Why the Founding Fathers Fetishists Need a History Lesson

Founding FathersThe continued existence of the Tea Party movement, the constant drivel coming from American Christian right-wingers, and the latest absurdity surrounding the Cliven Bundy situation have prompted me to provide conservatives with a little history lesson. Three of the main contentions of today’s conservatives, that the founding fathers wanted a strictly limited government, that the founding fathers were in favor of spreading Christianity to all Americans, and that the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian values are all flawed in different ways. In the end, it is the task of the historical record to speak for itself.

Myth #1: The Founding Fathers Wanted a Strictly Limited Government

The old Tea Party standby, the idea that the founding fathers were violently opposed to central state authority, is, historically-speaking, nonsense. Although there were many conflicting opinions at the time, the enactment of the Articles of Confederation provided a real-world answer to the question of whether or not a Federal authority is necessary. When farmers in Massachusetts rose up in opposition to the actions of the state government it became clear that decentralization was not the right way to go.

In 1786, a wave of farm foreclosures had only worsened the economic status of those in western Massachusetts. Difficult measures enacted by the state legislature to pay for back war debt had left many strapped for hard currency. Many farmers began to take up arms against the state.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court finally declared the movement to be “seditious”. Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran, raised a militia of some 700 men and marched on the Supreme Court, taking over the state house. They also took over the prisons, releasing debtors whom they hoped would join the uprising.

An army was raised by the state to make war on the rebels. Resistance continued for several months. When the rebels moved to take the Springfield Armory, General Benjamin Lincoln met them with a force of some 3,000 men (mostly privately-hired militia), firing grapeshot from cannons and wounding over twenty of the rebels. The remaining resistance faded quickly and two of the rebels were subsequently hanged for treason.

In the minds of many lawmakers, this rebellion showed the significant weaknesses of a government under the Articles of Confederation, which gave more power to the states. In doing so, the Federal Government was not able to efficiently cope with significant challenges to its authority.

Oh, and another thing: Mr. All-American founding father Samuel Adams himself requested that the prosecutors of the rebellion be given the death sentence for their resistance to the state. The truth of the matter was that once the revolution was over, many of those who had become figureheads of resistance quickly became entrenched in the new system and did not seek to overturn the order once again.

The Whiskey Rebellion gives yet another example of the founding fathers’ dedication to the preservation of their new state, in spite of the resistance of its own citizens. It had been a common practice of the time for farmers in Pennsylvania to use their leftover grain in the production of whiskey, which they would then often sell.

In an effort to raise funds for the new cash-strapped American government, Alexander Hamilton had proposed and enacted a tax on the proceeds of said whiskey sales. This was seen as part of a much larger set of reforms wherein the Federal government would assume the Revolutionary War debts of those states who could not afford to pay them.

In the interests of maintaining a stable central authority, Hamilton saw these taxes as necessary. Many farmers resented the measures, however, and in 1791 they rose up in revolt. Many of the rebels were veterans of the Revolutionary War and saw these taxes as being against the values of the revolution.

George Washington, the man whom many Tea Party-goers use as the masthead for their anti-government ramblings, gathered a federal army and marched into western Pennsylvania. The rebels, seeing that their destruction was assured, disbanded and returned to their farms.

Once again, this rebellion succinctly shows that in no way were the founding father “idols” of today afraid to swiftly and viciously put down a rebellion. The flaw in the conservative thinking of today resides in the idea that these men were always committed to anti-government values, when in reality, these values served different purposes at different times.

Myth #2: The Founding Fathers Were in Favor of Spreading Christianity

Many modern American conservatives contend that the founding fathers had exactly the same evangelical tendencies as the preachers of today do. There is a serious fallacy in this thinking. Many if not all of the founding fathers were concerned primarily with creating a stable society, not promoting the interests of any one religion, especially not Christianity.

Benjamin Franklin, while not overtly hostile towards Christianity, saw its function within society to be incredibly varied. In many cases he saw those who allowed their faith to stand in the way of progress and reason to be a part of the problem. In Poor Richard’s Almanac he would often publish snarky quips. He writes in one issue, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.

Thomas Jefferson, an outspoken advocate for the liberty of the people (Setting aside the whole slavery thing) writes in a letter to Horatio Spofford (1814), “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

The complete separation of religion from the law here is key. Religious systems existing outside of the legal code have no means to compete with one another on the political stage. In separating these entities, the people are spared from participating in evangelism.

The founding fathers were also not necessarily “theists” themselves. Many of them were in fact “deists” which is, in many ways, akin to Agnosticism in that they do not point to a direct link between God and man; they affirm the existence of a God (this is where they differ from Agnosticism), in so far as he has created the universe and set it in motion, but do not go so far as to say that he is able to act on the world as it is now. This view characterized many of the intellectuals of the day as it is, at least logically, an easy way to skirt difficult questions (Evil, sin, etc.).

Myth #3: The United States is a Christian Nation

The final Tea Party fallacy is one of the most infuriating. Conservatives argue that the United States was founded on the principles of the Christian religion and that the state policies of today should be directed on those grounds. This is also probably the most absurd historical argument in the conservative arsenal.

The founding fathers were wholly against the implementation of religion in the state structure. In a letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper (February 10, 1814) Thomas Jefferson writes that, “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.” In the Treaty of Tripoli John Adams also writes, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”

Writing in a letter to F.A. Van der Kamp (December 27, 1816) Adams expresses his concern at the inherent violent historical influences on Christianity and its possible danger to a free population. He states, “As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”

James Madison saw the Christian influence on society in much the same way that Thomas Jefferson did. He writes of ecclesiastical influence in A Memorial and Remonstrance (1785), “What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny. In no instances have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries.”

Thomas Paine writes of religious persecution sanctified through the state system in The Rights of Man (1791), “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes its original benignity.”

Many of the founding fathers understood what institutionalized religion had done to Europe throughout the centuries. Many thousands had been slain in the countless religious wars and conflicts that had erupted over more or less arbitrary cultural grounds. This was not the vision they sought for the United States.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I just finished reading Sean Everett’s essay. I have no reason to dispute his historical references as presented. There are other ways to represent them, of course, which would cast a differnt light. The purpose of his essay is repudiation and degradation of the Tea Party movement. Rebels and revolutionaries are inherently “anti-government”. If they prevail, they are heroes. If the power of government prevails over them, they are traitors. But in their own minds at least, they are the “True” patriots; and the government are the seditionits. John Brown was a terror to the federal government; but his rebellion -alongside “uncle Tom’s cabin”- galvanized the abolitionists to rebel at the ballot box and to push for a war to end slavery. The grievances inherent in the Shay’s rebellion should be near and dear to the heart of a liberal Democrat, except when the people who take up the cause don’t vote Democratic. Taxes imposed upon the poor drove them to desperate means. The rebels fought to free debtors from debtors prison. And the state used an army of mercenaries, paid for by the wealthy, to put down the rebellion. The Whisky rebels bear some resemblance to the Bundy rebels. Wealthy distillers were paying the tax; and they didn’t like private individuals selling their whisky locally without paying it. What was once a legal and socially acceptible form of farmers income, became a source of revenue for a government. Everett, glosses over the fact that the rebellion ended without violence and without incriminations. On the broader issue -whether the Founding fathers wanted Limited Government- there really should be no argument. The central theme of The Federalist Papers was that there needed to be a central government capable of governing the country; bit limited to those matters which local government couldn’t handle just as well. In fact, the 10th Amendment was added just for that reason. On the matter of religion, I share Everett’s disgust with the Evangelicals; but for different reasons. However, while the basic documents of the United States refer to God in only the most general way (Declaration) or not at all (Constitution), there was a heavy Protestant Christian influence in the U.S. Government. The first convocation of the Congress began with a prayer to Jesus Christ. Washington’s first proclamation of a Day of Thanksgiving also included a prayer to Christ. There are ample records of statements made by the Founding Fathers which supported religion and the role of religion in our society; and there are records of both anti-semitic and pro-semitic statements by Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, as well.In summary, Sean Everett went a long way to disparage the Tea Party, and used the Founding Fathers to discredit them which did not, in my opinion, present them fairly.

    • Very Well said, our freedoms are being eroded away dailey, it doesn’t matter what your politics are if you can’t speak freely, it’s only a matter of time before those in power will stifle your will, drive and freedoms.

    • Actually, the essay/column was not intended to “disparage” or “degrade” or “repudiate” or “discredit” the Tea Party as much as it was intended to point out that Tea Party references to The Founders are often skewed and equally often disputed by historical facts—particularly is this the case in relation to the revisionist history of the Tea Party per the Founders’ view of the relationship between church and state.

      It is clear that Mr. Everett has little use for the Tea Party and his disdain for it occasionally pushes him off course but, by-and-large, he does a right fair job of elucidating false narratives utilized by the Tea Party in an effort to support their often strained—I’m trying to be nice!—arguments.

  2. Excellent post, especially the importance of the Shays Rebellion, which was the single most important factor in drafting the second amendment. Anyone who takes the time to read Article 6 of the original Articles of Confederation and then looks at the wording of the second amendment can see the purpose was to insure that the Government could raise troops when needed. The wording regarding a well regulated militia is not there by accident.

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