an American privateer. All told, he was in military service for a little over a year and a half of the eight-year long war. “In all this activity he claimed no moment of glory,” Young summarizes. There was a lot of marching, a lot of drudgery, and very little pay. Hewes was as poor when the war concluded as when it began.

Hewes’ numerous short stints in the militia were fairly typical of military service during the Revolution. Military historians have estimated that as many as four hundred thousand colonists served at one time or other, but the vast majority of these served in the militia for brief periods of a few weeks or months. In contrast, by 1777 the soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army were enlisted for the duration of the war. Washington’s force never exceeded twenty thousand men, however, and was greatly smaller than that for much of the war.

The world of the Continental soldier is the focus of A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin. While The Shoemaker and the Tea Party represents the efforts of a modern-day historian to recreate the life of an obscure colonist, the Narrative conveys the life of a common Continental soldier in his own words. In contrast to Hewes’ numerous short stints in military service, Joseph Martin served as a private under General George Washington for nearly eight years. The Connecticut farm boy volunteered at the ripe age of fifteen and was still scarcely an adult when he was discharged at the war’s conclusion. Martin composed his memoir nearly a half century later, right about the time Robert Hewes was being celebrated in Boston.

Joseph Plumb Martin“War is hell,” Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman is supposed to have said. Martin would have countered that war is boredom, drudgery, and starvation. He described his experience in battle and alluded briefly to comrades who were killed or wounded, but on the whole his description of combat is brief and vague. He was much more detailed in reviewing when and where and how far he marched and the specific kinds of duty to which he was assigned. But by far his most frequent observations have to do with how hungry he was. He noted repeatedly (literally dozens of times) that he was chronically hungry. His three “constant companions,” as he put it, were “Fatigue, Hunger, and Cold.”

Like Robert Hewes, the aged Joseph Martin had little to say about his reasons for supporting the patriot cause. He hints at a teenage boy’s hankering for excitement and the torture of staying on the farm when adventure was within his grasp. A half-century removed from such innocence, he wrote in retrospect with a tinge of resentment, even bitterness. The members of the Continental Army had been shabbily treated, in his opinion. By his reckoning, the government had not honored its promises to the soldiers for pay during the war or for land bounties afterward. “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like worn out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.” In Martin’s mind, his relationship to the new country he had helped to bring into being was “much like that of a loyal and faithful husband, and a light heeled wanton of a wife.” He had been faithful, while those for whom he had sacrificed had been forgetful. “But I forgive her,” Martin concluded, “and hope she will do better in the future.”

My third and final recommendation is of a very different kind of book.  While the first two focus on single individuals, in The Minutemen and Their World, historian Robert Gross tries to resurrect a community.  The place of choice is Concord, Massachusetts, the New England village west of Boston where  “Minutemen” squared off against British regulars in April 1775 in the first real battle of the American Revolution.  While the Minutemen are a celebrated part of American lore, Gross recognized that they were faceless as well as famous.  His goal was to learn everything he could about the community that they were defending when they fired the “shot heard round the world.”

Minutemen and their WorldAt the heart of the book is the truth that key historical events emerge out of a context.  The men who took their stand at Concord bridge were fathers, sons, brothers and friends.  They did not take up their muskets as autonomous individuals, but as members of a community.  Their lives were enmeshed in numerous relationships defined by kinship, geography, economy and religion.  As we read about Concord on the eve of the Revolution, Gross uses the community as a window into the colonial world.  You learn about eighteenth-century agriculture, the status of women, slavery and race relations, attitudes toward the poor, differences over revivalism, and relations between parents and their adult children.  In the process, the town’s Minutemen cease to be cardboard cutouts and take on flesh and blood.

One of the great strengths of the book is how Gross connects the small stories of these “ordinary people in an ordinary place” to the grand narrative of the Revolution that is much better known.  The people of Concord would briefly be agitated in response to offensive British policies like the Stamp Act or the Tea Act, but the furor would die down quickly and their attention would return to local affairs.  Indeed, until the spring of 1774, the most important topics in the town meeting were local: roads, schools, support for the poor.  As Gross puts it, “a large part of local government was devoted to keeping one man’s livestock out of another man’s fields.”

This changed with the arrival of news concerning a new series of acts passed by the British Parliament in response to the Boston Tea Party.  Colonists quickly labeled the new laws the “Intolerable Acts.”  While the measures focused primarily on punishing Boston specifically, one of the acts limited all towns in Massachusetts to one town meeting a year.  As Gross explains, the people of Concord saw this as a direct assault on their freedom to manage their own community, and the response was a far greater support for resistance than had existed before then.

For the people of Concord, then, the struggle with Britain truly ignited only when British policies interfered, in a way that they had not previously, with the traditional way of life in their village.  From that point forward, the people of Concord unified in support of resistance, but not so much because they desired formal independence from Britain.   Their primary goal, Gross explains, “was to defend their traditional community life.”  What they really wanted was to keep things the way they were.  And yet one of the clear lessons of history is that the trajectory of great historical developments, once begun, is rarely predictable.  Things don’t turn out the way we plan.  The eight-year-long war unleashed unimagined changes.  The people of Concord were looking backward more than forward in 1775.  In this village, at least, “the greatest rebellion of all was undertaken in the name of tradition.”



(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  I had never given much thought to Warren G. Harding–who has?–before a book by historian R. B. Bernstein alerted me to Harding’s little-known role in our popular memory of the “Founding Fathers.”)

So this is an unusual title for a blog post, don’t you think? If you know anything about Warren G. Harding (don’t be embarrassed if you don’t; he was eminently forgettable), you’ve got to be shaking your head and wondering.  What in the world does Warren G. Harding have to do with the leading lights of the revolutionary generation?

The group that we normally refer to as “the Founding Fathers”—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison, to name the most prominent—were individuals of remarkable character, courage, intellect, and vision.  No one, not even his closest friends, ever accused Warren Harding of any of these traits.

In the public realm, Harding’s administration became synonymous with scandal and corruption. His attorney general (a close friend and political adviser whom he rewarded with a cabinet post) was twice indicted for fraud. The director of the Veteran’s Bureau (forerunner of today’s Veteran’s Administration) went to jail for diverting medicines from hospitals to narcotics dealers. The Secretary of the Interior served time for accepting bribes from oil companies in a scheme now remembered as the Teapot Dome scandal.

Behind the scenes, Harding’s private life was decadent, if not depraved. As president he drank heavily. (And illegally I might add. It was the middle of Prohibition, after all.) He also held twice-weekly poker games in the White House, and he liked to keep “late hours,” a 1920s euphemism for enjoying the company of women other than his long-suffering wife. Harding engaged in at least two prolonged adulterous affairs during his political career. The first, with the wife of a good friend, culminated around the time of his election to the presidency, a termination facilitated by hush money paid from the coffers of the Republican National Committee. The second, involving a bright-eyed blonde thirty years his junior, continued until his death of a heart attack in 1923, and included liaisons in the Oval Office.

Not surprisingly, this one-two combination of public and private dishonesty has won for Harding a consistently poor reputation among historians. In 2009, for example, C-Span surveyed sixty-five prominent presidential historians and asked them to rank the forty-two men who had served as chief executive between 1789 and 2008. The survey asked respondents to give each president individual scores for ten separate leadership categories, including public persuasion, administrative skills, international relations, and “moral authority.” Harding ranked thirty-eighth overall and thirty-ninth in moral authority. The only presidents deemed less effective as moral leaders were Andrew Johnson, who was impeached; Richard Nixon, who resigned to avoid being impeached; and James Buchanan, who did little more than wring his hands while the nation careened toward civil war. This is not auspicious company.

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), 29th President of the United States

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), 29th President of the United States

So I’ll ask again. What possible connection links the Founding Fathers to this disgraced twentieth-century president? It’s simply this: according to the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, it was Harding who actually coined the term “Founding Fathers.” He first introduced it when, as U. S. Senator from Ohio, he delivered the keynote address to the Republican National Convention of 1916. He repeated the phrase two years later in a speech on Washington’s Birthday, employed it twice when he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1920, and returned to it a final time in his 1921 inaugural address on the steps of the U. S. capitol. Here is an excerpt from the address:

Standing in this presence, mindful of the solemnity of this occasion, feeling the emotions which no one may know until he senses the great weight of responsibility for himself, I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers. Surely there must have been God’s intent in the making of this new-world Republic.

As is so often the case, the new phrase passed quickly into common use, and pretty soon no one could remember where the term came from. Not recalling a time when the term wasn’t popular, most folks probably assumed that it was a lot older than it really was.

So how is this piece of historical trivia significant—if it’s significant at all? Does it somehow reflect on the Founding Fathers that they owe their honorific title to a hard-drinking philanderer who exploited them in a partisan speech nearly a century after they had passed from the scene?

It shouldn’t. Washington and Adams and company can’t be held accountable for how subsequent generations manipulate their memory. Being hijacked from the grave for any number of causes is an occupational hazard of political prominence. (Although Winston Churchill, at least, claimed that he would be immune. “History will be kind to me,” the statesmen/historian predicted, “because I intend to write it.”)

But if this story shouldn’t affect what we think about the Founding Fathers, it should inform how we think about them. To begin with, it reminds us that what we call “history” is not the past itself but rather the remembered past. History is a form of memory that exists not in the past but in the present.  Historical memory, like memory generally, is always influenced to some degree by our current vantage point.  In the self-satisfied 1920s, praise of the Founders was simply good politics, but it has not always been that way.

While the Founders were still living, Americans regularly denounced one or more of them (while the Founders themselves were regularly denouncing each other). Republican newspapers condemned Washington as “the scourge and misfortune” of the country while they mocked and ridiculed “the blind, bald, toothless Adams.” Federalists fired back in kind, condemning Jefferson for his infidelity, hypocrisy, and radicalism. They repeatedly predicted (and perhaps hoped for?) the “just vengeance of heaven” should he be elected president.

By the 1820s the Founders’ stock had begun to rise, however. The country was approaching its fiftieth birthday, and the generation that had led the way to independence was passing from the scene. Like a youngster now old enough to have memories, Americans became more interested in their collective past. (They were also more willing to ascribe sainthood to the dead than to the living.) More or less continuously since then, Americans have imputed great significance to the Founders, although they have defined the Founders’ legacy in numerous and often contradictory ways.

This leads to a second insight imbedded in the story of President Harding’s christening of the “Founding Fathers.” Harding’s veneration of the Framers may have been sincere—it’s hard to know—but what is certain is that he was remembering them in a particular context and for a particular purpose. In this particular instance, Harding wanted his audience to understand that the “divinely inspired” Founding Fathers would have been opposed to American entry into the League of Nations, which was coincidentally the position that he held as well.

In doing so, Harding was far from unique. The British historian Catherine Wedgwood once observed that what most people want from history “is not the truth about the past—which only interests a very small minority—but ideas and directives for conduct in the present.”

I don’t entirely agree with Wedgwood. I think a lot of people view history purely as a form of entertainment. (That’s certainly how the so-called “History Channel” portrays it.) But I agree with her in this respect: among the minority who believe that history is truly important (or pretend to believe so at any rate), it’s the rare bird who thinks of history as truly important for its own sake. Academic historians will debate the past endlessly for all kinds of esoteric reasons, but when normal people debate the past, more often than not it is because they believe something important is at stake in the present.

This is why popular historical debates are almost always debates about contemporary policy in disguise. This is all the more true when the disputed question is something like the vision or values of the Founding Fathers. Few questions about our nation’s past are more morally charged. A minority of Americans are willing simply to dismiss the Founders as a bunch of irrelevant dead elitists, but most of us would rather have them on our side when we do battle in the public square.

As a historian, I would say that there is both good news and bad in this mindset. The good news is that it spurs us to pay more attention to history than we might otherwise. The bad news is that it predisposes us to discover in the past whatever our present agendas make it convenient to see.

POSTSCRIPT: The surprising history of the phrase “Founding Fathers” comes from The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, by R. B. Bernstein (Oxford University Press, 2009). Bernstein, a Professor of Law at New York Law School, has written a brief and accessible introduction to the Founding Fathers—“who they were, what they did and failed to do, and why we care.” It’s far from the last word on these questions, but not a bad place to start if these are questions that interest you.


(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  The review below originally appeared two years ago in Christianity Today.  With politically-minded evangelicals like David Barton and Dan Fisher praising the role of preachers in supporting the cause of American independence in 1776, I thought it a good idea to revisit James Byrd’s systematic study of how patriots appealed to Scripture during the Revolution.  While Barton, Fisher et al contend that the Bible shaped colonial pastors’ politics, Byrd finds evidence to suggest that the opposite was at least equally true.)


James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

The history of the American Revolution is, above all, a story about national beginnings, and stories about beginnings are stories that explain. How we understand our origins informs our sense of identity as a people. We look to the past not only to understand who we are but also to justify who we wish to become. And so, as a nation divided over the proper place of religious belief in the contemporary public square, we naturally debate the place of religious belief in the American founding.

Outside of the academy, much of that debate has focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role in the American founding? This makes sense if the primary motive is to score points in the culture wars, mining the past for ammunition to use against secularists who deny that the United States was founded as a Christian country. There’s a problem with the history-as-ammunition approach, however. It’s good for bludgeoning opponents with, but it positively discourages sustained moral reflection, the kind of conversation with the past that can penetrate the heart and even change who we are.

Sacred ScriptureIn contrast, books like Sacred Scripture, Sacred War have the potential to challenge us deeply. Granted, author James Byrd inadvertently offers ammunition to readers cherry-picking evidence for a Christian founding. He matter-of-factly contends that sermons were more influential than political pamphlets in building popular support for independence, and he insists unequivocally that “preachers were the staunchest defenders of the cause of America.” And yet the question that really interests him is not whether religion played an important role in the American founding but how that it did so. More specifically, he wants to understand how colonists used the Bible in responding to the American Revolution.

Toward that end, Byrd went in search of original colonial sources that addressed the topic of war while appealing to scripture. He ultimately identified 543 colonial writings (the vast majority of which were published sermons) and systematically analyzed the more than 17,000 biblical citations that they contained. The result is by far the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of “how revolutionary Americans defended their patriotic convictions through scripture, which texts they cited and how they used them.”

Byrd relates his conclusions in five thematic chapters, each of which highlights a common scriptural argument in support of the Revolution. Americans found in the scripture “a vast assemblage of war stories” relevant to their own struggle with England. From the Old Testament, ministers drew inspiration especially from the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14-15), from the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, and from the example of David, the man of war who was also the “man after God’s own heart.” Ministers read each of these stories analogically and drew lessons from them. The Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt resembled their own bondage to British tyranny; ditto for the Israelites’ subjection centuries later to Jabin, king of Cannaan. The contest between David and Goliath, in like manner, foreshadowed the colonists’ righteous struggle with a powerful but arrogant British empire. (That David went on to become a king was a fact that need not be emphasized.)

To the patriotic ministers who declared them from the pulpit, the lessons embedded in these stories were indisputable. God championed the cause of independence. A warrior who liberated his people by means of war, the Lord clearly sanctioned violence in the pursuit of freedom. Furthermore, he would intervene on their behalf, and with God on their side, the ill-trained and poorly equipped patriots would be victorious. This meant that loyalism was rebellion against God, and pacifism was “sinful cowardice.” Had not the angel of the Lord cursed the people of Meroz because they did not come “to the help of the Lord against the mighty” (Judges 5:23)? Had not the prophet Jeremiah thundered, “Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood” (Jer. 48:10)?

If the biblical argument in support of the Revolution was to succeed, of course, patriot ministers knew that they must buttress these arguments with support from the New Testament. This was no simple task, inasmuch as the apostles Peter and Paul both seemed to condemn rebellion and teach submission to rulers as a Christian’s duty. Paul enjoined the church at Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1); Peter commanded Christians to “honor the king” (I Peter 2:17b). Neither admonition seemed to leave much room for righteous resistance to civil authority.

Advocates of independence countered, however, that these passages only commanded obedience to rulers who were ministers of God “for good,” and since liberty was self-evidently good, the apostles could not possibly be calling for submission to tyrants. They reassured their flocks, furthermore, by repeatedly citing one of the few unambiguous endorsements of liberty in the New Testament. “Stand fast,” Paul had counseled the churches of Galatia, “in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1). The liberty Paul had in mind was civil as well as religious, ministers insisted, which meant that the refusal to “stand fast” with the patriot cause was nothing less than “a sin against the express command of God.”

Three overarching patterns emerge from Byrd’s study that should trouble Christian readers. First, the influence of political ideology and historical circumstance in shaping the colonists’ interpretation of scripture is striking. Traced to its roots, the colonists’ conviction that civil liberty is a God-given right owed more to the Enlightenment than to orthodox Christian teaching, and yet the belief strongly informed how colonists understood the Word of God. Reading the scripture through the lens of republican ideology, they discovered “a patriotic Bible” perfect for promoting “patriotic zeal.”

Second, the readiness with which Christian advocates of independence sanctified violence is disturbing. “Colonial preachers did not shy away from biblical violence,” Byrd finds. “They embraced it, almost celebrated it, even in its most graphic forms.”

Third, and most ominously, the evidence suggests that the way patriotic ministers portrayed the military conflict with Britain morphed rapidly from merely a “just war”—a war originated for a morally defensible cause and fought according to moral criteria—into a “sacred” or “holy war”—a struggle “executed with divine vengeance upon the minions of Satan.” Patriotism and Christianity had become inseparable, almost indistinguishable.

Byrd writes with restraint and offers little commentary on his findings, but the implications for American Christians are sobering and the stakes are high. As Byrd acknowledges in his conclusion, over time the United States has come “to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars.” American Christians have played a major role in that process of national self-definition, all too regularly sanctifying the nation’s military conflicts as sacred struggles.

Historian Mark Noll has lamented that by the time of the American Revolution “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” not the other way around. With painstaking thoroughness, James Byrd reaffirms that conclusion, showing that the pattern even defined how revolutionary-era Christians read their Bibles and thought about war.



I am writing from Lexington, Massachusetts, having driven 1,025 miles since leaving Wheaton yesterday morning.  I am en route to a teaching conference at Yale, and my incredibly supportive wife encouraged me to lengthen the trip a bit in order to do a little historical sight-seeing.  I am going to try to cram as much of Lexington, Concord, and Boston in over the next 36 hours as I possibly can.

After spending last night near Rochester, New York, I took a couple of historical detours this morning before settling in to the monotonous miles of I-90.  First, I visited Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, the burial place of both Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, and Susan B. Anthony, the prominent advocate for women’s rights.  From there I headed to Seneca Falls, New York (maybe fifty miles to the southeast), where the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848.

In addition to being the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the location of the women’s rights’ convention, Seneca Falls insists on at least one other claim to fame: the town contends that it was the inspiration for the fictional town of Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s immortal Christmas classic  It’s a Wonderful Life.  I can neither confirm nor deny the historical accuracy of this claim, but I will say that I enjoyed the “George Bailey” roast beef, mushroom, and onion sandwich that I had for lunch at the Downtown Deli just down the street from Women’s Rights National Historical Park.  (Other sandwich options included the “Ma Bailey,” the “Uncle Billy Cuban,” the “Pottersville,” and “ZuZus.”)

But I am not writing to talk about what I had for lunch, or even primarily to brag about my vacation.  Instead, I want to weigh in on one of the weightier news items of the past forty-eight hours: the awful decision of the U. S. Treasury Department to take Alexander Hamilton off of the ten-dollar bill.

As you may have heard, the Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that it would soon be re-designing the ten, trading in the picture of Hamilton for an image of a historically significant American woman to be named later.

I do not object to honoring a woman on our currency, but I want to add my voice to those who are arguing that it would be far better to boot Andrew Jackson from the twenty than to give poor Alexander the heave-ho.  Critics have already pointed out Jackson’s ignominious role in the removal of the Cherokee Indian Nation from Georgia to Oklahoma, his ownership of approximately 150 other human beings during his presidency, and even the more than ironic fact that he was suspicious of paper money to his dying day.

Any one of these might be sufficient to make the case that Jackson is a less than ideal choice.  I would add to the list that Jackson was a loose cannon as a military leader after the War of 1812 (he very nearly embroiled the U. S. in a war with Spain).  Finally, even though he was a fellow Tennessean, and I feel disloyal saying it, he just wasn’t a very nice guy.  He had a legendary temper, he killed a man for insulting his wife, and he very nearly brought his administration to a grinding halt because the wife of his vice-president refused to socialize with the wife of his Secretary of War.  There are more twenty-dollar bills in circulation than there are people on planet Earth.  Is Jackson the best we can do?

Don’t get me wrong–Hamilton had his own issues.  Thomas Jefferson–though not the most reliable of witnesses in this case–thought that Hamilton was a monarchist who would be happy to serve as the monarch himself.  John Adams thought he was an unparalleled schemer.  And I won’t even mention what Aaron Burr thought of him.

And yet, and here I am being dead serious, Hamilton had, for his day, unusually advanced views concerning the relation of the races.  Part of the rationale for putting a woman on the $10 or $20 is to make a symbolic statement about the importance of diversity in our national heritrage.  If that is one underlying goal, then jettisoning Hamilton while retaining Old Hickory makes no sense at all.  I would argue that, when measured against the dominant values of his generation, Hamilton was more progressive than any of the other men on our money, including Lincoln.

Here’s why I think so: in 1779, both Hamilton and a young South Carolina aristocrat named John Laurens were serving as aides to General George Washington.  Close as they were to the general’s inner circle, they were fully apprised of the critical manpower shortages plaguing the Continental Army and had more than an inkling of how desperate the patriot cause had become since the heady days in the immediate aftermath of the American victory at Saratoga.  The son of one of the wealthiest slaveowners in the South, Laurens came to the conclusion that if the colonies wanted to achieve their independence, they would have to meet their desperate need for more soldiers by raising black regiments.  Laurens, who had gradually developed deep misgivings about the morality of slavery, wrote to his father that the enlistment of slaves as soldiers would both alleviate their “wretched state” and serve the public good.

In March 1779 the precocious 22-year-old Hamilton wrote to John Jay, the future chief justice of the United States who was then serving as president of the Continental Congress.  Hamilton urged Jay to support Laurens’ intiative.  “I have not the least doubt,” he assured Jay, “that negroes will make good soldiers.”  That this was true was because “their natural faculties are probably as good as ours.”  Indeed, Hamilton elaborated, “the contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience.”  They stemmed, instead, from “prejudice and self-interest.”

In the end, “prejudice and self-interest” won the day, and Laurens’ proposal went nowhere.  Hamilton’s support of the controversial proposal is inspiring nonetheless.  It was an extraordinary letter, full of extraordinary sentiments for its time.

Ten-Dollar Bill


(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites.  While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.) 

The 4th of July is rapidly approaching (is that really possible?), and I want to spend most of my energies these next few weeks thinking out loud with you about Christian faith and the American founding.  When I refer to “faith and the founding” I have two interrelationships in mind.  On the one hand, it is good to explore the role that Christian belief and principles played in the unfolding of the American Revolution.  But as Christians called to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ,” we also need to consider what it means to let our faith inform our understanding, today, of the events that led to American Independence more than two centuries ago.  What does it mean to think Christianly, in other words, about this critical chapter in our national story?

As I have spoken to churches, Christian schools, and Christian home-schooling groups over the years, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation has regularly been the single most common question that I am asked.  If they are interested in history at all, the Christians that I meet outside the Academy keep coming back to the same basic question: Was the United States founded as a Christian country, by Christian statesmen, guided by Christian principles?

When I hear the question, the first thought that pops into my head is another question, namely “Why do you want to know?”  I don’t mean to be flippant or disrespectful.  Part of thinking Christianly about the past involves examining our motives for studying the past in the first place.  And when it comes to a question like the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States, there are all manner of motives other than simple curiosity that can get in the drivers’ seat.

The question has become enormously politicized in the last generation, as Christians square off against secularists, both sides appealing to the past to support their respective policy position regarding the proper place of religion in public life.  Historical truth  is commonly a casualty when  political agendas get entangled with debates about the past.

I have already written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins each erred tragically by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  (See here, here, and here.)  What is more troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.

One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset.  In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism.  Here it is:

“Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.”

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction.  True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell.  We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

But Chesterton’s observation doesn’t only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism.  Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith.  In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history.  Ours is a historical faith.  Christianity’s core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.  Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.

But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history.  Let’s take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:

Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.

Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history?  Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined.  As we think about faith and the American founding in the weeks ahead, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep Chesterton’s observation in mind.


It’s been a long time since I shared with you from my commonplace book (or “life thickener” (to borrow a phrase from Mark Edmundson’s book Why Teach?), so let’s correct that right now.

As I was chewing on Andrew Delbanco’s argument on The Real American Dream (you can read my reflections here), my mind kept returning to the book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.  (I’ll explain why shortly.)  Resident Aliens was one of the first books that I copied from into my commonplace book, and I think it still wins the prize for the most entries.

Resident Aliens

I first came across it while I was working on my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and the authors’ concept of Christians as “aliens” resonated strongly with the self-conscious sense of pilgrimage that I was getting to know in the writings of William Bradford.   I’m confident that I wouldn’t agree with Hauerwas and Willimon (both professors at Duke Divinity School) in all the finer points of theology and ethics, but I consider Resident Aliens wonderfully stimulating and challenging.

Below are just a few sample quotes to give you a taste of the work.  Andrew Delbanco argues in The Real American Dream that over the past half century the Self has replaced either God or Nation as the focal point of the American story.  Listen to Hauerwas and Willimon on American individualism:

* “The primary entity of democracy is the individual, the individual for whom society exists mainly to assist assertions of individuality.”

* Our society, in brief, is built on the presumption that the good society is that in which each person gets to be his or her own tyrant.”

* “Our society is a vast supermarket of desire in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

* “Most modern ethics begin from the Enlightenment presupposition of the isolated, heroic self, the allegedly rational individual who stands alone and decides and chooses. . . . Growing up, becoming a mature, functioning adult is thus defined as becoming someone who has no communal, traditionalist, familial impediments.”

What I found even more haunting in The Real American Dream was Delbanco’s lament that we Americans now tend to live our lives “locked in a soul-starving present.”  At its best, the church should offer a  striking contrast to such debilitating present-mindedness.  Hear Hauerwas and Willimon:

“When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train.  As disciples, we do not so much accept a creed or come to a clear sense of self-understanding by which we know this or that with utter certitude.  We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone. . . . Faith begins, not in discovery, but in remembrance.  The story began without us, as a story of the peculiar way God is redeeming the world . . .”


What is the nature of the story that we Americans tell about ourselves? What is the driving idea of our culture? Are we a hopeful people, and if so, on what do we base our hope?

These questions lie at the heart of a book that I just finished titled The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, by Andrew Delbanco. The author is a professor of American Studies at Columbia University, and this brief volume (118 pp.) originated as a series of three public lectures that he delivered at Harvard University at the close of the 1990s. I have read one previous book by Delbanco: his more recent work College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Although I didn’t wholly agree with Delbanco’s thoughts on higher education, I found him very thought provoking. Delbanco is not a Christian (he describes himself as a non-observant Jew), but he has spent much of his career studying American religious history, he takes religious belief seriously, and he seems drawn to religious questions. Certainly, the questions that he asks in The Real American Dream are fraught with religious significance.


Delbanco’s starting point is the importance of story. “Human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days—pain, pleasure, desire, fear—into a story,” he observes on the very first page. “When that story leads somewhere . . . it gives us hope.” When Delbanco talks about “hope,” he isn’t referring to a sense of optimism that the economy will pick up, or that we’ll land the promotion we’ve been working toward, or that our children will grow up healthy and happy. Hope, as he means it here, is something deeper. It is the sense of comfort that saturates our soul when we believe that our lives are a part of something larger. Hope inhabits us when we see our lives as enmeshed in a larger story that reassures us that life is more than simply about filling time until we die. The “real American dream,” according to Delbanco, isn’t the yearning for a three-bedroom house and a two-car garage or any other materialistic cliche; it isn’t even uniquely American. The real American dream is the hope of satisfying “the unquenchable human need to feel connected to something larger than the insular self.” This book is a meditation on how Americans have tried to satisfy that longing over the centuries.

Generalizing broadly, Delbanco divides American history into three eras, each characterized by a different dominant approach to this “craving for transcendence.” Throughout the colonial period, the central figure in the American story, as the colonists told it, was God. Giving special attention to the Puritans, Delbanco maintains that colonial American culture found in religious belief the basis of a coherent world view. God’s exhaustive sovereignty drove the human story, and His divine plan, though often inscrutable, infused the colonists’ lives with meaning and purpose.

By 1800, however, the Puritans’ robust Calvinism “had been permanently displaced from the center of the culture.” Although the change unfolded gradually, between the American Revolution and the Civil War the nation came to replace God as the culture’s focal point. Delbanco writes, “Christian symbolism, even as it was weakening, was transformed into the symbol of a redeemer nation, and thereby into a new symbol of hope.” Abraham Lincoln both embodied and propelled the trend. In an 1854 speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, for example, Lincoln proclaimed that the notorious legislation had “soiled” the nation, and called on Americans to “repurify” their garments by washing them—not in the blood of the Lamb—but “in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.” In Delbanco’s estimation (and in mine), Lincoln “contributed immeasurably to the sacralization of the state.”  For a century thereafter, Americans looked increasingly to the nation, not to God, “as the source of justice, mercy, and hope.”

This pattern held true into the 1960s. But from the 1960s through the 1980s, according to Delbanco, popular faith in the government declined dramatically and the nation ceased to function as the driving idea at the heart of the American story. Events of these years “cooperated in installing instant gratification as the hallmark of the good life, and in repudiating the interventionist state as a source of hope.” The focal point of American culture since that time has not been God. It has not been the nation. It has been the self.

In a word, the history of hope that the author sketches is one of “diminution.” He summarizes it this way: “At first, the self expanded toward (and was sometimes overwhelmed by) the vastness of God. From the early republic to the Great Society, it remained implicated in a national ideal lesser than God but larger and more enduring than any individual citizen. Today [i.e., 1999], “hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of the self alone.”

Delbanco openly laments what he finds. Looking about him, he sees a culture without a coherent story.  That means a culture without hope. “We have gotten very good at deconstructing old stories,” he observes almost bitterly, but “when it comes to telling new ones, we are blocked.” How could it be otherwise? The values that drive us—unfettered individualism, unmitigated materialism—cannot lead beyond the self. The symbols that encapsulate us—the golden arches and the Nike swoosh—can never inspire us or point us toward hope. “And so the ache for meaning goes unrelieved.” The pressing question, Delbanco contends, is whether we can face this emptiness openly and honestly. “Do we have the nerve to say of ourselves that a culture locked in a soul-starving present, in which the highest aspiration—for those who can afford to try—is to keep the body forever young, is no culture at all?”

It’s a good question.

Historians traditionally don’t like to talk about the present, and we tend to banish the historians who do so from the club and label them “social critics” or “public intellectuals,” neither of which is meant as a compliment. In part this is because we fear that too much attention to the present will undermine our ability to explore the past objectively. There is something to be said for this concern, and when taken in moderation it can guard against tendentious political claims masquerading as disinterested scholarship. But when taken to the extreme—and I think it has been—academic historians’ suspicion of “present-mindedness” has primarily worked to convince the rest of society that history is irrelevant to our lives. As Joseph Ellis puts it, “The scholarly instinct to establish a secure checkpoint between the past and the present in order to prevent the flow of traffic back and forth . . . [has] had the disadvantage of making history an irrelevant, cloistered, indeed dead place, populated only by historians.”

So I wasn’t put off by Delbanco’s reflections on the present. What struck me, however, was how unsatisfying they are. Although he labels his concluding remarks a “jeremiad,” they hardly rise to that level. When the Lord called Jeremiah to be his prophet, he promised that He would use him not only “to root out and to pull down,” but also “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Jeremiah offered not just “social criticism” of Israel’s ills but the hope of a new story: the vision of a new covenant with God that would be written on the hearts of His people. In the end, Delbanco can only lament what he sees.

Despite its limitations, The Real American Dream offers much that is valuable. Here are four “take-away” points that I will continue to meditate on:

First, I love Delbanco’s emphasis on story, and I like the categories that he gives us—God, Nation, Self—for thinking about the ways that we make sense of our lives. These categories are not exhaustive, of course. The latter two are examples of idolatry, and as Calvin taught, the forms that idolatry can take are endless. Even so, Delbanco has given us a useful way of thinking about American culture, both past and present.

Second, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Delbanco’s realization that, for some Americans at least, after the Revolution veneration of the nation came to supplant faith in God as the focal point of the American story. This is a perpetual temptation, and we must guard against it perpetually.

Third, as a historian I am very much taken by Delbanco’s observation that contemporary Americans are “locked in a soul-starving present.” (At another point, he characterizes the modern self as “marooned in a perpetual present, playing alone with its trinkets and baubles.”) My sense is that the author means that it is this particular present that is “soul-starving,” i.e., the present (at the close of the twentieth century) in which individualism, materialism, and instant gratification have become the new American Trinity, the present in which Americans lack any viable basis for a life-giving hope. And yet I wonder if his insight can be made more general. Might we say that any society that is stranded in the present is in some sense “soul-starved,” or at the very least, spiritually impoverished? I would venture to say that any story that gives hope—that “leads somewhere,” in Delbanco’s words—not only transcends the self but also transcends our own moments in time. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Finally, The Real American Dream will continue to stimulate my thinking because of something the author left out. Andrew Delbanco holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and teaches at Columbia, and I suspect that he hasn’t spent much time in the Bible Belt, if you get my drift. His focus throughout the book is on elite thinkers, and once Puritans like John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards pass from the scene, he scarcely acknowledges the existence of the Church, much less pays attention to the kind of story that the rank and file of believers were telling about America. (In fairness to Delbanco, this is a short book, and his inattention to Christians after 1800 is consistent with his conclusion that religious belief had moved from the center to the periphery of American culture by that time.) So here is the question I will continue to chew on: would paying more attention to the influence of American Christians fundamentally alter the overarching pattern that Delbanco sketches? Have American Christians mitigated or reinforced the tendency to idolize the nation? Have we challenged or confirmed the exaltation of the self and the primacy of immediate gratification? In sum, have we been salt and light, or have we let the world squeeze us into its mold?