Christianity has had a major influence in America since the early European settlers moved there. Here, Daniel Smith considers how different Christian ideologies predominated in different parts of America – ultimately leading to differences between the North and South that lingered for a long time.

You can read Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here), Medieval Jesters (here), How American Colonial Law Justified the Settlement of Native American Territories (here), and Spanish Colonial Influence on Native Americans in Northern California (here).

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky: Painting by Benjamin West, circa 1816. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin often cited Scripture.

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky: Painting by Benjamin West, circa 1816. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin often cited Scripture.

To understand the differing ideology behind the split regions of America, from North to South, you need to understand first that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation. In the early 1600s, when the first Europeans landed, they established settlements. Within every settlement was a Charter. This document solidified the legal framework for the colony to be run by. Within each colony’s Charter, you would have found reference to the Bible in one mention or another. Now let us fast forward a little bit in time to bring you into the know on – why,the colonies civil governments were run in the manner that they were… it’s called religion.

In the 1600s there were three American regions that had settlements in place. These three regions consisted of the Northern, Middle, and Southern colonies. Each colony had a separate form of Christian doctrine it followed, all depending on the region that you lived. Three distinct Christian movements came out of these regions, in major geographical areas. This was important because their views of church government determined their colonial form of civil government. This gets complex, but it is important to understand that with all sects of religion come subtle and major differences in how laws and morals are navigated. 

The Southern colonies were the stronghold of Episcopalians’, who emphasize strong apostolic leadership. Southern government was well known for their aristocratic monarchial form of government. The effects of this form of church government would be apparent when the first representative assembly in America began in 1607 at the church in Jamestown, Virginia with Reverend Bucke leading the Burgess in prayer. The Burgess were considered the “plantation elite” at that time. The Reverend would be known to ask God to guide and sanctify their proceedings to his own glory and the good of the plantation. Jamestown would go on to issue laws requiring church attendance. In doing so, the thought process behind the decree was believing that men’s affairs cannot prosper where God’s service is neglected.

The Northern colonies were dominated by Congregationalists. A decade or two later, the Middle colonies dominated by the Presbyterian, and Reformed Catholic faiths merged with the Northern colonies. New England had the first American settlement settled in 1620. After decades of trying to expose the corruption in the Church of England, and showing little effect, they left for the New World. Puritans at Boston (1630) were known for their fundamental, or strict legalistic ways of Christianity that was dominated by the hierarchal Catholic denomination; whereas the Separatists (or Protestants) at Plymouth Bay colony emphasized the personal relationship and accountability to God without the strict adherence to the legalistic and ritualistic aspects of Catholicism. 

It is important to note the major Puritan drawback was that they were still holding onto the idea of a State church. They saw nothing wrong with that, and compelled religion (as in Europe). The disapproval of issue in England was that Church and State were corrupt and unbiblical in many aspects. Eventually Protestant and Puritan ministers would work together with their theology to allow for more freedom of conscience and individual liberty.

 

FAST FORWARD

A Christian Nation is molded by its formof government, not whoformed it. If the form of a nation’s government is molded by Biblical ideas, then the nation isa Christian nation. Now let us fast forward a little bit in time. In 1867 The North American Reviewstated that “The American government and Constitution is the … political expression of Christian ideas.”[1]Our founders were all collectively convinced of this truth. Even unconventional believers such as Benjamin Franklin often cited Scripture. 

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Franklin said: 

We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that ‘except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it’ [psalm 1237:1]. I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builder of Babel [Genesis 11].”[2]

 

The ideas embodied in the U.S. Constitution stem primarily from the Bible. The Founders reasoned from the Bible far more than any other source. This was once taken for granted by Americans until modern revisionist historians began to promote the view that nationalistic enlightenment thinkers were the major influence behind the Constitution. 

How can we know for sure? Dr. Donald Lutz, a professor of political science from the University of Houston, conducted an exhaustive ten-year research of about 15,000 political documents of the Founders’ era (1760-1805), and recorded every quote or reference to another written source. This list of the 3,154 citations of the Founders was analyzed and published in Volume #78 of the American Political Science Review in 1983. The results would give quite an accurate measure of the influence of various sources of thought on the Constitution. The results were surprisingly contradictory to modern scholarship. By far, the most often quoted source of their political ideas was the Bible.

This would account for over one-third (34%) of all their citations. Another 50% of all references can be attributed to authors who themselves derived their ideas from the Bible. Therefore, it can be said that 84% of the ideas in our Constitution are based directly or indirectly on the Bible.[3]The Bible and civil liberty are inseparable. Even Newsweek, on December 26, 1982, acknowledged after a major analysis of the Bible’s influence in America, that, Now historians are discovering that the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution is our Founding document.”[4]

Some historians recognize that Franklin’s reference to “the Sacred Writings” (Scripture) and to “the builders of Babel” (Israel) in the Convention’s search for “political truth” (Christ’s teachings) was not a strange coincidental fluke. There was absolute meaning. So now that you understand a little more on how important religion and the colonial governments were so closely knitted together, it’s also important to note that even though not all Colonial Americans were Christians (although most were), all of them understood the importance and adherence of living by Christian principles. Simply put, they all ultimately believed that Scriptures “guidelines” were the right way of doing life.

 

CHRISTIANS DIVIDED

There is a paradox to Christianity, and from a non-denominational standpoint, that paradox is the fundamental ideology of Old Testament Scripture. This should be considered a true error of Christian tradition. Well, how is that so? With every sect of Christianity, there is a molded tradition made out of how the Holy Bible is transliterated to Christian leaders and individuals alike. With the division of Christianity as a religion comes an inevitable vacuum, and that is the molding of Scripture to fit mankind’s agenda. This is of course part of the doctrinal fallacy that Scripture warns Christians about falling into belief over.[5]

There always seemed to be a struggle between morality, temperance, education, and slavery. When these struggles become so heavy that they bleed out from the individual and into the churches – these internal struggles then bleed into politics and society. This is where the formation of civil government becomes very complex. Especially when it comes down to moral and spiritual beliefs. It becomes even more complex when you attempt to figure out how to codify laws for society to live by. This is where Christian principles come into play. The Colonists had already been living by a codified system, laid out through history based upon Christian values and laws.

Through a typically organic process called “gradualism”, Colonial America began to grow and adjust their laws (and morals) accordingly to their ways of doing life. With this societal gradualism occurring subtly since the early 1600s, it’s easy to see how certain aspectsof life’s principles can get twisted to fit people’s personal agendas. One man in particular, was a Northerner by the name of John Brown. He was a devout Calvinist. Mr. Brown was very much a “fire and brimstone” style of believer. 

Calvinists’ doctrine of salvation by election; the belief that worldly success was a sign of God’s favor; the concept of the “calling,” according to which all people are called by God to vocations that, no matter how great or humble, are equal in his sight and whose diligent performance is a sacred duty; and the injunction against a waste, according to which wealth must be used for the glory of God through stewardship to mankind rather than squandered off in consumption and easy living. 

With that, he also thought that because he was in a place of political positioning, that it was God’s will that he must have undertook a mission to help ignite the firestorm that ultimately freed the slaves. God does not grant permission to do Hiswill, however he did providentially use Mr. Brown as one of the dozen catalysts to actually advance the opening salvos of the Civil War. We will get to Mr. Brown’s story later. Christianity was the base foundation of how society was written for the North American colonies. It is always unfortunate when a few misled leaders push these personal twists that ultimately expand into their local communities, thus the Northern and Southern regions of the United States. Regardless of doctrinal belief of Christianity, national sins are what collapses a nations successes and longevity. Two national sin examples would be slavery and greed.

 

COMPROMISING MORALS & ETHICS         

Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance Act in 1787 and 1789, which prohibited slavery in the new states. Congress also banned the exportation or transfer of slaves from anystate in 1794. It is evidence enough that all intentions of that generation were united in an effort to abolish slavery. England banned slavery in 1834 by the stroke of a pen. As new generations of Americans rose up to take the reins, they had seemingly less convictions on the matters of greed and slavery than their fathers before them. 

They began to compromise their morals and ethics. This was due to greed. The trend towards emancipation came to a halt in the South, and even churches began to justify slavery for the first time around 1810. By that date, all slave trading had been made illegal; however slave owning itself became more firmly entrenched in the South. Between 1810 and 1820, America experienced not only growth but also its share of social problems associated with its polarization of “cultures.” 

It was truly the first time America began to see morality wane and ethics bending to make ends meet. Specifically, the morals and ethics that were a big social issue for Yankee and Antebellum societies were drunkenness, prostitution, ignorance, and above all, slavery.[6]Of course with every issue in America there is always an argument to the story. Protestantism experienced a modernization of ethics during the industrial-era of America. In fact, the temperance movement coincided at the exact same time as the industrial revolution.

It was the temperance movement in America that gave way to the reforming movements throughout the entire country, regardless of blue or grey ideology. These movements grew out of the Second Great Awakening. A Christian revival nationwide, with a refocus on man’s accountability to Jesus Christ, instead of only being held accountable to themselves. It was through the temperance movement that soberness, education, woman’s rights, and anti-slaveryfinally became front-and-center social issues for both the American North andSouth. 

 

 

What do you think of the author’s arguments? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at complexamerica.org.


[1]Hall, Verna M. 1980. The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America (CHOC).San Francisco. p. 198.

[2]Madison, James. 1987. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

[3]Lutz, Donald. 1984. "The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late 18th Century American Political Thought." American Political Science Review189-197.

[4]Newsweek. Dec. 26, 1982. "Historians Acknowledge American Biblical Link." Newsweek

[5]Read: Book of Matthew. TheHoly Bible.

[6]J. C. Furnas, The Americans: A Social History(New York, 1969) p. 505

Benjamin Franklin remains one of the most known of the United States’ Founding Fathers. But, before he became a key figure in the American Revolution and Revolutionary War, he spent much of his time in London, United Kingdom. And not too many years ago it came to light that there were human remains in the house where he lived - from around the time he lived there. Casey Titus explains.

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin from 1767. Portrait by David Martin.

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin from 1767. Portrait by David Martin.

From 1757 to 1775, Benjamin Franklin often resided in an elegant, four-story house at 36 Craven Street in London, United Kingdom. Fast forward 228 years later to 1998 when construction on the historic home began as part of a remodeling project to transform the building into a museum to honor Franklin’s legacy.

Approximately a month into the remodeling, Jim Field, a construction worker was working in the basement of the Franklin home when he came across a gruesome discovery – a thighbone sticking out from the dirt floor. A coroner was called in and confirmed that the bone was in fact, human. The police were also called and further investigation uncovered 1,200 pieces of human bone along with a turtle and other animals. In total, there were ten bodies. Six of those bodies were children. Forensic investigation dated the bodies to be more than 200 years old, roughly the time renowned Founding Father Benjamin Franklin resided in this London home.

As a renowned revolutionary against one of the world’s greatest empires and a powerful freemason – the Grand Master of Masons of Pennsylvania - dark secrets can easily be attributed to the face of
the United States’ $100 bill.

Further forensic investigation of the human remains revealed that some of the bones had been sawed into – they had scalpel marks, while skulls had been drilled into. However, the bones with these clean-cut marks also disclosed no signs of healing. Therefore, the dismemberment of the bodies had occurred after death.

 

Just who did it?

The key piece of evidence of who committed the dismemberment was the mercury in the turtle bones. All of the human and animal remains were linked not to Benjamin Franklin, but a close friend of his by the name of William Hewson. Hewson was an anatomist and the father of hematology. One of his most renowned experiments included injecting a deceased turtle with mercury while recording the element’s travel through the lymphatic system. As a result, Hewson was the first to recognize that animals and humans share a similar lymphatic system.

At the time, conducting autopsies on anyone other than an executed criminal was illegal due to religious fears that a body not fully intact would fail to journey into the next chapter after death. The attempts of anatomists and scientists like Hewson to perform this kind of medical practice had to be performed in secret, and they often resorted to buying deceased bodies from body snatchers and grave robbers.

Benjamin Franklin himself was a scientist and interested in human anatomy. As a result, researchers and an organization called the Friends of Benjamin Franklin found some evidence that Franklin allowed his friend Hewson to conduct secret and illegal autopsies in his London home’s basement. Bodies could be smuggled from graveyards. Then, rather than sneaking the bodies out and disposing of the bodies elsewhere, they buried them in the house to avoid the risk of getting caught and prosecuted for dissection and grave robbing.

 

Franklin & Hewson – What came next?

There is no evidence to suggest that Franklin was involved in the dissections himself though. In 1774, one year before the United States’ most recognized Founding Father left England and returned to the colonies, Hewson’s passionate pursuit of scientific inquiry would cost him his life, accidentally slicing himself while dissecting a corpse and dying of an infection.

Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in the independence and creation of one of the world’s first modern republics, with the help of his inventive writings. He was also a polymath curious about the world around him would go to many lengths for the sake of knowledge, even harboring illegal anatomical experiments in his basement.

 

What do you think of the article? Did Franklin allow these experiments in his home while in London?

In William Bodkin’s fifth post on the presidents of the USA, he reveals a fascinating tale on the Forgotten Founder, James Monroe (in office from 1817 to 1825). And the real reason why he was not unanimously re-elected to the presidency.

William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), and James Madison (link here). 

James Monroe as painted by William James Hubbard in the 1830s.

James Monroe as painted by William James Hubbard in the 1830s.

James Monroe, fifth President of the United States, was the last American Founder to become President and a hero of the Revolutionary War.  At the Battle of Trenton, Monroe, then a Lieutenant, and Captain William Washington, a cousin of George Washington, stormed a Hessian gun battery to prevent what would have been the certain slaughter of advancing American troops.  Captain Washington, Lieutenant Monroe and their men seized the Hessians’ guns as they attempted to reload.  For their efforts, Captain Washington’s hands were badly wounded, and Monroe was struck in the shoulder by a musket ball, which severed an artery.  Monroe’s life was saved by a local patriot doctor who clamped the artery to stop the bleeding.[1]  Monroe’s heroism was such that it is said that in the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, capturing the moment when George Washington led the Continental Army into New Jersey prior to the Battle of Trenton, James Monroe stands next to George Washington, holding the American flag.[2]

Following the revolution, Monroe embarked on a long career in service of the new nation.  He studied law with Thomas Jefferson, and then served as a United States Senator from Virginia, Ambassador to France, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to England, Secretary of State and Secretary of War during James Madison’s administration, and was then twice elected President.

Despite this heroic and distinguished career, Monroe seems overlooked as a Founder, eclipsed by the long shadows of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, his presidential predecessors who created the new nation with their considerable intellects and political skills.  Perhaps this is because Monroe was not considered their equal.  William Plumer, a US Senator from New Hampshire, who went on to serve as Governor of that state, described Monroe as “honest”, but “a man of plain common sense, practical, but not scientific.”[3]

James Monroe is generally remembered for two things: the Monroe Doctrine, which sought to block Europe from further colonizing the Americas; and the fact that he was almost unanimously elected to his second term.  History tells us that Monroe was denied a unanimous second term for the noblest of reasons.  One defiant elector in the Electoral College voted for John Quincy Adams because he believed that George Washington should be the only unanimously elected President of the United States.[4]

Except that is not true, and the real reason is a lot more interesting.  The truth involves William Plumer, who did not think much of Monroe, Daniel Tompkins, a Vice-President frequently too drunk to preside over the Senate, and the greatest orator in American history, Daniel Webster.

 

Unpacking the real story

Following the War of 1812, post American Revolution political tensions eased into the “Era of Good Feelings.”  The Federalist Party had collapsed following the revelation that during the war, they were plotting to secede from the union,[5] essentially leaving no other national party to challenge the Democratic-Republicans of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.  The country, though, was not united behind Monroe, he just had no organized opposition.  Monroe faced plenty of criticism, including from Thomas Jefferson, who opposed his former law student’s extravagant deficit spending and expansion of the federal government.[6]  But with the Federalist Party unable to put up a national candidate for president, there was no way to protest Monroe’s policies.  At least, not until a plan was hatched by Daniel Webster to protest Monroe by voting against the re-election of Daniel Tompkins to the Vice-Presidency.

Tompkins was widely regarded as a failed Vice-President.  A former Governor of New York, Tompkins was far more interested in his state, even running again for Governor in 1820, just prior to being re-elected Vice-President.  Tompkins was also a chronic alcoholic.[7]  His alcoholism, though, was allegedly tied to a valiant cause.  As New York’s Governor, Tompkins personally financed the participation of the state’s militias in the War of 1812 when the New York State Legislature voted against providing the funding.  After the war, however, the state refused to reimburse him, causing him financial ruin.[8]

Despite the noble roots of Tompkins’ problems, Webster resolved to vote against him.  Webster settled on a plan to gather votes for John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams and then James Monroe’s Secretary of State.  This plan was complicated, however, by the fact that Webster was a presidential elector from the state of Massachusetts.  The head of that Electoral College delegation was John Adams.  Webster, perhaps wisely, chose not to broach the subject with the former president.  Instead, Webster sent an emissary to William Plumer, then mostly retired from political life, but who was serving as the head of New Hampshire’s Electoral College delegation, to enlist him in the plan.[9]

 

The vote against

Plumer embraced the idea.  He sent a letter to his son, William Plumer, Jr., New Hampshire’s Congressman, asking him to approach John Quincy Adams with the idea.  When the younger Plumer did, however, Adams was appalled.  Adams noted that any vote for him, in any capacity, would be “peculiarly embarrassing”, especially if it came from Massachusetts.  Adams made clear to Plumer he wished Monroe and Tompkins be re-elected unanimously, and that, in any event, there should not be a single vote given to him.  Adams told Plumer that a vote for him would damage his prospects for winning the presidency in 1824.[10]

Plumer sent word to his father immediately, but it did not reach the elder Plumer before he left for Concord, New Hampshire, to cast his electoral vote.  It is not clear where Plumer resolved to vote for John Quincy Adams not for Vice-President, but for President, and to do so as a protest against Monroe himself.[11]  But he did.  In a speech to his fellow electors, the elder Plumer announced his intention to vote for John Quincy Adams for president.  In his remarks, Plumer stated that Monroe had conducted himself improperly as president, echoing Jefferson’s complaints concerning the vast increase of the public debt during the Monroe administration.[12]

How does George Washington fit into this?  It is really not known.  Newspaper accounts of the time accurately recorded Plumer’s dissent.[13]  The first references to Plumer’s vote preserving Washington’s status emerged in the 1870s, when historians assessing the Founding Era noted the parallels between its beginnings, with the unanimous acclamation of George Washington as the indispensable man to the Republic, and its end, with its unanimous acceptance of James Monroe as the man no one opposed.  The theory was first floated around then and it took on a life of its own.[14]  In the absence of clear evidence of how this American legend began, perhaps it was just one of history’s quirks that James Monroe, who nearly sacrificed his life in service to George Washington’s army, was destined to sacrifice part of his historic reputation in service of creating the myth of George Washington, Father of the United States.

 

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[1] For the full story, see David Hackett Fisher’s “Washington’s Crossing” (Pivotal Moments in American History), Oxford University Press (2004).

[2] http://www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing/history/whatswrong.html

[3] William Plumer, Memorandum of Proceedings in the United State Senate, March 16, 1806.

[4] See, Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Campaigns from George Washington to George W. Bush, Oxford University Press (2004), p. 31-32.

[5] See, connecticuthistory.org/the-hartford-convention-today-in-history/

[6] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, December 26, 1820.

[7] Letter of William Plumer, Jr. to William Plumer, his father, on February 1, 1822, describing Tompkins as
“so grossly intemperate as to be totally unfit for business.”

[8] http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/VP_Daniel_Tompkins.htm

[9] Turner, Lynn W. “The Electoral Vote Against Monroe in 1820—An American Legend”  The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 42(2), (1955), pp. 250-273

[10] Turner, p. 257

[11] Turner, p. 258

[12] Turner, p. 259

[13] Turner, p. 261.

[14] Turner p. 269-270.


This is William Bodkin’s fourth post for History is Now.  The first three touched on aspects of the lives of George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), and Thomas Jefferson (link here). Today William discusses the fourth president of the United States, James Madison (president from 1809-1817). Madison was to have a great influence on another Founding Father – or Founding Brother – Thomas Jefferson.

 

I have always been fascinated by the personal relationships among the American Founders.  As I mentioned in last month’s post on Thomas Jefferson, their friendships, rivalries, alliances and disagreements still shape the country’s political discourse, with Jefferson having the most lasting influence.  However, when reading all of Jefferson’s writings, this influence and reach can come as a surprise, as it often seems that posterity was neither his intent nor his goal. 

James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816.

James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816.

Jefferson was, of all the Founders, perhaps the truest revolutionary in spirit.  He expressed it unhesitatingly in his writings and letters when commenting on the events at the time.  One of Jefferson’s more famous expressions of his revolutionary fervor came not in the Declaration of Independence, but in a letter reflecting on Shays’ Rebellion in 1787.  Daniel Shays was a former captain in the Continental Army who took charge of a group of farmers in central and western Massachusetts protesting the Massachusetts’ government’s failure to take steps to alleviate the farmers’ debt burden, which often cost the farmers’ their property and landed them in prison.[1]  In response to a query about the rebellion, Jefferson stated “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.”[2]{cke_protected_1}  Jefferson noted that the United States had been independent eleven years, with only one such rebellion.  He wrote “What county before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion?  What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”  It was in this letter he also observed that the “tree of liberty” must be “refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[3]

How then, was this literally bloody-minded revolutionary transformed into the guiding philosophical spirit of a nation?  The answer is simple: James Madison.  Madison spent a good portion of his political career serving as a check and balance on Jefferson’s revolutionary spirit.

Madison, the fourth President of the United States, is rightfully celebrated for many of his personal accomplishments, including being the ‘Father of the Constitution’.  He was, if not the document’s primary draftsman, (it is generally agreed that that distinction belongs to New York’s Gouverneur Morris)[4] the driving force behind the “Spirit of 1787”, with its realization that the decentralized government of the Articles of Confederation had failed.  A new, stronger central government was needed if the United States of America was to survive.  This idea, however, seemed incongruous with the revolution that had just passed.  The Spirit of 1776 had at its core an inherent distrust of removed, centralized governments that were unresponsive to the needs of the populace.[5]  The resolution of this tension between the Spirits of 1776 and 1787 can be found in Jefferson’s and Madison’s friendship.  As the sixth President, John Quincy Adams, noted, “the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other” was “a phenomenon.”  Future historians, thought Adams, would, upon examining the Jefferson-Madison relationship, “discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.”[6]

Take, for example, Jefferson’s most famous pronouncement on the nature of law, expressed to Madison in a letter from 1789, where he questioned “whether one generation of man had the right to bind another” with its laws.  Jefferson believed that the earth belonged only to the living.  “By law of nature, one generation is to another as independent as one nation is to another.”[7]  Jefferson expressed this idea at a delicate time.  George Washington had just taken office as the new Republic’s first president.  Congress was sitting for the first time.  Questions abounded concerning whether the new nation could last.  Surely the word of Thomas Jefferson that the work being done could or should be undone in a mere twenty years would undermine the new government’s legitimacy.

 

Setting Jefferson straight

Madison took care to set Jefferson straight.  When he responded to Jefferson, he first hailed the “idea” as a “great one,” that offered “interesting reflections” to legislators.  That said, Madison remarked that he was skeptical of this “great idea” in practice.  Madison wrote that a government “so often revised” could never retain its best features, even if they were the most “rational” ideas of government in an “enlightened age.”  The result, Madison stated, would be anarchy. “All the rights depending on positive laws,” such as to property would be “absolutely defunct.”  The most “violent struggles” would ensue between those interested in maintaining the status quo and those interested in bringing about the new.  All this being said, Madison thought the idea should at least be mentioned in the “proceedings of the United States,” since it might help to prevent legislators “from imposing unjust or unnecessary burdens on their successors.” [8]

Madison’s argument carried the day.  Jefferson never mentioned this idea to him again, and certainly never attempted to seriously advance the idea during his presidency.  As we know now, the great self-governance experiment envisioned by Madison has indeed carried on, allowing Jefferson, over time and history, to be honored as one of its great architects.  The idea that earth belonged only to the living, though, remained a philosophical theme to which Jefferson would return in his writings.  Indeed, it is perhaps “the single statement in the vast literature by and about Jefferson that provides a clear and deep look into his thinking about the way the world ought to work.”[9]

The relationship between Jefferson and Madison suffered not at all for this fundamental disagreement about the nature of law.  Madison went on to serve as Jefferson’s Secretary of State and then succeed him to the presidency.  Jefferson, always appreciative of Madison’s counsel, wrote toward the end of his life that “the friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me.”  Jefferson also recognized Madison’s frequent advocacy on his behalf, writing in the same letter that it was a “great solace” to him that Madison was “engaged in vindicating to posterity the course we have pursued.”  Jefferson acknowledged to Madison that “you have been a pillar of support through life,” and asked his old friend to “take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.”[10]

The often warm personal relationships between the Founding Fathers cannot be understated.  Amongst their peers, they were Founding Brothers.  It was these bonds of genuine affection that permitted, despite their conflicts, John Adams’ dying words to be of Thomas Jefferson, and despite the dueling interests of the Spirit of 1776 and the Spirit of 1787 for Jefferson to ask Madison to take care of him when dead.  The founders inspire many things in the American experience.  The nation’s political discourse continues their arguments today.  What often seems to be missing, however, is perhaps the Founders’ most important idea - that friendship can transcend partisan differences when it comes to advancing the interests of the nation.

 

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A brief note from the author:

The good people who run this website have graciously agreed to let me contribute columns on one of my favorite topics, the presidents of the United States.  My plan is to focus, roughly once a month, on less appreciated aspects of their lives, hopefully some things that most people don’t think about when considering the presidents.  This task is far easier with the Founding Fathers; often their time as president was their least important contribution to the United States.  I anticipate some challenges with the presidents to come.  For example, other than Hawkeye in M*A*S*H being named for him, I am unsure what Franklin Pierce’s contribution to the nation was, prominent or otherwise.  In any event, I will try my best to continue delivering what I think are interesting columns about the presidents, and hope the readers agree.


[1] For a fuller discussion, see www.ushistory.org, Chapter 15 “Drafting the Constitution,” (a) Shays’ Rebellion.

[2] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, Nov. 13, 1787.

[3] Id.

[4] See, e.g., “Miracle at Philadelphia” by Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966).

[5] See e.g., Ellis, Joseph, “Founding Brothers,” Preface, “The Generation.”

[6] “The Jubilee of the Constitution,” A Discourse Delivered at the Request of the New York Historical Society in the City of New York, on Tuesday the 30th of April 1839; being the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, on Thursday the 30th of April 1789 (Samuel Colman, VIII Astor House 1839).

[7] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

[8] Letter of James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, February 4, 1790.

[9] Joseph Ellis, “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” 132-133 (Knopf, 1996).

[10] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, February 17, 1826

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Thomas Jefferson is today known as one of America’s greater presidents. So much so that both Democrats and Republicans claim him as their own. But he also undertook another remarkable feat – he re-wrote the Gospels to make them less miraculous. William Bodkin explains.

 

Few people in American history have been picked over as much as Thomas Jefferson. Of the Founding Fathers, he is considered second only to George Washington, and of the presidents, only Abraham Lincoln may have had more written about him. This is all with good reason. Jefferson, alongside John Adams, formed the original American frenemies; together they forged the creative relationship that gave birth to the United States. Their influence, and conflicts, remain to this day. The United States runs for political office in the language of Jefferson, that of personal freedom and self-determination, but governs in the language of Adams, that of a technocratic elite managing a strong central government.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Circa 1791.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Circa 1791.

In my last post, I considered John Adams’ Declaration of Independence, the May 15, 1776 resolution he believed to be the real Declaration, consigning Jefferson’s to a mere ceremonial afterthought.[1] Adams, eyes firmly locked on posterity, seemed to compete for immortality with Jefferson. However, despite recent efforts to rehabilitate the image of the second president, Adams, who knew he had made himself obnoxious to his colleagues[2], has largely lost this battle.

Jefferson, by contrast, is beloved as the genius Founding Father whom everyone claims as their own.  The Democrats revere him for founding their party, one of the oldest in the world. The Republicans, and the tea party movement in particular, love to quote his language of personal freedom and revolution, like invoking his statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[3] All agree that his “ceremonial afterthought” should be celebrated for all time.

And yet, though he has won history’s affections, there’s an excellent chance Jefferson would be irritated by being worshiped or followed today.  After all, Jefferson had “sworn eternal hostility” against “any form of tyranny over the mind of man,”[4] believing that one generation of humanity could not bind another with its ideas, or even its laws. Jefferson said that it was “self-evident” that “the earth belongs to the living.”[5] Indeed, were he alive today, he would probably encourage us to discard things such as the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers much in the same way he discarded the work of the Evangelists who wrote the Christian Gospels.

 

REWRITING THE GOSPELS

Jefferson was not known for his devotion to religion. Abigail Adams wrote, after Jefferson had defeated her husband John Adams for the presidency, that the young nation had “chosen as our chief Magistrate a man who makes no pretensions to the belief of an all wise and supreme Governor of the World.” Mrs. Adams did not think Jefferson was an atheist. Rather, Jefferson believed religion to only be as “useful as it may be made a political Engine” and that its rituals were a mere charade. Mrs. Adams concluded that Jefferson was “not a believer in the Christian system.”[6]

Jefferson, who always professed a high regard for the teachings of Jesus, found the Gospels to be “defective as a whole,” with Jesus’ teachings “mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.”[7] Jefferson seemed most offended by the accounts of miracles. The Gospels could be improved, he concluded, by removing the magical thinking - that is, anything that could not be explained by human reason.

Following his presidency, Jefferson reconciled with John Adams once Adams had recovered from the bitter sting of presidential defeat. Jefferson confided in his old friend about the project he had undertaken to rewrite the Gospels. Jefferson wrote to Adams that “by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book,” he was able to separate out “the matter which is evidently his (Jesus’),” which Jefferson found to be “as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”[8] Adams responded favorably to Jefferson’s project, commenting “if I had eyes and nerves I would go through both Testaments and mark all that I understand.”[9]

Jefferson, though, was not finished. He believed the effort he described to Adams was “too hastily done”.  It had been “the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived in Washington.”[10] Think, for a moment, how astounding that is. Jefferson’s first effort at reworking the Gospels came while he “lived in Washington,” meaning while he was president. So for fun, after steering the American ship of state, he rewrote the Gospels.

 

A NEW WAY OF THINKING

While working on his second Gospel revision, Jefferson described his complete disdain for the Evangelists. He found their work to be underpinned by “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.” Yet he still believed that “intermixed with these” were “sublime ideas of the Supreme Being”, “aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence,” that had been “sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors.” All had been expressed, by Jesus, “with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.” Jefferson could not accept that Jesus’ purest teachings were the “inventions of the groveling authors who relate them.” Those teachings were “far beyond the powers of their feeble minds.” Yes, the Evangelists had shown that there was a character named Jesus, but his “splendid conceptions” could not be considered “interpolations from their hands.” To Jefferson, the task was clear once more. He would “undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff.”  It would not “require a moment's consideration”, as the difference “is obvious to the eye and to the understanding.”[11]

At the end of this process, Jefferson, in his seventy-sixth year, had completed his Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English, an account of the life of Jesus, bereft of any mention of the miraculous. No wedding feast at Cana, no resurrection of Lazarus, and ending with the disciples laying Jesus in the tomb, rolling a great stone to the door, and then departing.

Jefferson’s rewriting of the Gospels is a perfect distillation of his belief that each generation could take and shape the meaning of the Gospels, or really, anything, for their own purposes. Jefferson took these beliefs to his gravestone. Prior to his death, he chose to list there, of all his accomplishments, his three great contributions to the freedom of thought: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence and the Virginia Statutes on Religious Freedom; Father of the University of Virginia.” Jefferson hoped, perhaps, to inspire successive generations not to follow his words, but rather, to live by his example, and cast off the intellectual bonds of the past in order to create a new way of thinking.

 

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[1] See, Ellis, Joseph, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, Chapter 1 , “Prudence Dictates.” (Knopf 2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Novmeber 13, 1787.

[4] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800.

[5] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

[6] Letter of Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch (her sister) dated February 7, 1801.

[7] Jefferson, Thomas. “Syllabus of an estimate of the merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others.” College of William and Mary, Digital Archive (https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/15130).

[8]Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 13, 1813.

[9] Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, November 14, 1813.

[10] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Rev. F.A. van der Kemp, May 25, 1816.

[11] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820.

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones