The Bible in the Political Culture of the American Founding
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.