Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Heartbreaking Loss

On this day in 1775, the American forces under Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery were defeated in their late night attack on Quebec. Having arrived at the city almost a month prior, both Arnold and Montgomery were hopeful that they could force the British from their strongholds by surrounding the city and bombarding it with canon fire. Much to their dismay, the British were well supplied and entrenched, and the Canadian population was not eager to support the American cause of liberty as Arnold, Montgomery and even Washington had hoped. As a result, the "rebels" were forced to attack the city on December 31 with everything they had. With year enlistments coming up, along with a horrific shortage of food and supplies, both Arnold and Montgomery knew that they would not be able to hold out for long. Simply put, the attack became an all-or-nothing roll of the dice.

The outcome was disastrous for the Americans. Of the 900 American soldiers who participated in the assault, 100 were killed and another 400 were taken prisoner -- the British only lost 6 in the assault. Among the casualties was none other than General Montgomery, who was killed in the attack. Colonel Benedict Arnold was also severely wounded in the leg, which forced him to relinquish command -- albeit temporarily -- to Daniel Morgan, who had the presence of mind to call off a second assault on the city.

For Washington and the rest of the Continental Army the news of the defeat at Quebec was a terrible pill to swallow. Both Washington and his aides, along with several members of the Continental Congress had hoped that an assault on Quebec would inspire British Canadians to their cause and cut off the British in the north.

They were wrong.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas According to Thomas Jefferson

I know that I have mentioned The Thomas Jefferson Hour in the past on this blog, but I would like to call your attention to it again. In his most recent installment, Clay Jenkinsion, who portrays Thomas Jefferson, explains what the Sage of Monticello thought of the celebration of Christmas, Boxing Day, religion, etc.

Click here for the link to the show's website. Simply scroll down to the bottom of the left hand column and click on "Listen to the Show." The show is archived under #749: Christmas Past.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Don't Forget Trenton!

Merry Christmas everyone! As you enjoy the festivities, keep in mind that today also carries a special American tribute that should not go forgotten.

232 years ago on this date George Washington and the Continental Army made their daring advance on Trenton to attack the Hessian soldiers encamped at the city. The move was risky to say the least. Trenton was defended by 1,500 Hessian mercenaries, who were expecting to pass through a relatively calm winter encampment at the city. Washington, however, saw an opportunity to gain a moral victory (moral because winning Trenton was not a major tactical victory) for his army. After all, this was the same army that had been thoroughly routed by the British at New York, where they were forced to flee on a number of occasions. As a result, the Continental Army was in extreme disarray and Washington himself was being questioned by the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In fact, some even suggested that the General should be replaced for his poor performance at New York.

It was under these tough circumstances that Thomas Paine wrote the words to his epic pamphlet, The Crisis, which was written just two days before the planned attack on Trenton:

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
With such dire circumstances all around them, Washington decided to roll the dice. An attack on Trenton would secure a for the Continental Army a legitimate moral victory, one which would help to inspire the allegiance of more colonials to the cause of independence. Despite the benefits, Washington was not unaware of the tremendous risk he was taking. In a very real sense this was an all-or-nothing gamble (It is therefore no surprise that Washington would pen a note on his desk that read, "Victory or Death").

To make a long story short, Washington and the Continental Army won an astonishing victory at Trenton, capturing over 1/3 of the entire Hessian garrison. Since the Hessians expected a quiet winter encampment, they chose to enjoy the holidays by staying up late and drinking away their Christmas Eve. As a result, the army was caught asleep, hung over, and disorganized upon Washington's arrival. Here is a clip from the movie The Crossing, which captures the feel of that Christmas morning:

The Army then goes on to rout the Hessians at Trenton. In the process, only 2 continental soldiers lost their lives. In addition, only five were wounded (including James Monroe, who eventually became our 5th president).

So, Merry Continental Army Kicks Hessian Butt Day/Christmas!!!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gingerbread, Lovely Gingerbread!

When it comes to celebrating the holidays, gingerbread is to Christmas what the American flag is to the 4th of July. In all of its variety, gingerbread has delighted the pallets of generations of Americans. Even our colonial ancestors got a piece of the gingerbread action!

Gingerbread, which has traditionally been one of the most popular Christmas treats, was used to decorate both the homes and trees of early American colonists. The very first printed cookbooks, which were printed in the late 1400s, even carried a number of recipes for making gingerbread, which was thought to be an extremely healthy snack. In Germany, gingerbread took the name lebkuchen which means life bread because of its perceived health benefits.

In colonial America, the making of gingerbread was based on the traditional methods of Europe, primarily England, where bakers traditionally carved an assortment of shapes and designs out of their popular treat. Gingerbread men, which were traditionally cut into the shapes of various saints, were used to decorate one's home in commemoration of the respective saint's achievements. For the impoverished masses in both England and America, gingerbread men/houses were far too expensive to be enjoyed. As a result, bakers cut small strips of gingerbread or used the leftovers from their gingerbread men/houses to make "snaps." These "snaps" were often dunked in alcohol, much to the delight of the poor customer.

Yes, gingerbread truly enjoys a history that not only dates back to our colonial ancestors, but all the way back to our European roots, which, like a number of traditions, has taken on a unique American twist. With a heritage like this, gingerbread is sure to enjoy a starring role in the American celebration of Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Merry Colonial Christmas

Being that we are only days from celebrating Christmas, I have chosen to look at how early colonial Americans understood this celebration, which has become so mainstream in our modern era. Contrary to what most of us might think, Christmas has not been the predominant American holiday throughout our history. In fact, it has been anything but that.

This bright and joyful holiday that we celebrate every December, which is no doubt the most popular holiday in modern day America, was seen in a very different light by the earliest Americans. Instead of lavishly decorating the town and cheerfully celebrating the holiday spirit, those of America's early years took a very indifferent stance on the celebration Christmas. As historian Nicole Harms put it:

Christmas in colonial America did not resemble the brightly lit festivities we celebrate today. In fact, many colonial religions banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming that it was tied to pagan traditions. The New England Puritans passed a law in Massachusetts that punished anyone who observed the holiday with a five-shilling fine. The Quakers treated Christmas Day as any other day of the year. The Presbyterians did not have formal Christmas Day services until they noticed that their members were heading to the English church to observe the Christmas services. This sparked the Presbyterian Church to start services of their own.
Nicole Harms is 100% right. The Puritans, whom we celebrate for their quest to establish a new religious community, utterly loathed the celebration of Christmas. Since their religious doctrine was predominantly based on strict adherence to the Bible, and since there is no mention of Christmas being celebrated in the Bible, the Puritans saw the holiday as a blasphemous heresy. Even the overwhelming majority of Puritan diaries reveal that December 25th was nothing more than an average day of work and worship in their corner of the New World. Not only could one be fined for celebrating Christmas, but in addition they could find themselves locked up in the stocks for up to eight hours!

As more Europeans began migrating to British America, many of their Christmas customs naturally made the journey as well. However, as these customs clashed with overwhelming religious opposition, the celebration of Christmas evolved into a more secular winter festival that was reminiscent of its original pagan roots. As a result, Christmas was detached from any major religious significance. The overwhelming majority of colonial preachers -- particularly in the Puritan lands of Massachusetts -- made little to no effort to preach the "pagan" or "papal" doctrine surrounding Christmas. For those various Protestants, the Reformation had taken care of those "vile," "hideous" traditions of the papacy, and Christmas was certainly seen as one of them.

A good example of this religious detachment from Christmas can be found in the first year of the American Revolution. As George Washington and his men limped away from their horrific defeat in New York at the end of 1776, the Continental Army was literally teetering on the brink of destruction. It wasn't until General Washington suggested a Christmas Day attack of the Hessian camps in Trenton that the "rebels" were able to gain a measure of success in the war's first year. And why did Washington choose Christmas for his attack? Because he knew that the Hessians, would be completely drunk and hung over from their Christmas celebration; a celebration that was completely secular in nature. After all, Washington wasn't counting on the Hessians being caught up in prayer. Instead he was sure they would be drunk off their mind from their holiday ale.

And such was the case for most colonial celebrations in America. Amongst the earliest settlers to the New World were the Jamestown explorers of 1607. And what did their first Christmas in the New World entail? Well, pretty much nothing but getting as drunk as possible. John Smith mentioned how the popular holiday drink that we call eggnog was the primary source for "jolliness" during their Christmas season. The Jamestown drink, known as "grog," was a slang for any beverage containing run. Later, the word was eventually changed to "nog," and has been present at every Christmas festival since.

In conclusion, there can be little argument that many of the festivities that we use to commemorate Christmas are deeply rooted in pagan tradition. In today's society this is hardly noticed, but in Colonial America it was a well known fact, which turned many Christians off to the holiday. It wasn't until the late part of the 19th century that Christmas took on its central role as the premiere American religious holiday. For literally centuries, Christmas was a quasi-holiday, often ignored by the masses. Christian churches were less zealous to see it celebrated than they are today. If our ancestors could only see us now!!!

Land of Confusion: Will We Ever Sort it all Out?

At American Creation, one of the repeating arguments that we tackle almost on a weekly basis centers around the issue of how much "God talk" did the founding fathers want in American society and government. Did the founders hope for a plethora of religious discussion to take place in the halls of government? Or were they hoping to create a secular government based on human reason and intellect that would be free from the "shackles" of religious tyranny?

Of course our blog is not the first or only forum in which these discussions take place. A countless number of books, blogs, television outlets, etc. have immersed themselves in this "custody battle" for the religious -- or anti-religious -- heritage of America's founding. I believe author Steven Waldman effectively illustrates this ongoing "war" for America's founding heritage when he writes:

The "religious" side wants less separation of church and state, and the "secularists" want more...For starters, many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious, they thereby also prove that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state...Some liberals, meanwhile, feel the need to prove the Founders were irreligious or secular and therefore, of course, in favor of separation...But in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, BOTH SIDES DISTORT HISTORY...In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty. (Founding Faith, 7).
And this is the central problem. in the heat of this "custody battle" both the Christian nation supporters and the American secularists have lost their way in the labyrinth of popular culture.

Attempting to grasp the historical facts of America's founding heritage is a messy prospect regardless of one's persuasion. Even the very participants in America's revolution understood this. As John Adams stated to his Virginia comrade, Thomas Jefferson:

Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?
Jefferson's response is equally provocative:

Nobody...except merely its external facts...The life and soul of its history must be forever unknown.
So can we ever actually hope to ascertain America's true religious heritage? At least one man believes so. And not only does he vehemently support the "Christian Nation" agenda but he also makes the boogeyman cower in fear. Yes, I am talking about the one and only Chuck Norris!

As a contributor to WorldNetDaily, Norris has written several pieces on America's Godly heritage. In October of this year, however, Norris aimed his attacks at the new $621 million dollar Capitol Visitor Center, which Norris believes is nothing more than a tribute to American political correctness. Norris writes:

Religious revisionism is popping up again in the new Capitol Visitor Center...Absent is anything that discusses our Christian or religious heritage. That is why Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., and the 108 congressional members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus recently petitioned the Architect of the Capitol by letter, which details and documents the incomplete and inaccurate religious content in the Capitol Visitor Center.
Norris then lists the specific religious components that are missing from the Visitor Center:

1. No mention of our national motto, "In God We Trust"

2. In displaying images of the current speaker's rostrum in the House chamber, the phrase "In God We Trust" is omitted from its location engraved in marble above the speaker's head;

3. The opening words in Article 3 in the Northwest Ordinance (1787) are excluded from an exhibit. The actual article reads, "Art. 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." The exhibit article reads: "Art. 3. … schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

4. There are factual inaccuracies regarding church services held at the Capitol in early decades of our republic, saying they were held when Congress wasn't in session, when in fact they were held year around – and even the so-labeled strict-separatist Thomas Jefferson attended them throughout his eight years of presidency.

5. The exhibits include photos from Earth Day, an AIDS rally, various casino grounds and factories, but it does not include photos from monumental religious events such as the National Day of Prayer or the March for Life event, attended by thousands annually, etc.

6. There is an absence of any major display or description of the religious influence within or about the 200-plus year history of the Capitol.
But not everyone is upset with the portrayal of America's religious heritage as presented in the Capitol Visitor's Center. Sandhya Bathija of Americans United For the Separation of Church and State expressed his extreme opposition to the work being done by the Christian Nation crowd. He writes:

The version of American history pushed by Barton and Forbes is their own skewed version. For the rest of us, we have learned since kindergarten that our founding fathers had enough sense to keep religion out of government and government out of religion in order to preserve religious liberty for all.

I’m pleased that the new Capitol Visitor Center hasn’t yielded to Religious Right propagandists. I hope it doesn’t do so now.
In conclusion, here is a Youtube video posted by Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, and staunch supporter of the Christian right. The video addresses the Senator's specific grievances with the new Visitor's Center and what he would like to see changed:

And here are some parting words from Chuck himself:

America's fathers wholeheartedly believed in the premise stated in Psalm 33:12, which says, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." But what would they have thought of a nation that removes God from its heritage, classroom instructions, civic ceremonies, buildings, monuments, historic sites, etc.? I believe the words of Thomas Jefferson are as fitting for religious apostasy as they were for slavery, words that were inscribed upon his memorial in Washington, D.C., around 1940: "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.
-If you have five dollars and Chuck Norris has five dollars, Chuck Norris has more money than you.

-There is no 'ctrl' button on Chuck Norris's computer. Chuck Norris is always in control.

-Chuck Norris can sneeze with his eyes open.

-Chuck Norris can eat just one Lay's potato chip.

-Chuck Norris destroyed the periodic table, because he only recognizes the element of surprise.

-Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bon Voyage Britain!

On this day in 1783, the final remnants of British troops withdrew from New York, a city and harbor they had controlled for over seven years. The withdrawal came three months after the finalization of the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war between Britain and her former American colonies.

After the final British soldiers left the harbor, General George Washington made his triumphant entry back into the city that he had failed to defend seven years earlier. The loss of New York was arguably the toughest pill to swallow for the General. Washington had always taken the loss of New York personally and had suggested leading an attack on the city numerous times over the next seven years -- a prospect that his aids and associates back in the Continental Congress did not share.

The History Channel website has the following comments on the importance of New York and what the withdrawal of British troops meant to the new infant nation:

Four months after New York was returned to the victorious Patriots, the city was declared to be the capital of the United States. In 1789, it was the site of Washington's inauguration as the first U.S. president and remained the nation's capital until 1790, when Philadelphia became the second capital of the United States under the U.S. Constitution.

New Yorkers shaped the history of two new nations. The British evacuated their New York Loyalists to remaining British territories, mainly in Canada. These families had been dispossessed of their land and belongings by the victorious Patriots because of their continued support of the British king and were able to regain some financial independence through lands granted to them by the British in western Quebec (now Ontario) and Nova Scotia. Their arrival in Canada permanently shifted the demographics of what had been French-speaking New France until 1763 into an English-speaking colony, and later nation, with the exception of a French-speaking and culturally French area in eastern Canada that is now Quebec.

In 1784, one year after their arrival, the new Loyalist population spurred the creation of New Brunswick in the previously unpopulated (by Europeans, at least) lands west of the Bay of Fundy in what had been Nova Scotia. In 1785, the Loyalists yet again made their mark on Canadian history when their combined settlements at Parrtown and Carleton of approximately 14,000 people became British North America’s first incorporated city under the name City of Saint John. The division between the Anglophile and Francophile sections was ultimately recognized by creating the English-dominant province of Ontario, west of Quebec, in 1867.
Yes, New York has always been the "City that never sleeps."

Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation

Since the blog is on a holiday kick, I thought that this might be an appropriate way to continue the theme. After all, I don't want to be the one that breaks with tradition!

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 -- October 14, 1789 to be exact -- has been lauded by Christian nation sympathizers for decades as proof positive that America's first Commander-in-Chief was a devout believer in Jesus Christ. And while I am in 100% agreement with their assertion that Washington was a devout man of faith and prayer, I also recognize that the historical record -- as it applies to Washington's religion -- is far from concrete in labeling him a devout Christian.

Let us look at the Thanksgiving document itself for additional evidence on Washington's faith. First off, most anti-Christian nation advocates routinely point out the fact that the actual author of the proclamation was not President Washington, but William Jackson, the President's personal secretary. And while it is true that Washington did not himself pen the proclamation, it is reasonable to assume that he read and gave consent to the document's contents, thus the actual authorship of the piece has little to no relevance. What is relevant, however, is the wordage that was chosen to pay homage to God. Does Washington actually invoke the blessings of the Christian God as so many Christian nation apologists insist? Below is a copy of Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation:

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houfes of Congress have, by their joint committee, requefted me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to eftablifh a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and affign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of thefe States to the fervice of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our fincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the fignal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpofitions of His providence in the courfe and conclufion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have fince enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to eftablish Conftitutions of government for our fafety and happinefs, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are bleffed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffufing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleafed to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in moft humbly offering our prayers and fupplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and befeech Him to pardon our national and other tranfgreffions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private ftations, to perform our feveral and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a bleffing to all the people by conftantly being a Government of wife, juft, and conftitutional laws, difcreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all fovereigns and nations (especially fuch as have shewn kindnefs unto us); and to blefs them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increafe of fcience among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind fuch a degree of temporal profperity as he alone knows to be beft.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand feven hundred and eighty-nine.

(signed) G. Washington
As noted in bold above, Washington's proclamation contains five specific references to deity. Contrary to what many anti-Christian nation advocates claim, the document is clearly religious in its content and purpose. However, does it support the Christian nation crowd's assertion that Washington was a devout Christian? I would argue that it does not. With that said, it is more than clear from this document and others that Washington was a man of faith. What TYPE of faith is the real question we must endeavor to answer.

As I have pointed out in a previous post, the language used by Washington when speaking of deity can be seen as a good barometer of the General's personal religious creed. In his book, Sacred Fire author Peter Lillback successfully illustrates the fact that Washington was indeed a man of prayer and faith. However, his work falls short of conclusively proving that Washington was a devout Christian. In Appendix 3 of his book, Lillback lists all of Washington's public papers that mention God. As Lillback states at the beginning of his appendix:

One of the elements of the Christian faith that was suspect, and eventually abandoned by Deists, was the practice of prayer. This was logical since there was little purpose in speaking to a Deity who on principle had abandoned all contact and communication with his creation.

Given this understanding, Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism...The sheer magnitude of the umber of prayers, coupled with the expansive topics included in his prayers, give substantial credence to the universal testimony of Washington's contemporaries of his practice of corporate and private prayer.

This underscores how misplaced contemporary scholars have been in claiming that Washington was a man of lukewarm religious faith.
With this in mind, I decided that it would be worthwhile to dissect the various "written prayers" that Peter Lillback sites in his book. After all, the language that Washington used in these prayers should be a valuable tool in determining Washington's actual beliefs.

Here are the actual phrases that Washington used in his "written prayers" to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Salvation" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

And the same can be said of Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation. Instead of using words like "Messiah," "Savior," "Jesus Christ," etc., Washington chooses neutral phrases like, "Great Lord and Ruler of Nations," "Almighty God," and "great and glorious Being." As is evidenced from Lillback's work, Washington made it a habit to avoid using the language of a typical devout Christian of his day, which would logically seem to suggest that Washington was not the orthodox Christian so many wish him to be.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Common Sense of Common Sense

Thomas Paine and the Birth of
Natural Religion, Natural Law
and Enlightenment Philosophy

by Brad Hart

In the October, 2008 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, historian Sophia Rosenfeld of the University of Virginia takes an in-depth look at a document, which despite its large popularity, often goes overlooked. As most history geeks already know, Thomas Paine's epic pamphlet, Common Sense was a literal best seller in 1776, catapulting the discussion of independence from Britain into the forefront of the American conversation. As a result, Paine became an overnight celebrity of sorts, a colonial J.K Rowling who followed up the success of Common Sense with a number of other influential works. Yet despite the massive attention that Common Sense has received over the centuries, there is still much about the text itself that deserves the undivided attention of historians today.

Hence the insightful article of historian Sophia Rosenfeld, who, despite all the superficial notions suggesting that Common Sense has been dissected thoroughly enough, provides us with a new and astute interpretation of this timeless American classic.

According to Rosenfeld, Common Sense can and should be seen in conjunction with the emergence of 18th century Enlightenment philosophy and the budding seeds of common sense beliefs. As Rosenfeld points out:

The history of common sense -- as a cognitive faculty, and a set of basic ideas, even as a rhetorical form -- has been interwoven with politics at every turn. Its rise as an important epistematic authority began in context not only of the decline of Aristotelian understandings of sense perception but also of the crisis in traditional forms of legitimation characteristic of late-seventeenth-century European religious and political life. From this moment onward, common sense, with its foundations in the basic mental abilities of common people, functioned alternately to bolster or to supersede more conventional sources of legitimation or evidence, including the Bible, law, history, custom, reason, and scholastic knowledge (635).
Keeping in mind the numerous blog conversations we have enjoyed on the role of natural religion, laws of nature, etc., Dr. Rosenfeld's interpretation of common sense as a palpable intellectual alternative to traditional forms of legitimation is striking. As she suggests, the common sense found within Common Sense is in complete agreement with the emerging unitarian/natural religion ideologies of the late 18th century. In fact, the British colonies in America were the perfect breeding ground for the development of such beliefs. As Dr. Rosenfeld states:

As anthropologists and historians of mentalities have frequently pointed out, most assumptions deemed self-evident by their propogators turn out, on inspection, to be highly culturally specific. This includes the very idea of common sense itself (635).
In other words, what one people uphold to be self-evident truths supported by the very laws of nature itself are sometimes seen by others in a very different way. Perhaps this explains why so many nations reject the American form of "self-evident" and "divinely-sanctioned" democratic government.

The success of Common Sense in the American colonies, though certainly the result of the intense political strife between the colonies and the mother country, has a much deeper root that is worthy of consideration. As Dr. Rosenfeld points out, the 18th century was an era of incredible advancement in rational thought, all of which inspired a return to the "glory days" of the Western world's ancient philosophers. Rosenfeld writes:

The 1700s, and particularly the 1770s, were one of the great ages of thinking about common sense and its meaning and function. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, this concept became a staple ingredient of polemical writing of all sorts...By the middle of the eighteenth century, the English phrase "common sense" could be used to mean, at once, a basic ability to form clear perceptions and make elementary judgements about everyday matters; the conventional wisdom born of those common judgements and shared by all sensible people (641).
When seen in this light, Benjamin Franklin's "public religion" and Jefferson's "natural religion" are essentially nothing more than an appeal to the Enlightenment doctrines of common sense. As a result, natural religion, deism, theistic rationalism, etc. are all deeply rooted in a shared "common sense."

Paine's Common Sense, provides ample examples of how Enlightenment common sense was applied to the American call for independence. On numerous occasions, Paine cites the "simple voice of nature and of reason," all of which suggest that the course of independence was right. On another occasion, this same "simple voice of nature" was employed to condemn the motherland for her actions:

The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME TO PART.' Even the distance which the Almighty has placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven [my emphasis].
And perhaps the best example of the common sense of Common Sense can be found in Paine's personal ideology of government:

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be distorted; and the easier repaired when distorted [my emphasis.]
This doctrine of common sense was not exclusively unique to Paine alone. Religious leaders, who were themselves enmeshed in the changes brought on by Enlightenment philosophy, were beginning to turn to a more "common sense" -- i.e. theistic rationalism, deism, unitarianism -- creed. Rosenfeld writes:

Even the Presbyterian thinkers of mid-eighteenth-century Aberdeen used the idea of common sense to partisan advantage, hoping to sway public opinion in one particular direction, especially when it came to religious questions, and away from other. The radical continental Enlightenment forged it into a public weapon. That it sounded objective and indisputable yet popular was the source of its success as an organ of subjective, partisan and always potentially demagogic political action.
The 18th century "common sense" religion of the Enlightenment not only broke the bands of traditional orthodoxy, but also ushered in a commitment to embracing the "natural order" of "nature's God." By looking to a common sense understanding of the world the devotion to religious orthodoxy began to waver at an alarming rate. In conclusion, Dr. Rosenfeld best sums up the doctrine of 18th century common sense when she writes:

With Paine's polemic, then, we see common sense function not only as a foundation for certain knowledge but also a way to undermine what passes for unassailable fact in the present. We see common sense as the corollary of ordinary, commonplace language and simultaneously as a means to cut through the filter of words, especially those that serve to obfuscate or disguise reality. We see common sense as the voice of the peopleas a whole and as the voice of the clear-sighted, prophetic individual who intuits what the people should be able to grasp but cannot alone. And we see common sense mean not only what is common in the here and now but also what is authentical to the common until some later moment in time(653).
Or in other words, the emergence of natural religion, laws of nature, etc.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of Tripoli"

Happy 233rd Birthday to the
United States Marines!!!

On this day in 1775, the United States Marines was born. The Continental Congress, perceiving that war with Britain was on the horizon, drafted a resolution calling for the establishment of "two battalions of Marines to be raised." The Continental Congress, gathered at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, ratified the resolution, which officially commissioned the Continental Marines, "for the protection of the American colonies and to fight for independence at sea and shore." It was John Adams, the chief supporter of the bill, who pushed for the ratification of this resolution. As a result, it is Adams who should be given special recognition as being the "father" of the Marine Corps.

Here are some interesting tidbits of history on the Marines and their role in the Revolution from the History Channel's website:

Serving on land and at sea, the original U.S. Marines distinguished themselves in a number of important operations during the Revolutionary War. The first Marine landing on a hostile shore occurred when a force of Marines under Captain Samuel Nicholas captured New Province Island in the Bahamas from the British in March 1776. Nicholas was the first commissioned officer in the Continental Marines and is celebrated as the first Marine commandant. After American independence was achieved in 1783, the Continental Navy was demobilized and its Marines disbanded.

In the next decade, however, increasing conflict at sea with Revolutionary France led the U.S. Congress to establish formally the U.S. Navy in May 1798. Two months later, on July 11, President John Adams signed the bill establishing the U.S. Marine Corps as a permanent military force under the jurisdiction of the Department of Navy. U.S. Marines saw action in the so-called Quasi-War with France and then fought against the Barbary pirates of North Africa during the first years of the 19th century. Since then, Marines have participated in all the wars of the United States and in most cases were the first soldiers to fight. In all, Marines have executed more than 300 landings on foreign shores.
For more information on the birthday of the U.S. Marines click here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The "Sexual" American Revolution

The American Revolution can, at times, be characterized as a collection of smaller revolutions, all of which contributed and eventually led to the larger revolution -- i.e. the literal split from Great Britain. For example, the Great Awakening is often considered a revolution in and of itself, since it completely changed the way American colonists understood religion. The Market Revolution, which followed the actual American Revolution, can also be seen as another "mini-revolution," in which capitalism made its debut on the American stage.

In addition to these and numerous other "mini-revolutions" a sexual revolution of sorts also took place in early America. Richard Godbeer, a historian with the University of Miami and author of the book, Sexual Revolution in Early America has put together an excellent piece of work on how sex and gender relations underwent a tremendous transition in colonial America.

Here is a brief introduction and review of the book by John Hopkins University Press:

In 1695, John Miller, a clergyman traveling through New York, found it appalling that so many couples lived together without ever being married and that no one viewed "ante-nuptial fornication" as anything scandalous or sinful. Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister in South Carolina in 1766, described the region as a "stage of debauchery" in which polygamy was "very common," "concubinage general," and "bastardy no disrepute." These depictions of colonial North America's sexual culture sharply contradict the stereotype of Puritanical abstinence that persists in the popular imagination. In Sexual Revolution in Early America, Richard Godbeer boldly overturns conventional wisdom about the sexual values and customs of colonial Americans. His eye-opening historical account spans two centuries and most of British North America, from New England to the Caribbean, exploring the social, political, and legal dynamics that shaped a diverse sexual culture. Drawing on exhaustive research into diaries, letters, and other private papers, as well as legal records and official documents, Godbeer's absorbing narrative uncovers a persistent struggle between the moral authorities and the widespread expression of popular customs and individual urges. Godbeer begins with a discussion of the complex attitude that the Puritans had toward sexuality. For example, although believing that sex could be morally corrupting, they also considered it to be such an essential element of a healthy marriage that they excommunicated those who denied "conjugal fellowship" to their spouses. He next examines the ways in which race and class affected the debate about sexual mores, from anxieties about Anglo-Indian sexual relations to the sense of sexual entitlement that planters held over their African slaves. He concludes by detailing the fundamental shift in sexual culture during the eighteenth century towards the acceptance of a more individualistic concept of sexual desire and fulfillment. Today's moral critics, in their attempts to convince Americans of the social and spiritual consequences of unregulated sexual behavior, often hearken back to a more innocent age; as this groundbreaking work makes clear, America's sexual culture has always been rich, vibrant, and contentious.
In addition, colonial historian Alan Taylor gives the following critique of Godbeer's book:

Previous scholars also balked at examining colonial sex as its own subject, largely from a fear that the historical sources were insufficient. Godbeer forged ahead, "astonished by the richness of the material that survives on the subject." The problem is not that Godbeer lacks sources, but that they are trickier than he recognizes. Few diaries and letters survive from the colonial era, and fewer still offer frank admission to sexual thoughts and acts. Generalizing from those scatological few to the larger colonial population is problematic, to say the least. More often Godbeer must rely on hearsay accounts recorded by travelers who were keen to gather scandal at the expense of locales they disliked; and most often he depends on the recorded testimony in court cases brought by authorities or by aggrieved spouses seeking divorces. The travelers' accounts and court cases provide plenty of seamy and steamy quotations, but taking them at face value skews our picture of colonial sexuality toward the sensational. Finding what he seeks, Godbeer proves reluctant to doubt any of his sources. That he discovers more conflict than consensus, more deviance than conformity, seems inevitable given the nature of his sources -- and his disinterest in challenging them. Reading today's police log or tabloid newspaper certainly conveys a gritty reality denied in other genres, but it is a reality that needs to be kept in proportion when characterizing an entire society....

...A specialist in the cultural history of seventeenth-century New England, Godbeer appears most comfortable and persuasive when analyzing particular episodes and texts drawn from that region and that century. In an especially impressive passage, Godbeer examines the case of Nicholas Sension of Windsor, Connecticut in 1677. Sension's prosecution for sodomy seems to confirm Puritan rigidity and intolerance, but Godbeer shows that for more than twenty preceding years Sension's neighbors had recognized and reproved his behavior without involving the court. Since Sension was otherwise a good neighbor and a prosperous farmer who acted only upon young men of lower status, his townsmen balked at prosecuting him for a crime that carried the death penalty. Despite abundant evidence for multiple acts, the jury convicted Sension only of the lesser charge of attempted sodomy, which brought a public whipping and shaming instead of hanging. His Puritan neighbors persistently saw Sension as a wayward but redeemable sinner no different from any other soul, rather than as a distinctive sodomite. Throughout the century, only two men suffered execution for sodomy in New England.

In addition to softening our image of Puritan moral enforcement, Godbeer ameliorates the Puritans' cold image by recovering their sexual passion within both marriage and spirituality. In this emphasis, he follows the lead of Edmund S. Morgan, who made a similar case in 1942. Puritan sermons, poetry, and love letters celebrated marital and procreative sex in part to discourage all sexuality before or outside marriage. Never people to do things by halves, the Puritans extolled foreplay and orgasm by husband and wife. In a guide to marriage, Reverend William Gouge preached that sex "must be performed with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully." Believing that conception depended upon a female orgasm, ministers urged every husband to attend to his wife's needs. Another marital guide instructed that "when the husband cometh into the wife's chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behavior, and allurements to venery."

More striking still, the Puritans expressed their spirituality in erotic terms that transcended gender. Ministers exhorted Puritans, male and female, to submit to "an eternal love affair with Jesus Christ." One young man asked in his diary, "Will the Lord now again return and embrace me in the arms of his dearest love? Will he fall upon my neck and kiss me?" Since souls were equal and either without gender or vaguely female, Puritan men comfortably spoke of submitting as brides to ravishment by Christ as their spiritual bridegroom. Godbeer concludes that "Puritan sensibility offered a way to spiritualize sex and sexualize the spirit in a glorious and torrid symbiosis."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Joseph Galloway on the Supremacy of British Authority

Of the many justifications for going to war, perhaps nothing proved more influential to the American colonies than religion. A countless number of sermons point to the fact that religion played a powerful role in convincing the colonies that war with their "Mother Land" was justifiable and sanctioned by God.

This religious "fever" for war, though thoroughly convincing to the majority, did not convince everyone. Case in point: Joseph Galloway.

Galloway, who was a representative of Pennsylvania to the First Continental Congress, was a passionate voice in favor of American reconciliation with Britain, so much so that his loyalist leanings eventually led him to abandon his home in America and flee to Britain. Before his "treason," however, Galloway campaigned hard for a resolution to the crisis. To add credence to his argument, Galloway, like his pro-independence opponents, used religion to justify his proposals. In his popular pamphlet, A Candid Examination of the Mutual Claims of Great Britain and The Colonies, Galloway offers a gloom-and-doom prophesy on the possible dangers of American independence, which include his fear of a Franco/Catholic incursion into the Americas. He writes:

Do you wish to exchange the mild and equal rule of English customs and manners and your inestimable religion, for the tyranny of a foreign yoke, and the bloody supersticions of popery? Or if you design to give up your present enjoyment of all the blessings of life, for the horrors and distresses of a civil war, and the fatal consequesnces which must ifallibly attend yourselves, and your posterity? Are you still resolved to surrender up your reason to the miserable sophistry and gargon of designing men, and to hazard all these direful misfortunes, rather than be united with your brethren and fellow subjects in Briatian? (62).
In a September, 1774 speech given to the Continental Congress, Galloway continued his pro-British argument by pointing to the "supreme authority" of the British government over their American colonies:

These advocates also assert, what we cannot deny--That the discovery of the Colonies was made under a commission granted by the supreme authority of the British State, that they have been settled under that authority. and therefore are truly the property of that State. Parliamentary jurisdiction has been constantly exercised over them from their first settlement; its executive authority has ever run through all their inferior political systems: the Colonists have ever sworn allegiance to the British State, and have been considered, both by the State and by themselves, as subjects of the British Government. Protection and allegiance are reciprocal duties; the one cannot exist without the other. The Colonies cannot claim the protection of Britain upon any principle of reason or law, while they deny its supreme authority. Upon this ground the authority of Parliament stands too firm to be shaken by any arguments whatever; and therefore to deny that authority, and at the same time to declare their incapacity to be represented, amounts to a full and explicit declaration of independence.
Galloway's insistence on British authority and law is interesting to consider when juxtaposed with the opening verses of Romans Chapter 13 of the Bible:

1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
And to those that questioned Galloway's loyalist reasoning by appealing to the "laws of nature" and "nature's God" to justify their treason, Galloway writes:

We have seen all the American writers on the subject, adopting untenable principles and thence rearing the most wild and chimerical superstructures. Some of them have fixed on, as a source from whence to draw American Right, “the laws of God and nature,” the common rights of mankind and “American charters.” Others finding that the claims of the colonies could not be supported upon these pillars, have racked their inventions to find distinctions which never existed, nor can exist…And after all of them have been fully considered, even the authors themselves, finding that they have conveyed no satisfactory idea to the intelligent of mind, either of the extent of parliamentary authority, or of the rights of America, have exploded them, and taken new ground, which will be found equally indefensible.
For Joseph Galloway and many others, the rampant talk of revolution and independence was not only a frightening upheaval of the status quo, but also a direct violation to God's laws. Great Britain had sovereign and divine authority over its American colonies, and any argument to the contrary was both treason and blasphemy.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Colonial Halloween!

Did the citizens of colonial America celebrate Halloween? The answer is yes, but not in the way you may think. An historian with Colonial Williamsburg points out just how different Halloween was for our colonial ancestors:

With the arrival of European immigrants to the United States of America, came the varied Halloween customs indigenous to their former homelands. However, due to the rigid Protestant beliefs which characterized early New England, celebration of Halloween in colonial times was extremely limited in that particular area of the country. Halloween festivities were much more common in Maryland and the colonies located in the South. As the customs practiced by these varied European ethnic groups meshed with traditions employed by the native American Indians, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.

The first celebrations included "play parties," public events held to celebrate the harvest. At these gatherings, neighbors would share stories of the dead, predict each others' fortunes, sing and make merry with dancing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and general mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the 19th Century, annual Autumn festivals were quite common, but Halloween was still not yet celebrated throughout the entire country.

During the second half of the 19th Century, America became flooded with a new wave of immigrants. These new arrivals...especially the millions of Irish nationals who were fleeing from the Potato Famine of 1846...helped greatly in popularizing the celebration of Halloween on a country-wide level. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to don costumes and journey from house-to-house asking for food or money (the probable forerunners of today's "trick-or-treaters"). Young women held the belief that they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by performing tricks with yarn, apple peelings or mirrors.

happy halloween kat Pictures, Images and Photos

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Prefer Christians for their Rulers"

John Jay: The Quintessential Christian
Nation Advocate of the 18th Century
by Brad Hart

Not all of our founding fathers were "theistic rationalists." In fact, some were quite orthodox in their views. Though I still maintain my belief that the majority of the founders held to a more unitarian faith in divinity, I cannot deny that some believed quite passionately in their orthodox faith.

Take for instance John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers, President of the American Bible Society, and our nation's first Supreme Court justice. Jay, who was very much a devout Episcopalian, kept most of his religious beliefs private during the course of his life. However, when Jay did speak out about religion it was very easy to know where he stood. For example, Jay was so insistent on keeping with the traditional orthodoxy of the Anglican/Episcopal faith that he was among the minority who sought for the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury when it came to the ordination of new Episcopal bishops.

I am surprised that more Christian nation apologists do not invoke the legacy of John Jay. In my brief readings of Jay's letters, etc. I have found him to be a powerful supporter of Christian orthodoxy and of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. And though I disagree with Jay's conclusions, the fact remains that he was a powerfully influential founding father who stuck to his guns on this issue.

I guess it comes as no surprise to me that Wallbuilders has jumped all over the records of John Jay, and who can blame them. Jay is arguably one of the more appealing founders for the Christian nation crowd. Just take for example the infamous quote Jay made on the subject of voting:

"Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privledge and interest of our Christian Nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
In addition, Jay's words on America's providential destiny to precede the second coming of Jesus Christ is sure to excite Christian Nation advocates everywhere:

There is certainly reason to suspect, that as great providential events have usually been proceded and introduced by the intervention of providential means to prepare the way for them, so the great event in question will be preceded and introduced in like manner. It is, I think, more than probable, that the unexpected and singular co-operation, and the extraordinary zeal and efforts of almost all Christian nations to extend the light and knowledge of the gospel, and to inculcate its doctrines, are among those preparatory means. It is the duty of Christians to promote the prevalence and success of such means, and look forward with faith and hope to the result of them.
And while speaking of the differences between Europe and America, Jay wrote:

I sometimes flatter myself that Providence, in compassion to the afflicted of these countries, will continue to leave America in a proper state to be an asylum to them.
And finally:

To what events this country may in future be instrumental, is indeed uncertain, but I cannot persuade myself that Providence has created such a nation, in such a country, to remain like dust in the balance of others.
So while I agree that the majority of our founders were more unitarian and less orthodox in their faith than Jay, it would be a mistake to categorize ALL the founders as such. For in Jay, the Christian Nation crowd has a powerful advocate.

Benjamin Franklin: A Jesus-centered Deist

In light of the recent discussion on the religious creed of Benjamin Franklin, and the recent book reviews by guest blogger Robert Cornwall, I thought I would add my 10 cents to the discussion by creating this post. As Jon Rowe has already mentioned in his previous post, Franklin, for the most part, considered himself to be a "rational Christian." Yet, throughout the course of his life, Franklin was repeatedly labeled as a "heretic," "Deist," "agnostic," etc.

Certainly the impact of Enlightenment philosophy led Franklin down diverse paths in the development of his own personal religions creed. Yet the impact of Enlightenment philosophy only tells part of the story when it comes to Franklin’s religious beliefs. After all, Franklin was raised in a very religious family, where his father, Josiah, – upon immigrating to the British colonies in America – rose to the status of a “watchman” within the Puritan community of Boston, where he enforced the strict rules of morality and piety of the colony. Josiah even planned to have Benjamin enrolled in the Boston Latin School, where he hoped his son would begin his preparations for the Congregationalist ministry (Founding Faith, 53). Benjamin, however, had different plans. As Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson points out, “Franklin’s ‘skeptical, punkish and irreverent’ behavior made him a terrible fit for the clergy” (Benjamin Franklin, 19). Later during his teenage years – while pretending to be a widowed woman named Silence Dogood – Franklin would expound upon his “rebellious” sentiments towards religion. In Silence Dogood #9, Franklin states:
'Tis not inconsistent with Charity to distrust a Religious Man in Power, tho' he may be a good Man; he has many Temptations "to propagate publick Destruction for Personal Advantages and Security": And if his Natural Temper be covetous, and his Actions often contradict his pious Discourse, we may with great Reason conclude, that he has some other Design in his Religion besides barely getting to Heaven. But the most dangerous Hypocrite in a Common-Wealth, is one who <>A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his Religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law: And here the Clergy are in great Danger of being deceiv'd, and the People of being deceiv'd by the Clergy, until the Monster arrives to such Power and Wealth, that he is out of the reach of both, and can oppress the People without their own blind Assistance. And it is a sad Observation, that when the People too late see their Error, yet the Clergy still persist in their Encomiums on the Hypocrite; and when he happens to die for the Good of his Country, without leaving behind him the Memory of one good Action, he shall be sure to have his Funeral Sermon stuff'd with Pious Expressions which he dropt at such a Time, and at such a Place, and on such an Occasion; than which nothing can be more prejudicial to the Interest of Religion, nor indeed to the Memory of the Person deceas'd. The Reason of this Blindness in the Clergy is, because they are honourably supported (as they ought to be) by their People, and see nor feel nothing of the Oppression which is obvious and burdensome to every one else.
Upon revealing the true identity of Silence Dogood, Franklin was quickly branded a dangerous and rebellious heretic. Those within Boston’s religious community – including Franklin’s friend, Cotton Mather – distanced themselves from the young man who dared to question the religious status quo. As Franklin put it, “My indiscreet Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist” (Franklin, Autobiography, 71).
After moving away from Boston and establishing himself as a successful printer in Philadelphia, Franklin continued his attack on pious religious leaders, who used their faith to control their flock. As Franklin states in one edition of his popular series, Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Sin is not harmful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful…Nor is duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.” In another edition Franklin wrote, "Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought easier service and therefore is more generally chosen."

With such an early assortment of controversial statements on religion, it is understandable why some people have considered Franklin to be an agnostic or even possibly an atheist. Such a conclusion, however, obscures much of Franklin’s passionate belief in virtue and divinity. For example, though Franklin questioned the authority of the pious ministers of his day, he never doubted the importance of living a virtuous life. Instead of devoting himself to a particular brand of orthodoxy, Franklin chose to invoke the “laws of nature” – a typical Deist principle of his day – which became the backbone of his views on divinity. Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues are a perfect example of how Franklin merged Christian principles with his Deistic philosophy:
1. Temperance. Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ'd in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid Extreams. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Cloaths or Habitation.
11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
In addition to this personal code of conduct, Franklin sought to “amend” a number of Christian creeds and beliefs. His version of the Lord’s Prayer is an excellent example of how Franklin stripped the miracles of Christianity from his personal liturgy.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of Franklin’s personal beliefs comes from his infamous letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790. In the letter, Franklin states:

You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble [my emphasis].
Franklin's Deistic leanings are augmented when we consider the fact that he not only questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ – as evidenced by the Ezra Stiles letter – but that he also questioned the infallibility of the Bible. The fact that he also rejected the ordinances of communion and confirmation, combined with his lack of regular church attendance serve as ample evidence that Franklin was far from an orthodox Christian. Franklin’s own admission that he was “a thorough Deist” virtually ends the dispute over his religious leanings (Franklin, Autobiography, 114).

Such an admission, however, does not suggest that Franklin was a pure Deist. After all, Franklin did believe that God regularly intervened in the affairs of mankind (Holmes, Founding Faith, 55). Franklin also maintained an appreciation for the teachings of Christianity, though he detested how it was being practiced:

I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen. I mean real good works; works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers...[Jesus] preferred the doers of the word, to the mere hearers...Serving God is doing good to man...Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means" (Quoted in Waldman, Founding Faith, 20-21).
So where should we classify Franklin? From the evidence noted, it is clear that he does not fall anywhere near orthodox Christianity, yet he also falls short of embracing pure Deism. Clearly Franklin is closer to Deism than he is Christianity, so it would be fair to categorize his religious beliefs as being those of a "liberal Deist," or as I choose to define him, a "Jesus-centered Deist."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Scare Tactics: Nothing New to Politics

If you are like me, you probably feel like every single election both the Democrats and the Republicans act as though the literal fate of the planet hangs on that year's particular election. We've heard this rhetoric so many times that it isn't a surprise why some actually feel that the world could end if their candidate is not elected on November 4th. Conservative media outlets have been screaming from the housetops that an Obama victory would signal the end of responsible government and free market capitalism, while the Democrats have been countering with their spin that a McCain win would ensure for America another four years of failed Bush policies, all of which would allegedly destroy the very fabric of our nation.

But is this type of "scare tactic" rhetoric new? Of course not. Just check out the "scare tactic" rhetoric of this 1800 campaign ad:


At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is: “Shall I continue in allegiance to


Or impiously declare for


And here is a funny (but somewhat accurate) Youtube "campaign" video on the election of 1800:

Yes, even our Founding Fathers believed that an impending doom was sure to destroy the nation if their chosen candidate failed to win the election.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Richard Brookhiser on the Religion of the Founders

Here is a short clip of historian Richard Brookhiser on the religion of the founders. Brookhiser argues that the founders never intended to set up a Christian nation, but they did intend for the United States to be a religious nation:

I believe that Brookhiser's assertion that America was intended to be a religious nation fits nicely with Franklin's idea of a public religion, and Jefferson's notion of natural religion. For all of their arguments against religion in government -- and there are many -- you would be hard-pressed to find many arguments against America being a religious nation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is "Spreading the Wealth" anti-Capitalist?

In one of his recent posts, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan points out an interesting quote from Adam Smith -- the so-called "father" of capitalism. The quote comes from Smith's extremely popular and influential book, Wealth of Nations. Smith states:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor...The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess...It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion. [my emphasis].
As everyone that follows politics knows, Barack Obama's "spreading the wealth" comment has caused conservatives to go on the attack, labeling Obama as a socialist. Keeping Adam Smith's comment above in mind, could we argue that Obama is actually MORE of a capitalist "purist" than McCain?

In a letter to Benjamin Vaughn, Benjamin Franklin pointed out his distrust of the elite having too much money and power in their hands. Using an analogy to prove his point, Franklin writes:

When by virtue of the first Laws Part of the Society accumulated Wealth and grew Powerful, they enacted others more severe, and would protect their Property at the Expence of Humanity. This was abusing their Powers, and commencing a Tyranny. If a Savage before he enter’d into Society had been told, Your Neighbour by this Means may become Owner of 100 Deer, but if your Brother, or your Son, or yourself, having no Deer of your own, and being hungry should kill one of them, an infamous Death must be the Consequence; he would probably have prefer’d his Liberty, and his common Right of killing any Deer, to all the Advantages of Society that might be propos’d to him.
So, is true capitalism that which prevents any form of redistributing wealth? Or can capitalism encourage AT LEAST some equality between the wealthy and the middle class?

American Lion Hot off the Presses

Jon Meacham, Editor for Newsweek Magazine and author of the book, American Gospel has officially finished his third work of history. In his newest book, Meacham tackles the presidency of the ever-controversial Andrew Jackson, whom Meachan describes as "still the most polarizing President in American history." Meacham's book, American Lion, is scheduled to be released to the public on November 11 and is expected to debut as an immediate success. Here are a few comments on Meacham's book from Random House Publishing:

Andrew Jackson, his intimate circle of friends, and his tumultuous times are at the heart of this remarkable book about the man who rose from nothing to create the modern presidency. Beloved and hated, venerated and reviled, Andrew Jackson was an orphan who fought his way to the pinnacle of power, bending the nation to his will in the cause of democracy. Jackson’s election in 1828 ushered in a new and lasting era in which the people, not distant elites, were the guiding force in American politics. Democracy made its stand in the Jackson years, and he gave voice to the hopes and the fears of a restless, changing nation facing challenging times at home and threats abroad. To tell the saga of Jackson’s presidency, acclaimed author Jon Meacham goes inside the Jackson White House. Drawing on newly discovered family letters and papers, he details the human drama–the family, the women, and the inner circle of advisers–that shaped Jackson’s private world through years of storm and victory.

One of our most significant yet dimly recalled presidents, Jackson was a battle-hardened warrior, the founder of the Democratic Party, and the architect of the presidency as we know it. His story is one of violence, sex, courage, and tragedy. With his powerful persona, his evident bravery, and his mystical connection to the people, Jackson moved the White House from the periphery of government to the center of national action, articulating a vision of change that challenged entrenched interests to heed the popular will–or face his formidable wrath. The greatest of the presidents who have followed Jackson in the White House–from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to FDR to Truman–have found inspiration in his example, and virtue in his vision.

Jackson was the most contradictory of men. The architect of the removal of Indians from their native lands, he was warmly sentimental and risked everything to give more power to ordinary citizens. He was, in short, a lot like his country: alternately kind and vicious, brilliant and blind; and a man who fought a lifelong war to keep the republic safe–no matter what it took.

Jon Meacham in American Lion has delivered the definitive human portrait of a pivotal president who forever changed the American presidency–and America itself.
Here is a link to the book at

Long Live King Washington???

But the United States doesn't have a royal family...right? Well, we could have.

As the rumor states, a group of frustrated American colonists, fed up with the lack of productivity in the Continental Congress, actually considered a coup d' etat of the national government and the establishment of a monarchy, with George Washington as its king. A 1782 letter to Washington from Colonel Lewis Nichola is a perfect illustration of just how frustrated some colonists were beginning to feel with the infant American government. Colonel Nichola writes:

This war must have shewn to all, but to military men in particular the weakness of republicks, and the exertions the army has been able to make by being under a proper head...Some people have so connected the ideas of tyranny and monarchy as to find it very difficult to seperate them, it may therefore be requisite to give the head of such a constitution as I propose, some title apparently more moderate, but if all other things are once adjusted I believe strong arguments might he produced for admitting the title of king, which I conceive would be attended with some material advantage. …Republican bigots will certainly consider my opinions as heterdox, and the maintainer thereof as meriting fire and fagots, I have therefore hitherto kept them within my own breast [my emphasis].
Washington, however, despised such suggestions, dismissing them as virtual heresies. In response to Colonel Nichola's letter, Washington wrote:

I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable; at the same time in justice to my own feelings I must add, that no Man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample justice done to the Army than I do, and as far as my powers and influence, in a constitutional way extend, they shall be employed to the utmost of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion. Let me conjure you then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature. [my emphasis].
In his typically stern, yet gentlemanly style, Washington made it abundantly clear that he stood opposed to an American monarchy.

But what if he had embraced the idea of being King?

In a recent Newsweek web article, Kurt Soller discusses how genealogy buffs, for the past century, have been toying over the notion of a Washington monarchy and what it would have meant for America today.

Genealogists have been pondering the possibilities had President Washington been a bit more power-hungry. As early as 1908, newspapers published accounts of history buffs who worked their way through the Washington family tree using rules of succession to determine the rightful heir to the theoretical American throne. But without the Internet, branches of the Washington tree would be lost in Ohio, say, or forgotten by lineage sleuths who couldn't quite decipher a family tree made complicated because Washington himself didn't have any children.

But while brainstorming ideas for their election-themed coverage, turned to their Chief Family Historian, Megan Smolenyak, for an answer to the historical mystery. Smolenyak first turned to Google where she figured out that, because kinship rules vary by country and because Washington was childless, there were four possible kings (or queens) among the nearly 8,000 descendants of Washington who are alive today.
So, who would be "King" of America today had Washington accepted such a position?

Eighty-two-year-old Paul Emery Washington of San Antonio, Texas, a relatively average American who spent his life climbing the corporate ladder of a building supply company would be your king. And what does Mr. Washington think of such a distinction? Well, the offer is flattering but not all that appealing. He states:

"I doubt if I'd be a very good king. We've done so well as a country without a king, so I think George made the best decision. He fought for eight years to do away with the monarchy, and I think he made the right decision. The idea of one individual having supreme power over all others is an antiquated idea -- to say the least."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A 269-269 Tie???

It's at Least a Possibility...Thanks to Our Founders

As the election approaches its final climax we are beginning to see the polls tighten up in the various battleground states that are still in play. As a result, the likelihood of a 269-269 tie in the electoral college is becoming more likely with each passing day. Though odds-makers claim that a 269-269 tie is relatively low, the fact remains that this outcome is still within the realm of possibility.

So what happens if the election ends in an electoral college tie? Most people think that the popular vote would then come into play. WRONG! The 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution spells out what will happen in the event of a 269-269 tie.

If we have a tie on November 4th, the House of Representatives will convene on January 6th to vote for the next president of the United States. Now, most Republicans fear this outcome because of the fact that the Democrats are favored to pick up a few seats in the house. However, the voting is NOT based on a MAJORITY in the House. Instead, the 12th Amendment stipulates that EACH STATE gets one vote. This means that a heavily populated state like California will be on the EXACT SAME playing field as Wyoming and other small states. So, what will happen is each state delegation will meet and cast their vote for the next president. If the state has a Republican majority then the state will likely vote for McCain. Here is an example:

Arkansas (which has 4 representatives in the House) is split with 3 Democrats and 1 Republican. In the event of a 269-269 tie, these four representatives would meet and (most likely) cast their vote for Obama, being that the Democrats have the majority in that state's delegation. HOWEVER, keep in mind that Arkansas is heavily favored to go for McCain on November 4. So if these delegates voted for Obama they would be essentially voting AGAINST the will of their constituents. This scenario is evident in at least 15 other states as well.

In addition, if a state has an equal number of Democrat and Republican representatives and their vote results in a tie, that state will ABSTAIN from a vote on the president.

So what does all this mean? In all likelihood it means that Barack Obama would probably emerge as the president in the event of a 269-269 tie, but it is FAR from certain. There are still a number of scenarios in which John McCain could be declared the winner. In reality it is anyone's guess.

Another important component to keep in mind in the event of a 269-269 tie is that the SENATE will vote for the V.P. Being that the Democrats are favored to pick up a couple of seats in the Senate it is likely that they would vote for Biden, however, this is far from a guarantee. Keep in mind that senators may end up voting with the masses they represent, so as not to upset their constituents. Also, Joe Lieberman (an Independent) is likely to go with the Republicans on this one. In the event of a tie in the Senate, we must remember that the current V.P. (Dick Cheney) would cast the tie-breaking vote, which would in all likelihood go Republican.

Again, what does this mean? It means that there is a possibility of having a MIXED presidential ticket in the event of a 269-269 tie. We could end up seeing an Obama/Palin or a McCain/Biden White House.

One more wrench to throw into the equation: if the vote in the House of Representatives for president ends in a tie (or gridlock) the 12th Amendment stipulates that the Senate would then elect an INTERIM PRESIDENT from their V.P. selection, who would then serve for two years until the next HOR convened in the following election (2010). This means that if the HOR ends in a tie or gridlock, we could have Joe Biden or Sarah Palin end up serving a two-year term as President of the United States.

Think this is all a bit crazy or that maybe I am making it up? It is ALL in the 12th Amendment.

So how did we end up like this in the first place? It all goes back to the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Back then there was no such thing as a presidential "ticket," which meant that the candidate with the second most electoral votes became the V.P. In 1800, Jefferson was the clear winner over presidential incumbent, John Adams. However, the electors (who had 2 votes instead of one) also accidentally gave Aaron Burr (who was intended to be Jefferson's V.P.) the same amount of votes. As a result, the election went to the House, where delegates loyal to Adams tried to get Burr placed in the White House over Jefferson. In the end, Jefferson won out, but only after months of controversy. As a result, the 12th Amendment was created, which was supposed to clean up the mess. Only time will tell if the 12th Amendment ends up CREATING a new mess in the 21st Century!!!

Here is an interesting Youtube video that helps explain this mess: