Category Archives: Faith and the American Founding

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 FOUNDING FATHERS AND WARREN G. HARDING

(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.

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.

 

CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM

(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.

AN ATHEIST’S HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FOUNDING

Earlier this month I had an opportunity to review a new book on the American founding for Christianity Today. The book is Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. The author, Matthew Stewart, is an independent writer, a philosopher by training, and an atheist by conviction. (If you missed the review, you can read it here.) Summarizing broadly, Nature’s God argues that the vision of the leading Founders was aggressively secular. Their worldview centered on a radical deism that was tantamount to atheism, and their ultimate objective was not freedom of religion but freedom from religion. What is more, their views were widely shared by common Americans in the revolutionary era.

Natures GodAlthough Stewart cloaks his argument in a 400-page narrative, the heart of his reasoning boils down to a simple syllogism: The ideas that matter in history are the ones that are true. Religious beliefs are, by definition, false. Ergo (philosophers say ergo a lot), religious beliefs couldn’t have mattered in the American founding. If lots of colonists back in ’76 thought otherwise, that’s because they weren’t as enlightened as the author. Too bad for them.

The thrust of my review was to call attention to Stewart’s a priori assumptions and to remind readers of historians’ quaint belief that historical assertions should be grounded in historical evidence. Stewart is correct to point out that the religious beliefs of many of the leading Founders were unorthodox, David Barton’s wish-dreams to the contrary notwithstanding. But Stewart errs badly in equating the views of the leading Founders with atheism, and he provides almost no evidence at all for his insistence that radical philosophy was widespread among the rank and file of colonial patriots.  In short, the emperor has no clothes.

I was under a strict word limitation in my review for CT, and there was quite a bit that I wanted to say that space didn’t allow. Before the buzz about the book fades completely—hopefully not too long from now—I thought I would share some thoughts that didn’t get into the formal review. Here are two somewhat lengthy additional reflections:

First, a great deal of what Stewart wants to do in Nature’s God is challenge the intellectual coherence of orthodox Christianity. Debates about the past are almost always debates about the present in disguise, and Stewart’s claims about the origins of the American Revolution are no exception. The author openly longs for the day when religious belief is wholly “confined to the private sphere, as a purely inward matter, where it is rendered harmless.” He recognizes that it’s easier to justify the banishment of faith from public life in 2014 if you can prove that it was irrelevant in 1776.

Yet for a study that is so determined to discredit orthodox Christianity, the author is curiously averse to engaging Christian scholars, whether historians or theologians. When it comes to the religious beliefs of the revolutionary generation, quite a number of Christian historians have anticipated much of Stewart’s findings, albeit with vastly greater nuance and balance, but you’d never know it from his account. And as for the teachings of Scripture and the elements of orthodoxy, Stewart’s strategy is to ignore theologians altogether and instead lampoon the purported beliefs of “the common religious consciousness.”

Stewart alludes to “the common religious consciousness” incessantly (on pages 72, 92, 131, 158, 173, 174, 322, 339, 370, 374, 387, 389, 397, 427, among other places).  When he tires of the phrase he ridicules instead “the common view of things,” “the religious conception,” “the common sense of the matter,” “conventional wisdom,” “the common conception,” “common intuition,” “common ideas about things,” “a common line of interpretation” and the “widely accepted view today.” The one thing that unifies every one of these references is that they lack even a single specific reference to supporting evidence. The “common religious consciousness” is simply Stewart’s rhetorical whipping boy.  It stands for whatever straw man he needs at the moment to make Christianity appear ludicrous.

Don’t get me wrong. At times Nature’s God is an impressively scholarly work. The end notes are ninety pages long, and Stewart can split hairs with the best of them in exploring the subtleties of Epicurean philosophy or the writings of Benedict de Spinoza. But when it comes to defining the Christianity he so detests, the book becomes appallingly unscholarly, even anti-intellectual. Christianity is simply whatever Stewart says it is. And that makes Stewart’s job of ridiculing it a lot easier. “Nice work, if you can get it,” as we like to say around the McKenzie household.

Second, although Stewart would wince at the comparison, I kept thinking while reading Nature’s God that the book has a lot in common with the works of David Barton. A recurring theme in Barton’s “Christian America” interpretation is that the true history of America’s origins has been intentionally hidden by secularists who hate the truth. With almost perfect symmetry, Stewart argues that Christian apologists have “lobotomized” the more radical leaders of the Revolution and covered up the reality that they were religious heretics. From the founding all the way to our day, “there have been many attempts,” Stewart charges, “most of them misinformed, some shamelessly deceitful—to deny or emend this basic fact of American history.”

Like Barton, Stewart also contends that he has no agenda other than a zealous commitment to discover the truth. He claims that he was “eager to see what I might learn” from the writings of Barton, Tim LaHaye, Gary Demar, and company—a whopper if I’ve ever heard one—and he insists that he was repeatedly surprised by the conclusions that his unbiased examination of the evidence thrust upon him. As I followed Stewart’s description of his approach in the book’s preface, the image that came to mind was an academic version of Sgt. Joe Friday, the relentless Dragnet detective who followed the evidence wherever it led. Just the facts, ma’am.

The reality is much different.  Stewart–like Barton–approaches the past more like a defense attorney than a police detective.   His job is not to present the whole truth to the jury, but rather to make the strongest case that he can for his client.  To put it differently, Stewart–just like Barton–is focused more on scoring points in the culture wars than on wrestling with the complexities of the past.  Winning the argument trumps understanding the issues.

I’ll take the time to share one appalling example of this from Nature’s God.  In chapter two (titled “Pathologies of Freedom”), Stewart introduces the villain in his melodrama, namely the Protestant Christianity that was widespread in the American colonies in the aftermath of the Great Awakening.  His primary goal for the chapter is to demonstrate how utterly anti-intellectual Christianity was (and is).

To that end, Stewart frames the chapter in terms of a relentless struggle between science and religion.  The former is defined by an open-ended commitment to truth, the latter by narrow-minded bigotry and hostility to free inquiry.  Stewart begins the chapter with an anecdote involving Ethan Allen, the free-thinking backwoodsman who would go on to fame during the Revolution as leader of Vermont’s “Green Mountain Boys.”  In 1764 Allen was arrested in Salisbury, Connecticut for defying a town ordinance prohibiting the administration of smallpox vaccinations.  According to Stewart, the town’s council of “selectmen” had caved in to religious arguments that vaccination interfered with divine sovereignty.  In an end note buried 414 pages later, he acknowledges that “opinion on the subject of inoculation did not consistently divide along theological lines.”  But in the text he notes only that Allen’s arrest “could be seen as one of many collisions between religion and science.”

Having used the vignette to illustrate the supposed hostility between faith and reason, Stewart then devotes the heart of the chapter to an overview of the theology of the Great Awakening, focusing most of his attention on an extended character sketch of the famous preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards.  According to Stewart’s contemptuous caricature, Edwards fomented hate, taught “strikingly cruel doctrines,” and brainwashed his congregation into worshiping “an angry God who demands absolute humiliation upon pain of eternal damnation.”  What offends Stewart most is Edward’s purported war on reason.  His followers were sheep who succumbed to Edwards’ insistence on “absolute  submission,” on “obedience without sense or purpose.”  Finding no intellectually respectable grounds for Christian conviction, Stewart dismisses the Christianity of colonial America as a form of “madness.”

At this point, I could almost feel myself pulling for those brave colonial atheists who refused to shut off their brains even as waves of religious superstition rolled across the land.  But although Stewart’s prose is colorful and engaging, the author’s characterization of Edwards is more ignorant rant than serious scholarship.  Jonathan Edwards was one of the preeminent intellectuals of colonial America.  He read widely, thought deeply about literature and art and philosophy, and was throughout his life an advocate, not an opponent of science.  When he died prematurely in 1758, he had just assumed the presidency of one of the leading institutions of higher education in North America, Princeton College.  He was the last person to cast faith and reason as unalterable enemies.  That view belongs to Matthew Stewart, not Jonathan Edwards.

And the cause of Edwards’ premature death?  The point is hardly irrelevant to the chapter on colonial religion as Stewart frames it.  Edwards died from a smallpox inoculation, having concluded that the risk involved from being infected with a mild case of the disease was justified by the statistical likelihood of its efficacy.   Stewart never once hints at this fact.  He is either unaware of it–which is possible, though I find it unlikely–or the truth simply didn’t fit with his predetermined agenda to discredit the Christianity he so despises.

PREACHING LIBERTY TO THE COLONISTS

Earlier today I posted a link to my review for Christianity Today of a polemical book by philosopher Matthew Stewart that makes the untenable claim that the American Revolution was, at its most fundamental, a revolution against the tyranny of revealed religion.  Christian readers interested in the role of religion in the American founding will learn much more from a book that I reviewed for CT this time a year ago, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, by James Byrd.  I  re-post below my review of Byrd’s fine work for those who may have missed it.

Sacred Scripture

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.

In 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.

ONE NATION WITHOUT GOD??

Natures GodI have a review just now posted at Christianity Today online of the latest volley in the debate over the religious dimensions of the American founding.  The book in question is Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, by Matthew Stewart.  I will add some thoughts here sometime in the next few days, but I encourage you to check out my review at CT.  You can read it here.  As a work of history, the book is deeply flawed, but Stewart is a good writer, and his interpretation is one that many secularists want badly to believe, so look for the book to receive a considerable amount of positive attention.

 

 

 

JEFFERSON’S FAITH

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   in two days we’ll 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?”

Thomas Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791.

Thomas 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 “acknowledg[ed] and ador[ed] 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.

COMMON PEOPLE IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: SOME RECOMMENDED READING

I’m reading a wonderful new book by Steven Garber titled Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. At the heart of Garber’s reflections is the haunting question, “What will you do with what you know?” This is the question that each of us must face. Few of us will live truly extraordinary lives, Garber concedes, the kind that will land us a spot in the history books. But all of us have an opportunity to affect the world around us, for good or for ill. The small choices that we make add up, and indeed many of the greatest tragedies and triumphs of human history are nothing more than the cumulative consequence of the mundane decisions of common people. Although we tend to focus on the extraordinary, “history is mostly . . . very ordinary people in very ordinary places.”

Garber’s reminder prompted 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 is at the end of the week, 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.”

GrossAt 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 FOUNDING FATHERS AND WARREN G. HARDING

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.