Category Archives: American Revolution

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S FAITH

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. The essay below deals with the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.  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.  For a more direct rebuttal of Barton’s claims about Jefferson, go here.]

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.

THE PULPIT AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  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.]

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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

JEFFERSON’S FAITH

(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.

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CHURCH

(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.

COMMON PEOPLE IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

(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.”

 

THE PULPIT AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION–A MODEL TO IMITATE?

(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.)

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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.

 

AMERICAN REVOLUTION #6: THE CHARACTER OF THOMAS JEFFERSON

It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the thermometer is hovering near eighty degrees, and the aroma of my neighbor’s charcoal grill is wafting through my open window.  This can only mean one thing: It’s time to read!

Nine months out of the year I am a teacher, but three months out of the year—perhaps my favorite three months—I am a student again.  It is these three months that allow me to continue to be a teacher at all, to return to the classroom with joy and enthusiasm and the excitement of newfound discoveries.

I had a blast teaching a course on the American Revolution for the first time in my career this past semester, but I finished the term primarily with a list of books that I am determined to read before I tackle the class again.  I’ve read five since commencement, and I thought I’d pass along a recommendation of the one I enjoyed most.

The book is American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis.  The book is hardly new (it came out in 1997), and academic historians who teach on the Revolution will almost all be familiar with it.  I was not, but now I am, and I am glad.  I loved it.  I had previously read Ellis’s later book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, for which the author won a Pulitzer Prize.  Ellis won a National Book Award for American Sphinx, and I have no difficulty understanding why.

American Sphinx

The focus of the book, as the subtitle suggests, is Jefferson’s character.  Rather than craft a comprehensive biography, Ellis chose to illuminate a series of “moments” or periods in Jefferson’s adult life.  In five main chapters he examines the period surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the years Jefferson spent in Paris during the mid-1780s as ambassador to France, his brief retirement from public life in the 1790s after withdrawing from Washington’s cabinet, the first term of his presidency, and the last ten years of his life.  This means that there are some important episodes that don’t make the cut, most notably the furor over the Alien and Sedition Acts in the late 1790s (including Jefferson’s authorship of the Kentucky Resolutions), as well as his controversial efforts at “peaceable coercion” as the Napoleonic Wars unfolded during his second presidential term.

Since I’ve previously written about David Barton’s take on the nation’s third president (see here), it might help to begin by comparing America Sphinx with Barton’s The Jefferson Lies.  Most obviously, American Sphinx is a scholarly book, whereas The Jefferson Lies is a polemic by a political activist who has very little sense of what it means to think historically.  Ellis’s Jefferson is three dimensional and complex; Barton’s Jefferson is a cardboard cutout who looks a lot like David Barton in knee breeches and a powdered wig.

Ellis refuses either to idolize or demonize his subject.  Time and again he sketches Jefferson as complicated and contradictory.  He idealized the yeoman farmer (those who till the earth “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people,” Jefferson rhapsodized in Notes on the State of Virginia), but he actually spent very little time in the fields himself and, in the main, found farming boring.  He preached the virtues of republican simplicity but denied himself few luxuries, living almost his entire life beyond his means and dying on the verge of bankruptcy.  Most notoriously, he spoke passionately about the evils of slavery, but offered no realistic suggestions for addressing the institution and took almost no concrete steps himself, other than freeing five members of the Hemings family in his will.

The easiest conclusion—made by many in Jefferson’s day and since—is that the master of Monticello was an incurable hypocrite, that duplicity was woven deep into the fabric of his being.  Ellis refuses to make this leap.  Admittedly, some of the ways that he describes Jefferson tiptoe right up to the line of moral condemnation: Ellis concedes that Jefferson regularly told correspondents what they wanted to hear, regarding “candor and courtesy as incompatible.”  He possessed a remarkable “psychological dexterity” that allowed him to rationalize or disregard contradictions, a “cultivated tolerance for inconsistency” that served him well.

But Ellis insists throughout that Jefferson’s duplicity was “the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.”  In other words, Jefferson sincerely meant what he said.  He truly believed in the values that he championed.  That neither he nor the world perfectly corresponded with the reality that he imagined was a truth that he never confronted, thanks to a highly developed “capacity to keep secrets from himself.”  In sum, Ellis’s Jefferson was not blatantly hypocritical but he was significantly flawed, a figure who “combined great depth with great shallowness, massive learning with extraordinary naiveté, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception.”

Does Ellis have Jefferson pegged?  Perhaps.  I don’t know Jefferson well enough to say at this point, but I have no qualms about endorsing American Sphinx.  Ellis’s sketch of Jefferson is definitely plausible, and for the most part I find it persuasive.  Beyond that, Ellis does several things in the book that I admire greatly.

First, his prose is delightful.  Ellis has perfected the art of the pithy character sketch.  Thomas Paine, we read, was “a practicing alcoholic with the social graces of a derelict.”  John Adams was “a man whose own throbbing ego had lashed itself to the cause of independence.” His powerful oratorical style “seemed part bulldog and part volcano.”

Ellis is also adept at physical description.  In graduate school one of my mentors was skeptical of anything that even hinted at artistic embellishment.  The historian’s job as he conceived of it is to explain what happened, period.  Details that had nothing to do with the chain of causation are details that need not be mentioned.  His entire philosophy of historical writing was encapsulated in a rhetorical question still seared into my memory: “Who cares that Taft was fat?”  Who cares indeed?

Joseph Ellis cares.  Throughout American Sphinx, he goes to great lengths to help his readers SEE what he is describing.  We learn that Jefferson was 6’2”, with freckles and reddish hair and eyes variously described as green or blue.  When standing his posture was typically erect, his arms crossed; when seated he tended to sprawl like an adolescent, “shoulders slouched and uneven . . .  part jackknife and part accordion.”  When Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were presented to the King of France, Ellis tells us that “the physical contrast would have been almost comical, “like watching a cannonball, a teapot, and a candlestick announce themselves as the American trinity.”

And yet, he is not just making things up, filling in the gaps in the historical record with the product of his own imagination.  Every detail is meticulously documented.  Historians who make the past “come alive” can often mislead us about what they are doing, so that the reader comes to think of the historian as akin to a reporter whose job is merely to stick out a microphone and let the facts of the past speak for themselves.  Ellis does as good a job as anyone I knew of simultaneously telling a compelling story while making clear that the past is complicated, that our knowledge is incomplete, and that a living, breathing historian is making ongoing subjective judgments in crafting an interpretation.  It’s a rare accomplishment.

Finally, I very much admire that Ellis has written this book for a broad audience.  At the risk of sounding corny, he knows that his subject belongs to America, not the Academy.  Ellis begins American Sphinx by noting Jefferson’s enduring relevance to Americans’ sense of national identity.  Americans of a broad range of backgrounds and political persuasions see Jefferson as key to understanding the meaning of the nation’s founding; they are perpetually determined to figure out the Jeffersonian answer to the challenge of the moment.

Ellis notes that academic historians are deeply suspicious of the WWJD (“What would Jefferson do?”) mentality and try to avoid or dismiss the question.  “As they see it, the past is a foreign country with its own distinctive mores and language,” he writes.  “All efforts to wrench Jefferson out of his own time and place, therefore, are futile and misguided ventures that invariably compromise the integrity of the historical context that made him what he was.”  Make no mistake: Ellis has zero sympathy for the Bartonesque approach to the past that uses history as a weapon in partisan politics.  At the same time, he recognizes that academic historians’ determination to prevent such “ideologically motivated raiding parties” has had the unintended effect of “making history an irrelevant, cloistered, indeed dead place, populated only by historians.”

The solution, which Ellis ably models, is to take seriously the questions that the broader culture finds important and address them as responsibly and judiciously as possible.  This is why Ellis concludes American Sphinx by asking, in the words of early-twentieth-century historian Carl Becker, “What is still living in the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?”

The answer, if Ellis is correct: “Not much.”

Ellis sketches briefly how Jefferson’s belief in the sovereignty of the states within a larger system of federalism became a casualty of the Civil War.  His vision of an agrarian America and his hope that “our workshops [might] remain in Europe] was shattered by the massive industrialization and urbanization of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.  Jefferson’s urgent plea for limited government was categorically rejected during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and his fear of a large standing army was brushed aside by the perpetual mobilization of the Cold War.

In the end, Ellis concludes that the one truly living Jeffersonian legacy is the one David Barton wrote The Jefferson Lies to refute.  As Ellis puts it, “the principle that the government has no business interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices is the one specific Jeffersonian idea that has negotiated the passage from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century without any significant change in character or coloration.”

This last leads to my one significant disappointment with American Sphinx.  Given his preoccupation with Jefferson’s character, Ellis pays surprisingly little attention to Jefferson’s religious beliefs, and this book is not the place to explore that topic.  I have written elsewhere on Jefferson’s complicated religious beliefs and so I’m not going to plow that ground again, but next time I do want to follow up on one other aspect of Jefferson’s influence that Ellis largely passed over.  What is living today in the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?  No answer to that question is complete until we have spent some time thinking how the ghost of Thomas Jefferson continues to haunt the American Academy.