Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

“I WILL KEEP YOU IN SUSPENSE”: TRUMP’S RECKLESS BREAK WITH HISTORY

As a historian, I thought the defining moment in last night’s third and final presidential debate came when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Donald Trump if he was prepared to accept the outcome of next month’s election should he be defeated.  “I will look at it at the time,” Trump equivocated.  “I will keep you in suspense.”  In that one brief exchange the Republican nominee turned his back on centuries of American history and proved beyond doubt his utter unfitness for the nation’s highest office.

The thirty-nine men who signed the final draft of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 did not foresee the development of permanent political parties and would have been distressed by the prospect.  In Federalist #10, James Madison famously descried the tendency to divide into factions as a “dangerous vice” that threatened free government.  Factionalism produced “instability, injustice, and confusion,” i.e., “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

George Washington similarly deplored political parties and warned the nation against them before stepping down as the country’s first president.  Washington condemned “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and described them at length for his fellow countrymen.  He warned that partisan spirit “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

Yet political parties developed, nonetheless, and when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in the presidential election of 1796, the country understood that they represented two distinct political factions that had morphed into formal political parties–Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.  (Due to a Constitutional quirk, the victorious Adams and his defeated rival would serve as president and vice-president, respectively.)  The election of 1796 did not involve a “campaign” as we would recognize it today, however.  It mostly consisted of elite statesmen writing letters to other elite statesmen on behalf of their chosen nominee, and neither candidate openly sought support for his election, as that was then considered unseemly.

All this changed in the election of 1800.  By this time the country was badly roiled by external dangers and internal dissension.  Britain and France had been at war since 1793, and the parties differed sharply as to how the infant United States might preserve both its neutrality and its dignity in a world at war.  The pro-British Federalists had signed a humiliating treaty with the British just before Washington left office, and then the Federalist majority in Congress had begun to mobilize for a possible war with France.  Convinced that the Federalists were bent on war, the pro-French Democratic-Republicans cried foul.  Viewing their opposition on the brink of war as a threat to national security, Congressional Federalists responded by passing the Sedition Act of 1798, which effectively made criticism of the government a crime.  Refusing to back down, Democratic-Republican leaders Jefferson and James Madison declared the law illegal and urged state legislatures to “nullify” it.  At no time other than the Civil War have Americans been so bitterly and so deeply divided.

adams-jefferson

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were opponents in one of the most bitter presidential elections in U. S. history.

The genteel, decorous, largely behind the scenes campaign of 1796 devolved into an acrimonious, ugly, public war in 1800 when Adams and Jefferson squared off a second time.  This time both parties mobilized a print campaign, enlisting partisan authors to abuse the other party in newspapers, pamphlets, circulars, and broadsides.  Democratic-Republican writers castigated the Federalists as closet monarchists and Tories in league with Britain to subvert American liberties.  They were the puppets of international financiers whose goal was to reduce the people of the United States to “rags, hunger, and wretchedness.”  At best, their economic policies were products of “imbecility and impudence.”

Federalists gave as good as they got.  Federalist writers accused Jefferson of being an atheist (false), of fathering “mulatto” children (probable), and of being an unabashed supporter of the French Revolution (undeniable).  If Jefferson was elected, they prophesied that America would suffer the “just vengeance of Heaven.”  The worst excesses of French radicalism would come to America: “dwellings in flames, hoary heads bathed in blood, female chastity violated . . . children on the pike and halberd.”  (Translation: if the other side wins, cities will burn to the ground, the aged will be murdered, women will be raped, and children will be speared.  This was hardly a golden age of civil discourse.)

In the end, the Democratic-Republicans won the election by a hair, with Jefferson claiming the victory in the electoral college by a vote of 71-68.  (Technically, Jefferson tied with running mate, Aaron Burr, but that’s another story.)  John Adams had every reason to view the outcome as illegitimate.  Schemers in his own party, most notably Alexander Hamilton, had failed to support him.  What was worse, Thomas Jefferson owed his slender electoral margin to the fact that his support came disproportionately from states with large slave populations; thanks to the Constitution’s “three-fifths” clause, those states were entitled to extra electoral votes.  Had the Founders not made this compromise with the owners of human property, Adams, not Jefferson, would have gained the victory.

Yet Adams did not contest the election formally, nor openly condemn the outcome.  And Jefferson, for his part, used his inaugural address not to castigate his opponents but to seek common ground with them.   “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind,” he exhorted.  “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. . . . Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

So transpired the first transfer of power from one political party to the other in U. S. history.  It was, despite the acrimony on both sides, remarkably peaceful.  Both parties submitted to it.  Both sides respected the outcome, despite the depth of their differences and the magnitude of what was at stake.  This was not something the Framers of the Constitution in 1787 could  have predicted.  It is not something Americans in 2016 should take for granted.  It is, in fact, one of the most precious legacies we have inherited from our forebears.

Either Donald Trump doesn’t know this, or he doesn’t care.

ON THE VICE-PRESIDENCY, “TRANQUIL EVENINGS,” AND A “BUCKET OF WARM SPIT”

So who plans on watching tonight’s vice-presidential debate?  I posed this question this morning to my capstone class for senior history majors.  Of the fifteen students present, fourteen answered “no.”  The fifteenth refused to commit either way, suggesting that he might “stream it online” while doing homework.  Intrigued (though not surprised) by this lack of interest, I asked the class how many of them could name the vice-presidential nominees of the two major parties.  Six of fifteen could do so.  I don’t judge them.  I often forget who our sitting vice-president is.

Should we care about tonight’s debate or be at all influenced by its outcome?  If you feel a profound ambivalence, you’re in good company, and you have good reason.  On the one hand, we know that the vice-president is only “a heartbeat away” from the most powerful office in the land.  In an election when both presidential candidates are pushing seventy, this is no insignificant matter.  And yet the vice-president’s Constitutional role is otherwise so limited and ill-defined as to be irrelevant.  In modern times, the VP’s most important role comes during the general election, when his job is to balance the ticket by appealing to constituencies that his running-mate struggles with.  Once the ticket is elected, the VP’s constitutional role is to serve as president of the Senate, but unless the Senate is deadlocked, the vice-president does not vote and filsl a role that is largely ceremonial.  In sum, as President Woodrow Wilson acidly put it, the vice-president’s only real significance lies “in the fact that he may cease to be vice-president.”

Imacon Color Scanner

John Adams loathed the vice-presidency.

Our nation’s very first vice-president discovered this quickly.  John Adams initially looked on the office of vice-president as tantamount to a republican version of the “crown prince,” i.e., as the office reserved for the “heir apparent” to the presidency.  But George Washington interpreted the Constitution as defining the vice-president as, at least technically, a member of the legislative branch (he is president of the Senate, after all), and determined that it would be improper to include Adams in the cabinet’s deliberations.  The Father of our Country reasoned that allowing the president of the Senate to play a substantive role in the executive branch would effectively undermine the Constitutional separation of powers of the two branches.  As a result, Adams came to think of the office of vice-president as politically akin to being buried alive.  As he wrote to his wife Abigail near the beginning of his second term, “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the leisure it afforded.

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the leisure it afforded.

As much as he bemoaned his fate, Adams perpetuated the pattern when he became the country’s second president in 1797.  After briefly floating the idea of sending Vice-President Thomas Jefferson on a diplomatic mission to France, Adams imitated his predecessor and never seriously consulted Jefferson on any substantive political question.  Unlike Adams, however, Jefferson preferred this lack of responsibility, or at least claimed to.  Writing to prominent founder Benjamin Rush shortly after his election to the vice-presidency, Jefferson noted how grateful he was that he had “escaped” the presidency (he had lost by only three electoral votes) and how thankful he was for the alternative.  Unlike the presidency, which he would later call a “splendid misery,” the vice-presidency was “a tranquil and unoffending” office that promised to afford him “philosophical evenings in the winter, and rural days in summer.”  He would spend most of his vice-presidency at Monticello, his plantation in northern Virginia.

Since Jefferson’s day, a succession of unfortunate souls have made their peace, more or less, with the office’s ill-defined role.  Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president, Indianan Thomas Marshall, remembered his time in the office fondly, noting in his memoirs that, while he had no interest working anymore, “I wouldn’t mind being Vice-President again.”  Franklin Roosevelt’s first of three vice-presidents, Texan John Nance Garner, was less sanguine.  Garner is famous for supposedly comparing the vice-presidency to “a bucket of warm spit,” a memorable line that may be apocryphal.  (The evidence is entirely hearsay.)  What we do know is what he told Collier’s Magazine in a 1948 interview: “There cannot be a great vice president.  A great man may occupy the office, but there is no way for him to become a great vice president because the office in itself is almost wholly unimportant.”  Garner later told another writer that being elected vice-president “was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Garner might think differently had he taken the office a generation later.  While the office remains Constitutionally trivial as long as the president keeps breathing, vice-presidents since the 1960s have often used it as a platform for their own presidential aspirations.  Hubert Humphrey nearly claimed the presidency in 1968 while the sitting VP, as did Al Gore in 2000, and George H. W. Bush succeeded where they fell short.  Both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine have surely thought about following in the elder Bush’s footsteps.

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If you are interested in the possible place of religious conviction and/or religious issues in this year’s campaign, columnist Jonathan Martin calls attention to the primary role of the two vice-presidential nominees in this regard.  See his NYT piece “With Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, Faith is Back in the Mix.”

 

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.

WHY THOMAS JEFFERSON WOULD HAVE CONDEMNED THE SUPER BOWL . . . AND SUPPORTED THE NRA

(I don’t much care about the Super Bowl and rarely watch unless Peyton Manning–an old Tennessee Volunteer, like me–happens to be playing.  I originally wrote the short post below two years ago, when Manning and the Broncos also were in the championship game, and got clobbered.  I’m pulling for a different outcome this year, but not too optimistic about it.  At any rate, I thought you be interested in Jefferson’s thoughts on the kind of exercise best conducive to health.  Given all that we are learning about the connection between football and the danger of repetitive brain injury, there is something prescient about his warning against violent sports.  I don’t expect that his recommended substitute will get much traction, however.)

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These last couple of days I have been reading a fair amount in the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, and just yesterday I came across some of Jefferson’s ruminations on the importance of exercise that might interest you, especially given the likelihood that almost all of us will soon be watching a certain athletic contest.

The comments I have in mind come from a letter that Jefferson wrote to his nephew, Peter Carr, in the summer of 1785. Carr was his wife’s brother’s son, and Jefferson seems to have taken great interest in his upbringing after Carr’s father died when young Peter was only three. By 1785 Jefferson’s wife had also passed away, and it may be that Jefferson saw in the teenaged Peter a tangible link to his beloved Martha. Perhaps he even saw in Peter the son he would never have. Whatever his motive, Jefferson devoted considerable attention to Carr’s education, and he counseled him frequently on the path his nephew must follow if he aspired to a career of accomplishment and service worthy of a Virginia gentleman.

Thomas Jefferson sat for this portrait by Mather Brown in 1786, the year after he wrote to his nephew Peter Carr.

Thomas Jefferson sat for this portrait by Mather Brown in 1786, the year after he wrote to his nephew Peter Carr.

Although only forty-two years old, Jefferson in 1785 had already compiled an amazing record of publish service. In the past decade alone, he had served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, been the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, held the post of governor of Virginia, and was now representing the United States as ambassador to France. “Mortified” by reports of his nephew’s slow academic progress, Jefferson wrote from Paris on the 19th of August to exhort his fifteen-year-old nephew to greater effort. Did Peter not realize that “every day you lose, will retard a day your entrance on that public stage whereon you may begin to be useful to yourself?” (It’s just a suspicion, but Jefferson may not have been cut out to work with teenagers.)

Jefferson began by focusing on his young charge’s character. “The purest integrity” and “the most chaste honour” must be his nephew’s “first object.” “The defect of these virtues can never be made up” by other accomplishments. Then after integrity comes intellect. “An honest heart being the first blessing,” Jefferson explained, “a knowing head is the second.” And so the future president lay out a course of reading for the teenager. He must begin with “antient” history–“reading everything in the original” language, of course–and proceed from there to Greek and Roman poetry, followed by a systematic study of philosophy and ethics beginning with Plato and Cicero.

But the body was important as well as the heart and head. To maximize his academic progress, Peter should set aside at least two hours every day for exercise, “for health must not be sacrificed to learning.” “A strong body,” Jefferson lectured, “makes the mind strong.” (Michelle Obama could not have said it better.) But what kind of exercise should Peter pursue? Jefferson left nothing to doubt. “Walking is the best possible exercise,” he instructed, but not just any kind of walking. “Never think of taking a book with you” while you walk, Jefferson stressed. Instead, “let your gun . . . be the constant companion of your walks.” While “this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance [sic] to the mind.”

And what about more modern kinds of sports, you ask? Peter should avoid “games played with the ball and others of that nature,” Jefferson cautioned his nephew. They “are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.”

 Thomas Jefferson would advise him not to play tomorrow.

Thomas Jefferson would advise him not to play tomorrow.

WHEN STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESSES WEREN’T MEDIA SPECTACLES

One of the reasons to study the past is to see the present more clearly.  By figuratively visiting other times and places, we become more aware of aspects of our place and time that we would otherwise take for granted.  Last night’s State of the Union address is a case in point.

Obama-State-of-Union

When the framers of the Constitution crafted our blueprint of government in 1787, they stipulated that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (Art. II, sect. 3).  From this requirement the custom evolved that the executive would formally address the Congress at least once annually (perhaps in keeping with the Constitutional requirement in Art. I that the Congress “assemble at least once” annually).  For decades this address was typically called the president’s “annual message,” and now it is more commonly known as the “State of the Union Address.”

The president’s State of the Union Address (or SOTU by POTUS for those who think acronyms are cool) is now an enormously significant media event with huge political ramifications for both parties. As the nation watches (to the degree that we watch), the president and his party enjoy millions of dollars’ worth of national publicity.  The party’s leader pitches his policy proposals, while the camera pans to congressmen looking variously engaged or bored, gleeful or glum, enthusiastic or resentful.

From first to last, this is a media-driven event.  In advance of the spectacle you could tune in to any number of pre-game shows, not the least of which was sponsored by the president himself.  Virtual visitors to the White House website were first reminded that “Together, we can make change happen.”  You could then watch the SOTU “pre-show,” view video of everyday Americans as they received phone calls inviting them to sit with the First Lady in her box during the speech, and even read synopses of what the president planned to share regarding the economy, climate, health care, foreign policy and social progress.  After the hour-plus speech, a smorgasbord of talking heads told us what the president said, why he said it, and what they thought of it, while pollsters scurried to ask us (or at least a few hundred of us) if we thought what the talking heads thought we should think.

It has not always been this way.  The Constitution doesn’t require the president to give a speech to the Congress, only to give it information and make recommendations.  And for most of American history, U. S. presidents have opted to send a formal written report via messenger and skip the personal oration.  Overall, since 1789 that’s been the case for nearly two thirds of these messages–only 82 out of 226 (about 36%) have come as speeches.

Our first two presidents, Federalists George Washington and John Adams, appeared personally before Congress to satisfy their Constitutional duty.  But between 1801 and 1913, not a single U. S. president followed their example.  In 1801, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson decided to send his message in writing to Congress on the grounds that the practice of lecturing Congress in person was undemocratic.  In England it was customary for the king to speak periodically “from on high” to the Parliament, and Jefferson–who hated public speaking anyway–insisted that a truly republican government should not be perpetuating the trappings of monarchy.

The precedent held for a long time.  Each of the next twenty presidents followed Jefferson’s lead.  Even Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent 1862 message in the midst of the Civil War–calling the North to preserve the United States as the “last best hope of earth”– was sent by a courier and read by a congressional clerk.  It was not until 1913 that Woodrow Wilson would defy what was by then a hallowed tradition and appear before Congress in person.  And when he did so, headlines in the New York Times declared “SENATORS FROWN ON WILSON’S VISIT: Reading is Compared to Speech from Throne.”

From this point, the pattern began to shift slowly but surely toward personal appearances.  In the process, what had once been a rather perfunctory summary of the work of the various executive departments gradually became a major political statement on behalf of the president and his party.  More important, the originally intended audience of the address–the U. S. Congress–was replaced by the American public.

The growing importance of radio and television was central to the latter transformation.  The first president to deliver his address to a national radio audience was, ironically, “Silent” Cal Coolidge, who belied his nickname with a 22-page long speech in 1923.  In 1947 television got into the act, broadcasting Harry Truman’s address to the fraction of American households who had invested in that dubious technology.  The TV audience grew steadily thereafter, so that by the mid-1960s Lyndon Johnson decided to shift his speech from the traditional afternoon setting to the early evening in order to garner a much larger “prime-time” audience.

Which brings us, more or less, to the highly choreographed, vacuous public spectacle that the State of the Union address has long since become.  True to form, last night’s was a relentless rhythm of presidential statement and partisan response: Democratic ovations, Republican groans, Joe Biden repeatedly rising to his feet, Paul Ryan glued to his chair.  If the Washington Post transcript of the event is accurate, President Obama was interrupted by applause seventy-one times during his fifty-nine-minute speech.

In sum, the event is now much like our quadrennial party conventions.  Photo-ops, posturing, and platitudes abound, but almost no real work gets accomplished–at least not the kind of work that the framers of the Constitution envisioned.  The only real suspense in the event came when, for a moment, it looked as if a drowsy Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was going to fall from her chair.  I could sympathize.

Does anyone else find this tedious?

THE YEAR IN REVIEW: WHAT YOU COULD HAVE READ HERE IN 2015 (BUT PROBABLY DIDN’T)

Yesterday I listed the most frequently read posts from Faith and American History in 2015.  Before the clock strikes twelve, I thought I would also make a plea for a few posts that I wish more of you had read.  As I’ve shared before, I started this blog because I wanted to enter into conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.  Sharing with you through this medium is, for me, an extension of my vocation as a teacher.  It’s been said that to teach effectively is to “love something publicly,” and that’s what I try to do on this site.  It may not always show, but I love the ideas and principles that I am trying to convey here, and I long to be motivated by love as well as I write.  Below are some of the posts from the past year that I most loved writing:

HannahCoulter** In March I read a novel by one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter.  Set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, Hannah Coulter is a story about relationships: relationships with the land, with family, with neighbors–and with the dead.  Penetrating my heart as much as my head, the book taught me a lot about being a historian.  If you want to know more, read “From My Commonplace Book: Wendell Berry on Protecting the Dead.”

** April 19, 2015 was the 240th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord and the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh.  When McVeigh was subsequently arrested, he was wearing a t-shirt bearing a quotation from our nation’s third president: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  in “Timothy McVeigh, Thomas Jefferson, and the Lexington Minutemen,” I explored the historical context of Jefferson’s quote and its tragic hijacking by extremists who falsely appeal to American history while knowing little of its true heroes.

Timothy McVeigh's t-shirt is now on display at the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.

Timothy McVeigh’s t-shirt is now on display at the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.

Apostles of Reason** As summer approached I wrote two essays that drew on my decades-long experience at a public university before coming to Wheaton College.  Writing nearly twenty years ago, distinguished historian George Marsden famously observed that “contemporary university culture is hollow at its core.”  That was my conclusion as well.  In “Secular Education Has Its Own “Crisis of Authority,” I responded to a recent, much acclaimed work by a Duke University scholar on the “crisis of authority in American evangelicalism.”  In “The Contradictions of the Secular University,” I argued that today’s secular university (1) exalts reason but lacks a logical foundation for its dogmatic morals, and (2) exalts democracy but is averse to genuine pluralism.

** Finally, prompted by an amazing gift from a former student, in October I penned “A Tribute to Two Teachers,” a brief reflection on two educators who touched me in very different but equally life-transforming ways.  What “deathless power lies in the hands of such persons.”

Happy New Year one and all–I look forward to renewing the conversation in 2016.

 

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.