Why the Founding Fathers Fetishists Need a History Lesson
The 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.