Over at The Panorama, JER editor Cathy Kelly has written a post about the journal’s social media effort. SHEAR members are encouraged you to read about the relevant social media hashtags that the JER will be using and to become acquainted with the journal’s new social media editor, Dr. Nora Slonimsky.
I write with the sad and shocking news that our dear friend and SHEAR president-elect Michael A. Morrison passed away on Sunday, May 14, 2017, at his residence.
Michael served as a professor in the Department of History at Purdue University from 1991 to 2016, retiring after 25 years. Following his military service as a Sergeant in the United States Air Force, Michael received an A.A. from Henry Ford Community College; a B.A. from the University of Michigan, Dearborn; and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A beloved educator, Michael taught “Society, Culture and Rock & Roll,” as well as courses on 19th and 20th century U. S. political history. He was the recipient of the College of Liberal Arts Teaching Excellence Award and Purdue University’s Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award. In 1998, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching named him Indiana Professor of the Year.
Michael was co-editor of the Journal of the Early Republic 1994-2004, author of Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War, many articles and book chapters, and editor and co-editor of additional works. His wife, Nancy Gabin, survives him.
A memorial service will be held at a later date.
President, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, 2016-17
Emerita Professor of History, Oberlin College
Sharon Ann Murphy, a professor of history at Providence College, examines the complex interactions between financial institutions and their clientele during the nineteenth century. She is the author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (2010), winner of the 2012 Hagley Prize for the best book in business history. Her newest book is Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic.
As I have worked these past few years on my new book Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic, I’ve been fascinated by the response from my fellow SHEARites. Almost every person I have talked to about the topic has responded with some version of: “Oh, we so need a book that explains bills of exchange!” This always makes me both chuckle and cringe. While I do indeed explain bills of exchange on pages 47-48, I never anticipated that this would be the main purpose or single highlight of the book. And if that’s the only thing it’s good for, then this is not going to be a very successful book.
Of course, in keeping with the series theme of How Things Worked, a main purpose of this book is to explain how money worked, how banking worked, how the fractional reserve system worked, how banknotes worked, how war finance worked, how Alexander Hamilton became a Broadway star (okay, maybe I don’t quite get there), how discounting worked, how the money multiplier worked, how inflation and deflation work, how panics worked, how incorporation worked, how branch banking worked, how the First and Second Banks of the United States worked, how the Bank War worked, how bimetallism and the gold standard worked, how the game “Robin’s alive” worked, how counterfeiting worked, how savings banks, investment banks, commercial banks, plantation banks, and building & loan associations worked, how free banks and wildcat banks worked (or didn’t work), how public and private banks worked, how note brokers and clearinghouses worked, how the independent treasury worked, how Confederate finance didn’t work, and how the National Banking Acts worked.
Wow. It sounds like I just wrote the encyclopedia of early American finance. But that is certainly not what I set out to write and, I hope, not what this book actually is. Rather, I sought to put finance back into the Early Republic, or – more specifically – to empower the average historian or history student to put finance back in. Most historians have no problem weaving together cultural experiences with political events. We readily examine how race, ethnicity, gender or class impact (or are impacted by) legal or social institutions. We can evaluate foreign policy decisions in terms of domestics concerns without breaking a sweat. The subfield boundaries of the historical profession have become much more fluid, with the best historians interweaving the sources, methods, and conclusions of multiple subfields as appropriate for their topic. And yet, for the average historian, economics and finance are rarely incorporated into these conversations. It is just too opaque, too foreign, too scary to be engaged as part of the analysis. While there is definitely a strong and ever-growing contingent of historians already comfortable embracing financial topics, they are still a very small subset of the overall profession. For the remainder, economic topics are either treated as something separate – somehow outside the bounds of the lived experience of the regular American. Or, when these topics can’t easily be ignored or relegated to the specialists, they are repackaged as something less scary.
Take, for example, the Bank War. For most students of American history, the Bank War is the main—if not the only—encounter with the history of money and banking from the Revolution through the Civil War. At its core, the Bank War was at the center of an extended debate over the acceptable role of banks and banknotes in the American economy. Most people agreed that the existence of banks provided many benefits to their local communities: facilitating exchange, encouraging commerce, enabling the completion of internal improvements projects, and generally creating more opportunities for local inhabitants to increase their wealth. Yet these benefits came at a cost, and Americans were divided over whether the benefits outweighed the costs. Although banks were supposed to promote economic stability, many believed that they were responsible for introducing even more instability into the system through their use of fractional reserve banking. Others questioned the republican implications of granting special privileges to the incorporators of banking corporations and of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few individuals. Yet historians most often tell the story of the Bank War almost exclusively from the perspective of politics. (In their defense, the Bank War did start and end as a political battle of wills between Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle, along with a host of secondary characters.) This political fight, however, had economic causes and consequences that are often lost in the normal telling of that tale. It is difficult to understand the true extent of the passions behind the Bank War without first understanding how the financial system worked during the first century of the nation’s existence.
And beyond the Bank War, money and banking played a critical role in the lives of everyday Americans in the nineteenth century, shaping the society in which they lived and worked. Finance was not outside of their daily lived experiences but rather an integral part of it. Most Americans understood the promises and perils of banknotes as they navigated the monetary system with their regular transactions. They debated the pros and cons of the various banking proposals brought before their state legislatures. They dealt in promissory notes, tobacco warehouse certificates, double-name paper, and (yes) bills of exchange. Sure, some Americans employed these tools more often and understood the elements of the financial system better than others did, but not even the most isolated subsistence farmer was completely outside of the system. Thus an understanding of the financial history of this period is essential if we want to broaden and deepen our overall knowledge of the Early American Republic. My ultimate goal for Other People’s Money is to give historians both adequate background in financial topics as well as the confidence to apply this knowledge in their own work. I want to make finance just another tool in the methodological toolbox, to be taken out and employed competently – if not expertly – where and when the tool is appropriate.
Does this book accomplish all of that? You, my fellow SHEARites, will be the ultimate test. If you find this book useful and informative, that will be good. But if this book makes you rethink how you approach your own research, if it makes you rethink how you structure your syllabi, if it makes you rethink how you advise your undergraduate and graduate students in their projects, then maybe I’ll stop cringing when someone thanks me for (finally) explaining bills of exchange. Heck, if Alexander Hamilton can become a musical icon, then perhaps financial history has a place in the Early Republic after all.
In June 1820, several dozen legislators gathered in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, then the state capital, for an emergency session. Their goal was “Relief”: legislative action to protect Tennessee households from economic crisis. The previous year, as the Panic of 1819 first hit, these same representatives had passed a law to prevent creditors from suing debtors. Now they wanted to charter a “Bank of the People,” increasing the money supply and reducing the social power of the merchants and cotton gin owners who normally controlled credit. They did so in the name of the people’s sovereignty.
But Andrew Jackson was (literally) in their way. Apparently in his Major General’s uniform, the Hero of New Orleans told those entering the state house that the proposed bank would violate the federal and state constitutions to which they had sworn fealty. Anyone who voted for it would thus be perjuring themselves, Jackson warned. That summer he also wrote an anti-Relief manifesto on behalf of “enterprising commercial adventurers” while quietly collaborating with Tennessee’s established bankers to sink the new experiment in economic democracy.
Eight years later, he won the White House by promising to restore the people’s sovereignty—to avenge them not only against foreign powers and domestic threats but also against corrupt politicians and moneyed interests.
Understanding how Jackson could take such positions without any sense of contradiction requires us to look closely at where he came from, in every sense of that loaded phrase. More to the point, we need to scrutinize his life and career before he became a legend at the Battle of New Orleans—and before he and his trusted allies began to shape and deploy that legend during the presidential campaigns of 1824 and 1828.
As of 1820, everyone knew that “the Hero” had a touchy sense of honor. Many people were aware of his youthful traumas. His economic and legal ideas were far more mysterious, except perhaps for the Tennessee lawmakers who favored stay laws and public banks. And yet Jackson had acquired a distinct sense of commercial “justice” and the rule of law during his ascent from borderlands orphan to territorial official. As a lawyer, judge, and confidante of Federalist elites, Jackson was a frontier version of Alexander Hamilton, one with fewer qualms about dueling and none about slavery.
Of course, the mid-Tennessee colony where Jackson came of political age was not just any frontier. During the early 1790s it was a uniquely terrifying place, besieged by Cherokee and Creek war parties and abandoned by the federal government. Both Jackson and his wife, Rachel, felt betrayed by the bloodless politicians in Philadelphia and swore revenge in the name of God’s ultimate sovereignty. They got some in 1794, when white militias waged off-the-record attacks against the “savage nations” to the south and east. But most of the credit went to state-level leaders who Jackson despised.
For most of his thirties (1797-1807), this violent man was controversial in mid-Tennessee and obscure everywhere else. He was no longer a Federalist but not really a Jeffersonian. In the wake of the Burr Conspiracy, the Sage of Monticello wrote a brief and stern letter to the Tennessee upstart, reminding Jackson that the day of the frontier avenger was over.
A new crisis with Britain and the ensuing wars of 1811-1818 changed everything. Against the hated empire and its native and black proxies, white Americans came to see their country as a kind of frontier household. They spoke of their “unexampled forbearance” against the monsters all around and lionized Andrew Jackson as the man who finally saved them from their nightmares.
This Jacksonian nation crystallized in early 1819, when Congress investigated the General’s invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida. His supporters did not so much reject international law as appropriate it, insisting that the United States was the only innocent nation on Earth, the one country that could justly inflict rather than obey the law. Jackson was “the people’s great avenger,” the man “appointed by Heaven to tread the wine press of Almighty wrath.”
Later that year, the Panic hit, moving many thousands of people—especially in the southern and western regions were Jackson was most popular—to call for another kind of popular sovereignty against economic forces and international norms. They assumed that Jackson was on their side. This makes his rise to the White House and subsequent crusades against native peoples and national bankers all the more significant to larger narratives of capitalism and democracy in the United States.
Jason M. Opal is an associate professor of history at McGill University. He has authored Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England and edited Common Sense and Other Writings by Thomas Paine. His forthcoming book on Old Hickory is entitled Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation.
Hello SHEARites! The 2017 annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic is only three months away, and plans are well underway. On 1 May, an online version of the program will be available at shear.org; printed programs will be available to conference attendees upon check-in.
For those of you eager to begin making travel arrangements, here is some helpful information:
A block of rooms has been reserved at the DoubleTree Hotel, 237 South Broad Street, located in the heart of the Theater District on the Avenue of the Arts. Rates are $159/single or double, $169/triple, and $179/quadruple, and are valid for up to three days before and three days after the SHEAR conference, based on availability.
The hotel’s amenities include 18-hour room service, complimentary fitness center, walking track, rooftop atrium pool and sun deck. All conference attendees are responsible for making their own room reservations directly with the DoubleTree Hotel by calling (800) 222-8733 (TREE); please be sure to request the group rate for SHEAR. The deadline for making reservations at the reduced rate is 14 June 2017.
By Air: Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) is the closest airport to the conference, served by domestic and international airlines with non-stop flights from more than 130 locations. Center City is 7 miles from PHL and can be reached by taxi, public transit, and shuttles and shared rides.
• Taxi – trips between the airport and downtown cost a flat fee of $28.50 (before tip) each way.
• Public transit – SEPTA trains run every 30 minutes from 4:20 am to 11:40 pm (to airport) and 5:07 am to 12:30 am (from airport). The closest station to the conference hotel is Suburban Station at 17thand JRK Boulevard (5 blocks north and 2 blocks west of the hotel, an easy 10-minute walk). One-way, on-board, cash only fare is $8.00.
• Shuttle – authorized transportation providers for Center City can be found here.
By Train: Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station can be reached by local, regional, and national rail services. The conference hotel is a short taxi ride from the station, or about a 25-minute walk. The taxi stand is outside the station’s east exit (facing downtown). If walking, take the east exit, turn right, go three blocks south to Walnut Street, then turn left and proceed east down Walnut. Cross Broad Street and then turn right and walk one block to Locust Street. The hotel is located at the intersection of Broad and Locust.
For information about schedules and pricing, please contact
• AMTRAK at (800) 872-7245
• New Jersey Regional Transit at (800) 722-2222
• SEPTA at (215) 580-7800
By Car: Philadelphia is located approximately two hours south of New York City and two hours north of Washington D.C.
• From Philadelphia International Airport: Take I-95 North to Exit 17 (PA-611 North/ Broad Street Exit). Continue North on Broad Street for approximately 3 miles. The hotel is located on the right side, one block past Spruce Street at the corner of Broad and Locust Streets.
• From Baltimore, Washington and points South: Take I-95 North past the Philadelphia Intl. Airport to Exit 17 (PA-611 North/ Broad Street Exit). Take Broad Street North and follow Broad Street for about 3 miles. The hotel is on the corner of Broad and Locust Streets.
• From New York, New Jersey and points Northeast: Take NJ Turnpike South to exit 4 (Philadelphia/Camden Exit). Take 73 North to 38 West. Follow signs to The Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Once over the bridge follow signs for 676 West. Take 676 West to the Broad Street / Central Philadelphia Exit onto 15th Street heading South. Take 15th Street (approx 7 blocks) and make a left turn onto Locust Street. Take Locust one block to Broad Street. The hotel is located directly in front of you at the corner of Broad and Locust Streets.
• Harrisburg, Hershey and points West: Take Pennsylvania Turnpike East to exit 24 (Valley Forge). Get onto 76 E following signs to Central Philadelphia. Take Vine St. (I-676) to Broad St. exit and make a right onto 15th St. Follow 15th St. to Locust, then turn left onto Locust. Go 1 block to Broad St. and the hotel is on the corner.
Parking: Self-parking in a covered lot with in and out privileges is available at the DoubleTree for $28.00 per night.
By Intercity Bus: The Philadelphia Greyhound Bus Terminal at 1001 Filbert Street, (215) 931-4075 is served by Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus Lines. Megabus serves Philadelphia 30th Street Station from a variety of cities along the eastern corridor.
Information about the conference is available under “Annual Meeting” on the SHEAR website. Preregistration opens 1 May and is $75 for members and $110 for nonmembers; graduate students, public history professionals, independent scholars, and graduate students pay $50 (exclusive of online transaction fee). All preregistration must be completed online by 5 July 2017. You do not need to be a member of SHEAR to present at the conference, but everyone on the program must register.
If you do not preregister, you may register on-site at the conference. The on-site price will include a $30 on-site registration fee and must be paid in cash or a check made out to SHEAR.
On-site conference check-in will be open from 5:00 to 7:30 pm on Thursday, July 20, at the McNeil Center on the UPenn Campus. It will continue on Friday, July 21 and Saturday, July 22, from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, and Sunday, July 23, from 8:00 am to 10:30 am at the DoubleTree.
If you have questions about registration or the conference itself, please feel free to contact me by email (email@example.com) or mobile phone at 405/409-5909.
I look forward to seeing you in Philadelphia, and I send you traveling mercies.
Robyn Lily Davis, conference coordinator
Brian Gabrial is an associate professor of journalism at Concordia University. A former journalist and television producer, he is the author of The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2016).
Between 1751 and 1859, a shifting 70-year conversation about free and slave black Americans, the press, and the nation took place in the pages of American newspapers, with these conversations erupting during significant slave troubles. Media coverage of five such events—Haiti’s 1791 slave revolt, Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 slave conspiracy, Louisiana’s 1811 slave revolt, Denmark Vesey’s 1822 slave conspiracy, Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt, and John Brown’s 1859 Harper’s Ferry raid—shows how the nation’s once unifying “Spirit of ’76” crumbled as white America was increasingly pressed to confront slavery’s injustice.
In June 1822, the Charleston Courier published a headline, “The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement.” The account, written by an upper- crust, white Charlestonian, is an ironic, allegorical tale of a slave, hanged after being falsely accused of plotting mayhem. It was a (unheeded) warning not to let panic supplant reason. These were cautionary but inflammatory words as, that summer, authorities arrested slaves and free blacks, accusing them of plotting rebellion. (Their supposed leader Denmark Vesey, a free black man, would be executed.)
Slavery was America’s Faustian contract. While slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison thought it morally evil, they failed to reconcile their racist ideologies with America’s own ideals of liberty and equality. So, the constitutional compromise that bound the new states together went forward, and racist ideologies more firmly justified the peculiar institution’s continued existence. Its maintenance became code for states’ rights and limits on federal power.
From America’s first days, two types of Americanism took root with both trying to choke each other to death. A conservative view (rightly) held that slavery was constitutionally protected, while more a progressive America wanted to change that.
So why choose these events? First, black Americans were not part of any public conversation over slavery; yet, for good or evil, these events, pushed onto the pages of America’s newspapers, made them so.
Why study newspapers? While today slavery is considered America’s defining social and moral failure before the Civil War, in its time, a great silence arose over it in major newspapers. (That is not to say that a vocal abolitionist press and other venues did not try.) Slave troubles broke that silence. These newspaper accounts reflected mainstream public opinion, providing important ideas about what white America thought about black Americans. Ideas that still, unfortunately, persist.
When slave troubles erupted, white America read about slavery and, therefore, black America. The press was not sympathetic. At the time of the 1822 Vesey Conspiracy, the editor of the Charleston Times wrote, “Let it never be forgotten, that ‘our Negroes, are truely the Jacobins of the country; that they are the anarchists and the domestic enemy; the common enemy of civilized society, and the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.” Thirty-seven years later, the powerful New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett echoed similar sentiments after John Brown’s raid, “The whole history of negro insurrection proves that there is no race of men so brutal and bloody-minded as the negro. The negro [sic], once roused to bloodshed, and in possession of arms, is as uncontrollable and irrational as a wild beast . . .” There was no talk about a fight for liberty from these white men.
In the early days of the Republic, slave society had tacit support from those in non-slave holding areas. In the 1822 essay “North and South,” a writer suggested, that Americans should “view the different states as forming but different parts of one great and happy nation, that will ever rejoice in the suppression of internal commotion [slave revolts], and repel hostile invasion.” Eleven years later, at the time of the Turner revolt, a Charleston Courier item reminded readers of the American Revolution, “[W]hatever may arise in our country, the old laven of ’76 will prevail whenever it is called for . . . .” White society would not tolerate slave rebellion, something that threatened the social and racial order. Newspaper coverage of these slave troubles illustrated this.
In 1800, the editor of the Philadelphia Gazette wrote after Gabriel Prosser conspired to unite fellow slaves to rebel: “We have a pleasure in stating, that should our sister states require military aid to quell the black insurgents, the federal corps . . . will be re-organized for that duty.” Likewise a Boston editor said after Nat Turner’s revolt, “If necessary, a million of men could be marched, on short notice, from the non-slave holding states, to defend their brethren in the South! For, much as we abhor slavery; much as it is abhorred throughout the northern and eastern states; there is not a man of us who would not run to the relief of our friends in the south, when surrounded by the horrors of a servile insurrection.”
Southern apologies for slavery also disappeared after Nat Turner, and slave states entered into an era of denial and repression, justified by the positive good theory of slavery. It reached its zenith of articulation in a November 1859 Richmond Enquirer headline, “Slavery – the bond of union throughout the world.” “The southern slave is the happiest of human laborers,” the writer argued, “the best treated, the best cared for, the least inclined to be rebellious, and the least willing to exchange his comfortable condition as a servant for that of a desperate and starving so-called freeman . . . ”
Newspaper accounts illustrated, too, that, as South moved into the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s, the growing abolitionist and anti-slavery movement replaced the rebelling slave as the real enemy.
By 1859, a deep chasm appeared in the façade of American unanimity, showing a dangerous division over slavery and slave states making clear they would tolerate nothing less than slavery’s unqualified support. That year, John Brown, a white man, jolted the country by leading his band into Virginia. Now, fire-eating editors like the Charleston Mercury‘s Robert Barnwell Rhett would exclaim, “The great source of the evil is, that we are under one government with these people [abolitionists and Republicans] . . . there is no peace for the South in the Union . . . the South must control her own destinies or perish.”
Up North, editors like the New York Herald‘s Horace Greeley countered: “Our Southern neighbors are a very hard people to get on with. They provoked the struggle now going on between the friends of Freedom on one side, and the advocates of Slavery on the other . . . . They make no bones of declaring, that sooner than meet the approaching defeat [of the Democratic Party] they will break up the government . . . They exhibit in this not only an arrogant but a very childish temper.”
Newspaper accounts, over time, reflected slavery’s fatal effects on the nation that pushed America to the brink and eventually over it. As the press recorded this sad trajectory when slave troubles occurred, antebellum white readers, because of deeply held racist beliefs about black people, would remain blind to the impending and bloody crisis over slavery. While its social, economic, and political complexities affected both black and white Americans, black Americans, of course, most bore slavery’s heavy weight of suffering. Eventually, the nation would, too.
We seek proposals for panels and individual papers for the special topics conference on Religion and Politics in Early America, March 1-4, 2018, in St. Louis, Missouri. Individual papers are welcome, but preference will be given to completed panel submissions.
This conference will explore the intersections between religion and politics in early America from pre-contact through the early republic. All topics related to the way religion shapes politics or politics shapes religion—how the two conflict, collaborate, or otherwise configure each other—will be welcomed. We define the terms “religion” and “politics” broadly, including (for example) studies of secularity and doubt. This conference will have a broad temporal, geographic, and topical expanse. We intend to create a space for interdisciplinary conversation, though this does not mean that all panels will need be composed of multiple disciplines; we welcome both mixed panels and panels composed entirely of scholars from a single discipline.
Panels can take a traditional form (3-4 papers, with or without a respondent), roundtable form (5 or more brief statements with discussion), or other forms.
Panel submissions must have the following:
- An organizer for contact information
- Names and titles for each paper in the panel.
- A brief abstract (no more than 250 words) for the panel.
- A briefer abstract (no more than 100 words) for each paper.
- Brief CV’s for each participant (no more than two pages each).
Individual paper submissions must include the following:
- Name and contact information
- Abstract (no more than 150 words)
- A brief CV (no more than two pages)
Please send your proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, May 26, 2017.
If you have any questions, please email Abram Van Engen at email@example.com.
The Danforth Center on Religion and Politics
The Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy
The Society of Early Americanists
St. Louis University
Washington University in St. Louis
SHEAR is pleased to open registration for the 3rd annual graduate student research luncheon seminars. Reserve your spot for a free catered luncheon facilitated by two senior scholars in the field on Friday, July 21, 2017.
These seminars permit grad students and senior faculty to discuss common themes, important areas of research, and the challenges faced by scholars in the field. Conversations in each group may turn alternately to subjects like archives, methodologies, and important secondary literature in their area. Best of all, these seminars help participants to network amongst like-minded scholars, and to find potential partners for organizing panels for future conferences.
- The program and lunch are free, but you must be registered for the conference.
- You need to be currently enrolled in a graduate program or have received an AY 2016-2017 degree.
- If necessary, preference will be given to those who did not participate in last year’s graduate seminars and who do not already appear on the conference program.
- Native Americans and Borderlands led by Alan Gallay (Texas Christian University) and Denise Bossy (University of North Florida)
- Politics and Diplomacy led by John Belohlavek (University of South Florida) and Gene Allen Smith (Texas Christian University)
- Race and Slavery led by Graham Russell Gao Hodges (Colgate University) and Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor (Smith College)
- Science, Disasters, and Popular Culture led by Susan Branson (Syracuse University) and Cynthia Kierner (George Mason University)
Each seminar is limited to 12 students. We aim to assign participants to their first choice; but if that session fills early, we will accommodate participants in other sessions. To apply, please email a dissertation abstract (250 words max) to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com by May 15th. Include your graduate program (advisor, department, university), expected completion date, and your first and second seminar choice.
Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He has authored or edited 10 books, including Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter.
The American founders read the Bible. Their many quotations from and allusions to both familiar and obscure scriptural texts confirm that they knew the Bible from cover to cover. Biblical language and themes liberally seasoned their rhetoric. The phrases and cadences of the King James Bible, especially, informed their written and spoken words. Its ideas shaped their habits of mind and informed their political pursuits.
The Bible was an accessible and authoritative text for most eighteenth-century Americans; and effective communicators, especially politicians and polemicists, adeptly used it to reach their audiences. The mere fact that a founder quoted the Bible does not indicate whether that individual was a Christian or a skeptic. Both, including some who doubted the Bible’s divine origins, appealed to Scripture in their political discourse.
The founding generation, in the last third or so of the eighteenth century, drew on diverse intellectual traditions in forming their political thought. Among them were British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in manifold forms), and classical and civic republicanism. Deserving to be studied alongside these perspectives, I contend in my book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (2017), is a biblical tradition, both Hebraic and Christian.
In a now-famous study published in the American Political Science Review on the influence of European writers on the political literature of the founding, Donald S. Lutz reported that the Bible was cited more frequently than any European writer or even any European school of thought. The Bible, he found, accounted for approximately one-third of the citations in the literature he surveyed. The book of Deuteronomy alone was the most frequently cited work, followed by Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, the most cited secular source. In fact, Deuteronomy was referenced nearly twice as often as Locke’s writings, and the Apostle Paul was mentioned about as frequently as Montesquieu.
Are these many references to Christianity’s sacred text merely rhetorical ornaments without substantive significance? Should students of the founding be attentive to the Bible’s influence on the political and legal developments of the period? Did the founders, in short, use the Bible in ways that mattered? One can acknowledge that the founding generation read and referenced the Bible and simultaneously doubt that the Bible exerted consequential influence on the founders’ political and legal projects.
Simply counting and documenting the founders’ many references to the Bible tells us little except that the Bible was a familiar and useful literary resource for this generation. In my book, I move beyond the observation that the founders frequently cited the Bible and examine how the founders used the Bible and how it may have influenced the founding project. Which biblical texts, I ask, appealed to these Americans, and why did they think these texts were pertinent to them in their time and situation?
A study of the founding generation’s uses of the sacred text must be attentive to the purposes for which these Americans invoked the Bible and not merely to the fact that they read and frequently referenced it. The founders used the Bible for diverse reasons, ranging from the primarily literary, rhetorical, or political to the profoundly theological. The Bible was used then, as it is sometimes used today, (1) to enrich a common language and cultural vocabulary through distinctively biblical allusions, phrases, figures of speech, proverbs, aphorisms, and the like; (2) to enhance the power and weight of rhetoric through its identification with a venerated, authoritative sacred text; (3) to identify and define normative standards and transcendent rules for ordering and judging public life; (4) to marshal biblical authority in support of specific political agendas and policy objectives; and (5) to gain insights on the character and designs of God, especially as they pertain to God’s providential oversight of the material world and, more specifically, His dealings with men and nations. Recognition of these distinct uses is important insofar as it is misleading to read spiritual meaning into literary, rhetorical, or political uses of the Bible or vice versa.
How did the Bible inform the founders’ political and legal pursuits? Although the founders held diverse theological views and some doubted Christianity’s transcendent claims and the Bible’s divine origins, I contend that many looked to this religious text for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority, and other concepts essential to the establishment of a political society. In various conventions and representative assemblies of the age, as well as in pamphlets, political sermons, and private papers, founding figures appealed to the Bible for principles, precedents, models, normative standards, and cultural motifs to define their community and to order their political experiments. There were influential founders who thought Scripture provided political and legal models – such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law – that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities. The Bible, some thought, offered guidance on the selection of righteous political leaders and the rights and responsibilities of citizens, including the right to resist a tyrannical government.
In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, for one example, Benjamin Franklin referenced Jethro’s counsel to Moses, as recorded in the book of Exodus, regarding the selection of Israel’s civic leaders. During a debate on the qualifications for public office, he spoke in opposition to any proposal “that tended to debase the spirit of the common people. . . . We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in Rulers,” Doctor Franklin said, invoking Jethro’s qualifications for prospective rulers, “that they should be men hating covetousness [Exodus 18:21].” Significantly, Franklin appealed to a biblical standard (“the character which the Scripture requires in Rulers”) in a substantive debate on a constitutional provision, he informed his audience in unambiguous language that his source was “Scripture,” and then he quoted a biblical text.
The political discourse of the founding, for another example, is replete with appeals to the Hebraic “republic” as a model for their own political experiment. In a 1775 Massachusetts election sermon, Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College and later a delegate to New Hampshire’s constitutional ratifying convention, opined: “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic. . . . The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model . . .; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments.”
Most of what the founders knew about the Hebrew commonwealth they learned from the Bible. They were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions apart from the Hebrew experience, and, indeed, they studied these traditions both ancient and modern. The republic described in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, reassured pious Americans that republicanism was a political system favored by God.
More generally, but no less significant to the founders’ political vision, many founders believed the Bible was an indispensable handbook for republican citizenship. In a republican government, the founders often asserted, the people must be sufficiently virtuous that their personal responsibility and discipline will facilitate the social order and stability necessary for a regime of self-government. A free, self-governing people, in other words, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, which would replace external control by an authoritarian ruler’s whip and rod. The whip and rod were clearly unacceptable for a free, self-governing people. The Bible played a noteworthy, if unofficial, role in a republican regime insofar as it was a powerful tool of social control and provided instruction on the essential virtues necessary for self-government to succeed.
Believing that “without national morality a republican government cannot be maintained” and that “[t]he Bible contains . . . the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth,” John Adams described the Bible as “the most republican book in the world.” Recognizing Christianity’s vital contributions to the civic virtues required for self-government, John Dickinson similarly remarked: “The Bible is the most republican Book that ever was written.” Such sentiments were ubiquitous in the political rhetoric of the founding.
Drawing attention to the Bible’s contributions to the founding is not meant to diminish, much less dismiss, other intellectual influences on the founders. Rather, acknowledging the Bible’s often ignored role in the founding enriches an understanding of the broad range of ideas that informed the founders’ political thoughts and shaped the political and legal systems they sought to establish. A study of how the founding generation read and used the Bible in politics offers insights into the ideas that shaped the American political experiment in the waning days of the eighteenth century.
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